Flip-flopper or Christian warrior? … Tony Abbott.If you want to hit a man where it hurts, hit him in the groin. David Marr doesn’t miss in his Quarterly Essay profile Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott. Mocks Marr, of the Liberal leader’s profile in Speedos and lycra cycling knicks: ”Never in the political annals of this country have so many seen so much of so little.”

The only surprise is that Marr waits until page 14 to emasculate him. What took him so long? After all, he declares on page one that: ”Australia doesn’t want Tony Abbott. We never have.” Readers know what they’re getting from the outset and Quarterly Essay’s audience will enjoy every word.

The trouble is that contending with Marr’s figurative emasculation of the federal Opposition Leader is his portrayal of him as the thuggish, marauding destroyer of the peace and dreams of a long list of people, from student politicians, gays and lesbians, republicans, refugees and Laborites in all their forms. So which is he: the man who underwhelms in lycra or the big swinging dick of religiously motivated conservative politics in Australia? Marr, surely, can’t have it both ways.

He does, in fact, try by bifurcating Tony into ”Politics Abbott” and ”Values Abbott” for the purposes of his essay. ”Politics Abbott” is the one who witnessed firsthand John Hewson get crucified on his own Fightback! reform agenda in the 1993 election, learning that voters go cold on bold policy gambits vulnerable to a good old-fashioned scare campaign.

”Politics Abbott” is a hypocritical policy flip-flopper squarely in the tradition of pragmatic whatever-it-takes politics (see carbon pricing).

”Values Abbott”, conversely, is the Christian warrior who wants to defeat sin broadly defined (essentially abortion and homosexuality), including via public policy when the chance presents itself (such as his attempt as health minister to ban the ”abortion pill” RU486, defeated by the bipartisan efforts of women MPs to block the move).

The thesis is that an Abbott prime ministership would see the Two Tonys in perpetual struggle with unpredictable consequences. Across politics, most players – probably even Abbott, privately – would consider that a fair assessment. Marr captures Abbott’s physical presence well. ”He walks as though he has to will each leg forward …” he writes. ”His face is skin and bone. He smiles but his eyes are hooded. The overall effect is faintly menacing, as if he’s about to climb into the ring.”

Nor is Marr so jaundiced that he can’t acknowledge his subject is ”pithy, funny and illuminating” in the off-the-record interview Abbott gives him for the essay.

There are parts of Political Animal where the raw material begs the author to go off the usual trail and pursue new ones but it largely doesn’t happen.

One is that Abbott’s DNA is, like Marr’s, that of a crusading journalist. Abbott arrives at Sydney University and immediately ”thousands of words of campaigning journalism poured out of him”; he was a card-carrying member of the Australian Journalists Association as a journalist at The Bulletin, Marr recounts, where ”he led a little strike” but opposed another after he moved to The Australian; and as a cabinet minister Abbott often frustrated staff by shutting his door to write op-eds rather than engage with ministerial matters. The role of journalists as politicians in Australia is too little examined.

Another is the crucial difference Marr identifies between Abbott’s view of the role of government (he endorses an active one, true to his DLP roots) compared with those of most Liberal colleagues who at least at the level of rhetoric consider it a dead weight on society.

Just as commentators underestimated how successful Abbott would be as a disciplined wrecking ball of an opposition leader, neglect of this point could equally lead to his likely longevity in office being underestimated should he get to The Lodge.

A third is the striking fact that of the most recent six Liberal leaders, four – including Abbott – have either been members of (Brendan Nelson), sought preselection from (Malcolm Turnbull), flirted with (John Hewson) or been the target of recruitment efforts by (Abbott was approached, Marr tells us, by Bob Carr) the Australian Labor Party. Perhaps this wasn’t the place but it would be interesting to see Marr or another writer pursue it.

Some historical housekeeping is done in passing on an earlier Marr book – Dark Victory, written with Marian Wilkinson – when he quotes Philip Ruddock’s accurate statement that ”it was Labor that insisted during the Tampa crisis that fundamental human rights be incorporated in the Pacific Solution”. You’d never know it from reading Dark Victory and it’s good that Marr acknowledges it here.


David Marr

Quarterly Essay,

140pp, $19.95


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