If the polls stay the same, Tony Abbott will be Australia's prime minister in less than four months, however Clint Howitt says efforts to portray him as a changed man just don't add up.
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY after the announcement of the election date, the Leader of the Opposition underwent a sudden and dramatic transformation. His clothes and grooming started to receive a lot more care and attention.
In his televised National Press Club address in February, the makeover was taken to a farcical extreme, featuring caked fake-tan make-up, white eyeliner, an enhanced hairline, smart new suit, brilliant white shirt and subdued blue tie. There were even suggestions of botox injections.
His demeanour became more congenial and restrained. His tone more conciliatory, ‘more prime ministerial’. Overnight, the old in-your-face, abrasive, uncompromising Tony Abbott had virtually vanished without trace.
Since then, we’ve been told that he has mellowed, and is now more compassionate, positive and inclusive. We're told he is now a political pragmatist. The man seemed to have undergone a Damascene conversion.
Obvious makeovers and spin however inevitably arouse suspicion.
It is simply inconceivable that, at the age of 55, a man can suddenly undergo such a radical metamorphosis. It raises questions about why it was so important to conceal his true nature and intentions behind a mask of convenience.
Something to hide
In his fine Australian poem Sheep Killer, Ernest G. Moll tells of a rogue sheep dog driven by a destructive secret agenda. While it is under the watchful eye of its owner, it controls its natural instincts and conceals its real intentions. When he trusts it off the chain one night, it runs amok among his flock and creates deadly havoc.
When the carnage is over, the owner reprimands himself that he should have seen all the indications of what would happen if the dog was given its chance. We are given a striking portrait of an animal whose behaviour had betrayed all the warning signs – the shifty 'glint that sprang/Into his eyes', the way he stands 'stiffly' when under close observation 'as though he kept/His body back from where his thoughts leapt/Ahead'.
But the owner carelessly ignored all the indicators — with disastrous consequences.
At that stage, it becomes painfully obvious that the animal had cleverly cloaked its actual motives:
'cunning (had been) the muzzle on desire.'
There are disturbing parallels to be seen in Tony Abbott concealing his dark side in the run up to the September election.
Abbott on the leash
There is no doubt that Abbott is now on the leash. He had always been seen as a risky proposition. He had on numerous occasions put himself and his party into tricky situations by his impulsiveness and unpredictability.
Since becoming leader, Abbott has been actively advised by his pack of minders led by his wily chief of staff Peta Credlin. Their task of restraining him cannot have been an easy one.
To counter the perception of attack dog Tony, at first they went for the action man image — clad in lycra on his bike, wearing a lifesaver’s cap and his now banned budgie smugglers on Queenscliffe Beach.
But this looked more like Tony being self indulgent rather than attending to the serious political duties of an Opposition Leader.
Abbott’s personal approval rating remained stubbornly low. It indicated that the electorate sensed there was something to be wary of. In most polls over the last three years, more people have disapproved than approved of him. They plummeted after the PM’s misogyny speech.
A newer image was launched, but there were noticeable cracks, despite all the efforts to paper over them.
There is still an uneasiness in his actions and in his words that signal the extent to which he is being constrained — and his discomfort is clear for all to see.
They appear in the form of his awkward physical demeanour, his verbal constipation and the regular gaffes during rare tough interviews.
His walking gait resembles that of an arthritic gorilla. For a man who revels in physical pursuits, he looks remarkably uncoordinated and uncomfortably self-conscious when the cameras are rolling. His tight forced smile only adds to the impression of an underlying tension and a lack of authenticity.
Under close questioning, he averts his gaze and his fluency deserts him as he measures each utterance before delivering it, like a man struggling not to incriminate himself.
His biographer Michael Duffy observed:
'I found someone far more guarded than before and far less articulate. At times he wrapped an arm across his chest as though trying to protect himself.'
Now he is in the spotlight, all those around him have been at pains to conceal the unpalatable side of the man. At the same time, the Coalition has used one excuse after another to avoid offering a detailed and fully costed set of policies until the eleventh hour. It should make us wonder what exactly Abbott and his staff are trying to hide about their leader and his party’s intentions.
Religion, conservatism, aggression and a hunger for power
A useful place to begin is by examining the emergence of Abbott’s belief and value system and how it has manifested itself all of his adult life. Fortunately, this is an easy matter. Long before his public image was so carefully stage managed, the four great forces that drive his persona were on open display, particularly during his young adulthood.
Raised in a Catholic family and educated in Jesuit schools, Catholicism is at the core of Abbott’s belief system. He could be the embodiment of the Jesuit promise:
'Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.'
In the case of young Tony, the Jesuit influence on his development lasted until he was 18 years old.
At Sydney University, he was drawn to thepolitical arm of the Catholic Church, B. A. Santamaria’s National Civic Council and its parliamentary offshoot, the Democratic Labor Party.
Bob Santamaria had established the 'Catholic Social Studies Movement' or 'the Movement' in the 1950’s with the express purpose of infiltrating the Labor Party to purge it of 'Communist influences'. It succeeded in splitting the party in the mid 1950s and the breakaway group formed the Democratic Labor Party, which was instrumental in keeping Labor out of office for nearly 20 years.
Santamaria never held political office. He was a back-room manipulator, described by veteran journalist Alan Reid as 'Svengali-like' and lurking 'in the wings', giving the actors on the stage their cues.
In the early seventies, after the DLP imploded, Santamaria’s attention turned to the university campuses, which he viewed as the breeding ground for godless socialism that needed to be exorcised from the nation’s intellectual life.
Young members of the NCC were groomed to be active in university politics. He wanted to gain control of student organisations in order to undermine or stifle student dissent and left wing attacks on the establishment. Tony Abbott was just the man for the job.
Right wing political and religious zealotry proved a heady mix for Abbott’s driven personality. He plunged straight into campus politics and was soon displaying all the ruthless belligerence of a modern jihadi. This earned him the nicknames the Mad Monk and Captain Catholic.
David Marr in his excellent Quarterly Essay, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, relates an illuminating story that coveys the menace in Abbott’s conduct at that time. In the 1977 Student Representative Council election, Abbott was beaten for the presidency by the popular Barbara Ramjan by a large margin.
After the publication of the Quarterly Essay, a formerly unknown witness claimed he saw Abbott, stung by his defeat and in league with his “famous flying squad of goons,” burst into the SRC offices. Barbara Ramjan said: "He came up to within an inch of my nose and punched the wall on either side of my head ... It was done to intimidate."
Sydney barrister, David Patch verified that she had told him of the incident at the time and made out a strong case in support of her version of events. Her story was well known by her contemporaries.
When Marr questioned him about it, Abbott at first denied any recollection, claiming enigmatically, "It would be profoundly out of character.” Later he went a step further, saying, “It never happened." It looked like a case of her word against his.
However the man who has now come forward told Mark Coultran of the Sydney Morning Herald that he was prepared to sign a statutory declaration to confirm that he had followed the rampaging students inside where he “saw Abbott throw a punch at Barbara Ramjan, but didn't see it land ... when next I saw her, she was in an extremely shocked condition, leaning against the wall ... I thought he had actually struck her..”
Subsequently, according to Patch, Ramjan, in her role as President of the SRC, expressed a preference for the gender neutral term ‘Chairperson.’ So for an entire year, Abbott pointedly called her ‘Chairthing’ whenever he addressed her at SRC meetings.
We can deduce from what we know of this formative time in Abbott’s life, there were four major drivers of his psyche – a strong Catholic conviction, ultra conservative views, an innate willingness to intimidate which even extended to women and a hunger for power and influence. In the years immediately following, he continued to track along this course.
After leaving Sydney he went to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship where he won a blue for boxing. Somehow pugilism seemed to be a natural choice for him. On his return, he trained for the priesthood for three years at St Patrick’s Seminary before quitting the course. At that stage he was on the cusp of entering the political life.
It is pertinent to ask whether these drivers have continued to motivate his behaviour in politics and if so, what their implications are for a future Abbott government.
While there are many admirable social justice aspects to Catholicism, some of its teachings – on sexual matters, in particular – have remained in the Dark Ages. Since his entry into federal parliament, it is no surprise that the views Abbott has expressed about human sexuality have adhered closely to these controversial aspects of Catholic dogma.
He is on the record making statements that reflect the outdated doctrines of the Church on matters such as the subordinate status of women, abortion and gay relationships. These date from those undergraduate days right up to the present. The following are just a few of many examples.
On the status of women:
- "I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation ... simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different ...."
- "... this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand .... both need to be moderated...."
- "What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing ..."
- At various times Abbott has referred to abortion as "a question of the mother’s convenience," "the easy option," "an epidemic," "this generation’s legacy of unutterable shame".
- In 2006, as health minister, he encouraged other anti-abortion MPs such as Christopher Pyne to be active in opposing the morning after pill, RU486 and threatened to use his power of veto as health minister against its introduction.
On gay relationships:
- In a letter to High Court judge Michael Kirby, Abbott was blunt about homosexuality — 'the overwhelming weight of tradition holds that it is in some sense sinful'.
- When the parliament voted on same sex marriage, Abbott refused to give Coalition members a conscience vote — unlike the government. It is well known that a significant number of Opposition members would have supported the bill. This manoeuvre ensured the bill would fail.
- In an interview on 60 Minutes with Liz Hayes in 2010, he was asked, “Homosexuality? How do you feel about that?” He responded: "I probably feel a bit threatened.” Later, he explained, homosexuality “challenges, if you like, orthodox notions of the right order of things".
Abbott’s Catholicism has been associated with some marginal calls. The first involved an incident laced with irony.
As a teenager, Abbott had unprotected sex with his then girlfriend, Kathy Donnelly, who died in 2011. Very likely because of the Church’s teachings on contraceptives, they practised what she described as "Vatican roulette".
Soon afterwards, she found she was pregnant. Of course, they would not be the first teens to find themselves in that situation.
Abbott decided not to conform with the time honoured tradition — to marry the girl.
Irony 1: his reason was that he wanted to become celibate — as a priest!
Apparently Kathy agreed to have the child put up for adoption. In 2004, she was contacted by her son.
Irony 2: he was a sound recordist with the ABC and had worked on TV interviews of Abbott.
However, it turned out he was not Abbott’s love child. Kathy had also had a one-off encounter with her flatmate, who had worn a condom.
Irony 3: It was the condom that failed.
Although Kathy Donnelly appears to have consented to the adoption, she undoubtedly felt pressure from others to do so.
Irony 4: It was Julia Gillard who this year gave a moving apology on behalf of the nation to all the mothers who were forced to give up their babies.
Another doubtful decision was in the case of Father John Gerard Nestor. In 1991, when he was a priest in the Wollongong diocese, Nestor was charged with the indecent assault of a 15-year-old altar boy.
He was found guilty by a Wollongong magistrate and sentenced to a jail term. He won an appeal against the conviction in October 1997. His character witness described him as "a beacon of humanity."
That character witness was a fellow seminarian who now worked as a parliamentary secretary in the Howard government — Tony Abbott.
The risks arising from Abbott’s Catholicism
The intrusion of religion into politics runs counter to the traditional separation of Church and State in modern democracies, but Abbott’s statements and actions have already made it clear that his strong sectarian convictions do encroach on his political role.
Given the controversial positions he has taken on the sensitive matters of the status of women, abortion and gay relationships, it must be of great concern to people affected by these issues that the hard-won gains are likely either to freeze, or worst still, wind them back, under an Abbott government.
If, on the other hand, his claim is true that he will not allow his beliefs to impact on his political decisions, we can only speculate on the crisis of conscience a man with such strong religious convictions holding high political office must undergo if he defies the teachings of his church.
His mind would be a battleground between what he really believes and what is politically or socially tolerable.
If he puts the dictates of his party above his principles, he is a hypocrite. If he sticks to his principles, he has no option but to resign from his position. This was the dilemma Abbott faced over the listing of RU 486.
Equally concerning is the extent to which the ultra-conservative Cardinal George Pell has Abbott’s ear. We know the two meet regularly.
Pell is clearly an 'eminence grise' shaping the opposition leader’s thinking. That is bad enough. When we look at the Cardinal’s bizarre political pronouncements, we have cause for alarm.
Pell has linked religion to secular issues when there is no connection whatsoever:
- In a London meeting of climate change deniers in London in 2011, he linked global warming to atheism. Global warming was a myth being peddled by the ''religionless and spiritually rootless."
- On another occasion he declared the carbon tax was a latter day version of ''the pre-Reformation practice of selling indulgences.'' Go figure.
Abbott came to power with the support of hard-line power brokers like Nick Minchin, who were unhappy with the progressive and small ‘l’ liberal policy direction being taken by Malcolm Turnbull as leader. In Abbott, they saw a man with the potential to become the kind of aggressive and uncompromising reactionary they admired.
As leader, Abbott’s instinctive response to reforms has been to oppose them and threaten to dismantle them. David Marr concluded that he is “a man profoundly wary of change.” This explains, in part, his hostile attacks and his negativity towards Labor’s reform program.
Although he has frequently been forced to reverse his original position, he is on record as opposing the Carbon Tax, the National Broadband Network, stimulus spending during the GFC, the Malaysian Solution, the PM’s offer to develop a bipartisan approach to asylum seekers, mandatory pre-commitment for poker machines, the mining tax, means-testing for the private health insurance rebate, raising the excise on alcopops, income tax cuts for low income earners, the Schoolkid's Bonus, health reforms such as the plain packaging laws for cigarettes and GP super clinics and the $5.8 billion flood levy to help Queensland and Victoria rebuild.
So Labor had a point when they called him “Dr No.”
His conservatism came to the fore in his speech in reply to the 2013 Budget. He vowed to scrap the Carbon Tax, the Mining Tax, the Schoolkid's Bonus and the Green Loans Scheme, delay superannuation increases for 8.4 million Australians, lower the tax-free threshold from $18,200 back to $6,000. He gave a strong indication that the highly praised Gonski reforms to education would be trashed. There were even hints that he would revamp the NDIS, which he claims to support.
Again, the theme was negativity and putting the country into reverse gear. It signalled a return to the stagnation of the Howard era.
The risks arising from Abbott’s conservatism
Despite a good deal of back-pedalling or softening on his original stance, Abbott’s game plan is essentially reactionary — to dismantle some of the major Labor reforms completely, to wind back others, and to slash government spending.
Given his track record on social issues, it is a reasonable assumption that he would like to take Australia well to the right by applying the brakes to reform and restoring largesse to the captains of industry. The country would be characterised by a do-nothing government, neglect of minorities and the underprivileged but open slather for the rich.
The dismantling of the carbon tax would be particularly regressive. It will set back the critical need for action on climate change by decades. It would require businesses to undo all their compliance procedures. It would halt the initiatives of entrepreneurs who have geared up to develop clean energy initiatives. It would snuff out the potential development of innovations which the world is going to need and which could generate wealth for the country.
The tragedy is that it is so unnecessary. The impact of pricing carbon has been relatively minor. However, because Abbott has ramped up community outrage by his foam flecked rhetoric and scare tactics, he dare not back down for fear of confirming that his campaign was a fraud.
Due to the fact Abbott and the Coalition have made such a virtue out of budget surpluses (irrespective of the economic circumstances), it is highly probable that they would risk driving the country into recession by punitive austerity measures.
To hell with the economic and social consequences!
Instead of the last 22 consecutive years of growth, there is a real possibility that the razor will be wielded to the point where we would have the inevitable loss of vulnerable jobs and critical services that we have seen with the austerity budgets in Britain and other parts of Europe.
Like Howard, they will be prepared to inflict pain in the hope that the world economy will have picked up enough so that when the next election comes around, they can boast about how quickly they returned the budget to surplus and, at the same time, stimulated growth.
Labor could have imposed vicious spending cuts to deliver a surplus in this year’s budget, but opted for a gradual approach so that the economy will continue to grow, employment rates will remain high and major reforms can proceed. At the same time, they will restrain spending and plug revenue leaks.
Belligerence and intimidation
Abbott’s aggression has endured well beyond his rugby, boxing and university days. Anyone seeing his interview with Mark Riley would immediately think Abbott was acandidate for an anger management course. The telling aspect of that footage was that his anger was out of control. He was trembling with rage and was unable to speak.
In the political arena, he made the bully’s choice of using hostility during Question Time as means of rattling the prime minister.
Like Alan Jones he seemed to relish being on the attack. In fact he recreated the atmosphere of the worst of talkback radio across the dispatch box. Bristling with hostility, he’d eyeball and berate the government during his regular motions to suspend standing orders.
His language has been loose, extravagant and cruel, confirming his aggressive nature. The two most repugnant episodes set new lows in verbal thuggery.
The first was his callous remark about the heroic asbestos victim Bernie Banton who was dying of mesothelioma while he was leading the campaign against James Hardy.
After what Abbott claimed was a misunderstanding about the presentation of a petition concerning a drug for sufferers, the then health minister angrily lashed out, “just because a person is sick doesn't necessarily mean that he is pure of heart in all things." Abbott later apologised.
The second incident could be described as the spoken equivalent of the alleged attack on Barbara Ramjan. This time the incident was recorded. It was the culmination of the constant hostility directed at the PM.
By baiting her with the taunt that she led a “government which should have already died of shame,” he had echoed the malicious jibe made by Alan Jones about her father’s very recent death, that “the old man probably died of shame.”
His aggression would turn around and bite him. His intimidatory tactics were hurting him more than the government. It prompted the powerful 'misogyny speech' from Julia Gillard and a huge backlash, especially from women. Abbott’s stocks plunged. He was forced to begin the mutation into the new gentler Tony.
However the role of belligerent was simply assigned to others. The vitriolic and personal attacks on the government, particularly the prime minister and the treasurer, persist. Front benchers Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne have taken up the cudgel while Abbott tries to look above all that. Indeed Pyne has become quite apoplectic in recent sessions of Question Time.
The risks of aggression in a nation’s leader
To say that hairy chested aggression is not the best trait to have in a country’s leader is a no brainer. If you combine that with Abbott’s well known impulsiveness, the level of risk escalates.
The trouble with speculating about how a person will perform as prime minister is that you never know for sure until after they are in the job.
One can only dread what the consequences would be if Abbott lost it when dealing with another country’s leader or chose to settle an international dispute the way he tackles domestic political disputes — aggressively rather than through negotiation and co-operation.
Negotiation and compromise have yet to appear as strategies that Abbott embraces in dealing with opponents. He much prefers short-sighted confrontation.
If he comes to power after September, then it is highly likely that he will have to deal with a hostile Senate containing many who will remember how he gave no quarter when he was in opposition. It’s going to be a big ask to expect them to co-operate and pass legislation for him.
Finally, there is the problem he has with assertive women in positions of authority. He has no difficulty with those who support him, like Gina Rinehart. His problem is with opponents who stand up to him and where he has no control over them.
A craving for power
While all of the other forces are strongly present in Abbott, his ambition to be prime minister can over-ride them all — even his core Catholic convictions. For that reason, it is potentially the most dangerous.
Australians have every reason to be wary of a man whose craving for power is so strong that he was prepared to seize on any opportunity to disrupt the parliament, destabilise the government, undermine public confidence in our AAA rated economy and make constant attempts to force an early election.
All this was done in the expectation that he could fast track his ambition to occupy the Lodge.
His behaviour was succinctly summed up by Paul Keating:
''You know what Tony Abbott's policy is: 'If you don't give me the job, I'll wreck the place'.''
That is why he has called for a suspension of standing orders on over sixty occasions in order to move motions of no confidence in the government impatiently hoping that a couple of Greens or Independents would support him so that the term of the government would be curtailed.
Independent MHR Tony Windsor lifted the lid on Abbott’s all consuming ambition in parliament. Windsor stunned the house with a withering attack on Abbott’s hypocrisy. He declared that Abbott had pleaded for his support and that he was prepared to offer almost anything in return, including introducing a carbon tax.
"I would do anything, Tony, to get this job; the only thing I wouldn't do is sell my arse," Mr Windsor told the parliament, of Abbott's meetings with him post the 2010 election negotiations. ''If he had been asked to put in place an emissions trading scheme—or a carbon tax, for that matter—he would have done it.”
Andrew Wilkie had a similar view. He said Abbott had made him an offer of $1 billion to build a new Tasmanian hospital in return for his support. The amount was so extravagant that Wilkie questioned the man’s judgment to govern the country.
Now that his destabilization strategy has proved counter-productive, Abbott has been forced to change tack.
He has had to embrace the concept of an NBN after previously promising to dismantle it. It is why he has stopped his belligerent personal attacks on the prime minister in Question Time. It is why he has modified his strong opposition to abortion, softened his statements on homosexuality.
It is why he has made himself a small target on industrial relations by proposing only a few changes to the Fair Work Commission rather than opting for a resurrection of the despised Work Choices, sought by his backers.
He likes to claim he is showing pragmatism. Others might call it duplicity. It simply demonstrates that he is prepared to sacrifice his principles to achieve power.
It makes you wonder what kind of person would be prepared to abandon his most deeply held beliefs for political gain.
As Robert Bolt may have put it:
“It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…, but Tony, for Canberra?”
The ultimate risk — putting power in Abbott’s hands
Like Windsor and Wilkie, most people are highly suspicious of those who display such naked ambition.
Abraham Lincoln once said:
“If you want to test a man's character, give him power.”
Luckily, we don’t have to take Abbott on trust to judge what kind of person he is. It’s all there on the record.
Increasingly, he seems convinced that his brilliant tactics have positioned his party for an easy win in the September election. In interviews, he has been wearing the smug condescending smile of a man impressed by his own cleverness.
Here is the big question. Is it credible that a man can really reverse all that he has been and all he has stood for over the previous 37 years and 3 months – that is, for his entire adult life?
He is asking us to take on trust that a person who has been characterised by rigid Catholic views, deep conservatism, aggression, objectionable attitudes to women and barefaced hunger for power has suddenly become a totally new person.
He is asking us to accept that he has sloughed off his essential self like a snake shedding its skin.
He is asking us to believe that it is mere co-incidence that this miracle happened immediately after the prime minister announced the election date - just 7 months away from polling day.
He is asking us to believe that the leopard actually has changed its spots. Forget about all we have seen for the last three years and believe in the illusion. The assumption is that voters are gullible fools who can be treated with contempt.
What will happen if such a person is let off the leash?
(Read Clint Howitt's popular article: 'A fair go for Julia Gillard'.)
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