Lost in the controversy about “the punch” in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott was a more significant insight into the Opposition leader’s character. I first met Abbott thirty years ago, during his notorious, rampaging period as a student politician. We were elected to the House of Representatives within months of each other in 1994, commencing a series of robust exchanges. Yet in this time, I never really got a handle on Abbott.
He was an enduring contradiction: someone who preached conservative values yet practised an aggressive, scandal-prone brand of politics. It was easy to write him off as a Mad Monk, a sobriquet his parliamentary colleagues readily embraced.
This is where the Marr essay is invaluable. It identifies the character trait which, above all others, explains the Abbott puzzle. He is a man of chronic hyperbole, an attention-seeker who cannot engage in public debate without exaggerating the faults of his opponents and their policy positions.
Marr sets out the trail of overstated behaviour. The pampered childhood, in which no boundaries were placed on young Tony’s adventurism. His time at Sydney University hectoring lesbians and vandalising public property in the name of conservatism. His struggles as a trainee priest in conforming to the vows of celibacy and the culture of St Patrick’s seminary. Then his turbulent period in the early 1990s, ostensibly working for the Liberal leader, John Hewson, but acting as an agent for John Howard.
His old boss has neatly defined the Abbott technique. “He gets right in your face,” says Hewson. “He exaggerates, he grabs the headlines, even if he knows that the next day he’s gonna have to back off.” As a member of parliament, Abbott has been a habitual exaggerator. He has compared himself to Jesus Christ and Winston Churchill. He went over the top in his pursuit of Pauline Hanson and Cheryl Kernot – in the former case, admitting to lying about the funding of the anti-Hanson campaign. During the 2007 election campaign, he vilified the anti-asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton.
As Opposition leader, Abbott has become well-known for his fitness regime, typically at the extreme end of endurance sports. He is not the sort of person who runs around the block or swims a few laps to stay in shape. He organises 24-hour marathons and seven-day bike rides. So too, in his community service, he does not staff the school canteen or deliver meals-on-wheels. Instead, his publicity machine promotes his “action man” exploits: fighting dangerous bushfires and battling treacherous surf conditions as a life-saver. In his private life, Abbott does not pursue the safe and sensible; he enjoys an exaggerated sense of danger.
His stance on policy issues is no different. On the carbon tax, he could not help himself, running the most fraudulent scare campaign in the nation’s history. His predictions of economic ruin now look ridiculous. Even when Abbott backs down, he uses embroidered rhetoric – on this issue, switching from a cobra strike to a python squeeze.
In the month since Marr’s essay, the exaggerations have continued. George Megalogenis from the Australian has picked apart the amplified claims in Abbott’s defence policy speech to the RSL. When the prime minister visited New York recently, Abbott overreached in telling her to go to Jakarta to talk to the Indonesian president, when Yudhoyono was already on his way to the Big Apple. Even in his wife’s public appearances in early October, the Opposition leader went for overkill, using six media events when one would have been more appropriate (and less risky, especially if the “Good Man” endorsement rebounds on him).
This pattern of hyperbole is the reason why the electorate has never warmed to Abbott. Sure, he has been around a long while and people know a lot about him. But the public has little sense of who he is. Conservatives are supposed to be moderate, careful, temperamentally cautious types, not tearaways forever shooting off their mouths. People think there is something wrong with Abbott: he talks about a particular set of beliefs in a way which undermines the integrity of those values.
Under his leadership, we are witnessing the moral decline of Australian conservatism. Howard set a credible public standard because, in large part, his personal style matched his policy ideas. Under Abbott, the Liberal Party’s methods and values have become disconnected. Reckless exaggerations are undermining their message about prudence and traditionalism in public life.
Naturally, a leader’s words set the tone for contributions by his followers. It is not by coincidence that Abbott’s close friends Alan Jones and Cory Bernardi have caused him grief recently with their wild, irrational claims. Incapable of backing away, Abbott resurrected Jones’s “died of shame” phrase in parliamentary debate with Julia Gillard on 9 October – a recklessness his deputy Julie Bishop could not defend when she appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project later that day.
I have no doubt Abbott’s words, in supporting his motion to remove the Speaker in the House of Representatives, were carefully planned and rehearsed, as are each of his major set-piece speeches in parliament. His excuse that he had forgotten Jones’s attack on the prime minister’s deceased father is not credible – an echo of his alibi in Marr’s essay that he had no recollection of the Barbara Ramjan punch. Abbott should carry this slur against the Gillard family as a ball-and-chain on his character and credibility for the remainder of his time in public life.
Some critics have described Marr’s essay as the politics of personality, a spark for the inferno of character attacks now dominating the Australian parliament. History should record, however, that the first venture into personality politics in this term of parliament was launched by the Australian newspaper in its allegations against Gillard from her time as a lawyer at Slater & Gordon in the early 1990s. The prime minister’s character having been publicly tested in this fashion, Marr’s essay gained extra media attention as a legitimate assessment of Abbott’s make-up.
This is a debate Labor cannot lose. Abbott’s hyperbole habit is so entrenched that his best chance of winning the next election is on policy issues, not personality. Indeed, this is the break in the weather the government has been waiting for. In a test of character and temperament, Gillard is making ground against a chronically flawed opponent.
Mark Latham is a former leader of the Australian Labor Party and was Opposition leader from 2003 to 2005. He writes a regular column for the Australian Financial Review and his books include Civilising Global Capital and The Latham Diaries.
A version of this comment appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 11 October 2012.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 48, After the Future.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY