Tony Abbott spent his second day as leader of the Opposition with the Dalai Lama and Bob Ellis — but not at same time. Weeks ago, he had promised to launch Ellis’ book, The Capitalism Delusion at the inner-west lefty heartland of Gleebooks, and to everyone’s surprise he actually turned up.
It’s not often you go to a book launch where the author never mentions his own book, and spends most of the night talking about someone else’s. I have no idea what is in Bob’s book, but I do know how much he likes Tony’s book, Battlelines.
The show started at 7pm, with everyone’s favourite political commentator, Annabel Crabb, keeping Tony’s seat warm; this meant that the two of them could talk about Mr “People Skills” before he got there. A great deal of the evening felt like a therapy session about Bob’s conflicted feelings for Tony.
On the one hand, Tony is a ETS-opposing, conservative Catholic Liberal Party politician. But Tony writes “exquisitely well, it is a superb book”, he said. “I’m sorry to say it, because I hate him and all his ways, but I do admire his literary style.”
In fact, Bob spent so much time talking about Tony’s brilliance that I suspect he could be another chapter in the Ellis book of bromances, which so far includes Kim Beazley, Mark Latham and Nathan Rees (spot the obvious problem).
Bob said that “… in front of you, he is utterly charming and confessional of all his wrongs. He’s probably done more time in the confessional than many mass murderers. He is a boxer with an unbroken nose; like Muhammad Ali, he was where you did not expect him to be.”
Like Twitter, which Tony joined on Wednesday, the evening was rather interactive, with an audience member shouting out at 7.08pm, “… it’s Keneally!”
This led Bob to comment that this “change in Macquarie St is a disaster. It must mean Labor will lose (power) for the next 20 years.”
At 52, Tony is the right age to become a leader because “all politicians’ careers are a race against male-pattern baldness. You have got to get there before 53 or baldness will defeat you.”
The man himself soon appeared, to be asked the obvious question; “How on earth did you win?”
Tony attributed this to the fact that the Libs were not “poll driven”.
“Obviously if we had been, my colleagues would not have elected me. They would have either stuck with Malcolm or they would have elected Joe.
“That would have been the conventionally politically wise thing to do. I think the Liberal Party was desperate for a contest. It was sick of being in half-hearted agreement with the government.
As befitting a man who won a boxing blue at Oxford, he said that “they would rather go down fighting than going down as a pallid version of a government they detest”.
Asked about the man he replaced, Good Tony appeared, probably triggered by the positive energy generated by an afternoon with the Dalai Lama.
“Malcolm Turnbull was a conviction politician but in this respect, his convictions were at odds with many of his colleagues. Malcolm Turnbull is authentic in a way that Kevin Rudd is not and never will be.”
However, he admires Rudd’s work ethic. “Rudd is an incredibly hard-working person. He is a decent human being, who wants to build a better country and he is working very hard to bring that about. But I wish he could speak an intelligible English sentence.”
But in any conversation with Tony, it’s hard to avoid the topic of God, a subject not often discussed within the walls of Gleebooks unless you are vigorously disputing his or her existence.
On first going to Canberra 10 years ago, he had received some good advice from a friend, Tony said.
“Almost everyone who becomes PM is changed by the job. But in the end it destroys them, because they are hollowed out by the applause and the sense that they are always in charge.
“The challenge is to try to be human and not to confuse yourself with God.”
At this the audience, grappling with the concept of Tony’s dreams of godliness, fell into a stunned silence.
However, he soon returned to the topic of the flesh, saying that he “really enjoyed exercise, not because I’m a junkie, but because it’s a good stress release. If it wasn’t for exercise, I would probably drink a lot more and pop pills.”
Asked about his volunteer roles in surf lifesaving and the bushfire brigade, we ventured into Iron John territory.
“We all want to be useful. A few thousand years ago, men were hunter-warriors. Now we live in a more comfortable society where men are not called up to put their lives on the line in the way they once were. It’s a way for those who wish to, to take a few extra risks in a good cause.”
By 9.15pm, the former seminarian was drinking a glass of Gleebooks’ white wine with Bob, actor Rhys Muldoon, a grey-bearded man who kept trying to talk about Santamaria and a friend of Bob’s who’d been to school with John Lennon.
I asked Tony if was surprised to have won the leadership ballot. He said that he was — that he expected Joe to beat Malcolm in the first round and then win on the second. He said he hadn’t even decided to run until 7.45pm on Monday night.
When I left, Bob was trying to entice him to the bar next door, Sappho’s, for a drink. The leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, in a lesbian bar in Glebe with Bob Ellis. You couldn’t make that up.