Poor Tony Abbott. Twice this week he has been comprehensively done over in the media.  And he has only himself and the Howard Government to blame. He’d better get used to it.

Like Kevin Rudd – although without the national tour – Tony Abbott decided to offer some policy substance in the lead-up to Australia Day, picking immigration and population size.

There’s no doubt that many in the Coalition are dead keen to run hard on immigration and border security. Five minutes after returning to the front bench last year, Kevin Andrews – who as Immigration Minister presided over an annual intake of more than 200,000 immigrants – called for an 85% slashing of immigration. And the steady drip of boats to Christmas Island is one of the few issues on which Labor has looked rattled and Kevin Rudd struggled to handle last year.

The Coalition will push hard on that, because it’s one of the few things it’s got going in its favour at the moment.

But contrary to the claims in the Fairfax press of “human rights advocate” Marion Le – who can go blow for blow with the worst right-wing commentators for mind-numbingly tedious predictability – there was nothing offensive about Abbott’s speech. Yes, there were certainly some clunky comments in them. He strained like a true successor to John Howard to explain just how fair white settlement had been in Australia. And the line “Australia makes very few demands of its immigrants” is very much open to misinterpretation.

But in fact Abbott made some thoughtful observations and was rather more balanced than might have been expected from the Leader of an Opposition showing disturbing signs of populism. He readily noted that Australia has a smaller asylum seeker problem than many countries. And when was the last time you heard a senior Coalition figure chastise supporters of the “send them home” approach to asylum seekers for demonising them? “Supporters of border protection need to understand that it’s no reflection on boat people that they want to come to Australia,” Abbott said. “At worst, boat people are guilty of choosing hope over fear.”

And he admitted that it was “…far from obvious how to strike a judicious balance” on asylum seekers, but “a country that’s alive to the shades of grey inherent in aspects of government policy is more likely to find an acceptable balance between competing moral claims.”

This was not 2001 stuff.

And in raising Sheik al-Hilaly’s anti-semitism and disgusting comments about women, Abbott – bravely, for such a prominent Catholic — coupled them with a comparison to Archbishop Mannix during the First World War. “There has hardly been a time when there were not some reservations about the loyalty of particular ethnic or religious groups. A generation or two on, all of them have eventually become as Australian as everyone else.”

Abbott’s broader argument was that a high immigration program was (contra Kevin Andrews) desirable but that people needed to be assured the infrastructure planning would accommodate a growing population and that Governments had firm control over immigration policy.

There’s something a little self-serving in Coalition insisting that being tough is the true humanity in border protection, not merely for discouraging dangerous attempts to reach Australia by boat but because it reduces hostility to high immigration. Nevertheless, the link between public support for, or at least lack of opposition to, high immigration and the belief that the Government has tight control of who is coming in (regardless of how illusory that is given visa overstayers), was prima facie demonstrated during the Howard years and we have yet to see a convincing refutation of it.

But Abbott’s subtler points about how best to prevent opposition to high immigration were lost in a manufactured hubbub over racism. Those are chickens from 2001 and afterward coming home to roost. The Coalition spent so long demonizing asylum seekers and politicizing border security while in Government that its bad faith on immigration issues is automatically assumed. It’s a variant of that LBJ anecdote about how all the South ever heard in election campaigns was “nigger, nigger, nigger.”

Abbott has his own personal version of that problem, demonstrated neatly by another confected outrage, over his comments about virginity. Journalists, and most likely voters as well, already have such a strong impression of what Abbott stands for that they only hear what they think Abbott would say, not what he actually did say. The most sensible take on Abbott’s comments I heard was from Paul Bongiorno on NewsRadio, who described them as “terribly old-fashioned”. They were nothing more or less than that, and let’s not forget Catholics aren’t exactly alone in having a double standard about female sexuality.

And Abbott has three daughters (unfortunately dragged into the public spotlight, complete with photos), not sons, so it’s a bit rich to have a go at him for not extending his analysis of teen sexuality to boys as well. Moreover, his main point seemed to be that, given his own youth, he’s hardly in a position to lecture anyone about s-xual morality. If only a few of the arch-reactionaries and misogynists in the Catholic Church would listen to him.

Nevertheless, that’s a practical example of a point that some of us have made about Abbott’s low “undecided” figures in polling: when people think they have a good idea of what you stand for, it’s pretty hard to break out of that stereotype, and all the harder if you’re careless enough to honestly answer questions. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, who both have daughters, may well have the same views on the same topic, but it’s a non-issue for them because they don’t carry such enormous, and self-imposed, baggage on such matters.

So much for Abbott not having a “women problem”.

The media laud politicians who are “authentic” and “honestly answer questions”. But that doesn’t stop them tearing them apart when they proceed to do just that. See why so many pollies – and our fearless leader, most of all – negate all signs of personality and stick to the talking points?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey