The esteemed Henry Thornton asked me some days ago to apply my mind to the question, “Why do so many people not like Tony Abbott?”
It’s a good question to ask about a man who stands a fair chance of becoming Prime Minister in perhaps as little as a few months.
You see, I like Tony Abbott. More than that, he is a friend and has been so since our first meeting in 1980. I have been privileged to share in some of Abbott’s debates with himself about his course in life. Later on, when these had been settled and “Abbo” had married the splendid Margie Aitken, my late wife, Marian, and I assumed the role of godparents to Francie Abbott, one of their three daughters. So I am hardly going to put in the boot.
Still, Henry’s question has exercised my mind, all the more so since I know a few people who do not share my judgements about, and affections for, the man. What is it about Abbott that discomforts and riles so many people?
One of the perennial features of political life is animus. I did not become aware of this until one day I read a remark attributed to John Dawkins, a former (and abrasive) Treasurer under Prime Minister Paul Keating and before that (an iconoclastic) Minister for Employment, Education and Training under R. J. Hawke. Asked what motivated him to enter political life, Dawkins nominated “hate” – his hatred for political conservatives - as a decisive factor.
I was astonished, so little then did I understand about life.
A few weeks ago, in the run up to Kevin Rudd’s abortive challenge to Julia Gillard, we had the jaw-dropping spectacle of Anthony Albanese losing his poise before the cameras over his inability to free himself from the all absorbing contest and to support Gillard. Bowing before the fate that had forced upon him this unwelcome predicament, he begged for mercy:
“I like fighting Tories, that’s what I do!”
The old worm of animositydoes not merely burrow into the hearts of high politicos in the land. It enters through newspapers, through television, and now through blogs, into the souls of the humblest voters. We saw it at work in the “Little Johnny” sneer campaign, which ran, with increasing venom, against John Howard right up to the last day of his Prime Ministership. Now the burden of this enmity must be borne by Abbott.
I remember once, as a little boy, that I tussled for possession of a bone with a blue cattle dog we used to keep. I did it for fun. The dog, however, was not of the same mind. I got a dreadful mauling. It’s the same in politics. Don’t get between the born-to-rule crowd and power. Howard did that for 11 years. Now Abbott threatens to do the same. The reaction is primeval, visceral, disordered.
Why must it be like this?
Ultimately, it’s unfathomable. Patently good men and women, who try to live out what they believe, whether on the public stage or in their private lives, become objects of hatred even for other good people. Such explanations as there are for this phenomenon are, in the final analysis, theological and foreign to a society like ours where there is too little time and space for the Theos.
So, then, let’s pass on (for a moment) from matters too deep. Let’s talk about appearances.
There is something about Abbott: something about the big, boney frame and head; about his rolling gait, artless grin and rugby ears; something about his unbridled belly laugh. To his friends they are endearing or amusing; but to others who are cautious about him, or who are a little afraid of him, or who are his declared political enemies, his strikingly physical presence can be a catalystfor aversive reactions in the human chemistry zone.
There is not much Abbott can do about the way he is built or the energy and candour that flows naturally from him. Abbott is a political “force of nature” embodied in an unusually well-defined masculine form. It is an inescapable fact that, when he (sometimes) lurches up to a podium like an old salt just landed from the sea, he will rub up some people the wrong way and scare the timid.
I said (parenthetically) “sometimes” - and much less so the more completely he enters into the role of political leader. The untamed rivers of the Abbott soul have been made to submit to a taught discipline, especially since he was elected Opposition Leader. His unforgiving regime of physical exercise has pared back the flesh to the bone. Silkily clad in a better cut of suit than he used to wear, there is something now about Abbott of the coiled animal spring - of the high, carnivorous tension of the predator set to leap upon his prey. It scares the daylights out of Labor MPs and the ALP’s rank-and-file. No longer do they joke about Abbott. But it also discomforts a lot of voters.
Laborites dream that only their tribe produces political warriors of skill. According to this myth, the Coalition parties produce only amateurs. The complete dominance of the “conservative” forces in Federal politics during the Menzies and Howard eras ought to have dispelled this delusion. But it has stuck fast in Labor’s conception of itself and to its peril. They scoffed at Abbott when they should have feared him. It would have taken only one Labor man – and I mean man - to become mates with Abbott to have understood the danger for Labor that lurks within the Abbott spirit.
When he served as John Hewson’s press secretary, Abbott and his growing family lived in Canberra. During those days, there was a time when he and I played golf together on the West Belconnen course. Each outing I got a thrashing. It wasn’t fun. So, when the demands of his job put an end to our forays onto the grassy sward, I was relieved. Abbott did not just play better golf than I - which is not saying much - he played with a relentless will to win that operates like a battering ram on the psychology of any opponent. I understood then what the punch drunk ranks of Labor MPs and their advisers still do not understand even as Abbott herds them to the brink of doom.
We Australians are a nation of softies. We laud our soldiers and our sporting heroes and we expect them to lay their bodies on the line for us. But, when it comes to the game in which Aussie voters have to play, the Great Game of Politics, the good people of this land suddenly expect that the players should be nice to each other. True, the voters long ago decided that the present Labor team is a dud and that Julia Gillard is a dishonest dud to boot. For some mysterious reason, though, the electorate seems to believe that Abbott and the Coalition can – and should – lead Labor gently by the hand to an imagined pious ritual of public execution at the ballot box. It can’t happen.
Because any political party, once it has tasted power, is like my blue dog with its bone. It has to be torn from its jaws and then the animal must be beaten senseless before it sinks its teeth into you. This is the reality of all politics whether democratic or other. In our system the liturgical action of democratic procedure casts a veil over the reality. The good people wince at Abbott’s necessary brutality and they tremble at what it might mean for them.
Statesman in the making
Statesmanship islike the Roman toga. Serious political leaders (in any system) wrap themselves in it to acquire authority. They need it to disguise - or to justify when it cannot be disguised – the bloody nature of the work that falls to them, from time to time, to do.
Abbott, I think, has paid too little attention to wearing the toga. Not that he has ignored it entirely. His set piece speeches, given outside the gruesome arena of Federal Parliament, are studded with key principles if in undeveloped and unintegrated form: smaller government, a social safety net targeted at the genuinely needy, lower taxes and greater personal responsibility. But just how this fits together with better maternity leave provisions, national disability insurance (if we can pay for it) and a Medicare-like dental health plan (if we can pay for it) has yet to be explained. Nor, indeed, should he explain it in full. No general tells his enemy in advance what his plans are, except to deceive him into a fatal move.
For all that, there are no hidden agendas with Abbott. What you see is what you get. The picture might not be complete, but the outlines are there, albeit less well defined than some of us might like. Questions arise about how he proposes to bring it together. The work, however, even if completed, will contain no surprises. Anyone that does not understand, for example, that Abbott sees the traditional family as the foundation stone of society and as the spring of new life, whose viability and freedom - within a natural moral order - public policy ought to preserve and promote, is either dim or not paying attention. And here is the central problem for Abbott.
Tony Abbott, for all his unflinching drive and aggression, works within a moral framework. What is more, we all understand what that framework is, and we all know that it is his Catholic faith that binds him to a set of universal norms understood and held by most cultures and religions until comparatively recent times, and still held by most peoples and cultures in the world today world if not in our own society.
Our society is in flight from its moral and spiritual origins. The Labor Party and its Green coalition partners represent, on the political plane, the movement of flight. They call it “progress”. There are many in Abbott’s own party, and in the Liberal ambience, who also think of themselves as “progressives” in the sense that they too belong to the exodus from the perennial things. These have shaped the brittle, glossy material of Malcolm Turnbull into an idol for themselves and not a few of them dislike Abbott every bit as much as any Labor hater.
Here I move back toward my opening theme. Both Abbott and Howard before him cleave to the great Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian inheritance of the Western world. Howard did so instinctively, Abbott consciously and intellectually as much as by the promptings of his heart. In the end, this is what has made both of them so intensely reviled by so many, mainly among our elite cultural establishment. Animus has philosophical-theological roots.
Fortunately, for the moment, this establishment is losing its grip. The broad stream of Australian society - part drifting uncertainly in the wake of the avant-garde; part replenished by new streams of influence from more traditional societies – sense in what Howard and now Abbott stand for the sounds of the familiar, the signs of a safe harbour.
For Labor its star has gone out and the regnant influence of its anti-Abbott campaign has waxed. Now that people from Graham Richardson to Michelle Grattan pronounce judgement upon Gillard and her government for lack of integrity and serial incompetence, the fuel that feeds anti-Abbott flame has lost its combustible power. In the electorate - so polls suggest – there is a thaw in its dispositions and for Abbott, personally, the tide begins to rise.
Comes the day, comes the man.
*Gary Scarrabelotti is Managing Director of the Canberra-based consulting firm Aequum: Political & Business Strategies.