The emptiness of Tony Abbott
The ex-PM’s latest failed apology shows he still has no idea where he went wrong

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to spend an hour or two inside Tony Abbott’s head. What’s going on up there? What does the world look like? What textures, meanings, memories and emotions flavour the broth of his experience? How did he feel when his daughter called him a “lame, gay churchy loser”? Why did he eat that onion?

I don’t think I’m the only person who is thrown right back into fundamental questions about human subjectivity when considering the mind of Tony Abbott. He’s been psychoanalysed by a small army of prominent political writers, notably David Marr, whose fascinated contempt for our former PM is itself an intriguing curio. After the onion incident, Annabel Crabb asked, “Is it possible that this man does not – socially, at least – answer to the same gods we answer to?” Jason Wilson commented, “It’s true that politics draws extreme personalities, but it’s difficult to nominate a weirder postwar prime minister.”

By many accounts Abbott’s colleagues, even some who share his Santamarian chauvinism, have felt alienated by his behaviour. Niki Savva’s recent book, Road to Ruin, chronicles the experience of working with Abbott using insider anecdotes described as “eye-popping”.

But going behind the curtain is not a necessary step to appreciate what a bizarre bloke Abbott is. Random focus group participants have him pretty well sussed out, too:

Some participants viewed Mr Abbott as unreliable and untrustworthy.

“He doesn’t present well,” said one participant. “He doesn’t give you ... no matter what he’s talking about, you don’t feel confident.”

One woman declared: “He could be talking about the weather and you’d still think, oh ... I don’t know.”

This woman’s doubt that Abbott could convey a subjective account of something as simple as the weather – the default small-talk topic in our culture – reveals the real problem: Abbott doesn’t really live on the same planet as the rest of us. Even worse, he just doesn’t realise it. He’s got no idea.

It’s this baffling lack of self-awareness, rather than his personal oddities per se, that make trying to understand Abbott’s point of view a gruelling workout for the empathetic capabilities.

His recent mea culpa in Quadrant, the latest in a series, reads like someone told him he’d have to be seen to apologise for his mistakes if he ever wants to re-join public political life in an operative capacity. Because Abbott has so little insight into how he is perceived by other humans, he can’t access the basic truth that he failed because nobody, not even his ideological allies, likes him or trusts him, and therefore he can’t offer a meaningful assessment of his prime ministership.

Instead, the essay delivers a rambling, implausible laundry list of policy stuff-ups; it resembles a patient describing surface-level symptoms of an unknown chronic illness to an assessing physician, except Abbott seems blissfully unaware there’s anything wrong with him.

The real insight is, as usual, to be gained from things he says almost by accident (a complete inversion of his “scripted remarks” gaffe, another moment that caused many onlookers to wonder from which distant galaxy Abbott’s consciousness was being beamed to Earth).

“All prime ministers have to make hard calls, as so many decisions are contentious, even within parties, and have to be resolved by someone taking a side. The challenge is to ensure that people feel sufficiently ‘in the loop’ to accept the decisions that go against them,” he writes. This is a recurring theme in the essay: Tony Abbott makes tough choices that he mostly stands behind, but admits his public relations game could use a little work.

But those tough choices don’t seem all that tough for Abbott. Not once in the essay does he engage in reflective reasoning about his own beliefs. Not once does he meaningfully engage with divergent opinions. Not once does he give any ground to his substantive ideological critics, not even so he can re-take it in the next sentence, not even in an attempt to soften himself. He comes across as arbitrary, humourless and combative, offering no tears, crocodile or otherwise, to the populations most affected by his tough choices – refugees, Indigenous people, queers, women, the poor. The only people he seems worried for are his former staffers, who don’t deserve to “have their reputations blackened by people trying to justify a change of leadership”.

It’s difficult not to conclude that Abbott has a piece missing, perhaps a faulty bit of wiring or a blown fuse, that prevents him from experiencing normal existential terror. Most of us catch the occasional glimpse of this when we consider the 7 billion other humans on the planet whose lives feel as real to them as ours do to us; it’s very hard to appreciate that reality without at least a twinge of self-doubt, the creeping suspicion that you don’t know much of anything, and are ultimately an insignificant speck of dust.

Not a jot of cosmic humility, religious or otherwise, is detectable in anything I have read or heard Abbott write or say. He doesn’t speak in these terms, even obliquely; I wonder if he fears death. It’s this, I think, that people find weirdest about him: how can you trust the judgement of a man so utterly immune to the animating psychic horrors of the human condition? As the woman from the focus group pointed out, everything he says is tainted, even his experience of something as quotidian as the weather. Abbott contains an absence, a conspicuous and upsetting lack, and as long as he hangs around Australian politics, he’s going to make us all stare straight into the void.

Eleanor Robertson

Eleanor Robertson is a freelance writer and comedian living in Sydney. She writes for Guardian Australia, SBS Comedy and Daily Life.

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