By Dr George Venturini*
Searching for Tony Abbott (continued)
As writer and playwright Louis Nowra recalls, “The 1960s era of the young overturning traditional moral, social and sexual values arrived in Australia in the 1970s. Yet in 1972, at the age of 15, Abbott was drawn towards the DLP, despite the traditionalist party being in its death throes.
While I might have been puzzled by his attitude towards Santamaria, in 1998 he made me realise that I couldn’t take his politics for granted. At the time Pauline Hanson’s populist One Nation party, which had been formed in 1997, was beginning to gain considerable electoral ground through racist rhetoric, and its attacks on gun laws, multiculturalism and economic rationalism. Despite her racially inflammatory comments, John Howard did not criticise Hanson or her party. He seemed morally paralysed, as if he agreed with much of what she had to say but also didn’t want to attack her for fear of alienating conservative voters. It was Abbott who realised that One Nation was “a conservative’s cry of rage and fear” that made “non-Anglo Australians feel like strangers in their own country”. But there was a bigger problem in that Hanson had the potential to divide the conservative vote.
If Abbott had learned one thing from Santamaria’s undermining of the Labor Party and formation of the DLP, it was that such ideological splits were catastrophic for both parties. [Having ‘lent’ David Ernest Oldfield, one of his trusted employees and later adviser, to work for Pauline Hanson and later to co-found the Right-wing One Nation, and] without telling Howard, Abbott launched a campaign against Hanson. Instead of ridiculing her like the media and the Labor Party did, he saw that the easiest way to destroy her influence was on technical grounds – her One Nation party was not validly registered for public funding. His actions were successful and he saw the campaign “as the most important thing I have done in politics”. It was this attack on One Nation that intrigued me: it seemed Abbott was driven by more complex and at times contradictory impulses than I had first thought.”
In the kind of parental adoration in which he was reared, “ …it was no wonder that Abbott was a loud-mouthed, attention-seeking boy who saw himself as always being in the right. His parents were gregarious and liked parties. This trait has served their extrovert son well.
He was also studious and fond of books about great leaders and the glory of the British Empire, its Christian virtues and traditional institutions like Parliament. His first school was the Jesuits’ St Aloysius; his next school, St Ignatius, Riverview, on the lower North Shore, was also a Jesuit college. He was quickly attracted to the Jesuit fondness for intellectual argument – for observing issues from opposing sides. There was also a strongly athletic side to him and he did well in sports but, when he failed to play rugby for the school firsts, he could not conceive that it was because he wasn’t good enough – it must have been a conspiracy against him. This arrogance and sense of self-entitlement annoyed many of his peers.”
Back in Australia from Oxford, Abbott made a decision which stunned his family. He wanted to become a priest. Although he went to Mass regularly, he never seemed so much a spiritual man as one whose faith was based on the traditional values of the Church. At the age of 26, he was much older than most of the men entering St Patrick’s seminary at Manly.
“Yet – Nowra noted – instead of finding a form of Catholicism that featured social engagement, poverty and service to the community, he found himself surrounded by a strongly homosexual fraternity.”
A friend of Nowra said, “still with surprise in his voice, that they were “the most effeminate men I had ever seen. And this was when the Church unconditionally condemned homosexuality!” With this indulgent atmosphere came an emphasis on self-absorption. Abbott may have disliked homosexuality, but he agreed with Santamaria that “introspection is the first step towards insanity”. He was and is a man who likes being around other people and he’d sooner act than spend time contemplating his own navel.
He regarded this aspect of Catholicism as solipsistic – and he also couldn’t hack celibacy. Like half of the young seminarians, he left before becoming a priest.”
Undoubtedly the experience left a trait in the man whose spiritual adviser and confessor would become the now Cardinal Pell. Pell’s career took place in Victoria and only in 2001 he moved to Sydney as archbishop. The relationship is unusual if not strange; perhaps there is a common element to it: the shared view of ‘muscular Christianity’. Until his movement to be No. 3 in the Vatican, Pell was Abbott’s personal confessor.
“But Abbott is very touchy about his close friendship with him, no doubt because Pell pushes hard, like Santamaria did, for Catholic intervention in politics. A few years ago, at a conscience vote overturning a state ban on therapeutic cloning, Pell announced: “Catholic politicians who vote for this legislation must realise that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the Church.” This was a thinly veiled threat of excommunication, running completely counter to secular values.
This may be what Pell and Abbott have in common: a domineering attitude.
Abbott’s conservative politics, his instinct to defer to authority and tradition, and his English Catholicism – with its position as a bulwark of tradition rather than a spiritual force – have been the bedrock of his beliefs since he was young.
All of Abbott’s mentors have opinions which exude with intransigence. “Above all, they regard the traditional institutions of marriage, family and community based on the principles of Christianity as essential for social cohesion.
Abbott has often been criticised for bringing his religious convictions into the world of politics. And although he has strenuously denied this, he has also said that: “A minister of the crown is scarcely supposed to abandon his principles simply because he is a minister of the crown. You don’t become an ethical-free zone just because you are a minister.” The institution that has made him, the Catholic Church, has also shaped his principles, so that he finds it difficult to disentangle his religious convictions from his political agenda. Like all his mentors he loathes abortion, IVF, the morning-after pill and RU486.”
Perhaps Abbott knows that he has personal demons to quell. “Between his belfry-bat ears is a coil of such saturnine weirdness that no one, not even his closest friends, would want to unravel it. This makes him do things he comes to regret. His wife, Margie, knows this. In 2005 when she heard that John Brogden had resigned as NSW Opposition leader, after being found in his office with self-inflicted wounds, she told her husband, “Whatever happens, don’t you say anything about it.” The next day, Abbott, then health minister, joked about Brogden’s actions in relation to a change to a Liberal policy: “If we did that, we would be as dead as the former Liberal leader’s political prospects.” Abbott’s response to the subsequent outcry was, “Look, I’ve never claimed to be the world’s most sensitive person.”
And he is right. “When dying asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton, suffering from terminal cancer, tried to deliver a petition to Abbott’s electorate office in Manly, Abbott, who wasn’t there, called Banton “gutless”, the event “a stunt” and remarked that “just because a person is sick doesn’t mean that he is necessarily pure at heart in all things.”
Rudd may use swear words to his staff and flight attendants but Abbott takes it into the public arena, one time snapping back “Bullshit” at Labor opponent Nicola Roxon, in response to her comment that he could have been on time for a nationally televised debate, and referring to Julia Gillard as having a “shit-eating grin”. He just can’t stop himself. His excitement and adrenaline get the better of him. He always offers a mea culpa and confesses his weakness, but that impulsiveness is hard for him to control. He is a naturally exuberant man.”
“Journalists have called his obsessive cycling and gym-going “self-flagellation”, but it’s more subtle than that. The body is a source of energy that equals that of the will. If he can will his body to overcome its limitations, then he can train his mind to do the same thing.”
“He may act goofy around women occasionally, but he’s capable of self-mockery, as when he repeats one of his daughters’ descriptions of him as “a gay, lame churchie loser”. He also tries to be as straightforward and clear as possible, which will become a virtue given that his [once] opponent, Kevin Rudd, seem[ed] like a hologram that hasn’t been taught proper English.
In December 2009, when he became leader of the Opposition, Paul Howes, then the national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, labelled him a zealot; Greg Combet M.P. called him an extremist; Robert Manne called him a troglodyte.” (L. Nowra, ‘The whirling dervish: On Tony Abbott‘).
Tomorrow: Should one call it pathocracy?
* In memory of my friends, Professor Bertram Gross and Justice Lionel Murphy.
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975 he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra. He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.