Tony Abbott made one condition when agreeing to talk at length with David Marr about his Quarterly Essay ‘Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott’. Marr could use any information that emerged from the conversation but he must not quote Abbott’s words. This was to avoid misquotation. Marr honoured the agreement. It was not very onerous. ‘Of course everything we discussed is somewhere in this essay. I haven’t wasted a scrap.’
The Essay is in the same style as Marr’s devastating deconstruction of Kevin Rudd a couple of years ago. The fatal flaw he finds beneath Abbott’s hearty rugger-bugger mateyness is a relentless will to power. But unlike Rudd, Abbott has some real beliefs. This only makes matters worse. His creed is the dangerous hardline Catholicism he got from the DLP. The power-driven Political Animal will almost always prevail over the Catholic head-kicker and Vatican ideologue — although, as Marr sees it, you can’t be sure. Abbott apparently has always been under the influence of ‘strange’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘shadowy’ influences. (I figured in one of them — a short-lived ineffectual thing called Australians for Honest Government. It was so shadowy that it held its few meetings in a popular restaurant at a table shared with sundry acquaintances.)
Marr tries hard to appear fair. He ticks off Abbott’s good qualities: leadership, competence, common touch, humour, even charm. But his summing-up taps into an ancient anti-Catholicism. His message is: make Abbott Prime Minister at your peril. Quarterly Essay has revived that generally coarse but sometimes urbane anti-Catholicism which most of us thought had disappeared with Joe Lyons. One problem is that if you rule out Abbott because he is a Catholic, you rule out any prospect of a Liberal government, because so many of the leading members of Abbott’s shadow cabinet are Catholics, from Turnbull and Hockey to Andrews and Robb. So watch out David Marr! The Rock Choppers are taking over the Liberal party!
As it happens, Marr made a more enduring intervention in public life last week than his job on Tony Abbott. It was an excellent lecture at the State Library of NSW interpreting the large range of portraits of Patrick White. White was fascinated by the character revealed by pictures, especially pictures of himself. He demanded a portrait be a good likeness, good art, and a revelation. No surprise that a curse hung over several portraits. Tom Gleghorn took an axe to his. Geoff La Gerche’s was ‘punched and repaired’. Ted Markstein’s disappeared. So did Eric Smith’s. But White liked some, including Maie Casey’s drawing (which hung in his bedroom) and Brett Whiteley’s masterwork in the Parliament of NSW. He was deeply wounded by Sid Nolan’s caricature, which presented him as a debauched sodomite. The lecture amounts to an appendix to Marr’s acclaimed biography of White. I hope some magazine snaps it up. Marr should stick to literature.
No man has taught me more about politics, said John Howard. He was launching Carrick, Graeme Starr’s biography of Sir John Carrick, the legendary director of the Liberal party in NSW before becoming legendary Minister for Education. The key to his success, Howard added, was that he combined a conviction that politics is a battle of ideas with a determination that more enemies’ bodies be buried than friends’. Sir John, who turned 94 the other day, said the trouble with today’s politicians is they spend too much time on the media and not enough on eye-to-eye contact with ordinary people. Starr covers the full story of his old mentor, including the horrendous years as a POW (Timor, Changi, the Burma-Thailand railway). A measure of the man’s dedication is that when he resigned from the Liberal party secretariat after more than 20 years, his superannuation lump sum was $8,688.50.
There seems no end to the demand for books on the second world war. Yet the library of histories published in 1995/6 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of that war did not sell well. The difference now is that the older historians concentrated on the Big Picture, high strategy and statistics leavened with patriotism and heroism, whereas the new historians put greater emphasis on the suffering of the ordinary soldier or civilian, on what he did to survive, the moral choices he made. (What would you or I have done?) None does this better than Antony Beevor. During his recent tour promoting his The Second World War, he often referred to the young Korean who was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army, then into the Red Army, then into the Wehrmacht, before being jailed in Britain and finally settling in the US. For Beevor the story is a parable of the helplessness of the ordinary mortal in global war. Also typical is the story he told to end his book. In 1945 the French Security Police pick up a homeless German woman in Paris. She is the wife of a German farmer who has been sent to the Eastern Front. She had an affair with a French prisoner of war assigned to work on her farm. She fell so much in love with this enemy of her country that she followed him to Paris. But she cannot find him. Has he given her a false address? Did he learn, as so many did, that his wife had a baby by a German soldier? The story is a minor tragedy in the Big Picture. ‘But it remains a poignant reminder that the consequences of decisions by leaders such as Hitler and Stalin ripped apart any certainty in the traditional fabric of existence.’Tags: iapps