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The real Tony

The political caricature is wrong, but Abbott doesn’t do himself any favours

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

I was at Parliament House on the day of the ascension of Tony Abbott. I recall, with only a hint of a smile, that the only pundit to call it for Abbott at the time was Bob Ellis. He described Abbott thus: ‘He’s a boxer without a broken nose. He’ll win.’ And he did. I was there for the rolling maul of press conferences with Kevin Andrews, Joe Hockey and finally, the victor. I also spoke to a dazed Malcolm Turnbull, as he emerged, alone, into the courtyard after everyone else had fled to Question Time. ‘How’d that go?’ I asked. ‘I’ve had better days,’ replied Turnbull.

The first time I properly met Tony Abbott was with Ellis, a mere two days after the spill. Abbott had agreed to chat with Ellis on any and all topics at Gleebooks in Glebe, a stone’s throw from Abbott’s alma mater, Sydney University: that site of youthful shenanigans and bloody student politics. Or not, depending on who you talk to. That Abbott honoured his commitment I found quite surprising and truth be told, quite, well, honourable. I learned a lot about Abbott that night.

He was speaking to a sometimes openly hostile crowd, and he was often dis-agreeing with many of his audience. I often disagreed with him too, but I found him eloquent, well-read, never rude or angry and quite respectful of others’ opinions, despite opposing them. It was about ideas. It was about philosophy, both personal and political. It was in stark contrast to the Abbott we see in Question Time. There was nuanced thought and argument in his responses, not the blunt repetition of an endless ocean of suspension of standing orders. But Question Time is not Gleebooks, I suppose.

Watching and listening to Abbott that night, I thought any politician could learn from his ability to say ‘no’. I don’t mean that in a glib ‘Captain Negative’ way. I mean the ability to stand in front of a hostile crowd and tell them you respectfully disagree.

Following the discussion with Ellis, we retired downstairs to the bookstore proper, so Abbott and Ellis could sign books. A more unlikely couple of literary pals pushes the imagination. Not quite Gore Vidal hanging out with Norman Mailer, but in that area. Abbott was signing his book Battlelines. Here’s what he wrote in mine:

‘Rhys, the Liberal party leadership: You break it, you take it. Tony’

It still makes me smile at its cheekiness and slightly reckless humour. This is Abbott’s charm, and one of the reasons the media love to get a quote from him. You never know what to expect. Though, I would argue, this is less true now. Abbott, under the tutelage of Nick Minchin, has become horribly predictable. ‘Stop the Boats’ and ‘Stop the Carbon Tax’ are repeated ad nauseum. While covering the last election (2010) I watched Abbott at many press conferences. Nick Minchin was always hovering in the background like a more sober Don King to Abbott’s Mike Tyson. Abbott was disciplined and expert at saying not very much. I would argue that this continues today. Abbott, like Gillard, is very good at attack. His unrelenting ‘whatever it takes’ approach to opposition would do Richo proud. Whether he can find the yin to that yang remains to be seen. Ultimately, the Australian public need some positive charge in their leader. Can Abbott find it?

One thing Abbott is not guilty of, I believe, is misogyny. Three of the laziest, most overused words in the English language are ‘misogynist’, ‘racist’ and ‘homophobe’. I don’t believe Abbott is any of these. While it did seem a little trite to point out he has a wife and three daughters and that his chief of staff is a woman, it is also actually true. Margie Abbott isn’t a shrinking violet held under the thumb of a tyrant; she’s an intelligent, decent woman. To treat her otherwise is offensive.

Additionally, to claim Abbott is homophobic because he is opposed to gay marriage is also wrong, and does a disservice to the argument. While I’m quite sure you won’t see Abbott on a Mardi Gras float any time soon, he is no hater of gay people, and, yes, has gay friends and colleagues.

In his autobiography Lazarus Rising, John Howard recounts on page 207 how it was Tony Abbott alone who took him to task regarding his comments on Asian immigration. This resulted in one of Howard’s few backdowns, and a headline in the Australian: ‘I was wrong on Asians: Howard’. While I find Abbott’s language and policies regarding asylum-seekers totally abhorrent and verging on wicked, I don’t believe he’s an actual racist.

There are many, many reasons to take issue with Tony Abbott, but misogyny, homophobia and racism are three I dispute.

I would not and could not vote for Tony Abbott for a number of reasons. First, policies. Pretty much all of them. Second, costings. What costings? Third, I think Abbott has lowered the tone of debate to an almost Tea Party level. It is vicious, ugly and cheap, and has done the Coalition no favours in this lurch to a Republican-style free-for-all.

Most importantly, though, I don’t think Abbott is even true to himself. The thoughtful, well-read man I have spoken to is never on display in public life. While I believe his natural political instinct is unreconstructed DLP, you would never know it judging by the hard-right nonsense that is forever coming out of his mouth. The truly vile treatment of asylum-seekers as political footballs is despicable. It’s not ‘tough love’ or decency; it’s just wrong. If you are surrounding yourself with the likes of Cory Bernardi, I think it’s time to reflect on where you are politically, philosophically and personally.

My final problem with Abbott is actually a question. What does he believe in? At the moment, it seems like the only thing he believes in is power at any cost. Until he can articulate what he believes in, and produce a vision for the nation, all he will ever be is an aging boxer flailing wildly at any and all opponents. Where is the man I met in the bookshop? A man far away from the student zealot of yesteryear. A tempered, more sober, reflective man.

That man is interesting.

Rhys Muldoon is an actor and author.

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