QUARTERLY ESSAY 47 Political Animal



Chris Uhlmann

The Tony Abbott who emerges from David Marr’s pen is a far more elusive figure than most of the discussion of the essay would suggest. In the months since it was published, enormous effort has gone into ensuring Abbott is reduced to one disputed paragraph: a dangerously angry young man who throws a punch at a wall near a woman’s head. That impression of Abbott as an aggressive misogynist has been carved in stone by the prime minister’s declaration of gender war.

But that Abbott is at odds with the Tony found elsewhere by Marr. We encounter a minister that staff and bureaucrats described as “admirably polite,” someone who “never explored [cuts] with relish. People find this amazing but he doesn’t seek conflict.” 

We learn he was devastated that cabinet overturned his “rock-solid, iron-clad” commitment not to lift the Medicare safety-net thresholds, and considered resigning. This fits with the memoirs of the former treasurer Peter Costello, who wrote, “Tony always saw himself as something of a romantic figure, a Don Quixote, ready to take on lost causes and fight for great principles. Never one to be held back by the financial consequences of decisions …” 

On the signature Howard government policy WorkChoices, he is one of the few arguing against it, by saying, rightly, that it would undermine the battlers’ faith in the prime minister. He warned cabinet: “It was always going to look as though we were exposing vulnerable people to danger.”

This defence of the working man, and woman, rings with the voice of the disciple of B.A. Santamaria, deeply familiar with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. In it Leo examined the rights and duties of capital and labour and said:

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless … If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.

Tony’s Catholic voice is raised whenever he seeks to describe his political vocation. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas echo when he tells Paul Kelly that politics is a way of giving glory to God: “This idea that politics is a managerial exercise, a simple question of resource allocation, I just think is dead wrong because politics is about inspiring people and persuading people there is value in what they do.”

One of the church’s key social tenets, “the common good,” lurks in Tony’s maiden speech, in his belief that governments must be an “instrument for giving social cohesion and purpose to our national life.”

Intriguingly, during his first foray into parliament, when describing what government should do, he quoted Ben Chifley’s “Light on the Hill” speech, itself drawn from an age when Labor was imbued with a deep understanding of the Catholic Church’s social teaching. “People expect governments to work …” Tony said, “‘for the betterment of mankind, not just here but wherever we can lend a helping hand.’” 

It’s perfectly reasonable for Tony Abbott’s political life to be informed by his Catholicism; many Greens are informed by a modern take on pantheism and no one seems troubled by that. And it’s arguable that some of his best political impulses are those shaped by a rich tradition of theology and philosophy. It was therefore essential for Marr to examine the Opposition leader’s faith, because it is impossible to understand Tony Abbott without it.

What should have been the talking point of the essay is the glaring fault-line Marr marks between Tony’s faith and Abbott’s ruthless pragmatism. Tony’s better angels have ever been at war with Abbott’s earthly ambitions, a tension that appears even in his decision to train for the priesthood at St Patrick’s College, Manly. Why? “He wanted to be Archbishop of Sydney,” Father Michael Kelly told Four Corners in 2010. Given the church leadership’s immersion in the darker arts of politics for nearly 2000 years, Father Kelly might have added St John Chrysostom’s observation that, “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.”

Tony is guided by Christ’s distillation of the law: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Abbott is driven by a parody of that dictum coined by another Catholic politician, James Curley, the three-time Boston mayor: “Do others, or they will do you.”

Tony used to emerge often in public but his appearances have been tragically curtailed since Abbott became Opposition leader. If Abbott now finds himself the victim of a campaign to reduce him to a caricature, then he should reflect on this: he has made it possible because he has spent a political lifetime reducing himself. 

Marr notes that on the day after his by-election victory, Abbott told the press he was looking forward to being a “junkyard dog savaging the other side.” He finds Abbott’s colleagues “in awe of his savagery.”

Marr says that in 2001, “Howard put the young minister’s aggression to use by also appointing him Leader of the House.” And this sentence is telling: “Abbott knew he had to counter the caricature of the Catholic hard man if his leadership ambitions were ever to go anywhere.” Tony Abbott has known for a very long time that if he wants to be prime minister, he has to show the public more than his brute face. But he rarely has.

Each time an opportunity has presented itself for Tony to flourish, he has been overwhelmed by Abbott. As Opposition leader, Abbott has utterly suffocated Tony. Everything about him has been diminished, even the points of attack on the government. He has now taken as gospel the words of Lord Randolph Churchill: “Oppose everything, suggest nothing and turf the Government out.” The contemporary take on Churchill’s dictum was best distilled by one of Abbott’s staff: “the job in Opposition is to get your boots on and kick the shit out of them.” Abbott and his staff are convinced that Oppositions do not win elections – governments lose them. So the Opposition leader’s role is to do as much damage to the Gillard government as possible.

This is a political take on an ancient theological approach, the via negativa: Abbott defines himself by what he is not. Above all he is Not Labor. There is a crude genius to this. On one level it has been an outstanding success. Gauged only by how much damage he has inflicted on Labor, Abbott is the most successful Opposition leader in Australian political history. He has undone one prime minister and may bring down a second.

But this scorched-earth politics ignores something crucial: how much damage Abbott has done to himself. His approach is consuming the better parts of his nature and defining him politically and personally. An attack on your character cannot stick unless it is plausible. The caricature of Abbott as a brutal misogynist is not accurate, but he has ensured that it is credible. The Coalition is clearly deeply worried that the caricature is now setting like cement in the public’s mind. If it wasn’t, it would not have wheeled out his wife, Margie, and his daughters to mount a defence.

And to date, Abbott has done the Gillard government great harm without becoming prime minister himself. It will all come to nothing if he does not succeed in taking that last step.

Perhaps Abbott should ponder what became of his political hero, Santamaria, and what the Movement did to his church. In Edmund Campion’s brilliant reflection on growing up Catholic in Australia, Rockchoppers, he writes that the saddest moment of Santamaria’s life seemed to Campion to be a dinner for the fortieth anniversary of the Movement in July 1981: 

B.A. Santamaria, the man who, all those years ago, had set out with a great ache in his heart to remake the world so that the poor and rejected could find compassion and justice, was ending his days among the stone-faced men of the Right.

And the church? Before the Movement there was a longstanding Catholic critique of Western society that: 

tried to determine what had happened to humankind in Europe and its dependencies since the Reformation and the industrial revolution; then it tried to assess this in terms of Christian humanist philosophy …

Nothing was outside the scope of this criticism – the factory system, universities, the press, monopolies, industrial farming, the control of capital, modern warfare, communism and socialism, restrictive immigration – it was assumed that an authentic Christianity had something sensible to say about all aspects of life.

But in the wake of the Movement, “Catholics got so badly burned they abandoned social criticism of this deeply philosophical kind.” The way the Movement went about using its political power not only split Labor, it also split and damaged the church.

In the end Abbott might triumph no matter what Labor throws at him. Not being Julia Gillard could be enough to get him there, given the equally visceral reaction to the prime minister among large swathes of the electorate.

And right now, Tony Abbott might console himself with the idea that when he finally grasps the prize, he will govern differently to the way that he won government. But, in dealing with a hostile Senate, he might find that, as Paul noted: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” And as he wrestles, too late, with the task of convincing a sceptical public that there is more to him than meets the eye, he might reflect on the words of Luke’s Gospel: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses himself?”


Chris Uhlmann is political editor of ABC TV’s 7.30. He has worked as the chief political correspondent for ABC radio current affairs and been political editor of ABC News, The 7.30 Report and ABC News 24.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 47, Political Animal. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 48, After the Future.


Lech Blaine
Peter Dutton's Strongman Politics
Alan Kohler
Australia's Housing Mess and How to Fix It
Micheline Lee
Disability, Humanity and the NDIS
Megan Davis
On Recognition and Renewal
Saul Griffith
Electrification and Community Renewal
Katharine Murphy
Albanese and the New Politics