In a recent piece for The Monthly Waleed Aly delved into the mind of Tony Abbott, using this as inspiration Matthew Addams digs a little deeper to find what makes Abbott tick.
The Abbott enigma confounds the intellect – he professes staunch Catholic faith, but exhibits no external sign of ‘Catholic guilt.’
This, despite the fact that, as Aly says, "few have [indulged in double standards] so unashamedly as Abbott."
He also notes "He’s the ‘conviction politician’ who frequently and spectacularly changes his mind...his two greatest and most frequently cited influences are Bob Santamaria and John Howard."
These are his two diametrically opposed political mentors.
Aly concludes that Abbott’s apparent hypocrisy is the result of shrewd political judgement. Political expediency promoted at the expense of conviction politics.
But this leaves many mysteries unexplained.
Abbott’s change of heart on maternity leave was clearly a politically driven correction. His previous position – "over my dead body" – was severely out of step with the mood of the electorate.
Many in his party see his subsequent back-flip and policy as an extreme over correction. So extreme in fact, that those who've been agitating for maternity leave for years were left asking "but can we afford it?"
Again showing his failure to understand modern Australia, Abbott, as Health Minister, sought to ban the RU486. A position taken against both expert advice and the mood of the electorate. He was saved only by his party pulling him into line.
He had no ability to read the mood of the electorate in that instance. Ironic given his claim that former prime minister Julia Gillard had a "tin ear."
On carbon pricing, Abbott’s most recent policy position is difficult to explain. Aly suggests it can be explained by noting that "his political judgement is finely honed."
Prior to Tony Abbott seizing the leadership of the Liberal Party, a sensible emissions trading scheme (ETS) policy enjoyed bipartisan support. The electorate were, excluding fringe nutters, supportive of the ETS developed by Rudd and Turnbull.
That is not to say that a savvy politician who was willing to sell our collective future short for the sake of his own political aggrandizement couldn’t beat up opposition to the ETS.
The question is not whether Abbott correctly sensed an opportunity for political expediency. The question is why he jumped to the ‘no carbon price’ position?
If we are to understand what could drive Abbott’s policy agenda in the future this instance of political expediency provides no guidance.
Polls show support for pricing carbon is gaining popularity in the electorate. Abbott could have gone either way on this question. He is thought to be a political weather vane on this issue after all.
We need to understand why he chose the anti-ETS agenda.
Does he genuinely not understand, or believe in, climate science? Is his position centred around mortgaging the future of the country for his own political ends?
I don’t think those are the only options.
In order to truly understand the contradictions of Abbott’s internal dialogue and policy agenda we need to dig a little deeper - what makes Abbott tick?
Abbott maintains a commitment to Catholic social ethics while espousing hard line neoconservative politics. He's a man of "unshakeable retrograde convictions" and "a shameless populist."
It is difficult to imagine how one brain can hold such contradictory positions without inducing a severe attack of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance –the cognitive ‘fight or flight’ reaction - is "the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting …ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. …[which results in symptoms of] frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc." No prizes for guessing which of these dominates Abbott’s instinctive reaction.
Could this explain Abbott’s contradictions? Not to mention his more bizarre violent outbursts and silent fits of pure rage?
It can, but only if we throw out the notion of Abbott reaching shrewd political judgments on matters of conflicting policy.
Cognitive dissonance occurs only when one fails to do the intellectual work of resolving conflicting ideas or values. There is always a point where they are brought crashing together by objective reality.
The psychological term ‘cognitive dissonance’ was first developed by Leon Festinger, seeking to explain the cognitive contortions of a UFO cult faced with objective reality that conflicted with their beliefs.
Abbott’s fundamentalist adherence to Catholic dogma requires equally well developed cerebral skill.
Could it be that Abbott’s time in the seminary has made him so deft at maintaining simultaneous conflicting ideas? That his ego finds the maintenance of unchallenged paradoxical ideologies favourable to doing the rigorous intellectual work of resolving his conflicted values?
He is not called the "mad monk" for nothing.
It has been widely reported that there are three core beliefs that drive Abbott’s worldview:
- Catholic morality
- Neoconservative politics
- and the firm belief that he is destined for greatness.
The conflicts inherent in the first two are only exposed only when you think carefully and deeply about the impacts of policy in the real world.
It’s not hard to see how a lack of a disciplined approach thinking can keep these cognitive pit bulls in their respective mental cages.
Abbott’s pedigree and training for maintaining internal contradictions without resolution certainly is first rate.
In the light of this theory of Tony Abbott’s mind, let’s look again at his back-flips and glaring hypocrisy.
Does he show the tell tale signs of cognitive dissonance driving his policy agenda?
Abbott is forced to face the fact that neoconservative politics is in stark conflict with his prophesied destiny. The electorate won’t go for his 1950s model of the modern woman. They demand maternity leave and access to safe, legal abortion. Inside Tony’s head, worlds collide, and the result is a 'fight or flight' reaction.
Throw out the neoconservative ideology because it conflicts with the Abbott destiny.
Having not developed a measured, balanced policy position, the Abbott mind in ‘flight' mode leaps to the opposite end of the political spectrum. The result is a clear example of a political ‘flight’ to the opposite extreme - the most generous maternity leave scheme in any developed nation. A policy structured to favour the top 2%. Abbott shows no ability to balance competing interests or agendas — its all or nothing. Fight or flight.
Mark Riley, a political journalist, cornered Abbott and presented him with a politically damning video – the infamous "shit happens" comment in relation to an Australian soldier being killed in Afghanistan. His reaction is a well known clear 'fight or flight' dilemma. It resulted in an on-camera brain freeze as he worked through his latent rage. The world of evidence was brought into direct conflict with his belief in his own destiny. Who didn’t half expect Abbott to deck Mark Riley on camera? How many similar violent outbursts in his past are talked about? More results of reality clashing with Abbott’s world view?
To address the emphatic evidence of man made global warming, the unanimous recommendation from climate scientists and economists is the introduction of an ETS or carbon price. This should be offset so as to impose no net tax burden on the economy. This was fine in theory, and Abbott supported it - as long as it remained theoretical. As it got closer to implementation, Abbott could no longer hide his disquiet around the policy. The climate deniers warned it would have a wealth redistributive outcome. Heaven forbid!
For political progressives, this was a beneficial side-effect of a price. Abbott saw this, once again, as a conflict with his neoconservative political values. This again, it could be argued, triggered Abbott’s cognitive dissonance reaction. He searched for a ad-hoc rationalisation for abandoning the universally recommended policy. It couldn’t be countered through economic theory – the economists where in league with the "hippies."
Rather than doing the detailed intellectual work of resolving the balance of policy aim against progressive outcomes, he simply grabbed at a cheap alternative. His core value to self-promote foremost in his thinking. By focusing on his own political destiny he could expel the conflicting details to the recesses of his mind.
No need to do the intellectual heavy lifting when he can simply promote a front of mind alternative core value.
For Abbott, political expediency is a legitimate strategy. If, and only if, it serves the core value of advancing his personal destiny.
In fact, he doesn’t even need to reach a conclusion in his own mind regarding the veracity of the climate science. He simply doesn’t think it through. It is no longer relevant to his adopted position.
This, of course, results in endless apparent self-contradiction.
"I accept climate change"
"Climate science is crap"
"I accept than global warming is occurring and that humans have an effect"
For Abbott none of this actually matters — his adopted position is determined by his core values. Not by resolving issues through intellectual rigour.
Abbott appears to be full of contradictions. Why? Because he truly is. It’s no more complex than that.
He holds paradoxical ideologies and just doesn’t feel compelled to think through or resolve this. That’s not what motivates him.
He is prone to puzzling policy back-flips, not because he is a shrewd political weather vane, but because he is often driven to make policy decisions while in ‘fight or flight’ mode.
Sometimes you get fighting Abbott — we’ve all seen that.
Sometimes you see flight to opposite political extremes.
Balanced, measured and considered Abbott just doesn’t make an appearance.
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