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Lessons for history from an Australian prime minister

By Peter Bowden - posted Monday, 14 September 2015

This is a speculative essay. It asks why, in a modern democracy, Australia should elect a Prime Minister who is widely and internationally criticised as overly militaristic and not that caring of the welfare of its people. The response is that he is the type of leader that the human race has sought since time immemorial. A further speculation is that if the world is to reduce the suffering from war that we see so distressingly around us, it needs to think through the types of leaders that it elects, and the ways in which they interact with each other.

Australians learned recently that senior government sources told Fairfax Media that the driving force for the formal request received from the United States for the RAAF to join the air campaign in Syria came more from Canberra – and in particular the Prime Minister's office – than from Washington.

This should come as no surprise to them. Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, has taken an aggressive international stance since his earliest days in office. Some would say that he has spent much of his Prime Ministership pushing the country to a war. He has been described by one of Australia's leading columnists, Michelle Grattan, as " pugilist Abbott"


For ordinary people, this aggressiveness raises the question of why? And can we learn lessons from him on why the world has been near constantly at war since its earliest days? Is there a type of leader that is inclined towards military aggression? Was he (for they are, with a few exceptions, almost always a "he"), and all other aggressive leaders, born that way? Is it because they have conservative or right wing leanings? If we choose such leaders, then why? Australia knows Tony Abbott reasonably well; can his actions give us insights into the many aggressive leaders over history?

First task is to recap Abbott's aggressive positions from his earliest days as Prime Minister. It started with Indonesia. The refusal to apologise for the bugging of the phones of the Indonesian President S .B. Yudhoyono and his family put Australia offside with the leader of another country.SBY in a twitter post, suggested "Australia's strategic relationship with his country is at risk". Also the early days of stopping the boats, Abbott went very close to a military confrontation with Indonesia. Joko Widodo's blunt warning to Prime Minister Tony Abbott is evidence. Widodo raised concerns about Australia's unilateral and confrontational asylum seeker policies and specifically warned against the possibility of Australian naval vessels venturing into Indonesian waters without permission (as they had done on five previous occasions). "We give a warning that this is not acceptable," said Joko, in an exclusive Fairfax Media interview.

Abbott's unfortunate essay into shirtfront diplomacy was instinctive. He could barely wait to accuse Vladimir Putin of being responsible for downing MH17. A Sydney Morning Herald leader, comparing Abbott with Obama, tells us that Obama'sinstinct is caution. But that Abbott is "always spoiling for a fight".During his student days, he arranged a pro John Kerr rally and later a pro-Thatcher demonstration at Oxford over the Falklands War.For non-Australians, John Kerr was the Governor General who dismissed a left wing government on budget issues, for which he was constantly reviled by members of the left. According to historian Phillip Knightley, "The remaining years of Sir John Kerr's life were miserable ones. He was "subject to relentless harassment whenever he appeared in public."

Tony Abbott was brought up to be combative. His biographer MichaelDuffy notes his 'combativeness', his 'punchiness' his 'natural aggressiveness'. Abbott's father told Tony he was superior to most of those around him. He was treated differently to his three sisters; one later recalled that ''Tony was the star''.

Men of Tony Abbott's nature have started wars since time immemorial. But what is the common element? If there is one (?). George W Bush, a conservative, started the Iraq war. Is it because he was a conservative? One of the "most hawkish" figures in Australia's expert community is Jim Molan, a retired major general and the former commander of the Coalition operation in Iraq in 2004. Molan, now seeking Liberal (right wing) endorsement for the Senate, supports the expansion of Australia's air war into Syria "not to increase the effectiveness of the air campaign but to solidify resolve." A statement, signed by high-profile journalists Tariq Ali, Laurie Penny, Naomi Klein, Jon Ronson and Johann Hari, presenters in The Festival of Dangerous Ideas took aim at the festival's co-curator, and of the Ethics Centre, for the involvement of one of its board members, Major General Andrew James Molan, in the "unjust treatment of asylum seekers in Australian-controlled detention centres".

Even the Obama administration believes that the US military votes right wing. Certainly conservatives in the US support Abbott's position.


Conservatives are combative. Sarah Palin recently backed Donald Trump on his hard line on immigration issues, particularly his assertion that immigrants must speak English. "I think I'd rather have a president who is tough and puts America first than can win a game of Trivial Pursuit," she said. Both are right wing conservative.

World War II was started by Adolf Hitler, but was Hitler a conservative? He had conservative elements – the hankering to restore Germany's original power and prestige may be considered a conservative bent – but the name of his party was the National Socialist Workers Party or Nazi Party, and it grew out of a pro-worker background. Historians and biographers note some difficulty in identifying Adolf Hitler's political views. This writer views him as predominantly conservative, due primarily to his aggressive militaristic stance.

The unprovoked ,and unnecessary, invasion of neutral Belgium, devised by the Prussian military, and supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II, was a major cause behind WWI The Kaiser was an" overtly militaristic man". And also perhaps not all that bright . His long-serving chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, is described as "arch-conservative".That war, with the loss of sixteen million lives, and the sowing of seeds for a second World War, was a major disaster for the human race. Was the conservatism of the Prussian Military, and the Kaiser, the cause?

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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