Tony Abbott isn’t the first prime minister with a past in journalism, but his work for The Bulletin is more revealing than most. Crikey trawls through the archives.
Tony Abbott is a member of an exclusive club: prime ministers with a former life as a professional journalist. Abbott’s journalistic career wasn’t as long as that of John Curtin — who started as a copy-boy at The Age before a long career editing left-wing newspapers — nor is he as associated with the trade as the Labor hero, who wore his Australian Journalists Union badge every day while in office. Journalism for Abbott was always more diversion than devotion. Yet his reporting offers a fascinating glimpse into Abbott’s personal story and the development of his political, social and spiritual views.
Abbott’s journalistic career began in the mid 1980s, when he was training to be a priest at St Patrick’s Seminary in Manly. A Rhodes scholar, former student politician and boxing champion, Abbott had always been a man of ideas. Journalism was an ideal forum for someone who relished kick-starting debates, challenging accepted wisdom and being at the centre of attention. After writing for the Catholic Weekly, Abbott came to the attention of The Bulletin which offered him a bigger audience and the chance to express his ideas more freely. Owned by Kerry Packer, the magazine was one of the most influential in the country, selling round 90,000 copies a week. It was a must-read among the political, media and academic elites.
In style, Abbott was not nearly as opinionated or strident as, say, an Andrew Bolt, but neither was he a straight news reporter. His Bulletin dispatches are full of quotes but also his own views. This was by no means unusual during those days at The Bulletin, where reporters were encouraged to interpret, analyse and predict, not just report. Although clearly a conservative Catholic, Abbott was no Liberal partisan. Colleague Ben Sandilands — who claims Abbott referred to himself as “Vlad the Impaler” in phone conversations — recalls him being close to elements in the Labor Right at this time. He was also being mentored by B.A. Santamaria, the founding influence of the Democratic Labor Party.
Unsurprisingly, given he was in training for the priesthood, many of Abbott’s articles focussed on the Catholic Church. Abbott was anything but an apologist for the Church in Australia. In a July 1986 cover story, previewing Pope John Paul II’s visit to Australia, he argued the Church was in a state of crisis and suffering “institutional stagnation”, with the number of priests and parishioners both dwindling. Abbott suspected the Church would continue to drift away from the centre of Australian life:
“Does the Church possess divine truth and the unique means to salvation or is it just another benevolent group in a pluralist society? The breakdown of Catholic self-confidence — if permanent — will have a profound effect not just on the nation’s 4 million Catholics but on Australian culture generally in which Catholicism has long been the most organised Christian force.”
And he had no faith that the Pope’s visit would revive the Church’s fortunes:
“In six frantic days the possibility of real dialogue and deep reflection is almost non-existent. The church in Australia will remain at the margins of society, doing a little good for a great many but fundamentally failing to address the spiritual malaise that grips the nation. The belief of Catholics that despite this, theirs is the Church of God, requires greater faith than ever before.”
But by December, with the Pope about to touch down on Australian soil, Abbott’s spirits had brightened dramatically. With considerable chutzpah, he wrote:
“Exit the knockers who have dominated media previews of the papal tour and enter John Paul superstar.”
The Pope, Abbott argued, “has come to stand for the peace, goodwill and understanding that mankind yearns for and struggles for in vain”.
At this stage Abbott was still in training to be a priest. But in March 1987, after much reflection, he quit the seminary and took up a full-time position as a writer on The Bulletin. This led to Abbott’s best known and arguably most important piece of journalism: an August 1987 cover story explaining why he had abandoned a life in the clergy.
As well as religion, Abbott covered an eclectic range of topics — from the development of the Indian navy, to schemes encouraging schoolchildren to save money. The conservative even travelled to visit alternative communities whose members had dropped out of capitalism to live communally. Rather than radical enclaves, Abbott was surprised — and pleased — to discover these communities placed a high value on hard work, tradition and religious life.
Education was a topic Abbott returned to constantly. In January 1986, he wrote:
“Australian education at all levels is said to be anti-science, anti-business and woefully slow in responding to changes in the labor market.”
But rather than emulating the Japanese, who were roaring ahead in educational and economic results, Abbott concluded the future would be secured by a “national re-dedication to the values which served us best in the past”. Western Mining executive director Hugh Morgan was quoted on the need to retain a “Christian ethic” in schools regardless of whether the children are professing Christians.
Abbott was only just warming up to this theme. Weeks later he returned to the topic with a cover story on the “crisis” in Australian schools. Public education, Abbott argued, had been captured by progressive education bureaucrats in thrall to feminism, relativism and multiculturalism. Schools, he argued, needed to return to traditional values:
“The official Aims of Primary Education in NSW stresses values such as sensitivity, compassion and forbearance in its haste to rectify the overly ‘masculine’ approach of the past, scarcely mentioning the equally worthy values of courage, truth and excellence. Are these the schools that will produce the pluck and character that national wellbeing and even deep and rich human relationships require? Our education system needs a prophet, first to articulate values that can inspire broad community support and then to pilot these through the labyrinthine political bureaucratic process.”
Abbott also wrote frequently on higher education — particularly news from his alma mater, the University of Sydney. In 1985 he covered the academic battle between orthodox economists and Marxist-inspired political economists; in 1987 he recalled his years as a conservative leading the University of Sydney’s Student Representative Council:
“During my term, despite my objections, the SRC, continued to give money to feminist, environmental and anti-nuclear groups and resolved to support the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the African National Congress and rebel groups in the Philippines. I never managed to have the feminist and homosexuals’ slogans on the SRC walls painted over nor to open the ‘Womens’ Room’ to men, nor to make the SRC more accountable by ending compulsory SRC fees … Of course it was all worth it. The facts were trivial but the issues were not.”
By 1988, ever the wanderlust, Abbott had left The Bulletin and was working as a manager at a concrete plant. He soon returned to journalism, following former Bulletin editor David Armstrong to The Australian where he wrote unsigned editorials. In 1990 Abbott left journalism for good when then opposition leader John Hewson offered him a job as his press secretary. When the magazine, bleeding money, shut down in 2008, Abbott looked back on his time there fondly, but without excess sentiment:
“The Bulletin nurtured fine minds and published great writing. We can’t afford to lose deep thinkers and compelling communicators. That’s what matters, not the publication in which they appear.”