February 2010


The whirling dervish

By Louis Nowra
Tony Abbott. © MystifyMe/Flickr
Tony Abbott. © MystifyMe/Flickr
On Tony Abbott

A couple of days after Tony Abbott became leader of the Opposition, I found myself in an emergency ward waiting for an operation. It was a Saturday and, given that St Vincent’s is part of New South Wales’ increasingly stressed hospital system, the staff were doing the best they could after misplacing me in a storeroom for several hours. My surgery was postponed half a dozen times due to the backlog; on the second night I was operated on. I was lucky enough to get the final bed available in the whole hospital.

The two days I spent in emergency, I whiled away my time trying to block my ears to the cries of angry injured drunks and moaning victims, and listening to conversations from the other curtained-off beds. A nurse came in to tend to a fellow opposite my cubicle. A news item about Abbott must have been on the patient’s television because the nurse casually asked him what he thought of the new Opposition leader. “I live in his electorate,” he said, “but even though I don’t vote Liberal, I met him once and he took time out to talk to me. He’s also part of our local surf lifesaving club. He’s like a regular bloke.” He asked the nurse what she thought of him. “Oh, he’s into sport and I don’t like sport, but I saw a picture of him in his bathers the other day and he looks very fit,” she said admiringly.

St Vincent’s is in Malcolm Turnbull’s Wentworth electorate and I also live there. From the time Turnbull ran for Wentworth in 2004, I have heard him described, even by his supporters, as a narcissist, as an opportunist who is only in the Liberal Party for himself, and as his own worst enemy. This is why the conversation I overheard in the emergency ward made me realise that voters, far from thinking Abbott was merely the Mad Monk of caricature, were keeping an open mind about him. It made me think that there was a chance he could win the next election.

All I knew of Abbott when he entered Parliament in 1994 at the age of 36 was that he had been educated by Jesuits, had wanted to be a priest and had described himself as “a junkyard dog savaging the other side”. It was only in early 1998 that I began to take serious notice of him, and that was because of a statement he made in Parliament about Bob Santamaria, who had recently died. Abbott called him “a philosophical star by which you could always steer” and “the greatest living Australian”. I thought that Santamaria had lost all political relevance decades earlier and was astonished that anyone would honour a man who inspired so much hatred.

It became clear that Santamaria had been a crucial mentor for Abbott, ever since the early 1970s. As Michael Duffy remarks in his 2004 dual biography of Mark Latham and Tony Abbott, Santamaria’s effect on the latter was “immediate and profound”. A Catholic intellectual, Santamaria created an organisation known as ‘the Movement’. Using the idea of communist cadres, he had his followers infiltrate the unions to counteract their leftish ideology and to stop the spread of communism. He was president of the organisation from 1943 until 1957, when the Movement evolved into the National Civic Council. Even more insidious was his part in helping keep the Labor Party out of office throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He was a major influence in the formation of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) – a breakaway group of the ALP. He hoped to siphon the Catholics from the ALP into the DLP, and attract the anti-communist vote.

There are people, like Abbott, who believe that Santamaria’s crusade against communism was a success. His major weapon was to create a climate of fear; he was constantly hectoring people with the idea that communists in Australia were buying up arsenals and guns in preparation for the revolution. Another tactic was to prophesy the end of civilisation as we know it. He likened Australia to the fifth century when the Roman Empire collapsed, and he viewed the Vietnam War as a crusade. Yet despite his anti-communism, he disliked capitalism, especially in its guise of economic rationalism. Santamaria’s ideal epoch was the Middle Ages and, as such, he wanted to turn us into a nation of farmers and cottage industries, with women permanently barefoot and pregnant. He vigorously opposed abortion and birth control. He blamed the Bloomsbury Set (Virginia Woolf and the like) for contemporary sexual decadence and the undermining of family values. As he became increasingly sidelined politically, his view of the world shrank to a hermetic and clammy chamber of religious and political certainties. Near the end of his 60-year career, he had doubts about liberal democracy, and in his wish to return to traditional Catholic values there was a touch of the theocratic Taliban about him.

One of the reasons Santamaria was so loathed by many Catholics was that, by politicising religion, families were often riven apart. With the formation of the DLP came intimidation: if you stayed a supporter of the ALP then you were not a true Catholic. What disturbed many Catholics was that the priests would order their congregations to vote DLP. (I remember my mother returning from Mass one morning furious with the priest for telling the St Mark’s congregation to vote for the DLP.) Santamaria also confirmed all the suspicions the rest of Australia had about Catholics – that they were secretive and merely paid lip service to the idea of the separation of Church and State.

Abbott has said that what impressed him about Santamaria was “the courage that kept him going as an advocate for unfashionable truths”. And indeed Santamaria was regarded as a has-been by the time young Abbott was attracted to him. The 1960s era of the young overturning traditional moral, social and sexual values arrived in Australia in the 1970s. Yet in 1972, at the age of 15, Abbott was drawn towards the DLP, despite the traditionalist party being in its death throes.

While I might have been puzzled by his attitude towards Santamaria, in 1998 he made me realise that I couldn’t take his politics for granted. At the time Pauline Hanson’s populist One Nation party, which had been formed in 1997, was beginning to gain considerable electoral ground through racist rhetoric, and its attacks on gun laws, multiculturalism and economic rationalism. Despite her racially inflammatory comments, John Howard did not criticise Hanson or her party. He seemed morally paralysed, as if he agreed with much of what she had to say but also didn’t want to attack her for fear of alienating conservative voters. It was Abbott who realised that One Nation was “a conservative’s cry of rage and fear” that made “non-Anglo Australians feel like strangers in their own country”. But there was a bigger problem in that Hanson had the potential to divide the conservative vote.

If Abbott had learned one thing from Santamaria’s undermining of the Labor Party and formation of the DLP, it was that such ideological splits were catastrophic for both parties. Without telling Howard, he launched a campaign against Hanson. Instead of ridiculing her like the media and the Labor Party did, he saw that the easiest way to destroy her influence was on technical grounds – her One Nation party was not validly registered for public funding. His actions were successful and he saw the campaign “as the most important thing I have done in politics”. It was this attack on One Nation that intrigued me: it seemed Abbott was driven by more complex and at times contradictory impulses than I had first thought.

Abbott had a simple, happy childhood. Even he recognises that he came from a well-off, middle-class family and had privileges denied to many others. He was born in England and at the age of three came to Australia, where he was brought up on Sydney’s North Shore. It was until recently a very Anglo enclave of spacious suburban houses, families and, in the Abbotts’ case, swimming pools.

His father was a dentist and his mother had a science degree. A former pilot who, much to his disappointment, never flew in the war, his father had wanted to be a priest and always impressed on his son that it was better to be a good man than a successful one. There were four siblings, with Abbott the only boy. He was spoiled and, as one sister later remarked, “Tony was always the star”. His mother thought so highly of him that she predicted he would become either pope or prime minister. With this sort of parental adoration it was no wonder that Abbott was a loud-mouthed, attention-seeking boy who saw himself as always being in the right. His parents were gregarious and liked parties. This trait has served their extrovert son well.

He was also studious and fond of books about great leaders and the glory of the British Empire, its Christian virtues and traditional institutions like Parliament. His first school was the Jesuits’ St Aloysius; his next school, St Ignatius, Riverview, on the lower North Shore, was also a Jesuit college. He was quickly attracted to the Jesuit fondness for intellectual argument – for observing issues from opposing sides. There was also a strongly athletic side to him and he did well in sports but, when he failed to play rugby for the school firsts, he could not conceive that it was because he wasn’t good enough – it must have been a conspiracy against him. This arrogance and sense of self-entitlement annoyed many of his peers.

He found a mentor at Riverview in Father Emmet Costello, the chaplain, a worldly Jesuit from a wealthy background who was fascinated by politics. He knew many of the important political players and Abbott often sought him out. Like Santamaria, Costello saw politics as a vocation, a way of giving glory to God in the human realm. Indeed, by the time he went to Sydney University, Abbott was convinced that he had a bright future, perhaps in politics.

His constant use of ‘mate’ or ‘fair dinkum’ made him seem more like a trade unionist than the usual Liberal supporter. His drinking, which would result in some minor acts of vandalism, and his ability at sport also seemed at odds with the stereotype of the socially cautious, nerdy young Liberal. He was never one to shy away from a stoush, and stated his opinions wherever he went. He gained a reputation for being a braggart, a blabbermouth and a larrikin. There were even rumours that he had been thrown out of a student house because of his propensity to walk around naked.

In his second year at university, he had a girlfriend, whom he loved – and yet their relationship was an on-again, off-again affair because Abbott was strongly drawn towards the idea of becoming a priest. When she fell pregnant, Abbott knew he was too immature to help raise the baby, and it was adopted. This decision was to haunt him for many decades. When he married, he told his wife, Margie, about it and, when they reached appropriate ages, his three daughters: Louise, Frances and Bridget.

As far as he was concerned it was more than a young man’s mistake. He had sinned, and he did not marry the mother of his child, which was an abject dereliction of moral duty. As for his dream of entering the priesthood – at this time he felt he wasn’t morally strong enough and was spiritually unworthy. His escape clause was when, through the influence of Father Costello, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University.

He arrived in a state of great excitement. Oxford, for Abbott, was the ultimate university. It was a bastion of tradition, educational achievement and the embodiment of all that was good about England. As he has often said, he is an “incorrigible Anglophile”. He flourished there, studying philosophy and politics, and immersing himself in the works of eighteenth-century conservative philosopher Edmund Burke.

Commentators have overlooked Burke’s influence on Abbott, as they’ve attempted to find religious underpinnings to his ideas. Yet Burke’s theories embedded themselves deeply in Abbott’s mind. He took especial note of Burke’s notion that “We fear God, we look up with awe to kings: with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility”. He was also profoundly influenced by Burke’s idea that society is a “partnership” not only between those who are living, but “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. Even now, as leader of the Opposition, these two ideas guide Abbott in the way he sees not only the responsibilities of politicians but also the responsibilities people must have towards their own communities. His dislike of what he perceives as laziness, welfare dependency, anti-social behaviour and loose morals derives from the idea that citizens thereby break this vital partnership; he sees it as his duty to restore it.

While at Oxford, Abbott found another mentor in an American trainee Jesuit priest, Paul Mankowski, whom he calls the finest man he has ever met. Deeply religious and keeping to a vow of poverty, Mankowski wore the clothes of dead priests. He was intelligent and a boxer. He fully endorsed the idea that “a healthy body means a healthy mind”, which was not so much a strand of Irish Catholicism but its English and American forms. The notion of “muscular Christianity” was especially important for Catholics, who emphasised sexual chastity before marriage and celibacy in priests. Physical activity was a way of finding a physical outlet for sexual frustration.

Boxing is called the ultimate sport and no wonder. It is two men pitted against each other, with no protection other than their gloves and sometimes a helmet. It is a profound act of bravery to face an opponent who is out to hurt you and could possibly kill you. There is nowhere to hide, and any momentary act of perceived cowardice is magnified. Boxing is, however, more than just punching: one has to duck, weave, guard, counterattack, parry blows and, of course, conquer fear.

Whenever Abbott entered the ring he was, as he once said, “terrified. It’s one of those things you make yourself do.” In his first bout – against Cambridge in March 1982 – he knocked out his opponent within the opening minute, and his three other fights were equally successful. He had little technique but a brutal sense of attack, which he called “the whirling dervisher”.

When interviewed by the local press, it was obvious that Australian politics, and his role in it, wasn’t far from his mind. His third bout was decided before the end of round one and he bragged: “I just made believe that my opponent was Bob Hawke, the leader of Australian Labor Party.” His skill may have been limited but it didn’t matter; once the blood mist descended only the rules kept his savagery under control.

Upon returning to Australia, Abbott didn’t hide his pride at what he had achieved academically and in sport. When I was recovering at St Vincent’s, a surgeon who had gone to Riverview told me he vividly remembered Abbott giving a talk to the school after his Oxford sojourn. I asked what he was like. “Oh, he preened,” said the surgeon. “No sense of humility at all. He just preened about his achievements.” No doubt one of the reasons for this was to show off his Oxford Blue to the sports masters who had rejected him. This inability to be humble is a debilitating feature of his personality, as he frequently acknowledges.

Back in Australia Abbott made a decision that stunned his family. He wanted to become a priest. Although he went to Mass regularly, he never seemed so much a spiritual man as one whose faith was based on the traditional values of the Church. At the age of 26, he was much older than most of the men entering St Patrick’s seminary at Manly. No doubt Mankowski was a huge influence on the decision.

Yet instead of finding a form of Catholicism that featured social engagement, poverty and service to the community, he found himself surrounded by a strongly homosexual fraternity. A Catholic friend of mine who mixed with the St Patrick’s priests said, still with surprise in his voice, that they were “the most effeminate men I had ever seen. And this was when the Church unconditionally condemned homosexuality!” With this indulgent atmosphere came an emphasis on self-absorption. Abbott may have disliked homosexuality, but he agreed with Santamaria that “introspection is the first step towards insanity”. He was and is a man who likes being around other people and he’d sooner act than spend time contemplating his own navel. He regarded this aspect of Catholicism as solipsistic – and he also couldn’t hack celibacy. Like half of the young seminarians, he left before becoming a priest.

In March 1987, at the age of 29, he found himself without prospects and not a little envious of friends who were now making serious money. He began to write for the Bulletin and the Australian, his articles being a way for him to work out his political philosophy and to clear his thoughts on the issues of the day. His writing style became simple and muscular with a deft ability to throw colloquial words into the mix without sounding patronising.

He found a job as press secretary for John Hewson, the leader of the Opposition, but he was more attracted to John Howard, then shadow minister for industrial relations, employment and training. Their friendship continued throughout Howard’s time as prime minister, and Abbott continues to look up to him. But Howard was not very religious, and on spiritual matters Abbott turned to Cardinal Pell. Like all his mentors, from Santamaria onwards, he hero-worshipped him uncritically. To Abbott, Cardinal Pell is “one of the greatest churchmen that Australia has seen”.

Pell is the type of Catholic Abbott likes – someone who excelled at sports, is not introspective and takes a close interest in politics. He is a divisive man who was at the centre of a controversy over his maladroit dealings with victims of sexual abuse by priests. Pell is intelligent but no intellectual (like Howard, in this sense), which suits Abbott. Pell’s articles, however, have none of Abbott’s clarity; they are frequently full of platitudes and non sequiturs as he rails against the “aggressive paganism” of contemporary society. Vegetarianism makes him uneasy and he loathes the Greens because they can cause thousands of people to lose their jobs when they set out to save “turtles who breathe through their bottoms”. As for climate change claims, they are “a symptom of pagan emptiness”.

Pell acts as Abbott’s personal confessor. But Abbott is very touchy about his close friendship with him, no doubt because Pell pushes hard, like Santamaria did, for Catholic intervention in politics. A few years ago, at a conscience vote overturning a state ban on therapeutic cloning, Pell announced: “Catholic politicians who vote for this legislation must realise that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the Church.” This was a thinly veiled threat of excommunication, running completely counter to secular values.

Abbott’s conservative politics, his instinct to defer to authority and tradition, and his English Catholicism – with its position as a bulwark of tradition rather than a spiritual force – have been the bedrock of his beliefs since he was young. All of his mentors have opinions that have polarised the public, and they are all people who act upon rather than internalise any problem. They are thoughtful but not great thinkers. Above all, they regard the traditional institutions of marriage, family and community based on the principles of Christianity as essential for social cohesion.

Abbott has often been criticised for bringing his religious convictions into the world of politics. And although he has strenuously denied this, he has also said that: “A minister of the crown is scarcely supposed to abandon his principles simply because he is a minister of the crown. You don’t become an ethical-free zone just because you are a minister.” The institution that has made him, the Catholic Church, has also shaped his principles, so that he finds it difficult to disentangle his religious convictions from his political agenda. Like all his mentors he loathes abortion, IVF, the morning-after pill and RU486. He sees abortion as a national tragedy, as he does no-fault divorce. He questioned whether Medicare should be funding 75,000 abortions a year and he tried to restrict RU486. He also opposes stem-cell research and gay marriage.

Throughout his life, Abbott has needed the Church and its teachings, sometimes to a desperate degree, because he realises that without it he would be morally and even psychologically lost. He knows he has personal demons to quell. Between his belfry-bat ears is a coil of such saturnine weirdness that no one, not even his closest friends, would want to unravel it. This makes him do things he comes to regret. His wife, Margie, knows this. In 2005 when she heard that John Brogden had resigned as NSW Opposition leader, after being found in his office with self-inflicted wounds, she told her husband, “Whatever happens, don’t you say anything about it.” The next day, Abbott, then health minister, joked about Brogden’s actions in relation to a change to a Liberal policy: “If we did that, we would be as dead as the former Liberal leader’s political prospects.” Abbott’s response to the subsequent outcry was, “Look, I’ve never claimed to be the world’s most sensitive person.”

And he is right. When dying asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton, suffering from terminal cancer, tried to deliver a petition to Abbott’s electorate office in Manly, Abbott, who wasn’t there, called Banton “gutless”, the event “a stunt” and remarked that “just because a person is sick doesn’t mean that he is necessarily pure at heart in all things”.

Rudd may use swear words to his staff and flight attendants but Abbott takes it into the public arena, one time snapping back “Bullshit” at Labor opponent Nicola Roxon, in response to her comment that he could have been on time for a nationally televised debate, and referring to Julia Gillard as having a “shit-eating grin”. He just can’t stop himself. His excitement and adrenaline get the better of him. He always offers a mea culpa and confesses his weakness, but that impulsiveness is hard for him to control. He is a naturally exuberant man. A photographer friend who has shot him several times remarked to me that Abbott had “an adolescent’s energy”. Journalists have called his obsessive cycling and gym-going “self-flagellation”, but it’s more subtle than that. The body is a source of energy that equals that of the will. If he can will his body to overcome its limitations, then he can train his mind to do the same thing.

Abbott also has many attractive characteristics. He does truly listen to people, as the patient in emergency remarked on; even Pro Choice’s NSW spokeswoman, Jane Caro, conceded: “On a personal level, I like Tony Abbott, having found him to be a respectful, intelligent, humorous and civil opponent whenever we debated the issues.” He’s a brave man. When he was at university he rescued a boy from drowning, and another time he helped rescue some children from a burning house. On neither occasion did he big-note himself. He is a lifesaver and he fights bushfires. He is honest in public about his failings and he is immensely loyal. When he discovered that he was not the father of the baby that was adopted, he was gracious in his disappointment and forgiving towards the woman who had wrongly identified him as the father. He forgives and forgets. He may act goofy around women occasionally, but he’s capable of self-mockery, as when he repeats one of his daughters’ descriptions of him as “a gay, lame churchie loser”. He also tries to be as straightforward and clear as possible, which will become a virtue given that his opponent, Kevin Rudd, seems like a hologram that hasn’t been taught proper English.

In December last year, when he became leader of the Opposition, Paul Howes, the national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, labelled him a zealot; MP Greg Combet called him an extremist; Robert Manne called him a troglodyte. But Abbott is much more complicated than those labels suggest. His defeat of the ETS prompted Julia Gillard to call him a denier, a particularly pernicious tag given that it alludes to the Holocaust. But Abbott did tap into a large group of Australians who didn’t understand the ETS and, because they didn’t and were scared of paying higher taxes and losing their jobs, were derided by their own government. He is astute and thoughtful enough to realise conservatives have to embrace the diversity of contemporary Australian society. He also knows that he cannot be seen as extreme, as he has been portrayed. He will try to get to the middle ground, at the same time taking the lower socio-economic groups with him. His idea of the Commonwealth taking over the funding of hospitals will appeal to many who have found themselves caught up in the hospital system, as I was. His Achilles heel will be economics, at which he has shown no expertise, and it is there that the Labor government will trounce him.

It remains, however, that his greatest weakness is himself. He is as complicated a man as Keating, and that’s a problem. Voters like their prime ministers to be simple and pragmatic, and with no personal agenda. Keating was lucky in that the baton was passed on to him while in government. If he had been in Opposition, in all likelihood he would not have been elected PM. Abbott’s continuing struggle since he was young has been to balance his conservatism with his impetuous actions. He has tried to remain true to his 15-year-old self in a time of fast-changing social mores and morals. The tension between his religious beliefs and his political life will remain challenging to navigate. He also has to fight his natural tendency to hero-worship in order to become his own man. Since he was young he has dreamt of himself becoming a hero. But if he did become prime minister, he would view it as an honour beyond himself. It would confirm his ideal that politics is the highest and noblest form of public service.

His great political flaw is like that of his boxing, when he defeated his opponents with his whirling dervish attacks on them. If his opponents had had better defence, they would have avoided his initial attacks, let him become exhausted and then picked him off, slowly and relentlessly. Abbott places everything on attack and as such leaves himself wide open to dying a death of a thousand cuts. In all likelihood his term as leader will end in either tears or farce. His value may lie in the way he defines the Liberals as a true conservative party.

Is it possible that he could win the next election? Stranger things have happened. Certainly he has more charm, humour and common appeal than Rudd, who seems merely a willy-willy of spin. But would Abbott make a good prime minister? In wartime he would be excellent because then issues are so clear-cut, but in our present society the tension between his traditional values, formulated by both Catholicism and thinkers like Burke, and society’s insatiable need for change would be a constantly tense balancing act for him.

But, whatever happens, his elevation to leader of the Opposition has given the voters a real choice between the two parties and 2010 should prove a fascinating, even tumultuous lead-up to the next election. Abbott has won the ETS battle for the moment. I hear the bell ringing for the start of round two.

Louis Nowra
Louis Nowra is an author, screenwriter and playwright. His books include Ice and The Twelfth of Never, and he is co-winner of the 2009 NSW Premier’s Script Writing Award for First Australians.

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