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Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott slammed for 'sex appeal' comments

By Tim Hume, CNN
August 14, 2013 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott, facing criticism for allegedly sexist remarks, is known to project a macho image.
Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott, facing criticism for allegedly sexist remarks, is known to project a macho image.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gaffes by candidates in Australia's election campaign have drawn international ridicule
  • Opposition leader Tony Abbott has fared worst, praising a female candidate's "sex appeal"
  • Abbott, who projects a macho image, has previously been criticized for his attitude to women
  • Australians go to the vote on September 7

(CNN) -- It's been underway for barely over a week, but Australia's election campaign is already drawing attention worldwide following a string of embarrassing gaffes from candidates.

Tony Abbott -- the opposition leader who hopes to unseat Kevin Rudd as prime minister on September 7 -- has been the worst offender, with a series of missteps that have threatened to derail his center-right Liberal Party's momentum. Opinion polls have Abbott's coalition marginally ahead of Rudd's center-left Labor Party by 52 points to 48.

The most serious blunder came on Tuesday when Abbott praised a female candidate's "sex appeal" while campaigning in the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay.

They're young, feisty, I think I can probably say have a bit of sex appeal
Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott

"They're young, feisty, I think I can probably say have a bit of sex appeal, and they're just very connected with the local area," he told reporters, when asked what qualities local candidate, Fiona Scott, had in common with a previous MP.

The remarks were seized upon by feminists and other critics as evidence that Abbott holds outdated attitudes towards women, an allegation previously made by former Prime Minster Julia Gillard, who once told the Australian parliament: "If (Abbott) wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror."

Abbott's comments triggered a torrent of criticism and ridicule on social media.

"My first reaction to this statement was utter disbelief," wrote one Facebook user. "I am still astonished that this language is considered acceptable."

"These comments speak volumes of his true character, and this is not the type of personality that makes a good leader of any kind, let alone a national leader," wrote another.

Rudd waded into the debate Wednesday, describing Abbott's comments as "pretty odd," and saying any employer who made similar remarks could expect to find themselves "in serious strife."

My policy is pretty simple: in modern Australia, neither sexism, nor racism, nor homophobia has any place whatsoever
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

"My policy is pretty simple: in modern Australia, neither sexism, nor racism, nor homophobia has any place whatsoever," he told reporters. "I believe people look to their national leaders to set that sort of example."

Abbott said later he had been "a bit exuberant" in his comments, and described the remarks as a consequence of him having "a daggy dad moment" -- using an Australian term for something slightly embarrassing or uncool.

But he did nothing to quiet accusations of sexism when he taunted Rudd with a question of whether he was "man enough" to rule out a pre-election deal with another party.

READ MORE: Internet, economy and boat people key issues in Australian election

Abbott has previously come in for ridicule for projecting a Putin-esque, "macho man" image, including being photographed at ocean swim events in revealing swimming trunks. Images of Abbott in his "budgie smugglers," as the style is known colloquially in Australia, were circulated online following his latest remarks, with a caption asking: "Just how much sex appeal does it take to win an election, Tony?"

Abbott had earlier made headlines for a piquant slip of the tongue, when he told a crowd in Melbourne Monday that "no one -- however smart, however well-educated, however experienced -- is the suppository of all wisdom." A mistimed attempt at baby kissing that saw him plant his lips on the hair of the child's mother was also singled out for ridicule.

An aspiring candidate for Abbott's Liberal Party also found himself the target of social media jibes Tuesday following an embarrassing on-camera freeze when questioned about his party's immigration policy. Jaymes Diaz, a candidate in the New South Wales seat of Greenway, told a television reporter his party had a six-point plan to "stop the boats" of illegal migrants, but was unable to articulate what any of those points might be.

His embarrassment followed the humiliation of Stephanie Banister, a 27-year-old candidate for Australia's fringe anti-immigration One Nation party, who blundered through a television interview claiming that Islam was a country and that Jews followed Jesus Christ. The performance, which saw her labeled the "Australian Sarah Palin," led to her withdrawing her candidacy just 48 hours into the race.

The slew of political gaffes inspired comedian John Oliver, of the popular U.S. satirical program The Daily Show, to urge the United States to emulate Australia and condense its campaigning into one month, promising they would not miss out on any of the entertaining blunders of a typical election season.

"You might think, 'Hold on John, if our elections were just four weeks, we wouldn't get to have all the fun of watching the human gaffe-alanches on the campaign trail,'" he said. "But here's the thing -- you're wrong. You name a great campaign moment and Australia will get to it this month."

In April, U.S. President Barack Obama apologized after describing California's Attorney General Kamala Harris to an audience of Democratic donors as "by far the best-looking attorney general in the country," a remark that was criticized by some as sexist.

READ MORE: How Australian prime ministerial candidates view China

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