The passing of Margaret Whitlam at age 92 has elicited an outpouring of respect bordering on reverence across Australia. Whitlam’s contribution to Australian life was profound and is indeed deserving of tremendous national appreciation.

It is deeply disappointing then that opposition leader Tony Abbott saw fit to mark Whitlam’s death with a cheap shot on her husband’s political legacy. Tastelessly, he said:

“There was a lot wrong with the Whitlam government but nevertheless, it was a very significant episode in our history and Margaret Whitlam was a very significant element in the political success of Gough Whitlam.”

Yep, really nice, having a go at a 95-year-old invalid on the day when his wife of 70 years has died. And hardly the kind of conduct you want to see exhibited in the alternative prime minister.

But then Abbott has a long history of dealing with other people’s mortality less than respectfully. Infamously, Abbott once said of (now deceased, but then terminally ill) asbestosis sufferer Bernie Bantam that “just because a person is sick doesn’t necessarily mean that he is pure of heart in all things”. Then there was the time that Abbott described Kevin Rudd’s account of his own father’s death as sounding “too self-serving to be true”. And let’s not forget the occasion when Abbott responded to the death of Australian soldier Jared MacKinney in Afghanistan by commenting that “shit happens”.

In February 2010, a jovial Abbott thought it was funny to remark that “[t]he only one of the Ten Commandments that I am confident that I have not broken is the one about killing, and that’s because I haven’t had the opportunity yet”. In the same month, while pursuing Peter Garrett over the administration of the stimulus package for home insulation, Abbott’s choice of language around the four industrial fatalities in question was sometimes pretty doubtful, including his repeated brandishing of the slogan “electrocution denial”.

Last year, Abbott put political tactics ahead of public grieving and remembrance when he thought it appropriate to refuse parliamentary pairs preventing Simon Crean and Malcolm Turnbull from attending the funeral of painter Margaret Olley. Then in January this year, Abbott was in a lighter mood again, jokily bantering about the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, which at that stage was known to have involved at least 11 deaths.

Whitlam was a great woman whose death deserves national recognition, but the end of every life should be treated with gravity and dignity. We will all live through the bereavement of friends and loved ones, and in the end death comes to us all. Treating dying with solemnity and compassion is one of the marks of a civilised society.

As one runs through this list of gaffes — and there have been others — it is possible to make excuses for Abbott on each occasion. Defence Minister Stephen Smith generously said, for example, that he did not “believe that Tony Abbott would say anything that was flippant or insulting or critical about an Australian soldier, an Australian soldier’s death or our contribution in Afghanistan” in relation to the “shit happens” incident. And of course let he who is without sin cast the first stone: none of us are immune from moments of social brain-failure and charmless insensitivity.

Yet nonetheless, there is something troubling about the sheer number of times Abbott has seemingly been flippant about the deaths of others.

At the very least, his serial insensitivity shows a standard of manners and politeness less than that which should be a minimum requirement for public office. At worst what is revealed is a genuine failure of compassion. Taken collectively there seems to be pattern of instinctive and aggressive callousness; an impulsive failure of empathy.

In a pen portrait of Abbott in The Monthly, playwright Louis Nowra wrote of Abbott as a boxer in his younger days that:

“Whenever Abbott entered the ring he was, as he once said, ‘terrified. It’s one of those things you make yourself do’. In his first bout — against Cambridge in March 1982 — he knocked out his opponent within the opening minute, and his three other fights were equally successful. He had little technique but a brutal sense of attack, which he called ‘the whirling dervisher’.”

The parallel with Abbott’s political approach suggested by Nowra is obvious enough. But perhaps there is also insight as to the motivation: by his own admission, it was fear that drove Abbott inside the boxing arena.

As one observes Abbott’s various distasteful remarks about death, one can only wonder whether the Opposition Leader is again terrified, driven by some visceral internal fear. If so, he deserves compassion.

*Afterword: it is appropriate in context to remember my good mate Jaye Radisich, former Western Australian state Labor MP for the seat of Swan Hills (2001-2008) who died over the weekend aged only 35 after a long battle with cancer

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.