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Battlelines drawn: the individuation of Tony Abbott

By Martin Stewart-Weeks - posted Friday, 15 January 2010

Shelby Steele has a problem with Barack Obama. He believes the patently smart, mellifluous and fluent 44th President of the United States has arrived in the highest political office without ever properly defining himself (The Australian, January 2-3, 2010). The way aspiring political leaders do that is by taking positions, to show their hand and, thus, to give us a sense of their personal and political character.

Steele’s critique of Obama suggests that this process of political “individuation” is directly both a function of, and a window to, authentic political character.

Tony Abbott is a politician whose career is a more or less conscious reflection of the Steele Doctrine. Direct and forthright in his engagement with politics and policy, he appears to be happiest when he is being most authentic, even when it generates discomfort or even outright hostility.


Publication of Battlelines late last year was a major contribution to the individuation of Tony Abbott. The fact that it emerged so soon before his accidental elevation to the Liberal Party leadership only serves to render its significance potentially even greater. But accident can be destiny. The book offers a timely view into the gathering political character of a man who could be the next Prime Minister of Australia.

When you talk to people about Abbott, they often recall that he opposes stem cell research, trained to be a Catholic priest, was a boxing blue at Oxford and was one of Howard’s favourite enforcers. But he has angles that make him genuinely interesting. He is used to patrolling the borderlands of the liberal-conservative distinction. And for all his ability to adopt uncompromising positions which some find neither comfortable nor attractive, his life suggests a genuine capacity for community connection and engagement with people.

The other thing people often overlook is that Abbott has been in the politics business for 16 years. This is no neophyte or pretend “non politician”. He has some familiarity with the tools and methods of public power.

Abbott explains that “a litmus test for effective Liberal leadership is finding meaningful common ground between the party’s more liberal and more conservative tendencies.” (p57). Conservatives and liberals alike share a natural preference for freedom and giving people room to shape their own lives. But working out how that preference should play out can only be done, Abbott argues, in the real world of specific policies and remedies rather than argued over in the abstract (p60).

“Conservatives,” Abbott declares, “are engaged in their country’s history, proud of its symbols, concerned for its welfare, attached to its values and vigorous in its defence.” (p69). He lays claim to an instinct to “defer to authority and to respect tradition”. What matters is that each individual has been shaped by the past and will influence the future, “having both ancestors and descendants to keep faith with”. This, he argues, is an instinct “deeply ingrained in human beings, even if it’s grossly under-appreciated by intellectuals”. Conservatives, he concludes, mix inspiration and pragmatism as they remain “conscious of both loss and hope”.

Abbott suggests “there are few problems in contemporary Australia that a dysfunctional federation doesn’t make worse”. He explains that “the state governments have legal responsibility for issues that only the national government has the political authority and financial muscle to resolve … the state governments tend to wield power without responsibility while the Commonwealth suffers responsibility without power” (p 113).


Abbott advocates major change to the federation. He outlines his plan for a constitutional amendment to “provide that the Commonwealth Parliament can make laws for the peace, order and good government of the country”.

In his critique of the current government, Abbott claims that “… it lacks any clear rationale or narrative for the blizzard of announcements and almost manic activity in which it’s engaged; and … its leader is not a well-formed political personality whose acts seem to be considered expressions of consistent convictions” (p34). This is in contrast of course to John Howard, a major influence and mentor for Abbott, and presumably by inference with Abbott himself, intent on pitching his more muscular and authentic political character against the insipid persona of his opponent.

Using the 2020 Summit as his launching point - an event of which Abbott is predictably critical - he sketches the kind of Australia he presumably would be happy to incubate should he get the chance.

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Battlelines, Melbourne University Press, 2009. This article is written in a personal capacity.

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About the Author

Martin Stewart-Weeks lives in Sydney. Previously, Martin held positions with the Liberal Party of Australia, the NSW Cabinet Office and was Chief of Staff to a Minister in the Fraser Government.

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