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Sep 10, 2012

Marr on Abbott: nine things you didn't know about Tony

From David Marr's Quarterly Essay, "Political Animal, The Making of Tony Abbott", here are nine things we didn't know about the man ...

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From David Marr’s Quarterly Essay, “Political Animal, The Making of Tony Abbott”, here are nine things we didn’t know about the man …

Tony’s Catholicism is of a recent vintage. His grandfather, Marr explains, “had made a bargain with God that were his family to survive a voyage to Australia in the early months of World War II they would go over to Rome. Untouched by torpedoes, the Abbotts converted with some fervour”. This may explain why he burns with the zeal of the newly converted, unlike “cultural Catholics” who believe that if several generations of their family have regularly attended Mass then they don’t have to (my husband).

As a teenager, he had a very odd attitude to sex. “I was sorta wrestling with this idea of the bloody priesthood, and I kept saying, ‘No, no! No sex! Against the rules! Then I’d say, ‘Oh, all right’.” And this was in the 1970s?

When his girlfriend, Kathy McDonald, became pregnant, 19-year-old Tony was unwilling to marry her as it would rule out the priesthood. It would also mean he could not apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, as it was then open only to single applicants. The  relationship broke down when she was seven months pregnant but he came to the hospital when the baby was born and held him for a few minutes, before he was adopted out. (Thirty-five years later, the son was found not to have been Abbott’s.)

He is alleged to have physically intimidated and punched the wall next to Barbara Ramjan after she defeated him in the election for the president of the Students’ Representative Council at Sydney University. Asked by Marr about it, Abbott said he had no memory of the incident, but put out a statement on Saturday saying that it had never happened. He said, she said …

His views about homos-xuality are scarier than we think. At university, writing in uni paper Honi Soit, he takes the reader into the SRC Women’s Collective, full of women who are “grim faced, overall-clad, hard, strident, often lustfully embracing in a counterfeit of love”. Marr also quotes Abbott as writing to High Court judge Michael Kirby that he had trouble with the idea that homosexuality should be regarded as acceptable, rather than simply accepted; “especially when the overwhelming weight of tradition holds that it is in some sense sinful”.

Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, has recently come out as gay, a decision Abbott is reported to have accepted. This may be an example of another Catholic trait — “to hate the sin but love the sinner”.

On the first date with his now-wife Margaret Aitken, he explained to her the history of the Democratic Labor Party split. And she still married him! (Was this a way of ensuring there would never be s-x on a first date?)

His handwriting is appalling. Even his numbers are illegible. When he was health minister, someone on his personal staff had to tell public servants what was actually scrawled on their submissions.

He is engaged in a strange war with his body. Marr writes: “He walks as though he has to will each leg forward. It’s curious in a man who is so obviously fit. His face is skin and bone. He smiles but his eyes are hooded. The overall effect is faintly menacing, as if he’s about to climb into the ring.

I’ve noticed that when talking to Tony, he often leans forward and bounces slightly on the balls of his feet, a bit like a kangaroo. Maybe he just has poor circulation and his toes are numb. For a few years, we saw a great deal of his taut torso, often clad in a pair of red budgie-smugglers. But no longer.

“His minders — and perhaps his wife — have said no to Speedos and Lycra,” writes Marr. “Even so it can be said that never in the political annals of this country have so many seen so much of so little.” All of this may explain why…

He loves physical deprivation. The essay contains an excellent anecdote from writer Peter Fitzsimons, who played rugby with him in the 1980s:

“Abbo never saw a scrum that he didn’t like … what he most loved, and I mean this, was doing it when the conditions were appalling. One night in June, 1989, it all came together. A howling wind, screaming imprecations at the devil. Sheets of rain without end. A whole quagmire of mud to work with. Situation perfect … as we maddened muddy wombats staggered after him. Forty minutes in, as our eyeballs rolled with exhaustion, I dinkum remember looking at his own beatific countenance, all grin and ears, the rain pouring off his uncovered head and having this distinct thought: ‘I think he’s a little bit insane — in a hugely likeable way.'”

In private, he opposed WorkChoices. According to Marr: “He thought WorkChoices harsh and bad politics: ‘A catastrophic political blunder because it undermined the Howard battlers’ faith in the prime minister’s goodwill.’ He and another Catholic warrior in the government, Kevin Andrews, contested the proposals in cabinet. Abbott was particularly concerned with the abolition of the no-disadvantage test, which had set a safety net under earlier workplace reform.”

At the end of this excellent essay, Marr sums up Tony the politician in a paragraph:

“An aggressive populist with a sharp tongue; a political animal with lots of charm; a born protege with ambitions to lead; a big brain but no intellectual; a bluff guy who proved a more than competent minister; a politician with little idea of what he might do if he ever got to the top; and a man profoundly wary of change.

“He’s a worker. No doubt about that. But the point of it all is power. Without power it’s been a waste of time.”

Margot Saville —

Margot Saville

Crikey Sydney reporter

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110 thoughts on “Marr on Abbott: nine things you didn’t know about Tony

  1. Zac Evans

    @David Hand, have you read Marr’s essay or are you just basing your claims on the snippets posted here? (ie. “Hand on Saville on Marr on Abbott”)

  2. archibald

    @ Venise
    We’re all apes really, aren’t we? Watch the great apes even for a few minutes at the Zoo and we find their mannerisms are all too familiar. Apes sometimes posture to make themselves look larger and more dangerous than they really are. This threating behaviour is undoubtably better than any excercise of their true destructive potential.

    Comparing politicians to their fellows is more worthwhile. Comparing and contrasting Abbott with one of his local contemporaries like Latham (“I’m just a guy having a go” – at single mothers for a start.) or some of the other contenders for office these days like Romney’s new ultra-lean ulta-conservative “running” mate, Paul Ryan, is more instructive. A disproportionate focus on physical activity is a form of the manic defense. The story about the rugby practice suggests a hunger to find something transcendental in physical striving. He doesn’t apparently put that energy into preparing to govern – developing policy or getting across the key portfolios. In this time, where the media have all but abandoned holding him to account, he hasn’t needed to – thus far at any rate. His private personality – where he was frank about the fatal errors of JWH’s WC or dealing with the independents after the last election – is more interesting than his public persona which seems like the same sort of masquerade we saw on display in Tampa recently.

    Before his tilt at the leadership, Abbott used to be quite blunt about his unacceptability to the majority of the electorate due to his particular kind of conservatism. He has to pretend to be otherwise to sell himself to the swinging vote – and so, pretty much, to most politicians these days. The lack of room for those in the current government to pursue any sensible accomodation with the obvious hot potato issues reflects the same sort of compromises. Some of these guys must wonder why they ever got into politics but, I’m guessing, not TA. His path in the priesthood was toward being the top guy – Archbishop of Sydney. He still wants to be the top guy. Where to from there?

  3. Hamis Hill

    On that “Catholic” thing, the disproportionate representation of same across all the elected governments is a problem, and on this point as a “staunch” member of this religious minority Abbott simply cannot be representative of all Australians. He could actually be a saint but he has chosen to remain partisan to a minority extreme. The Liberals can do better and did have a better, more representative leader in Malcolm Turnbull. And who can ignore the complaints of Malcolm Fraser about his own former party? Well most of the present liberals! Gerard Henderson’s Menzies Child
    might explain this phenomenon of “Catholic” dominance, especially his SMH article “How Menzies Child Has Changed”, where he exlained how a burgeoning “catholic” midddle class abandoned their down trodden working class Labor roots and aspired to ape their betters.
    “Catholic” is in inverted commas because there is no typical “Catholic” stereotype.
    Mary Mackillop was, for example of Scottish, not Irish heritage.
    Abbott, like Santamaria, comes across as a caricature, as a fake, and lacks that roundness of authenticity that people tend to detect subliminally. Hence his unpopularity IMHO.
    And we know that some like Santamaria believed that attack was the best form of defence.
    In his case he was defending the war criminals of his religion who escaped to Australia, post WWII, along the infamous Vatican organised “Ratlines”. What is Abbott defending?

  4. Venise Alstergren

    STEVE CAREY: I believe that Tony Abbott, together with all the Catholic fundamentalists in the Coalition; Kevin Andrews, Scott Morrison, Cori Bernardi, Eric Abetz, David Clarke, Peter Ryan (Nats Vic), Barnaby Joyce (Nats), George Brandis, Christopher Pyne, and a cast of dozens, will be leaning on him to do just that. However, if you saw the David Marr interview you will notice that he thinks the birth control issue is so far out of the bottle it would be impossible to put the stopper back. Personally, I disagree. Also, states like Victoria where legislation legalising abortion passed through a Catholic dominated state parliament by one vote, will come under threat of having this law overturned. Precisely in the manner that shortly after the NT passed a law allowing euthanasia, John Winston Howard came into power and promptly overturned it.

    If you did as I suggested and looked up Tony Abbott’s tenure as health Minister in the Howard government, you would have found his performance over the RU486
    drug and his concomitant banning of it, revealing his ice cold determination to put women back into the 1940s. What on earth makes you think hardline fundamentalist Catholics ever change their spots?

    Marr states the real issue with Abbott as a future PM is euthanasia, I agree with him on this issue, and with anti-euthanasia stalwarts like Kevin Andrews and Barnaby Joyce urging him on, Abbott will make sure any prospective law fails to get off the starting line.

    Anyone voting for the Liberal Party, or the National Country Party at the next election will have no one to blame, except themselves, if this next election is won by them.

  5. Graeme Harrison

    Abbott’s problems run deeper than the ‘simian swagger’ – though this way of seeking to appear as a ‘strong man’, supported by ‘action photos’ in a whole variety of situations is straight from the Vladimir Putin ‘leader must have strong man image’ school of thought.

    The biggest issue not dealt with in the article, was Abbott’s overnight conversion from being supportive of the ETS and real climate action, to drop all such thoughts the moment he saw a ‘break-through tactic’ would be to get Minchin’s denialist team behind Abbott by becoming a denialist in the blink of an eye. It was the opportunity to win power that mattered, not whether a free-market mechanism would be most efficient at achieving the necessary change in our carbon footprint. Australia and the world simply did not matter when it came to the issue of personal power.

    This ‘change tactics/ethics as necessary’ is a trait of all good debaters. [I graduated from the same top-debating high school as Tony, but a few years ahead.] After sufficient debating, you can easily dump all of your ethical beliefs to argue ‘the opposite position’… with a view to simply winning! Debating teaches valuable oratory skills, but the downside is being able to shed ethics in an instant.

    The other ‘hidden driver’ for Abbott is that leaving the seminary must be psychologically troubling. You have abandoned your commitment to God. I feel certain that Abbott is driven by a sub-conscious drive to prove to the Church (and his God) that he can do more for the Church from his new profession. That is why Abbott was prepared to overturn the professional ministerial medical advice and refuse (when Health Minister) the approval of RU486, the abortion drug. The parliament had to take the power to approve drugs away from him, because he was not prepared to do the functions required of the minister. Abbott preferred (as earlier documented in Honi Soit) to still impose his personal moral code on all others, rather than allow democracy (decisions of the majority to rule).

    In this way, Abbott would be dangerous for democracy, because he believes in game-saying, undermining institutions/protocols, not keeping to his word (unless it was written down and he meant it), etc…. in that a personal win or a favour for the Church will always outrank following democratic principles. Many high-functioning sociopaths in political positions in the past have espoused a commitment to democracy to gain power, but then not kept to democratic principles once in power, seeing that winning/retaining power was more important. A local example was the Liberal Party’s decision to overturn our democratic conventions by having two Liberal states replace retiring Labor senators with non-Labor replacements to enable the Senate to deny ‘supply’ in the lead-up to Whitlam’s removal. Of course Fraser later became a thoughtful, reasoned force for good, but when he was planning to remove Whitlam, winning was everything. Abbott would explain (in similar circumstances) that not replacing senators with like-party ones, or refusing to pass ‘supply’ bills were not prohibited by the Constitution or explicit laws – they were ‘only’ accepted conventions. So was the fact that the Health Minister should approve drugs determined appropriate for approval by the independent committee of medical specialists. With Abbott as leader we would need to expect complete upheaval in all matters not written down as ‘L-A-W law’. And an awful lot of what makes our democracy run is not codified in law.

    Turnbull does not need the ‘simian swagger’, as his pride is derived from his intellectual capabilities, not his physical ones. All Turnbull needs is a speech-writer from Bob Hawke’s team (‘man of the people’ etc)… But the fact that Turnbull advocates debating the actual issues (not slogans/denials), and then working to find common ground within the whole parliament to implement policies is the powerful difference.
    Graeme Harrison (prof at-symbol post.harvard.edu)
    Sydney

  6. Karen

    @MikeB – the State elections in Vic, NSW and Qld, in particular, have shown that voters seem to think that the Libs are more benign than they really are – benign only because when the Libs are in opposition, they can’t wield power and only rely on 3-word slogans and their rhetoric to capture attention.

    However, once in office, they become the malignant forces they really are: overseeing whole-scale sackings, destruction of entitlements (the classic ripping of money out of people’s pockets), diminished and destroyed services, which are never advertised or even out-right misrepresented before an election. And then, the transfer payments begin streaming into the wealthy: the corporates; high net worths; familes who have three children in elite private schools. Just today, in NSW, the govt has massive cuts to the public school sector but has backed off doing the same to Catholic and independent schools.

    And whilst this is being done, the Tories and the MSN keep the punters distracted by keeping the spot light on poor Julia’s sole pork pie about the carbon tax. A pork pie that the punters haven’t actually suffered from. How pathetic is it they will vote Julia out because of it and because the Tories appeal to their prejudices over refugees.

    The punters fall for Lib rhetoric every time, until they become so abused by these Tories, they eventually vote in Labor or a combination of other progressives. And the cycle starts again…

    The Libs truly don’t give the proverbial about ordinary punters’; they’re just useful fodder to get them into office. And the punters keep getting sucked in, time and time again. As Peter says, “the Troof is out there”, if you want to look for it.

    @Graeme Harrison – great post. Its depressing to think that Abbott is Labor’s best electoral weapon because the polls would be even worse for Labor without him at the Lib helm.

  7. Graeme Harrison

    Peter Ormonde has replied to my earlier long post:
    “Agree with much of the above Graeme, but I suspect that Turnbull’s intellectualism puts him well out of step with the Liberal Party room and some its more frothing private sector supporters.”

    As someone else put it so succinctly in Fairfax in 2011:
    “In any election, Tony beats Julia, Kevin beats Tony, but Malcolm beats Kevin.”

    What BOTH major parties forget is that you don’t want a leader who appeals to your most ardent existing supporters, but one who will appeal most to the swinging voter in the middle. Hawke may have come from a union background but he kept expressing that his major concern was for how the economy was being run… and he kept getting re-elected. Rudd won his election because he was seen as ‘outside’ union control. By comparison, Julia is seen as a union puppet (chosen by the ‘faceless men’). Malcolm is seen as preferable to Tony by all those in the middle. The climate denialists and evangelicals might prefer Tony, but they would vote Liberal, no matter who the leader was.

    Each party needs to realise that their electoral chances would go up significantly if they could elect a leader who looks like he joined the wrong party! Instead the internal voting mechanisms lead inevitably to the wrong result – electing a leader who has no appeal to the other side (or swing voters). The only time parties make the right decision is when they become truly desperate – as happened when Tony Blair was elected to spearhead New Labour in the UK, after decades in opposition.

    If voters vote Julia out, it will not be because they want Tony. Tony can last only one term. An ultra-right leader will be the surest way to quickly return control to a Labor-Green coalition in just four years. Labor cannot lead again on their own, but a left-coalition would easily be formed if the alternative was more of Abbott.

    We already provide from the public purse two-thirds of the cost of running an election campaign. It would be ‘cheap’ to provide the other third, then index it to CPI and throw in proportional coverage on state-owned media (ABC, SBS, and government-purchased newspaper spreads/inserts etc). Then we could stipulate that, just as we don’t allow those who implement the laws (judges) to accept money from any person, those who make the laws (politicians) will be subject to the same provisions (loss of office, loss of superannuation and jail time) for accepting money from anyone. That way people could still offer to door-knock, leaflet-distribute etc, but not pay $22m to change the PM – as the mining lobby did to remove Rudd. With the current move to follow the USA, if money trumps one-man-one-vote, we simply get the government that Rupert+Gina decide for us.

    With a complete outlawing of political donations, the types running for parliament would be more genuinely public-minded (not there for perks). Plus the parties would have policies that reflected the views of their supporters, not of their donors. Money is so important for buying votes now, that the parties ignore the desires of their traditional supporters to ‘do whatever’ for their donors. We need to break that link. If the US founding fathers returned now to see how money dominates US politics and policies, they would be shocked, proclaiming “that is not what we intended at all”. Australia should not follow suit.

    With such a change, you would still get strong personality/power types aspiring to lead their party, but they would be selected for genuine appeal, not because they are crawling to the Ginas of the world for policy input.

  8. Graeme Harrison

    Venise questioned what should happen to lobby groups. When I suggested that those who make the laws should be subject to the same rules as those who only implement the laws (judges) re not accepting money or favours, directly or indirectly from ANYONE, under any circumstances, I meant just that.

    So, in the same way that a judge would never enter into some ‘access for sale’ arrangement in an attempt to defeat the rule of judicial independence, we would have ‘the same’ rules and mechanism apply to politicians. So all politicians could attend local dinners in his electorate etc, on the same basis as any normal person. But if any politician was given reason to suspect that ‘access’ was being sold with tickets more expensive than a regular dinner (other than bona fide charity benefit events), they should be required to ask a multi-party ethics sub-committee for a determination before attending. So a politician should feel free to attend a Cancer Council dinner which was raising money for cancer research, but not for some dodgy commercial interest, even if it sought to gain charity status.

    The trick is to have the consequences of breaches so dire, that people will not risk breaking them. A judge simply would not want his good name ruined in some scandal. Actually accepting a benefit would mean a judge losing office, benefits, etc and a possible prison term. There is no reason why the same rules cannot apply to those who draft the laws.

    As to ads by lobby groups, we already have rules to decide if TV ads are “of a political nature”. Those ones need to state who authorised the ad etc at the conclusion. In the same way, we would have laws which allowed any company to advertise its products, relative to competitive products, but if the ad (by a person, partnership, corporation, industry grouping, lobby group) goes into the area of seeking to change existing policy or existing laws, or influence new policy or laws, then it would be deemed inappropriate to be run, unless it was paid for out of the limited formulaic budget allowed for political parties/candidates under the federal funding model.

    Unlike the US, we would thus be enforcing that corporations are NOT citizens, do not have a right to vote, nor do they have a right to influence political decision-making – rather they are entities which are subject to the laws of the land which is set by a parliament determined by strict adherence to one-man-one-vote.

    So, instead of allowing the mining executives to spend $22m to change the PM, ALL of the circa 500,000 people employed in the mining industry would have the right to send letters to their elected representatives, or opposition candidates for an up-coming election, and could offer to speak at events and conferences (which could happen to be televised, if televised as a result of a broadcaster independently deciding that it was in the public interest to do so, without commercial consideration paid by anyone – ie much as TV news teams could cover a mining industry forum, but the forum could not ‘pay’ to have such coverage televised). We would thus also need anyone holding more than a 10% interest in a broadcaster to pass a ‘fit and proper’ person test.

    By allowing people to offer their personal services, to write letters, to door-knock etc, we are allowing ALL of the citizens the full right to free speech, without that free speech being trampled by allowing others to spend $22m to ‘sell’ (market) a particular personal or interest group’s message as a way of ‘defeating’ the one-man-one-decision principle.

    I understand that this is a radical departure from the US Supreme Court decision that corporations can be viewed as citizens, and hence under US first amendment they too now have the right to ‘buy’ as much ‘free speech’ as they want. I suspect that later more-enlightened benches will determine that allowing unlimited advertising is actually an undermining of free speech, as it drowns out the views of individual voters/citizens, in favour of giving what amount to supra-voting rights to corporations, in a move that is distinctly away from the one-man-one-vote ideal of democracy. But of course that move to unlimited purchasing of votes is happening in a USA that is concurrently disenfranchising large swathes of its citizens by seeking to put restrictions on who can vote. So over the past two decades (possibly in a reaction to the Civil Rights movement’s achievement of a broader franchise), the US has actually been seeking to move away from democratic ideals. We should not follow that lead, but rather remain true to the principles of democracy, both to safeguard our own democracy, and so that our US friends have a less ‘sold-out’ model to compare.

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