Finessing the Principles, Frightening the Punters: Tony Abbott, Future PM?

September 17, 2012

David Marr, Quarterly Essay 47 Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, Black Inc, September 8 2012.

Review Essay by Glen Jennings


What would Tony Abbott do if, as Australian Prime Minister, he had a serious dispute with Angela Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Pussy Riot? Would he deliver his infamous death stare to a disconcerted Chancellor? Would he punch a wall, pound a table, or kick in a window? Would he throw the sinners out of the church and bemoan the decline of religion and morality? Would he go for a swim?

As David Marr’s well-researched and entertaining Quarterly Essay shows, and as Australia’s numbingly repetitive and tediously reported political opinion polls confirmed almost every day from late 2010 to early September 2012, Tony Abbott’s Liberal/National Party Coalition is on track to defeat Julia Gillard’s ALP in the next federal election. So ‘Tony Abbott PM’ is a potential reality upon which to reflect. Now.

What is Tony Abbott’s history? What are his principles? What is in character or out of character for Tony Abbott? And how does his more than 30 years in politics provide a guide to the nation’s political future? If Tony Abbott were to become Australian PM, how would Australia be represented both to itself and to the world?

Tony Abbott is very unpopular with the voting public, especially with women who find him aggressive and who remain suspicious of his conservative Catholic views on issues such as abortion rights. But his disapproval ratings do not disguise the fact that the Coalition has been miles ahead of Labor. Barring a major disaster within Conservative ranks – something along the lines of a “Clive Palmer for PM” or a “Gina Rinehart for Supreme Overlord” campaign, or the revelation that a senior Liberal Party functionary is secretly funding people smugglers in Indonesia to keep the refugee boats coming – it is difficult to imagine how Labor can permanently reverse the electoral tide of the past eighteen months, despite the nation’s strong economic position under successive Rudd and Gillard governments and a solid record of passing legislation through a hung parliament. Campbell Newman in Queensland and the Liberal Premiers of NSW and Victoria may be causing concern in the electorate by cutting public service jobs and slashing provisions for health and education, but unless Tony Abbott can be tarred with a very large and sticky brush, pundits and pollsters have claimed he is on cruise control for victory.

In 1978 at his second attempt, Tony Abbott achieved his goal of becoming President of Sydney University’s Student Representative Council. If things go to plan in 2013, Tony Abbott will achieve through his second federal election as Liberal leader the long standing dream, shared with his family since he was a schoolboy, of becoming Australia’s Prime Minister. This ultimate success will be achieved over the political corpse of Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female PM and former President of the Australian Union of Students, an organisation Tony Abbott set out to destroy when he was a teenager.

The current fight against Gillard is intense and vicious. Abbott’s fight against student unionism has been equally intense and vicious and relentless. He sees student unionism as a training ground for Labor activists and leaders like Gillard. As a minister in the Howard government Abbott was instrumental in passing legislation to weaken student unionism, strangling unions of funding, and he frequently returns to the moral and political battlelines of his youth. Independent politician Tony Windsor (with whom Abbott could not negotiate a deal to secure government at the last election) is one observer who has noted that: “Tony Abbott is still at university in terms of the way he does stuff. I think it’s his style. There’s a number of them on both sides that live that life. They are still there.”

As SRC President, Tony Abbott used his position and his combative style to try and demolish student unionism on his own campus and across Australia. He joined forces with Peter Costello and fellow Liberals, the Australian Union of Jewish Students, the DLP and other likeminded opponents of the Australian Union of Students to smash the national body, running disaffiliation campaigns and trying to cut funding to the representative institutions. SRCs and AUS were despised by Abbott and his confreres for a range of reasons, including (for Abbott and the Catholic moralists in particular) the promotion of gay rights and abortion rights, and (for Abbott and Costello, the Liberals, the DLP and especially AUJS) support for the proposition that Australia should recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. (Times change, and so do conceptions of what is extreme or respectable. Sometimes the seemingly impossible becomes possible in the world of real politic. AUS delegates, some of whom were undoubtedly drunkards, drug takers, fornicators, naive enthusiasts, or uncritical supporters of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, were calumniated by Abbott, conservative opponents, and the mainstream media of the time – such as The Australian and The Age – for a range of opinions that are now quite mainstream, such as recognition of the PLO and the right of East Timorese to self-determination. But principles also fall by the wayside or seem to get blurred in the reading or misreading of opinion polls and the supposed mood of the Australian electorate. For example, fellow Socialist caucus members and AUS delegates from Gillard’s era as a student politician and AUS President wonder if the anti gay-marriage PM of today is hiding from the woman they knew in the early 1980s.)

Tony Abbott has had two important political mentors: Bob Santamaria and John Howard. Both have taught him the power of fear, and persistence. Bob Santamaria (1915-1998), was the longtime head of the fundamentalist Catholic political organisation the National Civic Council. For Santamaria, Australia was under mortal threat from communism, as well as moral threat from homosexuals, feminists, and advocates of abortion. Men of faith had to fight the enemy in trade unions, on university campuses, from the pulpit, and in the media, including the NCC’s News Weekly, and Santamaria’s regular column in The Australian and his idiosyncratic little program Point of View broadcast on Sir Frank Packer’s TV network. Santamaria held this anti-communist belief, and his conspiratorial world view about godlessness and moral jeopardy, throughout many long decades of activism and struggle, both political and spiritual. Tony Abbott entered politics as part of Santamaria’s Movement, and he was an anti-communist, anti-gay, and anti-abortion activist from his first days at Sydney University. He learnt political tactics from the NCC Groupers, and worked through their Democratic Club before infiltrating and dominating the Liberals. He also learnt the power of the media, writing for the Democrat and The Australian while still at university, and later he would add TV and radio to his repertoire, developing with Radio 2UE’s Alan Jones what David Marr calls “one of the great unconsummated love affairs of Australian politics.”

After spending an exciting period as a Rhodes scholar and boxer in Oxford, and an intellectually disappointing time in a Catholic seminary in New South Wales, where he soon gave up the alternative career of becoming a priest, Abbott rendered unto Windsor the things that are Windsor’s. When he led the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy in the fight against the Australian Republican Movement in the 1999 referendum, Abbott mastered vigorous delivery of a simple message, often heightened by hyperbole. This fight pitted Abbott against Malcolm Turnbull, whom he would later depose as leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party, jettisoning his previous views about carbon pricing and an emissions trading scheme in the process. Abbott fought simply against “Keating’s Republic.” Although he would include the occasional throw away line that a republic could lead to the rise of a Hitler, it was his relentless focus on “Keating’s Republic” and his ability to help keep the republicans divided that led to his victory and the removal of republicanism from the political agenda for more than a decade. Likewise, his relentless repetition of Gillard’s “Great Big Tax on Everything” or her “Toxic Tax Based on a Lie” is as simple, and as effective, as his mantra that pays homage to his other great political mentor, former Prime Minister John Howard, while kicking Gillard while she is down: “If you want to stop the boats, you have to change the government.”

John Howard helped to orchestrate Tony Abbott’s entry to federal politics, first recommending him to work as a press secretary for Liberal leader John Hewson and then helping him to secure preselection for the safe seat of Warringah in 1993. Abbott learnt from Hewson’s determined but quixotic pursuit of the GST in Fightback! that a man of principle can die on his sword, rejected by the electorate and politically destroyed by his party rivals. But from John Howard Tony Abbott realised that a man of flexible principles, pragmatism and persistence can rise from the dead after twice losing the leadership, and go on to become Australia’s second longest serving Prime Minister. Abbott is a resurrectionist.

Abbott had a number of junior and then very senior roles under John Howard, most notably heading a Health Department with a budget as large as the entire budget for the state of New South Wales. He was a combative presence in Parliament, often referred to as John Howard’s attack dog, but he managed his department effectively if not with great vision provided by the minister himself. Abbott infuriated his old friend Peter Costello by arguing repeatedly for government intervention in the economy or increased government spending on the provision of local services. Costello considered Abbott an economic illiterate, and was appalled by the influence of the Santamaria ideology on Abbott’s economic thinking. Abbott significantly opposed WorkChoices in Howard’s Cabinet, holding to his old Grouper ideas about the workers and arguing that “Howard’s battlers” would desert the Coalition if the Liberal Party let slip the dogs of war, but he accepted Cabinet solidarity and fought tenaciously against the political and religious opponents of WorkChoices. (Opposition leader Tony Abbott has, of course, famously said that WorkChoices is “dead, buried, cremated” – which is both a strange ordering of things and perhaps a classic example of protesting too much – but Abbott is not the only resurrectionist in the Coalition. An Abbott government would face calls from within the Coalition and the wider business community for major workplace reform. The return of WorkChoices as Caesar’s ghost? Or Banquo’s reappearance at the Coalition’s victory banquet?)

The issue of asylum seekers is John Howard’s great legacy to Tony Abbott. This is an issue that Abbott and his colleagues will not let die. Asylum seekers being towed back to sea; accused of throwing their children overboard; processed offshore in Nauru or Manus Island; sent to the back of some imagined queue; exhorted to behave like good Christians who can wait their turn in a refugee camp or sit by the side of the road if there is no refugee camp; locked up in mandatory detention if they landed in Australia; issued temporary protection visas that permanently separated families; sent back to their homelands despite ongoing political violence, persecution, and ethnic or religious hatred; labelled illegal immigrants threatening to swamp Australia and destroying our border security; retrieved as corpses from the water or lost to the sea forever: these are just some dimensions of asylum seeker politics that have dominated Australian political discourse for years. Former Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, articulate and informed advocates of a bi-partisan approach to refugee settlement in a global context of human rights and human needs, despair at the poverty of reason, the lack of human compassion, and the geopolitical short-sightedness of Australia’s recent Federal Parliaments and the shrill voices of intolerance and exaggeration in the mainstream media.

When the Coalition government was thrown out of office and Prime Minister Howard lost his seat of Bennelong in 2007, I perhaps naively thought that the strength of the vote against the Prime Minister and his government was in part a purging of the Australian conscience, punishing Howard for Tampa and the subsequent mistreatment of refugees. As a nation we had voted for Howard in 2001, we had ignored our international obligations and been tough on refugees, but now, after six years, we felt guilty or embarrassed. If that was the case, then the fear and loathing of asylum seekers – routinely labelled “illegal immigrants” by Tony Abbott, Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, and sections of the media, including Greg Sheridan in The Australian – has swept back with tremendous force.

In July 2012 when Tony Abbott met Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Darwin, David Marr shows that Abbott did not even mention to the President the Coalition policy of turning back the boats to Indonesia. The Indonesians oppose the idea. It cannot be done without them. It won’t be done in 2013 if Abbott becomes Prime Minister. Like the exaggerated claims that Whyalla would be wiped off the map by the carbon tax, or that the cost of a leg of lamb would rise to $100, this policy will be shown up as flawed or mere hyperbole. However, between now and the next election Abbott will continue to blame any price rise or job loss on the carbon tax and/or the mining tax (even if he doesn’t read BHP Billiton’s press statements before being quizzed by Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7:30, as happened embarrassingly on 22 August 2012). And there will be a relentless Coalition campaign about illegal boat arrivals.

Abbott is disciplined and focused. He has three targets all pinned on Julia Gillard: carbon tax, mining tax, and boats. Meanwhile he is keen to avoid scrutiny. The recent 7:30 public relations disaster over the unread BHP Billiton statement reinforced the wisdom of the Liberal Party strategy: keep Abbott in photo shoots in factories and workplaces; load him up with sympathetic media like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt; and keep him away from Insiders, Lateline, and 7:30. He spoke to David Marr for this timely and important Quarterly Essay, but only on the proviso that Marr not directly quote him, except for one denial. But even that single quote from Abbott’s detailed conversation with David Marr was too much for Gerard Henderson, Executive Director of the Sydney Institute, regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald, and occasional sparring partner of David Marr’s on Insiders. Marr’s essay also threw Tony Abbott’s friend Greg Sheridan of The Australian into a tirade against the author and against supposed ABC bias.

Henderson, like Sheridan, is a longtime opponent of AUS lefties, adult lefties, assertive atheists, and critics of Christians in politics. He is a humorless but passionate advocate of conservative politics, who went on the Bolt Report on 16 September 2012 to savage Marr as “a vicious anti-Catholic sectarian.” With no sense of irony, Henderson used the Bolt Report to rail against media bias. Henderson said Abbott should never have spoken with David Marr. He strongly advised Abbott to stay away from the ABC in future.

Since the release of David Marr’s essay on 8 September 2012, a good deal of commentary has focused on the question of whether or not Tony Abbott intimidated a young woman at Sydney University in 1977. According to Barbara Ramjan, who had just defeated him in an election for SRC President, Abbott came up close to her and punched the wall on either side of her head in an intimidating manner. Abbott initially told Marr that he had no recollection of the incident, and that it would be out of character if he had done so. This was the one direct quote from Abbott that Marr was sanctioned to use in his essay. Abbott later changed his story and said that the incident never occurred.

Ramjan has repeated her claim that Abbott punched the wall and made it known that she has told this story to friends for many years; it is not a new allegation concocted for or by David Marr, nor was it inspired and sourced by what the Liberals call “Labor’s Dirt Unit.” Others have supported Ramjan’s recollection, but since these individuals were not first-hand observers of the alleged incident, and because Ramjan did not publicise the alleged punches immediately in the Sydney University student newspaper Honi Soit, Henderson claims that Marr should never have raised the issue in his essay and the allegation should be dismissed and considered beyond the pale of political inquiry and questioning. Henderson fulminates against Marr (who it must be said teases and provokes Henderson whenever Henderson sulks or glowers at him on the couch of Insiders) and Henderson clearly dislikes Marr who he believes is an anti-Christian zealot. But if we are to take religion and politics seriously, as Henderson and Sheridan would exhort us to do, and if we are to discuss matters of proof and perception, has Henderson paused to ask himself the question: is there more corroborative and contemporaneous evidence for the truth of Ramjan’s claim than there is for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Like God, Barbara Ramjan does not have to exist for Tony Abbott to have a problem with the electorate and an image problem with many people, especially women. Given the brevity of “Wallgate” in the Marr essay, and the fact that Abbott’s unpopularity with voters predates the publication of Political Animal, it is a distraction to focus so single-mindedly on the impressions in (or of) a wall at Sydney University. But the “Ramjan Incident” provides a good lesson in how the media runs with sensation and frames or simplifies a story.

David Marr

If anyone wants to go looking there are plenty of examples from Abbott’s time at Sydney University and subsequently to indicate that Abbott has behaved aggressively and is seen by many people as intimidating. It is not in dispute that Abbott kicked in a window at the SRC to vent his political disappointment; Abbott himself acknowledges that he called a woman Chairthing when he refused to replace the term Chairman with her preferred title Chairperson; fellow sportsmen and political colleagues have worn the bruises and spilt the blood of Abbott’s punches on various fields of play; the National Press Club hosted the televised debate in which Health Minister Abbott abused Shadow Minister Nicola Roxon – his snarled “bullshit” was caught on camera, as was his stony demeanour when Roxon upbraided him for arriving late; who can forget Abbott giving Kerry O’Brien the death stare on the 7:30 Report?; and, of course, Abbott has spoken in front of crowds condemning Ju-Liar and calling the Prime Minister a bitch and a witch. Abbott has also called the Prime Minister a liar on numerous occasions, and he is closely associated with Alan Jones who notoriously advocated putting the Prime Minister in a sack and dumping her at sea. But these instances, significant as they are, are freeze frames in a moving narrative.

Watch Abbott walk. Abbott has the exaggerated swagger of his favourite actor, John Wayne. But John Wayne was an actor. Abbott is auditioning for the highest political office in Australia. Abbott has the self-fashioned swagger of a teenage boy who is acting tough. But Abbott is a 55 year old man. And he wants to be our next Prime Minister.

Listen to Abbott talk. “Misleading the ABC is not quite the same as misleading the parliament as a political crime.” “The argument on climate change is absolute crap.” And most damaging to his reputation with women and social progressives: “The problem with the Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience…Even those who think that abortion is a woman’s right should be troubled by the fact that 100,000 Australian women choose to destroy their unborn babies every year.”

Abbott likes to speak of eternal verities and the path of politics to inspire people and show the value of life. Abbott rides bicycles for charity, has served as a surf life-saver and volunteer firefighter, and he spends time each year working in remote indigenous communities. But the desire to destroy Gillard and the Labor Party is stronger than notions of universal love. The political imperative to crush opponents is far greater than the impulse to uplift, reassure, and unite the community. Australia is currently a clear leader in the developed world in a whole range of areas, but the political rhetoric of the past few years would lead an outsider to believe that the nation is plunging into an abyss. David Marr believes that Politics Abbott is more dominant than Values Abbott.

Despite his personal opposition to WorkChoices, Tony Abbott vigorously defended a system that stripped away protections for vulnerable workers. Despite his personal faith in a saviour born a refugee in a Bethlehem stable, Tony Abbott continually vilifies asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants” and as threats to “border security.” He uses these most vulnerable people in a cynical game of politics, a depressing and deadly game that has continued for more than a decade. In this cynicism Tony Abbott is far from alone. But it is a good test of the character of contemporary Australian politics.

Fear and hatred and political contention build powerful walls. Some times these walls are solid, like the walls of Sydney University. Some times these walls are deceptively pliable, like the tent walls in the asylum seeker camps on Nauru opened in September 2012. It would be a mistake to read David Marr’s Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott as an invitation to stare at the wall near Barbara Ramjan’s head back in 1977. David Marr knows that the walls that count today are the invisible walls erected to keep refugees out of Australia, and the walls of Julia Gillard’s political and economic fortress which Tony Abbott systematically and ruthlessly aims to demolish. For their part, Labor has argued consistently that what they define as Tony Abbott’s wall of negativity will eventually wear thin. Gerard Henderson, Greg Sheridan, Andrew Bolt and Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop may all condemn David Marr and what they believe is a leftwing conspiracy against Tony Abbott, but public perceptions of Tony Abbott predate Marr’s significant essay, and these perceptions draw on deep sources and powerful emotions. Gerard Henderson’s sour but ludicrous advice for Abbott to boycott the ABC will not counter perceptions that Abbott is negative or afraid of legitimate scrutiny. And if Abbott stays clear of the ABC, Malcolm Turnbull will happily pop up on Q&A.

These are not easy times for Tony Abbott. The first national opinion polls conducted since the publication of David Marr’s essay coincided with a range of other key factors that can influence sentiment and opinion: the death of Julia Gillard’s father; Labor’s re-opening of the asylum seeker detention centre on Nauru; popular protests against the Liberal National Party policies in Queensland; and Clive Palmer’s vocal repudiation of Campbell Newman. These national opinion polls, released 17 September, show that Tony Abbott is still unpopular with the electorate. This is nothing new. Tony Abbott has always been less popular with the general electorate than Malcolm Turnbull, and even Julia Gillard normally rates significantly higher as preferred Prime Minister than the man she dubs “Dr No.” But significantly, what is new in September 2012 is that Labor has narrowed the gap of the two-party-preferred vote to a position of near parity with the Coalition, after eighteen months of standing on the edge of an electoral wipeout.


2 Responses to “Finessing the Principles, Frightening the Punters: Tony Abbott, Future PM?”

  1. […] as his negativity. His parliamentary performances befit the man who was once labelled ‘John Howard’s attack dog‘. He still carries that label and ferocity: Politicians don’t come any more ferocious […]

  2. […] as anti-Islamic was offensive and untrue. I responded by pointing out that respected journalists David Marr (in Quarterly Essay #47) and Lenore Taylor in the SMH had reported that Morrison had advocated an anti-Islamic strategy to […]

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