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Aug 18, 2014

Rundle: Tony Abbott, Australia's most powerful sycophant

Many voted for Abbott because they believed him to be a hard-headed warrior, but the reality has turned out to be different to the myth.


When Tony Abbott first appeared on the political scene in the late 1990s, there was more than a murmur of interest from all quarters. The strapping, authoritative and learned new MP had been known to insiders as a complex character, but he was also seen early on as PM material. In a government that had taken on by turns the dull and brutish character of leader John Howard and the sleazy aspects of suburban liberalism, Abbott was something else — a man with, it seemed, a sense of vocation coming from the Catholic Right of politics, with an idea of how politics fitted into the wider question of civilisation and of personal character.

In the years to come, other aspects of Tony Abbott would become visible — his anger, his political ruthlessness, his neurotic attitude to women, and his capacity to be economical with the truth. Underneath it all, however, was the thought that Tony Abbott was something apart, his own man. It was something that large sections of the Right, and some on the Left — myself included — had not merely reason to believe, but a desire to believe, to make politics about something more than the narrow concerns on display in Australia. This continued all the way through Battlelines, the election, and into The Lodge.

Yet the trouble with that conspectus is that it explains nothing that has happened since September 7 last year. No amount of adjusting for the stumbles of government, everyday mistakes or personal blind spots explains what Tony Abbott does or how he does it. From the latest blundering encounter with Scotland back through the attempt to offer troops to Iraq for a United States that had not asked for them to his description of Australia as “unsettled” to a major business group — the only way to explain any of this is by junking the central image of Abbott.

Far from being his own man, Abbott is the exact opposite – he’s a sycophant by nature who seeks out opportunities to please those more powerful than he by being more ardent in pursuit of their interests than they ever asked him to be in the first place. Once you see Abbott as a sycophant seeking out such opportunities wherever they may be found, a lot of things fall into place. Some events — such as his effusive, embarrassing praise for Rupert Murdoch at the Oz’s 50th anniversary dinner — had seemed nothing more than overkill. Others, such as describing Australia as “unsettled” pre-1788, while at the same time pushing for indigenous recognition in the constitution, seemed just odd. Latching onto the US in Iraq seemed just desperate.

But now I think with this mad Scotland adventure, we can just call it — Tony Abbott will always shape himself to the service of the highest power around. Whether it is wise or not for a foreign leader to intervene in the referendum of a federated country is one question. But even if you thought that was a good idea, insulting 40% of the population by suggesting that their political beliefs mean they hate freedom is something else entirely. Forget any strategic notion attaching to it. It is simply the desire to do the bidding of Great Britain and the Atlantic Alliance, which would be deeply undermined by a Scottish “yes” vote. But it is not an attempt to do so effectively — it is rather a way of doing it that attracts the maximum possible visibility to oneself. The same goes for the “unsettled” remark about indigenous Australians pre-1788.

“While projecting an image of assertiveness and unstinting self-confidence, it has all been in the service of finding higher powers to serve and to be seen to serve.”

Leaving aside the obvious neurotic projection — it is contemporary Australia that is perpetually unsettled by its white-black relations — the remark was directed at giving maximum pleasure to its audience at the Australian-Melbourne Institute Social and Economic Outlook conference. It was an attempt to go beyond the legal fiction of terra nullius to say that the land was, in a meaningful sense, empty. And what more pleasing notion for business and property could there be than that?

Pleasing the nearest big power or audience would appear to be the Abbott modus operandi, which is why so much of his behaviour seems so erratic. But where would such behaviour come from? It does not bear any mark of deliberation or control, so one can only assume that it is something of a regression. The most likely proximate cause would appear to be Abbott’s involvement with B.A. Santamaria and the Catholic Right during his university years, and Abbott’s formation as a Warrior for God and Christian civilisation. Abbott was part of Santamaria’s last crop of young activists, and the National Civic Council (NCC) was to all intents and purposes a political cult, with all that a cult demands — a certain surrender of personality, a remaking of self, and a tantalising quest for a blessing, for the sign that one was part of the elect.

Abbott was by all accounts something of a male hysteric at the time — an obsessive, apocalyptic, uncontrollably aggressive young man, defining himself against his enemies on the Left and by fealty to the main force against it as led by Santamaria. His disorientation in life clearly gave him what political cults are best at supplying — a sense of meaning in the world, a focus and, above all, boundaries to a wayward and incompetent soul.

Where Abbott’s oft-remarked-upon turmoil came from is not hard to see either –before Tony’s birth, his father had committed the whole family to Catholicism after making a compact with God that he would convert from Anglicanism if the family survived a ship crossing. It’s the sort of Graham Greeneish thing that people did all the time in the mid-20th century. But one could speculate that it is not without a psychic burden. That’s especially so for those who inherit it as given, and who then have to live by it. Added to that was Abbott’s early demonstration of a multiplicity of talents and a presence, which led the family to insist that he would end up either as Pope or Prime Minister. Perhaps Abbott has never had a moment of deep regret for this spiritual compact made by his family and for that transferred ambition, but somehow I doubt it.

Now, even though he has become a Catholic Prime Minister of Australia and satisfied the leaden duties that were laid upon his soul, he finds it nevertheless impossible to truly assert himself. The act that he developed over many years has fooled us all. While projecting an image of assertiveness and unstinting self-confidence, it has all been in the service of finding higher powers to serve and to be seen to serve.

I am as surprised at this interpretation of Abbott as anyone, but it would appear to me to be the only explanation of Tony Abbott that makes his behaviour consistent and straightforward, rather than erratic and uninterpretable. Whether it is, in some sense, a “true” reading of who Tony Abbott is or not is perhaps beside the point.

The idea that personality is a stable of single structure is itself an illusion, a metaphor from physical science drawn into the affective world. What matters, for those of us who would like to see the Abbott government rendered a one-term proposition, is whether it helps to predict a behaviour that Abbott himself would have less than complete control over — and thus to create opportunities to demonstrate to the Australian people that Tony Abbott is more interested in serving higher powers, whether it be God, Crown or Mammon, than he is in simply and effectively representing the best interests of all Australians.


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41 thoughts on “Rundle: Tony Abbott, Australia’s most powerful sycophant

  1. Lachlan Duncan

    Surely this “Mad Scotland Adventure” is a calculated distraction measure, with the aim of giving people something to talk about until they can “negotiate” some positive news locally?

  2. Desmond Carroll

    You are far too kind, young Mr Rundle.

  3. GF50

    Apologist for your misreading of Abbott from first impressions? Strapping?= small man syndrome, in no ones estimate could he ever have been described as strapping, which implies a physical stature and presence. Whatever his mental makeup it was never healthy. He has never had or will have any lofty ideals above self. He is a sociopath, a nasty, limited, little man.

  4. hhoff

    Oh YES….sadly, for moderate, truly liberal Australians.

  5. JohnB

    I would add to Rundle’s thesis that Abbott realised long ago that daily newspapers and their electronic equivalents rely on daily news.

    He knows very well that today’s stupid statement or act is forgotten tomorrow. Thus, a continuous stream of silliness is perceived as a single indiscretion.

    The trick is to keep the daily messages coming, confident that those which fail will be forgotten if not forgiven and those that fly can be repeated endlessly, to rapturous acclaim and applause.

    With Labor nationally effectively headless, voiceless and invisible and at State level on the ropes, he will get away with this ploy unless we are very lucky indeed.

  6. Mendoza

    I think you’re giving him too much credit. I think Abbott is actually delusional, or at least a little nuts. Dementia Pugilistica.

  7. The Cleaning Lady

    I seem to recall an article, possibly from when Abbott was OL, in which he was asking about the poll results: But, do they like me?

    That was back in the day when the public had the power (of the vote).

  8. klewso

    The pilot light’s the only thing working in this 1200 watt(TF) toady.

  9. marcfranc

    Sometimes I think that people outside my particular faith tradition (Irish Catholic) put too much emphasis on Tony Abbot’s Catholicism.

    I didn’t know that Abbot’s father was a convert from Anglicanism, but this may help explain a number of things, including his worldview, which seems to be Anglo-Protestant rather than Catholic. For example, I don’t think he would have much time for the Latino social justice instincts of the current pope. Historically, the Catholic Right has been socially conservative but economically collectivist and interventist.

    And many Catholics would be discombobulated at the notion of a Catholic Prime Minister supporting the anti-Catholic British monarchy in Australia.

  10. leon knight

    This article very much reminds me of a recent blog by Gladly the Cross-eyed Bear called “the Windmills of Tony Abbott’s mind”, in which attempts are made to understand the bizarre behaviours he exhibits.
    The man is definitely a few sandwiches short of a full picnic…..

  11. klewso

    His guest-perch on Singo’s Cock-or-Two radio this morning telling us we should be putting the country, people and values first? Does he mean like the demolition derby he ran to win government?

    [When was the last great excuse for banning boxing?]

  12. Phillip Monk

    Yes, that’s Our Tone to a T.

    This article on Social Hierarchy might act as a handy primer for some who are new to this:

    The 3-ladder system of social class in the U.S.

    It’s written for the U.S. but applies here as well.

    On the Social Hierarchy ladder, Abbott is an E3. He’s an Elite Servant. I quote:

    “They’re quite well-off, as far as servants go, often earning incomes from $200,000 to $5 million per year, but their social standing is conditional. They serve the rich, and the rich have to keep finding them useful for them to maintain their place.”

    Many of his masters and mistresses are E2s, Murdoch, Rinehart and the like though are very much E1s, the “powerful and uncultured barbarians” who wield power for its own sake.

    The thing about Abbott is he only exists to serve these people. He literally would curl up in a ball and die without their patronage. That explains a lot of his seemingly erratic behaviour and bizarre comments. He wants to remind them that he is their best and most enthusiastic servant.

    It also explains his disdain for people he perceives are lower than him on the social scale; as treating them with respect is simply a waste of energy as he would see it. He only does that as much as he thinks he needs to to stay electable, with help from his powerful friends.

  13. Flickknifetipsy

    In short: unfit to be PM but the LNP wanted power too much and have been complicit in deceiving us!

  14. DF

    Why doesn’t Abbott wear a wedding ring?

  15. mikeb

    @DF – I don’t wear a wedding ring either? Maybe it’s a Catholic thing eh?). Actually the answer in my case is far more pragmatic. We couldn’t afford 2 rings at the time so all the money went towards the bride and i never bothered to get one later. Echoing an earlier comment – why the obsession with his Catholicism?

  16. Ian Bersten

    If there is a suggestion that you have to crawl before you walk Abbott will never walk

  17. bushby jane

    Abbott is an entitled Catholic, met a few on my travels. He never pays for anything that he can get for free.
    I think he has serious mental health issues, hence the frantic daily exercise regime. Sometimes he even gets paid for that too.
    He operates on the theory of ‘trying to please a lot of the people a lot of the time’ in order to be in power, which is his main aphrodisiac.

  18. paddy

    Interesting piece Guy.
    I’m not sure anyone really knows what’s going on in Abbott’s head.
    (Maybe Credlin, but I doubt she has any real control over him.)
    The guy just seems plain mad, bad and bloody dangerous to know.
    Right now, with the entire Govt front bench, each taking a turn at leading the Light Brigade into the valley of death….
    I’m beginning to have delicious fantasies of Julie Bishop actually *not* stuffing it up for a change.

    Oh wouldn’t the irony be utterly perfect.

    First term dysfunctional leader, gets replaced by a…Woman.

    You couldn’t make that one up.

  19. Peter Bayley

    He’s a psychopath and doesn’t actually understand people or emotions in any real sense. But he has a crafty cunning and so can appear to be normal in most situations, but he’s making it up as he goes along with in-depth coaching from Peta. He has absolutely no original vision – it’s all a mish mash of thought bubbles plucked from elsewhere, notably from those that support him.

    He will be quietly erased from history as a blunder best swept under the carpet and the NeoCons who promoted him will slink off to comfortable retirement and irrelevance Good Riddance

  20. Bill Hilliger

    Tony Abbott, Australia’s most powerful sycophant. Why? Because he is never cross examined or held to account by the coalition serving media. The gaffes this lunatic has made compared with that of Rudd and Gillard and the contrast in media reporting is profound. Slowly but surely many Australian voters are waking up to this lunatic and his front bench of political losers.

  21. tonyfunnywalker

    Abbott is the proverbial butterfly – seeking out and sucking the nectar of the brightest flower – then flitting away as the flower wilts leaving the dregs for others to pick up. So far he is well on his way to destroying the bloom of the Golden Wattle as he is contaminated by the corrupt nectar of Waratah.
    His life span will be short as he continues to drink the electorally poisonous nectar of the self-serving right which is threatening to cocoon the Liberal Party in opposition for some time.

  22. fractious

    Though it’s not the whole picture, there might be some mileage in your hypothesis Guy. In addition to his apparent fatal attraction to individuals and bodies more powerful than he is, there are a number of reports and suggestions on the interwebz that Abbott is something of an imperious bar steward with Cabinet, other LNP MPs and his staff. On top of that, he seems incapable (or unwilling, at least) to take a step back and assess his own actions and reactions with a modicum of objectivity. And, to cap it all, there’s his largely untrammelled propensity to run off at the mouth in interviews and pressers when he isn’t following a prepared script (as infamously detailed in that stunning interview with Kerry O’Brien on 7.30 Report).

    Whether by deliberate choice or a lack of available talent, most of the front bench regrettably share Abbott’s almost complete inability to assess and re-evaluate themselves, save when the fall-out escalates to intolerable levels.

  23. fractious

    “His life span will be short as he continues to drink the electorally poisonous nectar of the self-serving right which is threatening to cocoon the Liberal Party in opposition for some time”

    I hope so. It’s instructive to watch the plummetting fortunes of the Newman “government” north of the Tweed, not to mention the toxic fall-out from ICAC that I suspect the LNP didn’t forecast.

  24. 2bobsworth

    I was amazed to see my thoughts reproduced in print, this analysis of Tony is so insightfull.
    My image of Tony Abbot crouched at the feet of The Great Man, Rupert Murdoch at the IPA conclave, the Conservative Think Tank set up by Rupert’s father is pivotal.
    Rupert praised his acolyte, Tony, as a Great Catholic Exemplar, and Tony’s return promise to the assembled wealthy “lifters”, was to deliver on all the IPA’s precursor conditions including a fair and balanced media.
    Luckily for Rupert these changes are necessary for a “Fox News” to rise up to battle the ABC and allow “Sir” Rupert to dominate the political spectrum).
    Friendly cross media ownership rules courtesy of Malcom.
    The weakening of vilification laws allowing political media sanctuary for “outrage commentary” courtesy of Brandis.
    Tighter IP laws to increase profit on pay TV media rights courtesy of Abetz? Brandis?
    Neutering ABC and SBS to strengthen free TV and cable TV profits, courtesy Malcom.
    And of course the truncating of the NBN to allow Telstra and Foxtell as joint partners to gain copper cable connection advantages, Malcom, again!
    Now that Rupert has Tony’s flip top brain open he is now pouring in American Republican Libertarianism, which seems infectious, inflaming the Brandis Brigade frontbench.
    Malcolm May be safe from conversion but he is branded by the company he keeps.

    Please keep open this line of insight to the public, and to a broader audience outside of Crikey if at all possible.
    Everyone should be warned!

  25. Iskandar

    What a long-winded way of saying the obvious. He is a typical bully who fawns before and licks the arses of those above, whilst kicking the faces of those below. And dare I say, observing his obsession with graveyards and cadavers, something of a necrophiliac besides.

  26. Graham R

    Of course: that Tony Abbott is terminally immature has been evident to me for a very long time, which is why I call him the Kid Eager of Australian Politics.

  27. Graham R

    John Howard hated being called Mr Magoo and, I believe, got the ABC to stop Phillip Adams from calling him that; Tony Abbott hates being called the Mad Monk.

    What irked these men is the truth revealed in the nicknames.

  28. Venise Alstergren

    Guy Rundle is not spot on. He mentions many of Tony Abbotts failings without mentioning how the “strapping'(?) persona evolved into the regrettable PM of 2014.

    His unease with women comes from 1940-1950’s. When, by a curious twist of logic, Australian men viewed females as both sainted mothers and, if they were young, round-heeled whores. Intellectually inferior to men, who would never succeed as artists, or scientists, women menstruated and because of this men rendered them to be emotionally unstable and prone to irrational mood swings.

    Tony Abbott was an bully by nature who studied the words of his idol, the DLP’s B A Santamaria, fellow Catholic and arch manipulator of the political scene was to keep the ALP out of power for years. This was not a softening effect on the young Tony Abbott.

    Abbott’s besotted love of all things British was the prevailing sentiment of approx eighty-five to ninety percent of our politicians was symptomatic of the Robert Gordon Menzies years. An era of post colonial inferiority- manifested by an obscene cultural cringe where the British superiority over Australians was held to be self-evident.

    These were the values of the 1940’s to 1950’s Australians in general and it expressed the very soul of our politicians. It was an abysmal time for our country and the thought of our Prime Minister harking back to it in 2014 bodes ill for our nation.

  29. 4567

    About Abbott….”It was something that large sections of the Right, and some on the Left — myself included — had not merely reason to believe, but a desire to believe, to make politics about something more than the narrow concerns on display in Australia. ”

    “The idea that personality is a stable of single structure is itself an illusion”

    WTF? are you kidding me? did everyone have their heads firmly in the sand? He always was and will forever be a crazy lying zealot…you all knew it. Don’t make excuses.

  30. CML

    Whatever the story of Abbott’s character, I wish he would just go away and take his entire obscene government with him!!!

  31. klewso

    Was he a “cat’s paw” when he boxed?

  32. klewso

    Re that “hope” – his dismissal of Bernie Banton (Oct 30 2007) wasn’t bad enough?

  33. Lubo Gregor

    @ Graham R: Or maybe Black Adder.

  34. Dez Paul

    And the moral is not that Tonya Bbott is a pathetic nut job, but that the LNP are a mix of policosociopaths and gutless wonders. They wouldn’t get rid of Howard in 2006 when they should have, so lets see if they have learnt any lessons from that time.

  35. Venise Alstergren

    4567: In no way am I excusing Tony Abbott or his wretched government. I despise the man. Also I have reams of comments warning people what would happen if Australians were silly enough to vote him in.

    The use of his character and motives is merely to illustrate the point that he will never deviate from his odious, lying past. Based on this evidence I resent being described as having my head in the sand.

    I am like Cassandra in that I predicted the future but no one believed me.

  36. 4567

    Venise: I see I went of at the mouth again – guess I am not as articulate as the rest of the folk commenting here. I know that you and countless others saw what was coming. Just like the slow-mo effect of watching a wreck about to happen. Feelings of powerlessness and all that.

    Was actually directing that comment at the media … they are the ones with their heads in the sand. They go on polishing excrement and then present it to the public as a plate of impartiality and independence … I get a tad upset when the media, for fear of being seen as a bit ‘lefty’ (god if there was one forbid) don’t do what they are meant to do – expose the crap.

    Before the elections.

  37. Honest Johnny

    To understand Abbott one also has to look at the way the Young Liberal Movement developed in the mid to late 70’s. After the social chaos of the Whitlam sacking and the double dissolution election, the left went through a protracted period of political defeats and demoralised misery. Groups of young, cocky right-wing students got together across University campuses under the ‘Young Liberal Movement’ banner, encouraged and mentored by Prime Minister Fraser and other Liberal politicians. They enjoyed nothing more than to kick the left oriented student unions, feminist groups and others. Prominent future Liberal politicians such as Abbott, Costello, Abetz, Humphries, Yabsley, O’Farrel, Minchin et al launched their political careers from these groups. Now even in 2014, nothing (not even policy) motivates them more than kicking the left and everything the left represents (The Greens, environmental groups, charities, unions, Renewable energy etc)

  38. AR

    Too kind, Grundle, far too kind.

  39. Venise Alstergren

    4567: Whew, you had me on the ropes there for a minute. Cheers V 🙂

  40. Chris

    Someone should tell Tony that the brown nose clashes with the blue tie.

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