Searching for Tony Abbott (continued)
In a pen portrait of Abbott playwright Louis Nowra wrote of Abbott as a boxer in his younger days that: “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 dervish’.” (L. Nowra, ‘The whirling dervish: On Tony Abbott‘).
Having left the seminary, and after a short-time employment as manager of a concrete batching plant, in March 1987 Abbott found a job writing for The Bulletin and The Australian – but it did not last long. He moved on to become press secretary for Dr. John Hewson, the Leader of the Opposition, but he was more attracted to John Howard, then shadow minister for industrial relations, employment and training. In 1992 Abbott was appointed Director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, a position he held until his election to Parliament. Interestingly, in a series of letters to Santamaria, he had agonised over which party – Labor or Liberal – to join, writing “To join either existing party involves holding one’s nose.” He had been offered a job working for Santamaria’s organisation, the National Civic Council, but eventually decided to join the Liberal Party. When he won the pre-selection contest for Warringah, Sydney in 1994, Santamaria declined to give him a reference.
Abbott was first appointed to Cabinet following the 1998 election, as part of the Second Howard Ministry, becoming Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business. Their friendship continued throughout Howard’s time as prime minister, and Abbott continued to look up to him. He famously described himself as the ‘ideological love child’ of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop!
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, who is not introspective and who 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.
On 1 December 2009 Abbott was elected to the position of Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia over Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey. He won by a single vote. In his own words, he became genuinely interested in politics in 1976, at the age of 18, when he accepted an invitation to attend a conference of the National Civic Council, the Catholic political organisation run by Santamaria.
Maybe Abbott did not share Santamaria’s apocalyptic views and style. Nevertheless, he was clearly influenced by ‘the prophet’. Abbott’s devotion to the man prompted him to describe him as “the greatest living Australian”. He had already said of Santamaria that he was “the ultimate true believer”. Abbott has also 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. He has only moved out from Santamaria’s shadow slowly and even then incompletely. When he drops his guard and informs an inter-viewer that he feels threatened by homosexuality or that he would advise his daughters to treasure their virginity, it is the continuing influence of Santamaria that one sees. Like many contemporary Christians – inside or near the Catholic Church – Abbott is preoccupied by the question of abortion. He might just claim that he does not wish to cause women unnecessary pain, but this has not prevented him from claiming, on one occasion, that abortion is a “black-and-white” moral issue and, on another, that 100,000 abortion deaths have created for Australia “a legacy of unutterable shame”.
In 2007 he had confessed that he had spent his life under Santamaria’s “spell”. Even though there is evidence that Santamaria despised John Howard, it remains very psychologically important for Abbott that one of the last visitors to the Santamaria deathbed was the prime minister Abbott had by then come to idolise. Throughout his life, Abbott has wrestled with the Santamaria legacy. (R. Manne, ‘On your bike, Tony Abbott’).
“After Abbott’s election as Liberal Party leader, an interesting debate began about the role his Catholic faith was likely to play if he ever became prime minister. According to the left-wing version, as seen for example on Liz Jackson’s [A.B.C.] Four Corners, [Liz Jackson’s report ‘The authentic Mr. Abbott’, first broadcast on 19 March 2010] Abbott is an unreconstructed and old-fashion Catholic, who does not believe in the separation of Church and State, who has already used whatever opportunity has presented itself to impose his religious views, and who is almost certain to continue to do so in the future.” (Id.) Such interpretation seems quite accurate.
Abbott has a long history of dealing with other people’s mortality less than respectfully. In March 2007 Abbott described Kevin Rudd’s account of his own father’s death as sounding “too self-serving to be true”. Infamously, in October 2007 Abbott then Minister for Health said of asbestosis sufferer Bernie Banton – but then terminally ill, and dead at the end of the following month – that “just because a person is sick does not necessarily mean that he is pure of heart in all things.”
In February 2010 a jovial Abbott thought it was funny to remark that “[t]he only one of the Ten Commandments that I am confident that I have not broken is the one about killing, and that’s because I haven’t had the opportunity yet.” In the same month, while pursuing Peter Garrett over the administration of the stimulus package for home insulation, Abbott’s choice of language around the four industrial fatalities in question was sometimes pretty doubtful, including his repeated brandishing of the slogan “electrocution denial”.
In February 2011 Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition, responded to the death of Australian lance corporal Jared MacKinney in Afghanistan by commenting that “shit happens”.
In August 2011 Abbott put political tactics ahead of public grieving and remembrance when he thought it appropriate to refuse parliamentary pairs preventing Simon Crean and Malcolm Turnbull from attending the funeral of painter Margaret Olley.
In January 2012 Abbott was in a lighter mood again, jokily bantering about the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, which at that stage was known to have involved at least 11 deaths.
In March 2012, on the occasion of the death of Margaret Whitlam, it was deeply disappointing that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott saw fit to take a facile shot at her husband’s political legacy. Tastelessly, he said: “There was a lot wrong with the Whitlam government but nevertheless, it was a very significant episode in our history and Margaret Whitlam was a very significant element in the political success of Gough Whitlam.”
There is something troubling about the sheer number of times Abbott has seemingly been flippant about the deaths of others. His serial insensitivity shows a standard of manners and politeness less than that which should be a minimum requirement for public office. What it reveals is a genuine failure of compassion, instinctive and aggressive callousness; an impulsive failure of empathy.(D. Ritter, ‘Abbott’s humour less than killer, but does he lack compassion?’).
Professor Manne drew a tight sketch of Tony Abbott: “For [him] the greatest world leaders of recent times are Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; the greatest contemporary theologian, Pope Benedict; the greatest Australian churchman, Cardinal Pell; the greatest Australian prime ministers, Robert Menzies and John Howard. Abbott looks to Kevin Donnelly for matters educational, to Christopher Pearson for matters cultural, to Keith Windschuttle for his interpretation of Aboriginal history and to Ian Plimer as his source of understanding in the area of climate change. When thick-as-bricks Sarah Palin won the vice-presidential nomination for the Republican Party, Abbott claimed with a perfectly straight face that she was an outstanding politician with greater experience than Barack Obama or John McCain and that she had just ‘the right stuff for high office’.” (R. Manne, ‘On your bike, Tony Abbott’).
When Julia Gillard – a woman who is unmarried and childless, and an atheist – became prime minister in 2010, Tony Abbott was left boiling with rage. Not only had he lost, but he had been defeated by a modern woman. For the time being, the ambitions of this fundamentalist Catholic and fiercely combative reactionary politician had been thwarted.
The long period in opposition would begin. And Abbott would give substance to the definition of his function: to oppose – everything, everywhere, anytime, all the time.
In November 2013, during a press conference held by the British Prime Minister at the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka which was boycotted by Canada, India and Mauritius as a protest against the human rights abuses and war crimes, Mr. Cameron said: “Let me be very clear. If an investigation is not completed by March, then I will use our position on the United Nations human rights council to work with the UN human rights commission and call for a full credible and independent international inquiry.”
The British, along with many other nations, were calling for justice for the countless thousands of innocent civilians who had been tortured and massacred, men, women and children. Abbott thought of going one better and weighed in on the discussions. When questioned about the massacre and torture of civilians he said: “We accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen.”
Later on, once back home, he declared that he had never heard of a country being given a free pass for genocide and torture before, and those who committed some of the atrocities must be pleased to hear that someone accepts what they have done.
When the time came, Tony Abbott would accept Sri Lankan torture and genocide, but would not accept Sri Lankan refugees.
Tony Abbott gave the Sri Lankan government two Navy Patrol Boats for them to use in any way they would have seen fit in return for them clamping down on asylum seekers fleeing the country due to tensions which still exist and seeing their family members executed in many cases.
The gift of military boats to the nation that the United Nations accused of war crimes cost the Australian taxpayer $2 million. A cynical could say that Abbott was trying to emulate his mentor John Howard who allowed bribes to be paid to Saddam Hussein’s regime through the Australian Wheat Board.
As an irate, but very acute, observer would write early in November 2013 in an open letter to journalist Laurie Oakes, accusing him of having kept voters uninformed by completely failing to scrutinise what Abbott was going to do as Prime Minister: “You perpetuated the utterly ridiculous notion that Abbott could move from nasty, messy, attack-dog to mature, competent Prime Minister. I’m sorry Laurie, but this concept is idiotic. An incompetent, lazy, rude, mean, un-charismatic, unreliable, unintelligent, misogynistic, unscrupulous, inarticulate thug is always going to be all of these things, whether he lives in the Lodge with his apparently attractive daughters or not. He wasn’t just all of these things when he was Opposition Leader because it suited his agenda at the time. It’s not a coat he can just take off. This is it. This is Tony Abbott. With Peta Credlin barking instructions into his earpiece. This is Tony Abbott.”
The writer was concerned with what Abbott was doing: “Handing responsibility for massively important decisions about government spending to a business lobbyist. Cutting funding to scientific research. Embarrassing Australia on the global stage. Slashing and burning public sector jobs. Ripping up future-proofing infrastructure by destroying the [National Broadband Network]. Raising the debt ceiling to all time highs with no explanation as to why just weeks after claiming a ‘budget emergency’. Cancelling the Carbon Price for an expensive joke of a Direct Action Policy which is beyond humiliating for the country, right at the same time when the public are finally starting to realise that electricity bills are not more important than the safety of the planet.
Lying about deals he’s made with Indonesia to turn back boats and pretending the very act of him becoming Prime Minister has stopped the boats. Not to mention the real ‘chaos’ and ‘crisis’ which Abbott refuses to address – his and his ministers’ fraudulent use of taxpayer funds for expensive travel and accommodation for their own egos and personal entertainment.” (This would become a oozing sore, plaguing the Abbott Government for its duration, from Abbott defending claims for travel expenses to participate in sporting events, including Pollie Pedal: (‘Tony Abbott defends claiming travel expenses to participate in sporting events, including Pollie Pedal‘) – the Department of Finance already had documents which showed that Abbott had claimed $349 in travel allowance and $941 for flights to compete in an ironman event in the New South Wales city of Port Macquarie in 2011; Tony Abbott scheduling last-minute visit to a cancer centre ‘to justify billing taxpayers for a fundraising trip to Melbourne’ for the Liberal Party, (27 August 2014); ‘Tony Abbott taking a taxpayer-funded military jet to the birthday party of a millionaire Liberal Party donor – $250,000 personally and $500,000 through a company controlled by him – (24 March 2015, ‘Tony Abbott takes taxpayer-funded jet to party‘); (8 August 2015, ‘Tony Abbott on travel expenses: go by what would be acceptable in business‘). On this occasion one could learn that the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, had flown his wife and two children from Sydney to Perth on business-class return flights during the April 2013 school holidays. Department of Finance expenses records would show each of the ‘family traveller’ flights cost $1,470,01 for a total of $8,820.06. The trip coincided with the anniversary of Hockey’s speech about ending “the age of entitlement”. On 2 August 2015 Ms. Bronwyn Bishop resigned as Speaker of the House of Representatives after coming under pressure for more than three weeks for a series of expenses claims, including $ 5,227 for return chartered helicopter flights from Melbourne to Geelong to attend a Liberal fundraiser. Many more episodes of Marie Antoinette-like demands on public money, office and trust would come to light).
And the letter-writer concluded: “Whenever I think of Abbott, and what a setback he is for Australia, I can’t help but hear the words of Paul Keating from [an] interview in 2010 where he said:
“If Tony Abbott ends up as Prime Minister of Australia, you’ve got to say, God help us, God help us. A truly intellectual nobody. And no policy ambition. You know, I mean, is that all there is?” (V. Rollison, ‘An open letter to Laurie Oakes’, 9 November 2013).
Tomorrow: Searching for Tony Abbott (continued)
* In memory of my friends, Professor Bertram Gross and Justice Lionel Murphy.
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975 he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra. He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.