Tony Abbott is an unusual politician. Let me give an example. Some years ago I was invited to join a delegation to cabinet ministers about the unfair impact on judicial pensions of a particular Howard government proposal.
Tony Abbott saw us alone, without the usual cast of advisers who take notes to use against media exposure and whose presence is essentially to ensure that nothing a minister says is of any consequence. Instead he spoke openly and honestly.
About the same time a friend told me he had seen Tony on a 389 bus in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. He wondered why he wasn’t using a ministerial car.
Politicians normally only go on public transport or use bicycles for a photo opportunity. I recall the current British Prime Minister David Cameron when he was in opposition being filmed cycling to the House of Commons. One mischievous media cameraman was nasty enough to film the official car following him.
Tony has been consistent in not using his community involvements for political advantage. Until he became Leader and the media then followed his every move, few people knew that for many years he was both a fireman and a lifesaver. And to those who are strangers to the surf, the swimming costume he wears is what lifesavers normally wear. The tedious campaign against the costume – on at least athletic men – is inexplicable. It is, dare I say it, un- Australian.
His involvement, with other politicians, for over a decade in Polly Peddle could not fail to be noticed by the media; it raised over $1 million for various worthy charities. The media was less interested in the times that he lived in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory; on one of these he volunteered to act as a teaching assistant.
Ifirst met Tony Abbott in the early nineties when he was the first executive director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. I had recently seen him in a packed Town Hall rally he had called where several prominent speakers included a Liberal opposition MP, John Howard. The speakers included men and women, an ALP politician and an Australian of Chinese origin.
I arranged to see Tony at ACM’s modest Sydney office in Pitt Street. My immediate impression was of a friendly young man with a firm handshake – but not ostentatiously so – and with rugged good looks. His ears suggested a boxer’s – my father was a boxing champion so I was well used to seeing what this sport could do.
It is a fact that the camera treats people differently from real life. An advertising friend tells me the camera loves some faces- he points to some models who he says are less attractive in real life.
The camera does two things to Tony – it draws attention to his ears, and it doesn’t transmit his charisma, which is formidable.
We were going to lunch so we walked a few blocks to a restaurant. Although he was not yet a public figure, several people greeted him in the street. I could not fail to notice the walk – which with an obviously athletic body could only be described as unmistakably masculine. Indeed Tony must be the most masculine and athletic of Australia’s politicians, and not boringly so. I have often thought that had he been on the left he would be the media’s pin up boy.
That style, especially the walk can be misinterpreted. During one rowdy session in parliament, Tony crossed the floor to hand a document to an opposition MP who had been interjecting while Tony was speaking. On seeing Tony approach him, the MP jumped to his feet and fled from the House.
Tony was suspended by the Speaker for one hour.
One thing became obvious from my first encounter. Tony is a highly principled intellectual with the common touch. He represents the goal which was drummed into boys’ heads, at least when I was a boy: mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body.
I found from our conversations that he was tolerant and in no way sexist, racist or guilty of any of the other sins of discrimination. For example, it was his proposal that the sexes be equally represented among ACM’s candidates for the 1998 Constitutional Convention.
Tony has two moral qualities, loyalty and strong attachment to principles.
He was loyal to the end to his Prime Minister, John Howard. He would have never led a coup against his leader merely because of opinion polling. He resigned from the Turnbull front bench not to promote his leadership but only after Malcolm refused to delay any decision on that great big new tax, the ETS, until after Copenhagen.
By doing that he put his career on the line. This is a career where he had shown himself to be an effective minister who exercised proper control over his portfolio. Unlike so many recent ministers, there has not been the slightest suggestion of incompetence or profligacy under his tutelage.
His resignation from the Turnbull front bench, against the advice of the gallery who predicted a subsequent electoral massacre, was for principle, not any leadership ambitions. That the result was that he would become leader surprised him.
Much is made of Tony’s principles which are not those of the elites. Unlike so many conservatives, he was not – as I was – a socialist in his student days. He is, as we know, committed to what he calls our crowned republic. He is a Catholic, but he does not do what many Catholic politicians in the US do. They practice what is called cafeteria Catholicism, picking only those beliefs which are consistent with the current fashions.
Most of his Catholic beliefs will have little to do directly with public administration. The Assumption of the Virgin or transubstantiation can have no effect on government decisions. Nor does the resurrection, the core belief of all Christians.
It is only in those right to life issues that there can be any crossover, and then most of these issues are matters for the states. On abortion, Tony has never suggested this be criminalised. He says it should be discouraged. This is entirely consistent with the views of most Australians, except perhaps among the tiny number who are confirmed atheists.
This firm belief in the values of our Judeo Christian heritage is a virtue and not a vice.
Tony is not a straight up and down conservative. Like most politicians today, he would see the views of orthodox federalists as an exercise in academic nostalgia. He would probably not agree that the role of government in modern society should be reduced.
Tony is a fine, committed, principled and loyal Australian. That does not mean Australians should vote for him. Kevin Rudd’s political assassination confirms that unlike the US president our prime ministers do not have tenure.
But their vote should in no way be coloured by any misrepresentation about Tony Abbott’s character and competence.