How strange is all the fuss about that single incident in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay about Tony Abbott, ‘Political Animal’. According to Barbara Ramjan, who beat Abbott in a student election at Sydney University in 1977, Abbott came to within an inch of her face and punched the wall on either side of her head. Tony Abbott said to Marr he had no recollection of the event and that ‘it would be profoundly out of character had it occurred’. Subsequent statements by bystanders, none of them eyewitnesses, suggest that it did occur. In any case, Michelle Grattan, veteran Fairfax Canberra correspondent, is disinclined to think that the incident, if true, appertains to his character, and David Marr is taken aback by the uproar it has caused.
I should say at the outset that, as the first editor of the left liberal Quarterly Essay, I have no automatic affinity with the politics of Tony Abbott, but that the portrait of him that emerges in Marr’s riveting account does nothing to diminish Abbott’s attractiveness, his impressiveness and his political viability. Yes, there is the relishing memorialisation of all the wideboy yobbery at university when Abbott was leading the DLP-style Democratic Club and calling women ‘chairthing’ and carrying on disparagingly about gays and lesbians and the wicked modern world while doing his best to crush the leftism of student unionism. But a wild and rebarbative youth is difficult to hold against anyone, and the effort to defeat student communism embraced everyone from Peter Costello to various latter-day Labor eminences. And David Marr is wrong to say ‘Abbott’s Santamarianism was as far to the right as the Maoists and the Trots were to the left’ — no, that position would have been occupied by the Nazis.
David Marr is as brilliant a biographer and journalist as this country has produced, and although in my Quarterly Essay days the idea of his doing a Lytton Strachey life in brief of an eminent Australian was mooted it wasn’t until much later, under Chris Feik’s editorship, that this would bear fruit.
Can anyone forget David Marr’s portrait of Kevin Rudd, which sounded like a premonitory knell just before Rudd lost office and which represents, with a scathing dispassion, but in glowing colours, the case for seeing Rudd as an arrogant dysfunctional nightmare of a Prime Minister, avenging himself on the world for the limitations of his personality, difficult for close political associates to abide, let alone to love?
The case for Gillard’s coup against Rudd is implicit in Marr’s portrait of him. One wonders how far Marr’s portrait of Tony Abbot substantiated his bald, poll-based opening: ‘Australia doesn’t want Tony Abbott.’ Not much, it seems, though in some ways Marr gives it his best libertarian shot. The author of The High Price of Heaven is the last person to have any automatic sympathy for Abbott’s conservative Catholicism, but he is too good a journalist, too complex and empathic a portraitist of the individual, not to see how sympathetic aspects of his subject are.
When the man they came to call ‘the Mad Monk’ was studying for the priesthood, Ed Campion, the professor of church history at St Patrick’s College, Manly, described him as ‘not so much a big fish in a small pond as a whale in a swimming pool’.
Despite the fact that Bob Santamaria was to Abbott ‘the star by which you could steer’, the after-the-letter DLP-ite in Abbott did not just reflect the leader of the Movement’s dismay at modern secularism. There is, after all, also the aspect of this brand of Australian politics that led some people who voted for Menzies to vote DLP in the Senate to keep the Coalition sensitive to social justice. Think of Brian Harradine’s rejection of the GST.
Marr delineates the fact that Abbott was opposed to WorkChoices and that, although ‘the unemployed had never had to work so hard for the dole’ when he was Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Tony Abbott tried behind the scenes to get tax breaks for those on welfare. It was Howard’s ripping up of the Medicare safety net provisions that made Abbott say that ‘getting control of the Senate was a curse’.
David Marr, understandably enough, makes clear the separation between what he calls Politics Abbott and Values Abbott. He is ambivalent about the latter because it involves having to reconcile the guy who will if he becomes prime minister block gay marriage, euthanasia, the republic and any bill of rights with the man who believes in social justice, the welfare state and the need for government to redress the economic injustices that are visited on working people. ‘Values Abbott will work to cushion families from the realities of working life. And, if the Coalition parties allow him, Values Abbott will protect men and women from the full force of the labour market.’
Marr adds that Abbott won’t put his career on the line for any of this, but what politician would? The crux of his negative argument about Abbott is in fact true of any good politician. As Abbott puts it, a politician needs to master ‘the art of presenting your principles’ but never so much as to ‘worry the public [so] that they could be a risk if you found yourself in power’.
Most top-level politicians think in Rousseauian terms that they represent the General Will, but that they are hyperconscious that they must adapt to the Popular Will. Hence the sincerity of their ducking and swerving.
That’s one reason why Abbott knows his own principled objections to abortion can never prevail, and why he says he’s in agreement with Bill Clinton that abortion should be ‘safe, legal and rare’. Though it was Values Abbott, in Marr’s terms, who gave the famous speech describing abortion as a grave choice and saying that even supporters of it should be given pause by 100,000 potential babies a year being sacrificed to the idea of a woman’s convenience.
Abbott will never disown the principles that lie behind that speech, but we should remember that Germaine Greer supported the Scottish bishop who offered to pay for any girl who wanted to have a baby rather than to have an abortion.
David Marr plays up Abbott’s negativity about stopping the boats and the big new tax, and he has a somewhat partisan sense of Abbott’s partisan naysaying (which is relentless though not particularly nasty), but he is everywhere sensitive to the man’s breathtaking achievement as what looks like the most formidable Leader of the Opposition in living memory.
He is also sensitive to Abbott’s singularity, his abiding Catholic belief in absolution and to the vivacity that comes with his unmistakable air of danger. At a time when Gillard’s is looking like a failed prime ministership, you’d imagine that anyone who is not, like me, a yellow dog on the other side of politics would think that the man who believes in Shakespeare and cricket, who is admired by Michael Kirby and wants to give every woman a pile of money to have a baby if she wants to have a baby — and, yes, who rails against Chinese investment — is a very good bet.Tags: iapps