Judging Abbott At Face Value (But Which One?)
By Mike SeccombeSeptember 8, 2012
After months of research for his new Quarterly Essay, David Marr has found that the Leader of the Opposition has two distinct personas — one for politics, one for his fiercely held values. He discusses it in detail in this video interview.
It might surprise some people to learn that Tony Abbott did once run a political campaign based on positivity and openness.
Journalist and author David Marr recalls the time in his extensive essay Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott. Marr also records that the effort was a failure.
Marr Unmasks Abbott
It was back in 1990, when Abbott, the former student activist, was first making his way in politics proper as advisor to the then Liberal Party leader, John Hewson.
The young Abbott, himself a man of strong convictions, was impressed at the start with Hewson's integrity.
"He called his advisors together and … said something like this: 'losing an election would not be the end of the world, but going to an election without a policy, or set of policies I believed in - that would be real failure'.
"Now," continued Abbott, recalling the moment 18 years later, "I was thrilled to hear this and I thought to myself, in the tradition of B.A.Santamaria, this is a man not a political weathervane."
And so Abbott bound himself to service, trying to sell Hewson's economic reform agenda, a manifesto called Fightback, to the media.
Says Marr: "The most important task Abbott performed for Hewson was turning Fightback into English."
For a while, it went well. It helped bring down Bob Hawke, but his replacement Paul Keating, seized on the GST, and portrayed it as a great big new tax on everything. He famously portrayed Hewson famously as a "feral abacus."
And Keating won the 1993 election.
Then Hewson, who refused to ditch his principles to win the election, decided to ditch them so he could remain leader of the party.
Abbott was appalled, and said so in a memo to his Hewson.
But, says Marr, Abbott learned a lesson.
"Deep convictions frankly expressed had made his boss unelectable. More finesse was required."
Marr recounts a speech Abbott gave in 2008 to a group of fellow social arch-conservatives, in which the soon-to-be Opposition leader argued that one did not have to abandon one's principles to win power, but that such principles must be pursued "intelligently and sensitively" so as not to frighten the public.
And, says Marr: "Since witnessing the Hewson catastrophe at first hand, Abbott has worn a mask."
The question Marr sets out to answer in his opus, published today in the latest Quarterly Essay, is what lies behind that mask.
It's a fascinating conundrum. Before entering politics proper, there was only one Tony Abbott: the fiercely aggressive student of B.A. Santamaria who made little effort to hide his Catholic fundamentalist world view. But now there are two, who Marr calls "Values Abbott" and "Politics Abbott", and it is nigh-impossible to work out with certainty which is more real.
"What," asks Marr, "has been abandoned? What is merely hidden on the road to power?"
We still see flashes of Values Abbott in his writings - he is a compulsive writer - which indicate his hardcore values, on things like marriage and divorce, abortion, homosexuality and gender roles remain.
Indeed, Abbott is an odd fit in the Liberal Party, a political organisation which exists essentially to oppose Labor. Abbott is not like that; he is not a devotee of the free market or punitive industrial reform. He believes in the positive role of government.
He is, perhaps the last vestige of the old Democratic Labor Party - for the working man, so long as the working man hews to traditional values.
But after studying Abbott's record in politics, Marr's judgment is that every time the two Abbotts have come into conflict, it is Politics Abbott which has predominated, at least to date. Who knows which Abbott might emerge, though, given the power of the Prime Ministership?
And it is that uncertainty, Marr suggests - more than Abbott's carping negativity or his BA Santamaria tactics of "if you haven't got the numbers, be vicious" - which is the real reason the voting public has never warmed to him.
"What makes people so uneasy about Abbott is the sense that he is biding his time, that there is a very hard operator somewhere behind that mask, waiting for power."
Quarterly Essay 47, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott by David Marr is on sale now at book shops, selected newsagents or direct here.
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