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Looking for Tony Abbott: a candidate gone to ground

Tony Abbott might not be winning friends outside of Warringah, but hanging out at the local mall he's in his element. Having John Howard beside him helps.

Tony Abbott John Howard Warringah federal election 2019
(Image: Jeremy Piper)

I asked the Agence France-Presse photographer what his plans were after the Stop Adani meeting in Neutral Bay.

“Oh, you know, Abbott hunting,” he said with a smile. “Of course, his people will never tell you where he is.”

Tony Abbott, in the fight of his political life, has gone to ground. Email after email to his office went unreturned. I’d tracked down a mobile number that purported to be his on some very old press releases. It went unanswered. To be fair, a lot can change in 20 years, as the view expressed in said press releases indicated.

Abbott’s social media doesn’t update with the events he’s attending, or the places he’s campaigning until the next day.  

The contacts I’d made at the Manly business chamber early in my coverage, who had promised to keep me posted on when Abbott was coming to address them, fell silent. When I pushed them, they told me apologetically that they couldn’t tell me where the event featuring Abbott was. The ABC’s Katherine Gregory, also on the hunt for Abbott, encountered the same problem trying to get into an event at Manly Yacht Club. We couldn’t get an answer from Sky about the whereabouts of the Abbott-Steggall debate, apparently for security reasons and not, they insisted, because of any request from either candidate. 

The Manly Daily, the local Murdoch paper had much more luck getting a hold of him, as had the budding journos at Manly High School. He’d initially ignored the high-schoolers’ emails, but someone’s dad knew someone who knew someone, so he briefly chatted with their school paper.

Of course, why should I, or Katherine, or the AFP chaps do any better than his own constituents? Jacquline Maley wrote a few days ago that one Warringah constituent was told, when she asked Abbott’s office about upcoming public appearances, “that the Australian Federal Police had advised not to give advance notice of the former prime minister’s campaign schedule”.

Then, an hour after filing my piece on Monday morning, I saw a tweet from AAP’s Tom Rabe, with a picture of former prime minister John Howard “meeting Warringah locals”.

Promising: where Howard goes, in every sense, Abbott follows. I could see a sliver of shops behind him — a Bakers Delight and an Aussie Home loans — and with a little sleuthing to find that this matches the layout of Westfield Warringah Mall, I hopped on the next bus. 

Heading north up Pittwater Road, the postcard unreality of Manly, with its bracing sea breezes and soft pink sunsets, melted away. Through a corridor of green where Nolan Reserve meets Warringah Golf club, then finally into the commercial and industrial area of Brookvale. It’s at the point these two realities intersect that Warringah Mall sits. 

I half-jogged past the cafes and beauticians, expecting that I’d probably missed them (the public transport has a distinctly European feel around here, in that they show when they damn well please). And so I was completely unprepared to turn a corner and be confronted with them both.

Howard and Abbott meeting and greeting, just walking about — it’s the same incongruity of first seeing some famous building in real life. There it is. Just. There. 

Senator and long time Abbott ally Concetta Fierravanti-Wells was also there but, with all the respect in the world, she may as well not have been — when Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan are in the room, nobody’s paying attention to Jeff Lynne.

So I approaced Abbott and his convoy of media and he glances up and walks over to me.

“Hi there, what’s your name?”

“I’m Charlie, I’m actually a journalist with Crikey, I’ve been trying to contact you…”

I got as far as journalist before he turned away from me, and that laugh of his came tumbling out — that mirthless, staccato laugh. A little too loud, it sounds like an act of exertion, and nothing in his face changes except his mouth. He was laughing to someone, and pointing at me in that “get a loada this guy” way. I didn’t see who because I was looking at him, trying to get his attention again. But he was still laughing.

“Well, good on you, mate,” he said. If you don’t think that phrase can sound threatening, well, you’ve never introduced yourself to Tony Abbott as a Crikey journalist. He was already a few steps away as he said it, never having turned back. Somewhere in all this I also shook hands with Howard, and then they’re both off, and staffers and journos massing around them.

Abbott seemed pretty popular around the place — “Onya Tony!” “Keep fighting the fight Tony!” people shouted as they passed. A slightly grizzled bald guy with a faded anchor tattoo on his forearm gave Abbott such an enthusiastic hand shake it seemed to surprise even Abbott.

Some politicians surprise you when you meet them. Abbott, on the other hand — notwithstanding that this is campaigner/media Abbott —  is exactly as you picture him. That throaty little “ah” which sits like a verbal comma in his speech. His tendency to fall into a deathly, distant stare when he’s not talking, like he’s remembering some terrible, terrible sight he’s seen. That awkward looming presence of his, an odd mix of imposing, powerful physicality, and a distracting discomfort in his own skin.  

But Abbott was playing second fiddle to Howard. At a press conference near the mall’s fountain, he described him as “the greatest living Liberal” and Howard beamed, twinkly-eyed beside him. Abbott is on his best behaviour, but Howard stole the show. 

“Warringah is a place full of people who’ve worked hard, they’ve accumulated, and Bill Shorten wants to call them the top end of town…” said Howard.

“Hear, hear!” said a dapper fellow behind me, an olive green blazer of his spotless shirt, white as his hair.

“… It’s an insult to small business owners… Shorten has contempt for these people, he sneers at them.”

Howard was ramping up, employing that classic orators trick (one Abbott never mastered) of increasing the projection and impact without seeming to raise your voice.

“… and his putative treasurer Chris Bowen just shrugs and says ‘Well if people don’t like, don’t vote for us’. Well, I hope they don’t like it and I hope they don’t vote for it.” 

It got a spontaneous round of applause from the shoppers who had come to watch. It’s the trick his protege could never quite pull off. Howard has the ability to attack his opponents by inviting the listener inside his view of what Australia is and should be, and making them feel at home. Whenever Abbott tries anything like that, he ends up telling the housewives of Australia about their ironing costs or calling remote Indigenous communities a “lifestyle choice”.

And then they were gone, to a nearby cafe. One of Abbott’s people — in that political operative uniform of dark blue and tan, with small rectangle specs — leaned across the doorway, arms folded, like a bouncer for a library. 

“That’s it?” one of the journos asked.

“That’s it.”

Charlie Lewis is reporting from our special Warringah bureau for the length of the election campaign. Follow his coverage here.

Peter Fray

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Fairmind
Fairmind
1 year ago

I think a lot of Warringah voters sneer at the great unwashed that can’t afford to live there – it takes a peculiar mindset to completely overlook the many faults of the mad monk.

zut alors
zut alors
1 year ago

An accurate description of Abbott & his body language, Charlie.

Thanks for the deterance tip ie: in the unfortunate circumstance of Tony Abbott ever approaching me I will say I’m a journalist with Crikey. Seems to have the same effect as garlic to a vampire.

dilettantebeth
dilettantebeth
1 year ago

Nice wrap Charlie! Very enjoyable read…

Keith1
Keith1
1 year ago

Been doing the hard yards there CL! Good work. The description of Abbott’s presence, the deathly distant stare at something terrible and so on, and the comparison with Howard – it all says so much. An ex-PM who can’t campaign in the flesh and needs a top-notch babysitter. How did it all ever happen? (Did it all ever happen?)

zut alors
zut alors
1 year ago
Reply to  Keith1

‘top-notch babysitter’, nice one, Keith.

Does the double act with Howard make Abbott a celebrity escort?

Malcolm Burr
Malcolm Burr
1 year ago

My point is, why is Howard trotted out like a living treasure when he was so consumed by hubris and his own invincibility that he completely misread the Australian electorate and lost govrrnment and his own seat into the bargain.it would appear that some people have short memories.

Wayne Cusick
Wayne Cusick
1 year ago
Reply to  Malcolm Burr

But we don’t have to look that far back to see how effective Howard was/is.

The Libs rolled him out for the Wentworth by-election last year, and they lost the seat.

RoRo
RoRo
1 year ago
Reply to  Wayne Cusick

John Howard is the politician’s inverse equivalent of the Bellwether seat – his presence is negatively correlated with the Liberal’s success.

Iskandar
Iskandar
1 year ago
Reply to  RoRo

The phrase used in the movie “Little Big Man” was “perfect inverse barometer”. Spoken by the megalomaniac General Custer of the Dustin Hoffman character who told him if he went into the Little Big Horn he would be annihilated. I love the parallel.