The Abbott enigma
Who is the real Tony Abbott? Is it the socially conscious volunteer worker or the pathologically mendacious obfuscator with a lust for power who now leads the federal Opposition?
Mr Abbott once rescued a young girl from the surf, helped save five children from a burning house, has spent some time teaching Aboriginal children in remote settlements, is a member of a volunteer bushfire brigade, pushed a handicapped man in a wheelchair in a charity race, established and rides in Pollie Pedal (a charity marathon bike ride for breast cancer research). He has been happily and faithfully married for 24 years and has three daughters who have remained free of the scandals that often engulf the children of public figures.
These are commendable activities and qualities, and there may be more of them. I can accept that they are sincere and genuine, except for being an active member of the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) at Davidson. I was a member of the NSW RFS in Batemans Bay for two years. I can say with absolute certainty there is no way Mr Abbott could find the time to honour all of the commitments of an RFS volunteer.
Does this cast doubt on his other volunteer and charity work? Not necessarily. He still rides in Pollie Pedal. At the same time, Mr Abbott is well known for his public appearances in various stunts – obvious photo opportunities, but usually connected to statements on Opposition or government policy.
If I was setting myself up to become the Prime Minister of Australia I would not be seen within a mile of those signs behind Mr Abbott. If I had been on that stage, I wouldn’t have the hide to say I didn’t see any signs on that occasion.
And it is here that the enigma arises. Mr Abbott has a social conscience and does good works – he is a good citizen. But when it comes to politics Mr Abbott sometimes believes it’s best to take a brutal and devious or deceitful course. On numerous occasions he has proven to be incapable of telling the truth – and on the rare occasions that he is challenged he is devious, twisting, turning, being irrelevant, avoiding the issue, even walking off. Why?
I could ask the man, but I’m not sure I could rely on his answer. Perhaps we can find the answer in some of the research done by David Marr for the profile Political Animal in his Quarterly Essay. Mr Marr writes that the profoundly Catholic Mr Abbott has faith in absolution. “The slate can always be wiped clean. Over the years he has said and done appalling things that might have sunk another politician. But charm and candour and promises to do better have seen him forgiven so much.
“I believe that when you become leader,
you make a fresh start.”
“The loud-mouth bigot of his university days, the homophobe, the blinkered Vatican warrior, the rugger-bugger, the white Australian and the junk-yard dog of parliament are all, he would have us believe, consigned to the past.”
Mr Marr quotes Mr Abbott as saying on the occasion of his election as Leader of the Parliamentary Liberal Party on December 1, 2009: “I believe that when you become leader, you make a fresh start.”
I can’t say why Mr Abbott has adopted an aggressive style of politics, or why he relies so much on mendacity and, when caught out, on evasion. It is a little boy’s trait: do the wrong thing, deny it, lie about it or blame someone else. But Mr Abbott turned 55 last November 4, is married with three daughters, is a seasoned politician and Leader of the federal Liberal National Party Coalition. Surely he has reached maturity by now.
Perhaps, as the favoured son, he learnt early that he could get away with stuff. Perhaps, as the quotation above suggests, he really does believe the slate can be wiped clean at confession (a practice, I am told, that is rare today), or it is wiped clean by success. The end justifies the means of getting there.
I have studied Mr Abbott’s Pythagorean numerology chart. His nine-year cycles of maturity peaked in 2010 with a number 6, which will influence him for another seven years. Because his domestic life is settled, this 6 relates to creative development and perhaps hurtful lessons when emotions are allowed to dominate. This peak with a 6 could explain Mr Abbott’s forceful striving at this time, but not the nature of it – unless he is setting himself up for a fall. Learning from our mistakes is how we progress towards our full potential.
He was elected Parliamentary Liberal Party Leader by a majority of only one vote in December 2009 (with two MPs absent). He saw the removal of then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and he almost won the federal election in 2010. During this period he has been somewhat off course with his personal and derogatory attack dog strategy. His chart suggests he is more suited to a personable approach and there has been plenty of evidence in opinion polls to suggest it would be appreciated by voters. There is also evidence in the polls that his constant attacks on the Prime Minister and her government is influencing voters. Others have switched off.
In numerological terms, Mr Abbott is a Ruling 10. Don’t read too much into “Ruling”. It simply means the dominant number in a person’s make up. Ruling 10s are bright, happy people inclined to help others and work for the common good. For Mr Abbott, and the Australians he would govern, the common good is interpreted from a conservative Catholic point of view. But I am not a Catholic. Australia is not predominantly a Catholic country, and that makes me uneasy. I like this line from my numerology text in relation to Ruling 10s: “Most suitable vocations: interior decorators; buyers of fabrics; salespeople; politicians of the loyal party type, but not statesmen.” The emphasis is mine.
His chart also contains the Arrow of Determination and the Arrow of Practicality. The determination is obvious in his boundless energy and relentless drive. Practicality could be expressing itself in his style of attack politics. In battle, he reminds me of Alexander the Great: go straight for the leader, end it quickly. As far as I know, Alexander (who was taught: “Know thyself.”) is not one of Mr Abbott’s heroes. Actor John Wayne is – another guy who likes to act tough.
As a boy, Mr Abbott often heard his parents say he would end up as Pope or Prime Minister. During his time at Sydney’s Riverview Jesuit school Mr Abbott made an early display of his determination, and possibly his practicality, in pursuit of one of those destinies. Boys thought to have some potential were invited to weekends of special instruction towards the end of their schooling. According to David Marr’s essay, Mr Abbott wasn’t invited but went anyway.
This resulted in him being recruited into B.A. Santamaria’s ratbag Movement to save the world from Communism and anything else that wasn’t sanctioned by the Catholic church. If you think about it hard enough, B.A. wasn’t much different to the Nazis, whom he detested, along with Communists, Capitalists, Unionists and practically Everyone else.
Mr Abbott developed his brutish style of politicking at Sydney University in the late ‘70s. Like a good soldier, a Stormtrooper, he put into effect “Bob” Santamaria’s agenda of wrecking the Australian Union of Students (AUS, a bunch of Lefties), Student Representative Councils (SRCs) and the sources of funding for both. Like Alexander the Great, or perhaps more like John Wayne, Mr Abbott rode straight at the head. The plan was to start at the top and wreck the machinery all the way to the bottom.
If you searched the details thoroughly enough you might find evidence of mendacity, subterfuge and obfuscation. But I don’t think so. Mr Abbott made no attempt to hide his intentions. On one matter I can recall (that of a court case involving indecent assault of the student newspaper editor) he denied the exact nature of the touching and rounded up witnesses. The court dismissed the charge. In the following year, 1978, Mr Abbott lost his bid for the presidency of the SRC at Sydney University to the Leftist candidate Barbara Ramjan. This was followed by some rowdy but disputed behaviour and matters arising from that are before the court now.
Why now, 34 years later? Although Mr Abbott is not involved, it is because his behaviour, his approach to politics, has caused some inquiring journalists and commentators to resurrect his past. Certain things have been said, exception has been taken to them and writs have been issued. There has been considerable pressure from Social Media for the mainstream media (MSM) to re-examine Mr Abbott’s university days.
Another matter being looked at arises from Mr Abbott’s time as a Minister in the Howard government, 14 years ago. It concerns a fund he established, the Australians for Honest Politics Trust (AHPT), to be used in various ways to destroy Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Questions go to what Mr Abbott told the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), whether he sought legal advice before or after being approached by the AEC, and whether or not he promised to pay the court costs of Ms Hanson’s challenger, Terry Sharples, from Liberal Party funds or any other funds.
This business is directly relevant to Mr Abbott’s view of how he should deal with facts when talking to journalists, which is the same as talking to the public. The sorry mess might explain why he has since been often evasive, even non-talkative, when he’s baled up by journalists (after giving up his religious studies he worked as a journalist for The Bulletin). When interviewed by 4 Corners journalist Tony Jones (July 31, 1998) about whether or not Mr Sharples was promised money from party funds or any other source, Mr Abbott said “absolutely not”. On March 11, 2000, The Sydney Morning Herald’s (SMH) Deborah Snow showed Mr Abbott a piece of paper he had signed, promising Mr Sharples he would not be “out of pocket” over the court case. Mr Abbott’s response was “Misleading the ABC is not quite the same as misleading the Parliament as a political crime.”
The piece of paper was provided by Mr Sharples, who had fallen out with Mr Abbott after Mr Abbott told him he had perjured himself and should withdraw from the case against One Nation. So you could say it was Mr Sharples who got Mr Abbott into trouble, but it was Mr Abbott who struggled for a long time to get himself out of the quagmire – and it stalks him to this day. When the ABC’s 7.30 anchor-man Kerry O’Brien tried to pin him down we saw the classic Mr Abbott obfuscation: his inability to give a clear-cut yes or no, to settle the matter, explain or excuse himself, apologise, whatever, fess up and get it done with.
Journalists have spent some years trying to dig out the relevant facts and present them to Mr Abbott for clarification. An easy-to-follow timeline of this convoluted affair has been constructed in The King’s Tribune .
For those who are interested in clinical detail, here is a link to a transcript of that O’Brien/Abbott interview which has been dissected almost line by line, analysed for its Abbottisms, and published on the SMH’s now defunct Webdiary.
Mr Abbott issued a press release to explain what he had said and what he meant. This was criticised for being inaccurate and misleading. He followed that with another, in which he said: “It is not acceptable to mislead the public. I should not have responded flippantly to the SMH’s question and I am sorry that I did so.”
In an article in the SMH (August 27, 2003) Margo Kingston wrote: “Abbott tried to squirm out of his crisis with a tricky press release designed to confuse people so much they’d drop the story. They won’t Tony. Have you ever considered the strategy of being honest? The idea is that if you come clean, admit your sin, apologise and say you’ve learnt your lesson and won’t do it again, you leave room for generosity by the victims, and perhaps even forgiveness.”
What had One Nation done wrong? In her maiden speech in Parliament, Ms Hanson created a storm of protest with her comment: “Australia is in danger of being swamped by Asians.” A lot of Queenslanders agreed with her. One Nation won 11 seats in the Queensland State election. The party was costing the Liberal Party power and influence. Before the election, Liberal Party members in Queensland were defecting because of decisions taken by the Liberal leadership on One Nation preferences. Apart from some untidy membership paperwork, Ms Hanson and One Nation members were exercising their democratic right to form a political party and fight for their beliefs. In an article in The Daily Telegraph (August 28, 2003), Mr Abbott wrote: “I am sorry that Pauline Hanson is in gaol. I believe that the sentence she received [three years] was too severe. But I’m not sorry for trying to expose the fact that One Nation was never a fair dinkum party.”
Throughout his life Mr Abbott has been guided by mentors. One, John Howard, believes the role of a political party is to attack its opponents. If One Nation “was never a fair dinkum party” why was Mr Abbott conspiring against them?
The fight against One Nation was obviously for the survival of the Liberal Party. That makes it a legitimate political target, according to Mr Howard and his disciple. It’s Mr Abbott’s secretive and contradictory way of going about it and explaining himself that is the problem. Until the AHP trust became public, Mr Abbott was anxious to ensure it was not connected to the Liberal Party. This goes to character. Mr Abbott’s dishonest, nasty and aggressive campaign to bring down the present Labor government by questioning the character of the Prime Minister is drawing attention to his own well-documented past.
In another interview, Mr Abbott makes the distinction between going a bit too far in the heat of the moment and telling the absolute truth.
Why does Mr Abbott continue to turn up to take a beating from Kerry O’Brien? I don’t think he’s a masochist. Maybe it’s ego: the irresistible urge to take advantage of another tv appearance. The misleading or ill-considered remarks do not matter; they are waved aside. He can always go to confession to cleanse his soul.
Since being robbed of the 2010 federal election Mr Abbott’s attack on the government has had four prongs. All have been blunted by revelation of facts or failure to produce evidence. All have been attacks on the character of others and therefore are an abuse of their legal rights. Because they mainly take place in the Parliament they are, in my opinion, also an abuse of Parliament, bringing the Parliament into disrepute. Again, there is evidence for my view in the opinion polls. So far there has been no withdrawal, no apology, no mea culpa for the allegations and events of the past two years.
In two of these cases (the long-running Craig Thomson affair* and the Peter Slipper affair**) Mr Abbott expected the Prime Minister to overlook the fact that the matters were before inquiries or courts and rush into a guilty verdict. The rule of law should be brushed aside, for Mr Abbott’s ultimate benefit. Whose character is in question here?
[*On January 31, 2013, NSW police arrested Mr Thomson at his Central Coast electoral office, on a warrant issued by Victorian police. He was charged with misuse of a credit card, issued with papers relating to 149 fraud allegations and was released on bail to appear in a Melbourne magistrate’s court in February. Mr Thomson’s lawyer said he expected his client to plead not guilty to all charges.]
[**While he was still Speaker, Mr Slipper’s media advisor, James Ashby, attempted to sue Mr Slipper and the Commonwealth for alleged sexual harassment and the alleged misuse of Cabcharge dockets. Both allegations failed and Mr Ashby has appealed. Justice Rares ruled the Cabcharge allegations irrelevant to Mr Ashby’s case. Following that decision, the Federal Police charged Mr Slipper with older alleged offences regarding misuse of Cabcharge dockets. Mr Slipper’s lawyer Peter Russo received a two-week adjournment when he appeared in the ACT Magistrates Court on March 25, 2013 to enable his submission to the Director of Public Prosecutions to be dealt with. Mr Slipper’s lawyer will enter a plea at the next hearing on April 8, 2013.]
In the AWU “slush fund” affair (from 17 to 20 years ago), Mr Abbott alleges the Prime Minister (as the young solicitor who set up the AWU Workplace Reform Association) acted illegally and “has questions to answer”. Ms Gillard has either answered or dismissed all questions in the House and gone out of her way to answer any and all questions on two occasions, completely exhausting the queries and imaginations of the Canberra Press Gallery. But still she has “questions to answer” and “is not a fit and proper person to be the Prime Minister”. Not guilty, but “not fit and proper”.
It is up to Mr Abbott to prove guilt – something he has failed to do.
In this campaign Mr Abbott, and the MSM, have chosen to overlook something. It is not up to Ms Gillard to prove her innocence of allegations. It is up to Mr Abbott to provide proof of guilt – something he has failed to do. But still, “the Prime Minister has questions to answer”. It’s nothing more than a smear campaign, conducted largely within the walls of the “Coward’s Castle”, which gives MPs immunity from prosecution so that they may raise (in Parliament only) matters that are in the public interest, and not necessarily with concrete proof. Whose character is in question here?
The fourth prong (more of a club, really) is a doozy. What if you take the truth, turn it into a lie and then try to beat someone to death with it? This brings us to “the toxic carbon tax”. Prior to the 2010 election Ms Gillard said: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” Fine. There isn’t, because she hasn’t introduced one. Ms Gillard has kept her promise. After forming government with the support of some Independents (who insisted on a carbon PRICE and possibly “some sort of carbon trading scheme”) Ms Gillard said on ABC TV’s Insiders: “I will be introducing a price on carbon, and moving on to an emissions trading scheme. I rule out a carbon tax.”
Mr Abbott, who very nearly won the 2010 election, lost the negotiations with the Independents partly because he would not agree to carbon pricing. He honoured his election campaign promise.
The childhood prediction of Prime Minister had slipped through his fingers because he stuck to his principles (his moral imperative is intact). In a fit of pique, Mr Abbott turned on those who cost him high office (his occasionally underhand approach to politics kicks in). Carbon pricing was his chosen weapon. And, true to form, he had to dissemble. It became “this toxic carbon tax” – not a carbon “price” (creating a commodity), but a “tax”. Because he falsely calls it a tax, and the Prime Minister introduced it, she is a liar; she has reneged on her election promise.
After July 1, 2012, when the carbon price legislation took effect, Mr Abbott deliberately exaggerated the impact on electricity bills. Either he needs reading glasses, or he’s lazy, or he ignores facts, or he’s simply lying for effect. The audacity of the man is staggering. Mendacity and obfuscation personified. The mainstream news media (MSM) lets him get away with it – God only knows why. Maybe journalists go to confession too.
Mr Abbott really is an enigma. Somewhere along the way he has picked up the theory that it is better to be devious than straightforward. It’s okay to lie, if you’re only lying to the ABC. That’s one belief he has been forced to correct.
Mr Abbott still has a problem with hypocrisy, as in you have to tell us all about your slush fund but I don’t have to answer questions about mine. He has done his best to clarify the matter of reimbursing Mr Sharples. He still has to satisfy the curious about exactly when he sought legal advice after being contacted by the AEC regarding the names of donors to the AHP trust. He has said he will reveal the names if the AEC tells him he must, but the AEC says the matter is closed.
At Sydney University Mr Abbott had trouble facing up to his girlfriend, Kathy McDonald, when she became pregnant. He called in a priest to explain that he couldn’t marry her because he was seriously considering becoming a priest himself. There was also the prospect of a Rhodes Scholarship, for which only single men are eligible. The child was adopted, Mr Abbott went off to Oxford on the scholarship and after he returned he studied theology for three years before giving that idea away (see below, Further reading). I don’t know why Mr Abbott studied economics, law, politics and philosophy if he planned to become a priest and I don’t think anyone has asked him (a Jesuit teacher would have been a better fit for his CV). I don’t know why he changed his mind and, again, I’m not aware of anyone asking him. But it is clear he had decided to go for Prime Minister rather than Pope.
There is a chance Mr Abbott could win the federal election in the latter half of this year and become the 28th Prime Minister of Australia. That worries me. I’m worried about his approach to truthfulness, his fondness for hypocrisy and his sometimes sneaky way of doing things. His conservative Catholic values are out of pace with today’s community values and should worry most Australians. In his favour, he has been quoted as saying: “A politician should not rely on religion to justify a political point of view.”
Mr Abbott is a good Catholic and a family man, with daughters he can be proud of. He has earned a BA in economics and a BA of laws (Sydney University), an MA in philosophy and politics (Oxford), studied theology for three years, has held four federal ministerial portfolios, has been an assistant minister, a parliamentary secretary, a Leader of the House and is now Leader of the Opposition. He has written four books. His academic and political careers suggest someone of intellect and achievement.
People who know him better than I do, who have worked opposite him in the Parliament, say this about him: Former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke: “Tony is as mad as a cut snake.” He was succeeded by Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, who said Mr Abbott was the “resident nutter” in the Parliament. And more recently Labor’s Leader of Government Business Anthony Albanese told the House ”… in your guts you know he’s nuts”.
I am not the only one who has a negative view of Mr Abbott’s character. There is much more in this article, which appeared recently in Australian Independent Media Network.
To finish on a positive note, Mr Abbott’s old boss, former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard (commenting on the revival of interest in the Australians for Honest Politics Trust, which he claims he wasn’t consulted about) said he had always considered Mr Abbott to be an honest and straightforward person.
1 Pathologically mendacious obfuscator: My way of describing someone who cannot tell the truth or make a clear-cut statement.
2 David Marr, former journalist, tv commentator, now full-time author. Quarterly Essays, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott.
3 Dr David A. Phillips, Secrets of the Inner Self (Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1990).
4 Extracts, reconstructed from Margo Kingston’s Not Happy, John! (Penguin, 2004).
My profile of Abbott contains a reference to his seminary days, but no explanation of why he gave up studying for the priesthood. I have since found this story, Tony Abbott on why he left the priesthood, written by Abbott and first published in The Bulletin, on 18 August, 1987. It has been reproduced on the NoFibs website.
Clint Howitt, a retired teacher of english and history, has written about attempts to re-make Tony Abbott for the last lap of his run for the Prime Ministership. The Polishing of Tony Abbott appeared in IndependentAustralia.net on 25 May, 2013.
Update 3 April, 2014
Michelle Grattan, former Canberra Press Gallery doyen and now a writer for The Conversation, interviewed Abbott on 28 March, 2014. The interview followed several days during which Grattan’s articles had been critical of Abbott, his six-month-old government and its policy implementation — especially Abbott’s reintroduction of knighthoods.
For all her knowledge of Abbott and federal politics, Grattan appears to be working from a list of questions. The result is a shallow interview that makes it near impossible to detect any changes in Abbott or his attitude since winning the federal election of 7 September, 2013. If I was a cynic I would say that was the purpose of the interview. It does not serve any other.
A few days before the release of the Abbott government’s first Budget, Nick Feik (former editor of PoliticOz and now editor of The Monthly) reviewed some of Abbott’s time as Leader of the Opposition and his first several months as leader of the government. Feik makes it clear why Abbott never expounded on his vision for Australia: he never had one. Why did Abbott do everything possible to wreck the Labor government but fail to articulate a vision beyond that? “Because he is not a prime minister, he is a dilettante.”
Feik has updated his view of Abbott in an article for The Saturday Paper, published on 22 August 2014.