Australian politics, society & culture

Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott

Correspondence to David Marr’s Quarterly Essay Political Animal

In Political Animal, David Marr gives us two Abbotts: Politics Abbott and Values Abbott. The first is the man of driving ambition who competes hard for the prizes of political office; the second the man who is a self-conscious conservative, defender of the monarchy, the faith and the family, and motivated by his deep religious beliefs. Marr shows the shifting tension between these two Abbotts, and argues that when they are in real competition with each other, it is Politics Abbott that matters – the aggressive, competitive, ambitious guy who wants the top job no matter what – and that his values have never stood in his way. Maybe, but he is one man, and I think we need to try to connect the two Abbotts more closely than this, to understand the interdependence of Politics Abbott and Values Abbott. This is a tough call and what follows is not a fully worked-out answer, simply some thoughts which might point the way.

Much has been written about Abbott’s problem with women, that he prefers them in their traditional family roles of wife and mother and has conservative views about sexuality. In holding such views Abbott is out of his generation, a post-feminist man who has the attitudes of men born before World War II, the type of men in fact who became his mentors. To my mind these attitudes do not make him a misogynist. Abbott’s rather patronising and outmoded preference for women in their traditional roles is not the same as a fear and hatred of women. Abbott seems to like women, to enjoy their company, as did many men in preceding generations. What is prima facie puzzling, however, is how and why Abbott has resisted the profound changes in gender roles of the past fifty years. Yes, he grounds his attitudes in his religious faith, but even so there is something of the contrarian here, as there is in his passionate defence of the monarchy. Why does Abbott need to stand out against the crowd and the times, to identify so strongly with the men of the past that he puts barriers between himself and so many of his own and younger generations of Australians?

Whatever the answer, Abbott’s attitude to family, gender and sexuality is only part of the problem that I, as a woman, have with him. A bigger problem for me is his hyper, compulsive masculinity and a relentless competitiveness which robs him of judgment. Whatever was he thinking when he accused the dying anti-asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton – who was protesting about the cost of an expensive drug to treat mesothelioma – of pulling a stunt and thinking he could get away with it because he was sick? Bernie’s problem was that protest­ing against the government put him on the other side, and so made him fair game psychologically for Abbott’s oppositional politics and his angry tongue. Although Abbott enjoyed boxing in his youth, it is verbal not physical aggression which is his problem. He is not like Mark Latham, whose crushing handshake of John Howard reminded voters of his assault on the taxi driver; and whether or not Abbott did punch the wall on either side of Barbara Ramjan’s head, he did not hit her.

Abbott’s problem with verbal aggression is most on display in the theatre of parliament. In its origins parliament is about the taming of aggression, provid­ing a space in which men fight with words rather than with swords and fists, resolving political conflict and rival ambitions through the elaborate rituals of organised debate. Conflict is over both policies and power, and Abbott’s problem for many of us is that in his relentless, negative opposition to everything the government does, he seems to be only about power. The other problem is that he clearly can’t stand it that he is not the prime minister. The presence of women in Westminster parliaments organised around bipolar rivalry for office is pro­foundly destabilising. Abbott seems absolutely furious that it is Gillard and not he who is prime minister. I am not sure if he would be any less hostile and rude if the government were led by a man, but with it being led by a woman the rules of combat are less clear, the boundary between legitimate public arguments and illegitimate attacks on aspects of his opponent’s private life harder for him to negotiate. Hence his undisciplined, underhand and unacceptable digs at Gillard’s marital status. Rivalry is a major source of aggression, and when the rival is a woman the aggression cannot help but look excessive.

Marr discusses Abbott’s belief that governments can give cohesion and pur­pose to our national life, and points to his sensitivity to the fragility of society, his conservative fear that too much change will unleash emotions that society will find hard to control. Conservative pessimism about the unanticipated destructive consequences of radical change versus progressive optimism about its creative and liberating potential has a long history, but it also has a psychological dimension. Those who are closer to their own destructive impulses and emotions are more aware of the value of traditional social controls, of law and order, in holding impulse in check. Abbott is not really a law-and-order man, which any­way is less relevant in federal politics; but he does give his aggression plenty of space, and so is more aware than those of milder temperaments of the impor­tance of rules and institutions for containing it. Perhaps this is the link between Values Abbott and Politics Abbott.

This still this leaves some big questions, however. Why is Abbott so angry? And if he defeated his rival and won the prize, what would then drive him? What is an angry man like once he has become prime minister? Would we then see the triumph of Values Abbott, Politics Abbott having cleared the way for him to do the good he always intended? Or is he hardwired for rivalry and anger?

Correspondence to Political Animal is published in Quarterly Essay 48, After the Future, out now.


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