The Tony Abbott I know

As a public personality, our new prime minister is an involuntary paradox. On the one hand, Tony Abbott is one of the most discussed people in Australia. On the other, much of the discussion is so ill-informed that it conceals, rather than illuminates.

Yet the reality is that Abbott almost certainly is one of the most complex individuals ever to hold supreme political office in Australia.

Here we have a Rhodes Scholar – and no, Kevin Rudd never got one of those – who genuinely likes to call people “mate” and hit bushfires with blankets. A deeply religious man, who is massively pragmatic, both philosophically and temperamentally. A social conservative whose rightism does not necessarily extend very far into economics, and who is personally deeply tolerant. All this, plus being the opponent of same-sex marriage with a gay sister whom he deeply loves, and the constitutionally conservative monarchist who probably will put indigenous recognition into the Constitution.

Now we are left to discover the persona of our prime minister after his election.

Most of us – rightly – were appalled when Julia Gillard was vilified on the grounds of her gender, less often than was claimed by her supporters, but more frequently than is conceded by her detractors. We were particularly upset when she was characterised as a “witch”, with all the negative female stereotyping this carried.

Yet many commentators routinely parody Abbott as “Father Tony”, “Captain Catholic” or most commonly “The Mad Monk”. Exactly why is religious vilification more acceptable than misogyny, and which part of the character of the appalling Grigori Rasputin is to be ascribed to Anthony Abbott? I suppose the imputation of giant genitalia might at least be considered flattering.

The reality is that Abbott will be influenced by his Catholicism in the same way as Gillard was influenced by her womanhood and Bob Hawke was influenced by his agnosticism: it will contextualise, but not define him. So Abbott will not move to outlaw abortion or criminalise contraception. He will not grant favours to his Catholic mates. Cardinal George Pell will not become Minister for Foreign Affairs.

But if we want to ponder things actually worth thinking about, it is a fair bet that Abbott’s sympathy with indigenous people has something to do with his exposure to Catholic social justice theory. It also is highly likely that someone formed by the Jesuits is going to place at least a passing value on education. And anyone trying to predict Abbott’s industrial stance would be well advised to at least factor in some fairly interesting Catholic intellectualism on the legitimate place of trade unions, as well as Hayek.

This type of analysis is important because we not only have a particularly interesting Liberal prime minister, but a particularly interesting Coalition government. This is not the old caricature of a club of capitalists leavened with a syndicate of squatters. This will be a government seeking to marshal some very different trains of thought. Continue reading


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