Abbott the journo: what the Bulletin archives reveal about the PM
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”.
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