Tak­ing a swing at a po­lit­i­cal pugilist

Po­lit­i­cal An­i­mal: The Mak­ing of Tony Ab­bott

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Louis Nowra

IT’S not many Aus­tralian jour­nal­ists who can say they helped bring down a prime min­is­ter but David Marr is one. In a pre­vi­ous Quar­terly Essay, ‘‘ Power Trip: The Po­lit­i­cal Jour­ney of Kevin Rudd’’, he re­vealed the ugly side of the then La­bor prime min­is­ter: a chaotic leader with a vile tem­per prone to foul-mouthed tantrums. It was an ex­plo­sive, Walk­ley award-win­ning essay.

Now Marr has turned his at­ten­tion to the Op­po­si­tion Leader, Tony Ab­bott. If there is one man who bugs leftists, it’s Ab­bott. They can’t un­der­stand how some­one with an ap­proval rat­ing of about 30 per cent looks like lead­ing the Coali­tion to vic­tory in the next elec­tion.

When Ab­bott won the Lib­eral Party lead­er­ship con­test by one vote, most peo­ple on the Left as­sumed he wouldn’t last long. His com­bat­ive­ness, nega­tiv­ity, con­ser­va­tive moral­ity and feral out­bursts in­di­cated he would fall vic­tim to his own weak­nesses.

I wrote an essay for The Monthly sug­gest­ing not only had he the stam­ina for a pro­longed fight but that if he could con­trol his ten­dency to shoot off his mouth then he had a chance to By David Marr Quar­terly Essay 47 Black Inc, 144pp, $19.95 be­come prime min­is­ter. This so of­fended Robert Manne that he im­me­di­ately penned a re­ply in the same mag­a­zine, head­lined ‘‘ On Your Bike, Ab­bot’’. It must have been galling for Manne that his jeremiad had no ef­fect.

Marr is an ex­cel­lent jour­nal­ist, with a foren­sic at­ten­tion to de­tail and a ser­vice­able writ­ing style. It is then un­nerv­ing that he be­gins his essay in such an ob­vi­ously par­ti­san man­ner by writ­ing: ‘‘ We have never wanted Tony Ab­bott.’’ That ‘‘ we’’ is alien­at­ing and doesn’t bode well for any sense of ob­jec­tiv­ity.

Ab­bott had an ob­ses­sion with far-right-wing pol­i­tics from an early age. He adored Bob San­ta­maria, who loathed com­mu­nists and had a vi­sion of an Aus­tralian Catholic so­ci­ety that was al­most me­dieval. He was the first of Ab­bott’s men­tors; oth­ers, such as John Howard and Car­di­nal Ge­orge Pell, fol­lowed. It’s a salient fea­ture about Ab­bott that he needs men­tors and heroes, and these are gen­er­ally men of strong po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tions.

What’s fas­ci­nat­ing about Ab­bott is that from an early age he seemed to be at war with him­self. He be­came in­creas­ingly aware of his many faults but be­lieved if he could dis­ci­pline him­self he would be­come a bet­ter per­son. It’s why he played rugby and got into box­ing. If he could mas­ter his body, he could do the same with his mind. Marr’s fe­line sen­si­bil­ity doesn’t un­der­stand Ab­bott’s lik­ing of contact sport. In­stead he smirks, call­ing rugby rug­ger­bug­ger. He does not see the courage and over­com­ing of fear that is the ba­sis of box­ing.

Of course, Ab­bott al­ways liked a good stoush and his be­hav­iour in univer­sity pol­i­tics re­flected that. Marr tries to make a Gotcha! mo­ment out of one in­ci­dent, re­cy­cling a 35-year-old story that af­ter los­ing an elec­tion for pres­i­dency of the Students Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Coun­cil a fu­ri­ous Ab­bott in­tim­i­dated the win­ner, Bar­bara Ram­jan, by punch­ing the wall be­side her head.

It’s laugh­able how se­ri­ously this story has been taken by the press. When I was at univer­sity, leftists, men and women, would sharpen the tops of flag sticks to stab po­lice horses. They spat on lec­tur­ers they didn’t like, brawled with con­ser­va­tives, and loony Maoists used a shot­gun to blast the win­dows of IBM. Many of these peo­ple are now La­bor Party hacks and MPs.

Much of what Ab­bott has done is sneered at in this essay. He was a Rhodes scholar and Marr can’t re­strain him­self from com­ment­ing that the schol­ar­ship came ‘‘ cour­tesy of the di­a­mond min­ing for­tune of Em­pire loy­al­ist Ce­cil Rhodes. For An­glophiles and rugby play­ers, the Rhodes was died-and-gone-toheaven time.’’ Would Marr say this about Bob Hawke’s Rhodes schol­ar­ship?

He goes on to mock Ab­bott’s reli­gious be­liefs and his love of the monar­chy. He spends too much time crit­i­cis­ing Ab­bott’s views on ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. Yet Ab­bott ac­cepted his sis­ter’s

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