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Abbott on the edge

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 26 October 2012

David Marr put the cat amongst the pigeons with his Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott.

Abbott would have us believe that he has changed since his days at university, when by Marr’s account he was an insufferable bully and misogynist, a word much used in relation to Abbott, particularly these days. In my experience people change little in essence from the time at their alma mater to middle age, particularly politicians. They might develop a façade of gravitas, but even that has escaped Abbott. Beazley, Dawkins and McMullan changed little over the years from when I knew them at the University of Western Australia to the end of their political careers, except perhaps Beazley who honed the depth and breadth of his bombast.

Chances are that Abbott has also changed very little.  Anger is a by-product of his ruthless, ‘whatever it takes’, ambition. Wed this to his conservative Christian beliefs and he becomes a crusader, using religion as a shield from criticism and to mask his real persona, or so he thinks. He is not trusted and he is not liked, particularly by women, but also by a lot of men who distrust his superficiality.


Abbott employs scathing personal attacks in lieu of policy proposals and initiatives. His present political tactics are similar to those employed all those years ago on campus and with the Student Representative Council.

When cornered Abbott has played fast and loose with the truth, he shoots from the hip; his retractions on the morrow have something of Richard Nixon about them and are an insight into the frailty of his capacity to lead within a democratic framework. He appears inherently unstable, frenetic, like Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator”.

Abbott’s blustering bullying in Parliament and on the Australian media needs to be set against his failure to twice, within a short space of time, raise the issue of the Liberal Party’s ‘turn the boats back’ policy with regard to refugees with the Indonesian President, Susilo  Bambang Yudhoyono. Is this a failure of moral courage? His elevation of this issue as matter of major importance in the Australia/Indonesia relationship, highlights his lack of understanding of the complexities of the relationship and his arrogance in believing that the Indonesians would be seized with seeking to help resolve the nonsense of a contrived and overblown Australian domestic issue.

Having highlighted the importance of the issue and then twice failing to address it, Abbott has passed the diplomatic message that he is not serious about negotiations over asylum seekers with Indonesia and that his chest beating has all been for domestic consumption. It also indicates that he knows little about conducting international relations.

Men and women aspiring to high office should, amongst other things, be judged by the company they keep.  George Pell and Alan Jones are of a kind, amongst other things showing intolerance toward the rights and equality of women.  

Abbott appears to believe that women should play a secondary and subservient role to men. He is apparently sitting on an agenda to ban abortion, when, and if, he has the numbers in parliament. This proposed legislation, supported by Pell, would be a fundamental denial of rights and an unacceptable level of control by the state over Australian women of child bearing age.


The grinding performance of the Labor Party has been aided by Abbott’s aggression. Julia Gillard has not yet obtained his measure. Abbott is like a terrier in a chook house. On any sitting day in parliament, he seeks to create and often succeeds in creating a confected uproar. For much of her time as Prime Minister to date Gillard has been lacklustre, suffering poor judgment and undermined by the weakness of many of her parliamentary associates.

Rudd beat Howard by shadowing his every move and by white-anting him. White-anting is Rudd’s strongest political asset, just ask his past and present parliamentary colleagues, particularly Gillard and Laurie Brereton. He presented as a tempting target to Abbott, who sensed rather than rationalized Rudd’s weaknesses. Abbott has done the same with Gillard; he is programmed to destroy, he is not a builder, he is not creative, he is not a nurturer.

Abbott does not want us to think, he wants us to react with negative emotion, toward asylum seekers, the carbon tax or whatever issue he seeks to use in order to prosecute his political agenda; he seeks to stampede us into the Laager. He crudely uses the political tool of fear that Howard so deftly deployed. He believes he has learnt from his master but he goes too far.

Marr says, “Abbott would bring to bear what had proved so magnificently effective before: fear, confusion and scorn.” Anna Funder says in her book, ‘All that I Am’, “Fear is the psychological foundation of dictatorship. The dictator knows only that the man who has overcome fear lives beyond his power and is his sole dangerous enemy. For whoever has conquered fear has conquered death.” Abbott has dictated the terms of parliamentary debate since he became Leader of the Opposition; what is the Labor Party so fearful of? Why do they bow to his pressure or indeed the pressure applied by Alan Jones? Is it fear of losing office? Could it be that they are weak?

Marr provides some revealing and brilliant insights into Abbott. One of them is his reverence for Churchill, as a war time leader. Abbott has quoted from Churchill in this role throughout his public life. Is Abbott at war? Everything about his performance and demeanor conveys an impression he is geared for it. That he wants it. That he needs it. Who is he at war with; Howard’s old adversary, asylum seekers; women? Who else will Abbott go to war against? Who amongst us will be declared unworthy to be Australian citizens? Of course he has The War on Terror and perhaps The Future War against China? How close will he get to the United States to shore up his political power? How will his ‘them and us’ play out- greater power to ASIO and the AFP?  To what extent will he divide Australian society? Divide and rule – by decree?

Abbott is a strange and complex individual; all of these complexities are contained in a person who has had very little life experience. Gaining a Rhodes scholarship did not grant that. He appears to have little or no understanding of the world beyond our shores. Asia, Africa and the Middle East are a blank to him and to date an irrelevance in his single minded, church inspired quest for power. What does he want it for and what will he do with it?

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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