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.