Taking a swing at a political pugilist
Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott
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