The straight-up review is taking ages but the following pretty much wrote itself. It is a rookie mistake for book reviewers to review the book they wish was written and judge the actual book by an inherently unfair standard. Very well: let me separate the review from what I wish Marr had examined (allowing, of course, for the fact that he only had 25,000 words to work with).
The Education of Young Tony
Abbott's education at Riverview is significantly under-examined, and maybe only a full biography can do it justice. Readers from outside Sydney may appreciate the brief summary but Marr's brief description reads like that of a Sydney social-climber: the real estate and the prestige being all you need to know about the place.
St Ignatius' College Riverview (to give its full title) was founded in 1880. The systemic Catholic schools and nascent public system at the time was designed for the self-employed and those who would spend their working lives as employees to undertake valuable, but subordinate work. The elite schools of the time were exclusively Anglican, Methodist or Presbyterian; Riverview was established in order to provide Catholic men with the education that would enable them to participate in the elite of society in New South Wales. Not long after its foundation, Riverview was producing judges, surgeons, members of parliament, captains of industry and other worthies occupying leading roles in Sydney and throughout the nation. No doubt it is possible to trace Christian, and specifically Catholic values, exercised by those men in office as a result of their Riverview education. This aspect of the character of Riverview differentiates Abbott from the education Julia Gillard would have received at Unley High.
Marr makes much of Abbott's ability to write. He also refers to Abbott quoting Shakespeare and other evidence of great reading, and of course there's the adage that you can't write well without having read well. His mother may have read him Ladybird books about the great and good, but did she read him Taming of the Shrew? Somewhere at Riverview a teacher stoked and channelled a high-level of ability and interest in reading and writing: who was that? How many other Ignatians were inspired by that/those teacher(s) with a love of good writing and the ability to practice it?
What is it about the Jesuit education that's special/different? Why did Abbott emerge from Riverview as an, err, energetic Catholic enforcer while others (e.g. Nick Enright, Robert Hughes, Abbott's classmate Ignatius Jones) did not? Three Labor Cabinet ministers were taught by Christian Brothers at St Patrick's College Strathfield: what makes Abbott different to/from them?
Why did others, trained in the same "old-fashioned 1950s Catholicism" abandon it while Abbott stuck by it?
When Abbott was a member of the SRC and Barbara Ramjan was its President, it is possible that she was the first woman apart from his mother in a position to exercise power over him. Wall-punching aside, this aspect of the Ramjan-Abbott relationship is important: Abbott may be among the last of generations of men to have moved up in Australian society without having to deal with women in positions of power.
My guess is that before and during the 1970s, Riverview did not employ female teachers. The Universities of Sydney and Oxford would have employed few female lecturers and tutors, particularly in law and economics. The Catholic Church certainly didn't. The Bulletin and The Australian wouldn't have employed too many women at senior levels. Each of his political mentors/employers John Howard, John Hewson and David Flint were men. Only when he got into the Liberal Party when aged in his thirties would Abbott have encounted women in significant numbers, and at significant levels of power, where he had to deal with them in order to get what he wanted.
So Abbott had a girlfriend who, by the end of his first year at uni, he had abandoned while pregnant. Marr recounts his easy charm and his male friendships at university, and hints at 'women in the background' but fails to examine relationships with his female peers, other than Ramjan. Some of them must have fell for him, however hard, and others who gave him a wide berth. If, say, Greg Sheridan had been Gail Sheridan, would she have been able to form any kind of platonic friendship with the young Tony Abbott? Abbott's relationship with women outside his family, and other than the one he married, are significant.
Prurient detail is unnecessary. These relationships go to the issue of women's attitudes toward him, and to the wider question of whether someone who flouts social norms so flagrantly can truly be considered a conservative.
The University of Sydney
Again, it's significant that Abbott went to the University of Sydney, rather than UNSW or Macquarie (the latter of which is closer to Killara than the city's other universities). Why did he not light out for somewhere like ANU, like his contemporary Kevin Rudd? Why didn't he go straight to the seminary at 18? A Sydney graduate himself, Marr assumes that simply everybody goes to Sydney.
Also: given that Abbott was drinking, rucking, fucking and politicking quite a lot at uni, how on earth did he pass his studies? You don't get a Rhodes Scholarship by barely scraping through. Did any of the subject-matter actually captivate him? Given his love of good writing, and the fact that more female students study those courses, why did he not study Arts?
Sydney's Economics faculty at that time included several prominent marxists, like Ted Wheelwright and Frank Stilwell: how did Abbott bear it? Is the quality of his economics education responsible for the dismissive attitude of Costello and other commentators toward his grasp of economics?
Aside from Joe Hockey, and Marr's erstwhile Fairfax colleagues Peter FitzSimons and Malcolm Knox, many of Abbott's fellow students and rugger-buggers now occupy senior positions in law, finance, medicine and business (Knox writes novels about such people). It's one thing for them to have said "shut up, Abbo" at uni, but how do they feel now that the Prime Ministership is within his reach? Do they cheer him still or does the swot from Unley High not look so bad in comparison? The Liberal Party and the business community are no longer so synonymous nor as in lockstep as they were, even as recently as the 1970s.
Voting in campus elections is voluntary. It is possible to do very well in student politics with very few votes. It relies on apathy to speak and act unchallenged on behalf of students, and this aspect translates into the ennui of wider politics through student politicians carrying their assumptions through to the bigger games. It is a symptom of the failure of campus politics to extrapolate to national politics that Abbott's Sydney University contemporaries have not acted sooner to thwart his ambitions.
One of Abbott's associates at uni was one Steven Lewis. News Ltd employs a political correspondent called Steve Lewis, recently notorious for targeting allegations of homosexual activity as Abbott was at university. Are they the same person?
A junkyard dog in the Liberal Party
In the year following Sir John Kerr's dismissal of the Whitlam government, more Australians joined political parties than at any time before or since. Tony Abbott was not one of them, disdaining the very party he would one day lead. Marr should have made more of that than he did.
I was a member of the Liberal Party at around the same time as Abbott. I was a committed Young Liberal by the late 1980s when he was still flirting with joining the ALP, and I remember when he went to ACM. In the interim he was a "junkyard dog" for the right in internal party machinations.
The most notable of these was the 1989 Senate preselection, for the election the following year. The favourite to win top position on the ballot was a sitting Senator and a Shadow Minister, Chris Puplick. Also running was the immediate past State President of the party, Bronwyn Bishop. Only the top position was guaranteed of election; the second position on the Coalition ticket went to the National Party and the third was vulnerable to the vagaries of preferences.
Conservatives supported Bishop and the moderates Puplick; the moderates were being routed in Victoria and were under pressure across the nation. Abbott was a preselector and tore into Puplick with such ferocity that he became flustered, particularly on Puplick's support for gay issues such as HIV funding. The genteel NSW Liberals had never seen anything like it but they rewarded Bishop with the winnable spot, mainly because the moderates did not respond in kind to Abbott's provocations.
Abbott did the dirty work for Bishop and Howard. The right had no love for the relatively moderate Greiner-Fahey state government and people like Abbott made life difficult for it within its own ranks. It is telling that Howard had the clout to get his man into Warringah in 1994 while Hewson didn't, and couldn't play the internal party game; it's one of the reasons why Hewson never made it to the Lodge and Howard did. Abbott went into his first preselction with a sizeable chunk of votes in his pocket not despite, but because of, all that dirty work. It is genuinely amazing that Marr omitted this.
It is a real weakness of political history - particularly when written by journalists - that one minute someone joins a party and the next the party bestows their most prized offices and emoluments, lending a sense of inevitability to a process subject to duckshoving and luck. Marr was a journalist during this time, he had to be aware of it and it would not be hard to find Liberals who worked more closely with and against Abbott to talk about his role in the party.
After he became an MP Abbott would have watched at close quarters as Howard went through the Liberal Party like a dose of salts in 1995-96. This was the price the party paid for his leadership and the prospect of power. As leader, Abbott hasn't transformed the Liberal Party in his own image to anything like the extent that Howard did. Abbott was a happy spear-carrier for the right but he never led it. People like David Clarke call the shots; never has Abbott disagreed with them and carry the day. This is hugely significant as to Abbott's hold on his party's leadership.
That factional warfare gave rise to this. People thought that was out of character too, because they weren't paying attention. My patience with Abbott's verbal binge-and-purge approach ended there, and so did my ability to regard his supporters as mugs and/or shits. Marr didn't mention this episode at all, and it (along with Foyle's article) complicates Marr's thesis about Abbott being a ratbag at uni who later matured.
Abbott refrained from making similar comments when Labor MPs Nick Sherry and Greg Wilton attempted suicide, but this should be a basic measure of humanity rather than a special concession on his part (Abbott is not entitled to be judged by his own standards). His condolences to the Prime Minister on the death of her father are niggardly to say the least.
When I first found out many years ago that Abbott's father was a dentist, this was the first thing that came to mind. Never mind that nice house at Killara, David, or the various organs of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church; Abbott has simply been badly raised.
Joe de Bruyn and anti-materialism
Latter-day conservatives in the Liberal Party consider that moderates have no place in that party. Any moderate objection to the conservative agenda was met with a chorus of "Why don't you go and join the Labor Party?". Abbott used to do this most enthusiastically to me and other moderates. This simple binary approach belies Liberal conservatives' close relationship with Labor's conservatives.
Marr identifies Joe de Bruyn as having encountered Abbott at school but ignores him thereafter. This is a mistake, particularly for someone who professes to examine the interface between religion and politics in this country.
During the Howard ascendancy of 1995-96, de Bruyn built back-channel relationships with Liberal conservatives; especially Howard, Abbott and Kevin Andrews. Unlike other interest groups the union movement cannot openly work well with both major parties, so any relationships it has with the Coalition must be covert. After he left the portfolio Peter Reith and others have argued that there was much to be done in workplace relations reform, and one major reason why Abbott and Andrews did so little was because de Bruyn made it clear to them that any such initiatives were unacceptable to him.
On other issues, de Bruyn is active in Liberal circles and acts to support Abbott, especially on those issues where the Vatican line is engaged. He intervened with conservatives for Abbott in the debate over RU486 against Labor's then Shadow Health Minister Julia Gillard (those who are amazed that Prime Minister Gillard, a lefty lawyer from Melbourne, won't support gay marriage would be less amazed if they understood de Bruyn better). It is a cop-out for Marr and his entire profession to simply label de Bruyn "shadowy" and/or ignore him altogether.
In this interview (at 13:28 - 14:03) Marr claims the role of conservatives is to keep the price of labour low, and that the DLP don't do this.
De Bruyn works with two of Australia's biggest companies and most significant employers, Coles and Woolworths, to keep labour costs down, down and to limit industrial disputes. The combination of labour cost reduction with Catholic principles is significant in disdaining the materialism on which trade unionism is built. Marr observes Abbott's personal lack of materialism, but fails to mention how this flows through to his regularly expressed scorn for people who band together and carry on for the sake of a few extra bucks. He never supports campaigns for higher wages other than those for MPs. If you're going into Abbott's record and projecting it forward onto what an "Abbott Government" might look like, anti-materialism as an impulse to keeping wages low is a misunderstanding of how what used to be known as Groupers operate today.
You can over-egg the Abbott-de Bruyn relationship, and to be fair de Bruyn operates in a way where he leaves very few traces that journalists can detect. His impact is so significant that Marr tells half a story when he labours the DLP-Santamaria aspect of Abbott but then ignores de Bruyn, who is a latter-day Santamaria in many respects.
Craig Thomson was Federal Secretary of the Health Services Union from 2002 to 2007. Tony Abbott was Federal Minister for Health from 2003 to 2007.
Given that Abbott was the sort of minister who'd work with a wide range of stakeholders to get things done, according to Marr, he and Thomson would have worked together at various points over some years - including during the period when HSU member funds were allegedly being misused.
As a political animal, Abbott must have been aware that Thomson was targeting what was then a marginal Liberal seat. He must have been able to pick up indications, however subtle, across the political divide that Thomson had baggage.
For most of this term of Parliament the Coalition have targeted Thomson. It is unlikely that any Coalition MP or camp-follower knows Thomson better than Abbott. Abbott led the attack on Thomson and even, in a simulacrum of magnanimity, suggested that Thomson resign for the sake of his family (which, if Thomson had resigned, may well have made Abbott Prime Minister by now). It is hard to imagine what more the Coalition could have done to ramp up the pressure on Thomson, yet he remains an obstacle to Abbott's ambitions.
This isn't some facile point that Craig and Tony used to work together and now they don't: that's politics, baby. The question here goes to Abbott's judgment. He decided that Thomson was Labor's weak link, he decided that the Coalition's road to government was over Thomson's political body, and this tactic hasn't been as successful as Abbott and others might have hoped.
"the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years"
Marr said that Abbott is "the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years". This is one of those mantras of the Canberra press gallery whose adoption is almost a price of admission to that institution, and facilitates the groupthink by which it operates.
Marr doesn't define what success means in that position. Given the high standards and competitiveness of the major parties, you would have to say that a successful Opposition Leader is one who becomes Prime Minister. Here are some Federal Opposition Leaders with a better track record than the incumbent:
- Malcolm Fraser became Opposition Leader in February 1975 and was Prime Minister within ten months. He led the Coalition to the two biggest electoral majorities ever.
- The winner of the third-biggest election victory in our history, John Howard, took 14 months to go from being elected his party's leader to the Lodge (yes, yes, he had another four years or so in the 1980s).
- Kevin Rudd became Opposition Leader in December 2006 and was Prime Minister a year later.
- Bob Hawke achieved the same feat within a month.
- Billy Snedden became a laughing stock for refusing to concede that the Coalition had lost the 1974 election. Even so, he led his party to set the parliamentary conditions that saw a popular and reforming government turfed out. He was a "political animal" at uni and was rude to the incumbent Prime Minister in the House.
- Kim Beazley led Labor to 51% of the two-party-preferred vote in 1998: yet we all agree that Labor lost that election while Abbott's result in 2010 is a "near victory", whatever that means.
Going back further than forty years, Abbott has a lot in common with his co-religionist Arthur Calwell: a record as a minister that belied a hardline set of beliefs, an authentic representative of an aspect of his party that is no less attractive to the public for that, and a leader who got lucky in his first election from which it was all downhill. Mosman Town Hall is in Abbott's electorate.
In word and deed
You can only accept the claims by Greg Sheridan and Gerard Henderson that criticism by Marr and others of Abbott is "anti-Catholic" if you assume that Abott's every word and deed is done to advance the word of the Lord and the Church. Good luck with that.
The organisation that Abbott leads is looking to increase its numbers in Parliament, while Sheridan's employer is looking to cut staff. Mateship aside, Sheridan's shrieking about Abbott must constitute something of an audition for redundancy. If I were responsible for putting names to job-reduction targets at News Ltd, Sheridan would be top of mind.
Redemption and forgiveness
There was a time when such appalling behaviour would see a chap blackballed from clubs and other institutions of the elite. Clearly this hasn't happened to Abbott, and in this regard too perhaps he should be grateful for living in an age free of the social rigidities he would seek to (re-)impose.
Abbott may insist on a fresh start, but this does not mean he has to be given one. Expecting forgiveness to follow from confession without the drudgery of introspection and atonement may be as Catholic as all get out, and certainly the media seem prepared to cut him plenty of slack. There is, however, real doubt that everyone accepts Abbott's insistence as much as the Catholic church or the Canberra press gallery do. In this disconnect will Abbott's fate be sealed.
In a recent episode of ABC Radio National's Sunday Extra, one of Australia's most professional trolls made the following observations (at 14:33):
... reciprocity, that is ... [almost two minutes of drivel as he marshals his thoughts, then] I turn up to work on time, I do a good job, I expect you [the government and other 'élites', strangely not including him] to do the same.He used that to imply that Australians were basically conservative and that they would therefore reject the incumbent government. Here's why (in line with his patchy record of success) this guy lacks the ability to make the link and make it stick.
Tony Abbott has gotten away with it all his life. The vandalism and violence as a youngster, the leer and swagger, all show a man who cares not a whit for the opinion of anyone else and is supremely convinced that everything he does is right and good (or if not, that he'll get away with that too). Gillard at least takes people seriously, and the education and NDIS initiatives provide proof of that.
Abbott has done all the learning he is going to do, and if people don't accept the scraps of contrition he tosses out from time to time then to hell with them. Such an unstable man cannot deliver the stability in government that conservatives crave, and that conservatives need to convince voters of if they are to form government. That's why he relies so heavily on Howard Veneer; and he'll thank lefties like David Marr not to probe it too hard and rake over old ground, thanks very much.