From David Marr’s Quarterly Essay, “Political Animal, The Making of Tony Abbott”, here are nine things we didn’t know about the man …
Tony’s Catholicism is of a recent vintage. His grandfather, Marr explains, “had made a bargain with God that were his family to survive a voyage to Australia in the early months of World War II they would go over to Rome. Untouched by torpedoes, the Abbotts converted with some fervour”. This may explain why he burns with the zeal of the newly converted, unlike “cultural Catholics” who believe that if several generations of their family have regularly attended Mass then they don’t have to (my husband).
As a teenager, he had a very odd attitude to sex. ”I was sorta wrestling with this idea of the bloody priesthood, and I kept saying, ‘No, no! No sex! Against the rules! Then I’d say, ‘Oh, all right’.” And this was in the 1970s?
When his girlfriend, Kathy McDonald, became pregnant, 19-year-old Tony was unwilling to marry her as it would rule out the priesthood. It would also mean he could not apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, as it was then open only to single applicants. The relationship broke down when she was seven months pregnant but he came to the hospital when the baby was born and held him for a few minutes, before he was adopted out. (Thirty-five years later, the son was found not to have been Abbott’s.)
He is alleged to have physically intimidated and punched the wall next to Barbara Ramjan after she defeated him in the election for the president of the Students’ Representative Council at Sydney University. Asked by Marr about it, Abbott said he had no memory of the incident, but put out a statement on Saturday saying that it had never happened. He said, she said …
His views about homosexuality are scarier than we think. At university, writing in uni paper Honi Soit, he takes the reader into the SRC Women’s Collective, full of women who are “grim faced, overall-clad, hard, strident, often lustfully embracing in a counterfeit of love”. Marr also quotes Abbott as writing to High Court judge Michael Kirby that he had trouble with the idea that homosexuality should be regarded as acceptable, rather than simply accepted; “especially when the overwhelming weight of tradition holds that it is in some sense sinful”.
Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, has recently come out as gay, a decision Abbott is reported to have accepted. This may be an example of another Catholic trait — “to hate the sin but love the sinner”.
On the first date with his now-wife Margaret Aitken, he explained to her the history of the Democratic Labor Party split. And she still married him! (Was this a way of ensuring there would never be s-x on a first date?)
His handwriting is appalling. Even his numbers are illegible. When he was health minister, someone on his personal staff had to tell public servants what was actually scrawled on their submissions.
He is engaged in a strange war with his body. Marr writes: ”He walks as though he has to will each leg forward. It’s curious in a man who is so obviously fit. His face is skin and bone. He smiles but his eyes are hooded. The overall effect is faintly menacing, as if he’s about to climb into the ring.
I’ve noticed that when talking to Tony, he often leans forward and bounces slightly on the balls of his feet, a bit like a kangaroo. Maybe he just has poor circulation and his toes are numb. For a few years, we saw a great deal of his taut torso, often clad in a pair of red budgie-smugglers. But no longer.
“His minders — and perhaps his wife — have said no to Speedos and Lycra,” writes Marr. “Even so it can be said that never in the political annals of this country have so many seen so much of so little.” All of this may explain why…
He loves physical deprivation. The essay contains an excellent anecdote from writer Peter Fitzsimons, who played rugby with him in the 1980s:
“Abbo never saw a scrum that he didn’t like … what he most loved, and I mean this, was doing it when the conditions were appalling. One night in June, 1989, it all came together. A howling wind, screaming imprecations at the devil. Sheets of rain without end. A whole quagmire of mud to work with. Situation perfect … as we maddened muddy wombats staggered after him. Forty minutes in, as our eyeballs rolled with exhaustion, I dinkum remember looking at his own beatific countenance, all grin and ears, the rain pouring off his uncovered head and having this distinct thought: ‘I think he’s a little bit insane — in a hugely likeable way.’”
In private, he opposed WorkChoices. According to Marr: “He thought WorkChoices harsh and bad politics: ‘A catastrophic political blunder because it undermined the Howard battlers’ faith in the prime minister’s goodwill.’ He and another Catholic warrior in the government, Kevin Andrews, contested the proposals in cabinet. Abbott was particularly concerned with the abolition of the no-disadvantage test, which had set a safety net under earlier workplace reform.”
At the end of this excellent essay, Marr sums up Tony the politician in a paragraph:
“An aggressive populist with a sharp tongue; a political animal with lots of charm; a born protege with ambitions to lead; a big brain but no intellectual; a bluff guy who proved a more than competent minister; a politician with little idea of what he might do if he ever got to the top; and a man profoundly wary of change.
“He’s a worker. No doubt about that. But the point of it all is power. Without power it’s been a waste of time.”