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November 01st 2012 print

Peter Coleman

A Literary Man at the Zoo

Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott
by David Marr
Quarterly Essay 47, Black Inc, 2012, 135 pages, $19.95

There are three revealing anecdotes about Tony Abbott in The Costello Memoirs, which I co-wrote with Peter Costello in 2008. David Marr quotes two of them in full in his widely acclaimed and denounced polemic, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott. But he does not mention the third, although it is the most problematic of all and most central to Marr’s argument. So let me offer him some unsolicited advice.

The first anecdote, on page 19 of Political Animal, is a light-hearted note about Abbott the student campaigner as recalled good-humouredly by Peter Costello. Abbott was organising his mates in St John’s College at Sydney University to vote for Costello in a student election: 

Tony settled on a plan … he would assemble them at a nearby hotel for beer and then lead them en masse to the rally. But as the afternoon wore on, the beer proved far more compelling than the rally. They never made it. The vote was lost. 

The anecdote illustrates Abbott the student joker. You can almost hear his loud ho-ho-ho laugh in the background. Unlike Costello, Marr repeats it deadpan—although he covers the theme in his chapter on Abbott as Prince Hal.

The second story is a little more serious. It is on page 63 of Marr’s essay and quotes Costello, still in good-humoured vein: 

Never one to be held back by the financial consequences of decisions, he had grandiose plans for public expenditure. At one point when we were in government, he asked for funding to pay for telephone and electricity wires to be put underground throughout the whole of his northern Sydney electorate to improve the amenity of the neighbourhoods. He also wanted the Commonwealth to take over the building of local roads and bridges in his electorate. He wanted the Commonwealth to take over hospitals. He used to tell me proudly that he had learned all of his economics at the feet of Bob Santamaria. I was horrified. 

Again Marr is deadpan, although he notes economic policy as an important chink in Abbott’s armour. But Marr omits one significant and sympathetic sentence from the Costello quotation: 

Tony always saw himself as something of a romantic figure, a Don Quixote ready to take on lost causes and fight for great principles.

The third recollection of Abbott in The Costello Memoirs, the one which Marr overlooks entirely, is far more important than the other two and deals with the issue of whether John Howard would or should have resigned as prime minister in favour of Costello. Howard had intimated that he would step down before the 2004 election, but he later changed his mind. Costello publicly declared his continuing loyalty to the government. A few weeks later Joe Hockey invited him to his ministerial office for drinks with Ross Cameron, Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott. The relevant parts of their conversation as quoted in The Costello Memoirs are sometimes ambiguous but their meaning is clear enough. The passage is best quoted in full: 

They had been out to dinner together. Howard loyalist Abbott made a point of telling me how much the party had respected the decision I had made. It was, he said, the right thing to do. “If we win the next [2004] election Howard will stand down,” he said.

“I expected him to stand down after the last one, Tony. How do you know he won’t try to go again if he wins the election?”

“No, mate, this is his last election. That’s clear. He’ll do what’s right for the party.”

“And if he tries to go again? Will the party tell him to go?”

“He won’t need to be told. He’ll do the right thing.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“A few of us will go and see him. He’ll do the right thing.”

“Are you prepared to go and see him?”

“If necessary, but it won’t come to that.”

There is wriggle room in this after-dinner exchange. There are undertakings but not solemn promises. People change their minds as circumstances change.

Yet the meaning at the time seemed clear. It goes to the issue of Abbott’s credibility and is excellent material for Marr’s big theme that Abbott the political animal will always put political advantage before principle, just like Julia Gillard. It could be that Marr missed its significance, just as he says he missed the significance (until alerted by the government and its mules in the media) of his anecdote about Abbott’s wild reaction to his defeat (his alleged punching a wall) in a student election thirty-five years ago. One explanation is that Marr is more a literary than a political journalist.

Marr has insisted several times that Political Animal is not an anti-Abbott tract. He protests too much. True, he lists some of what he sees as Abbott’s good points, such as competence, humour, even charm. He also expresses the pious hope that Abbott will reform. But the overwhelming thrust of the essay is that if Abbott becomes prime minister it will be bad news or worse for Australia. The crowds that packed the halls to watch him dissect Abbott clearly and noisily agreed with him. He has become a leading barker for the Gillard government. Yet his criticisms of Abbott are trivial. They are intimated by the essay’s title.

One of Marr’s lines of criticism is that Abbott used to be a rough-and-tumble rugger-bugger when he was a teenager. Many young men are. It is not a hanging offence. Another is that as a raw youth he had “a problem with women”. So do most male teenagers. There is no evidence that Abbott has had this problem over the past thirty years.

But the crowning criticism is that as Abbott shinned his way up the greasy pole of politics he has from time to time compromised his beliefs, including his Catholic beliefs. Some readers may have to pick themselves up off the floor over their shock at this revelation, but most of Marr’s many admirers are aware that there has not been a politician in the history of the world who has not been a trimmer, a compromiser. Politics is the art of compromise, and we demand that politicians compromise. We want them to get things done and not just deliver fine speeches. Yet this is the essence of Marr’s critique of Abbott. It is essentially banal.

A few years ago Marr wrote an acclaimed biography of Patrick White. He should stick to literature.

This article was originally published in American Review, the online magazine of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. The website address is ussc.edu.au.