History Repeating Itself

Decades before Tony Abbott, as our twenty-eighth prime minister, was challenging the zeitgeist by scrapping the carbon tax, stopping the boats and knighting Prince Philip, he’d been annoying the hell out of the campus Left as a student leader, as this fascinating book revels in telling. In Tony Abbott and the Times of Revolution, Gerard Wilson sets out to do three things: to claim Abbott as Australia’s leading “Burkean conservative”; to analyse the university counter-culture that had developed by the mid-1970s; and to show the consistency of Abbott’s thinking over the past forty years.

What shines through in this rather wordy book is Abbott’s determination to make a difference, his political courage, and the constancy of his convictions. As well, there’s the relentlessness of the Left’s campaign to get him, even as a campus politician, and the ambivalence towards him of careerists on his own side of the political landscape.

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The Vietnam War and the flower-power era might have been over by 1976, when Abbott turned up at Sydney University, but the long march of the Left through the institutions—with its rejection of authority, contempt for “bourgeois” values, and disdain for earning a living—was just getting under way. Rather than ignore it, and focus on sport, study and socialising, as was the choice of most of his contemporaries, almost from day one Abbott and a cohort of like-minded, tough-minded conservatives were determined to make their voices heard.

One of those contemporaries, Greg Sheridan, who is now The Australian’s foreign editor, has provided some flavour of those times in his autobiographical fragment, When We Were Young and Foolish. Abbott himself touched on some of this in his highly readable 2009 manifesto Battlelines, as did Michael Duffy in his double-header biography Latham and Abbott. But now there is an in-depth look into the battles that convulsed Australia’s oldest university in that turbulent decade: classical versus “political” economics; traditional versus “general” philosophy; and radical versus conservative activism—and Abbott’s central role in trying to stop change-for-change’s-sake.

Abbott’s contemporary critics, as Wilson relates at length, have also dwelt on his time at university. In the first major attempt to paint him as an uber-Catholic sexist dinosaur, Susan Mitchell’s 2011 book, Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man, says that while at university Abbott

spent most of his time playing football and drinking in pubs … As if that wasn’t enough to keep his aggression and testosterone in overdrive, he also took up boxing to counteract the damage from foul play in the scrums.

Wilson is clearly on one side of the polarised interpretations of Abbott’s campus life. Sheridan and Duffy, he writes, recognise Abbott as “out-going, friendly and gregarious” but with a “conservative outlook” comprising “a liking for rule-based activities, self-discipline, cooperation and the solidarity of the group”. Above all, Wilson says, “the conservative—certainly in the Burkean mould—cherishes order in human society. [But] Mitchell sees nothing of this because she wanders blindly in her ideological fantasy.”

While Sydney University had earlier spawned the legendary “Push”, the 1970s campus leaders of the Left have mostly disappeared from public view. Along with Abbott and Sheridan, it’s the Left’s opponents (and occasional “frenemies”) from that decade who have made their mark. These notably include Malcolm Turnbull, Jeff Phillips (a prominent Sydney barrister), Paul Brereton (a senior New South Wales judge), Peter Westmore (B.A. Santamaria’s successor as head of the National Civic Council) and Sir Michael Hintze (a London-based billionaire asset manager), all of whom have at least walk-on roles in Wilson’s recent account.

Wilson reproduces Abbott’s first-ever contribution to political debate—a letter to the university paper Honi Soit denouncing the student council’s decision to donate money to the ALP—and notes that “his tone and style” have “changed little since 1976”. “It’s wrong for the SRC of all” the eighteen-year-old Abbott said, “to support … only one party, especially when that party is opposed by a considerable portion of students.” A few weeks later, he was at it again, this time criticising the “How Dare You Presume I am a Heterosexual” issue of Honi Soit:

Why should one pressure group be so privileged ahead of all the others? If the rationale behind the decision was thrust home to its logical conclusion, then issues should be devoted to every group of crackpots on campus. Yet again, the insidious control of student politics by a group of committed ideologues is manifest.

The aggression, says Wilson, already “had gone up a few notches, though remaining controlled”. Abbott’s “wit, irony and sarcasm were already developed in the eighteen-year-old. His verbal thrusts, pokes and prods infuriated and continue to infuriate his political adversaries.”

Summing up Abbott the student leader, Wilson says he was “considered, analytical and concise without the abuse and ridicule he had to swallow from others”. Although Abbott was uniformly tough, determined and never retreating, he remained for the most part respectful of his opposition.

As Tony Abbott and the Times of Revolution puts it, Abbott’s many enemies “accused him of loud, sexist comments during SRC meetings”. In contrast, “the evidence suggests he was no different from the bulk of students in the outspokenness of their debate and a lot more restrained than most”.

A year after Susan Mitchell’s attempted hatchet-job on Abbott came a more vehement version, David Marr’s 2012 Quarterly Essay, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott. Like Mitchell, Marr’s purpose was to alert Australians to the danger of making Abbott prime minister by pointing to the tumult of his student days. Exhibit A was the claim by Barbara Ramjan, Abbott’s successful opponent in the 1977 SRC presidential election, that after the vote he’d attempted to intimidate her by “punching the wall on either side of [her] head”. It was a great story, but inconveniently for Marr, Wilson’s comprehensive trawl though the contemporary evidence shows that Ramjan had never mentioned it at the time, even though she and her allies had routinely been in the pages of Honi Soit, attacking Abbott and denouncing male violence. A favourite tactic of the Left is to conjure up a vaguely plausible tale from the distant past in order to destroy a determined opponent.

While Wilson’s is the second book supportive of Abbott to appear since his prime ministership (the other was Damien Freeman’s excellent but almost entirely unnoticed Abbott’s Right: The Conservative Tradition from Menzies to Abbott), on top of the two earlier “stop Abbott” books from Mitchell and Marr there have been at least four subsequent, highly partisan books trashing his character and political achievements. Not content with one book-length character assassination, Niki Savva even came back with a second—ostensibly about the downfall of Malcolm Turnbull—claiming that Abbott, somehow, was really to blame for the coup that replaced Turnbull in 2018.

While Freeman found a respectable publisher in MUP, Wilson has had to self-publish this one because, he says, books by conservatives about conservatives struggle to find support, even though—once they get into bookshops and are properly promoted—they sell like hot cakes, as shown by the runaway success of John Howard’s two post-prime-ministerial books (his memoirs and his account of the Menzies years).

Now that the re-election of the Morrison government has somewhat strengthened the place in our political history of the government that Abbott led into office in 2013, there really should be more balanced and fair-minded mainstream accounts of his forty-plus years fighting the battle of ideas. But who is up for this essential authorial task?

Abbott concluded a year as SRC president late in 1979 having successfully withdrawn Sydney University from the extreme-Left-dominated Australian Union of Students. He was however unsuccessful in his attempt to establish voluntary student unionism. Then, as now, few commentators had a good word for him. A notable exception was Tanya Coleman (one-time New South Wales Liberal leader Peter Coleman’s daughter, and now married to Abbott’s former colleague Peter Costello). She wrote:

Abbott is the only president for years who has tried to implement fundamental reform of the SRC, and not simply basked in glory. For this, he deserves praise and not denigration. I think we should all be thankful that despite ceaseless hostility … he has the tenacity to keep on fighting for us.

And to her rhetorical question, was and is there any support for Abbott, Coleman’s answer is, “Yes, there are lots of us who have a kind word to say about him.”

As Tony Abbott and the Times of Revolution makes clear, where the essential Tony Abbott is concerned, not much has changed in forty years!

Tony Abbott and the Times of Revolution
by Gerard Charles Wilson

Self-published, 2019, 393 pages, $44.95

The seventh novel in Ross Fitzgerald’s Grafton Everest series, The Dizzying Heights, written with Ian McFadyen, is due to be published shortly.


9 thoughts on “History Repeating Itself

  • sfw says:

    Abbott could have been a great PM, instead when it came to standing up when it really counted, he folded on 18c. His past record and his future was destroyed when he asked his loyal supporters to ‘take one for Team Australia’, nothing else matters. He lost his core support and gained what? I cannot think of any similar traitorous, ham fisted acts of hubris, maybe Clintons ‘Deplorables’ but nothing in Australian politics, Good riddance to a man who I thought of courageous but was at heart a jellyback.

  • Alistair says:

    Sorry but I agree with sfw though I do cut him a bit of slack given that such a group with a disparate set of beliefs had to be held together. The easy way was to not confront the small l progressives of the party – assuming the right would have no where else to go. He could have stood up and been knifed earlier. I was scrutineering for the last Senate count and witnessed the absolute glee in senior Liberal ranks here in Adelaide at the news that Abbott had lost his seat. It was certainly a bigger victory for them than the election win.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Abbott verbally listing his own achievements used to state “I got rid of the carbon tax, got rid of the mining tax….” If you ask me both should have been retained. Anything governments don’t like they tax, and that of which they approve they either don’t tax or they subsidise.
    The lack of a mining tax has allowed truly obscene fortunes to be built out of mineral deposits, which if you ask me should always be public property, and particularly of iron ore, and by such as Gina Rinehart’s father Lang Hancock; which appropriation enabled Lang’s daughter Gina to finance her attempted purchase of Fairfax, which would then have silenced a lot of her critics.
    A mining tax would have only modestly addressed this, but for Abbott even that was too much, and he apparently was lobbied to the contrary. As for dumping the carbon tax, as a fully paid-up AGW denialist, Abbott clearly thought this only right and proper, and as an ex-seminarian, Abbott likely thought (like fellow Catholic AGW denialist Ian Plimer, author of the denialist bible ‘Heaven + Earth’) that if he was wrong, God would come to the rescue, as His mercy is infinite.
    God’s mercy may be infinite, but (if he exists at all, which I very much doubt) his patience likely is not.

  • wayne.cooper says:

    Tanya Coleman was onto something when she said that Abbott was a reformer rather than a basker – as he subsequently showed in his post-University life, in sharp contradistinction to those who preceded him as SRC President. It is what singled him out from a long line of do-nothing SRC presidents who spent most of their time pandering to a constituency of immature, lazy, inner-city, left-leaning students who’d read a few books by Herbert Marcuse and Ferdinand de Saussure and thought they were revolutionaries fighting on the front line by having a caravan parked on the front lawn.

  • T B LYNCH says:

    re sfw and 18c:-
    Jews are a religion not a race. Races are defined by their genome, religions by their belief. The genes of Hungarian Jews parallel those of Hungarians, and differ from the genes of French Jews, which in turn parallel those of Frenchmen. All this is the result of two thousand years of adultery, also known as grazing in the wrong pasture.
    Howard voted against 18c in opposition, but failed to repeal it in ten years of government, even though he controlled the senate towards the end. Abbott wanted to repeal 18c, but the Jewish lobby, unaware of simple genetics, put enormous pressure on Abbott to postpone 18c. Abbott had much more important jobs to finish in his brief time at the top.
    I learned genetics in the 1950s; later on in life I found the first gene in the human genome and diagnosed a boy with two fathers [the opposite of identical twins – fusion instead of fission]; however this does not compare with the cane cutter in Ray Lawlers Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, who had twins with two mothers, nor with the man who was wrongly supposed to be descended from Tony Abbott for more than two decades. Nor with Andrew Bolt who was convicted under 18c by a totally antiscientific judgement in favour of a professor no less, who could only be 1% of what she claimed.

  • sfw says:

    T B Lynch, what the hell were drinking when you posted that? Disjointed gobblegook about genes and Jews? It has nothing to do with 18c or Abbott. Please go to your room, put on your tinfoil hat and stay there, you’ll be safe from the mind reading thought rays and we won’t have to read your ravings.

  • Egil says:

    To be elected/accepted to any position,
    be it MP, PM, union official, whatever,
    there are elements of persuasion/seduction required.
    Balanced with logic, brute force and common sense, obviously.
    Tony Abbott was probably not persuasive/seductive enough to stay where he rightfully belonged
    for anywhere near long enough, IMHO.
    The ‘progressives’ in politics and the equally ‘progressive’ PC media hounded him for every minor misstep.
    And carefully avoided giving him credit for his achievements.
    As per their manual.
    How many of the left would even be aware of his work with indigenous communities?
    Or his bike runs for women’s shelters or his LONG history as a fire fighter…?
    Like Kennett and Newman before him, Tony Abbott was shown the door WAY to early.
    The essential TA is a very good man.
    And Australia is worse off without him in high office.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Egil, I agree. People forget the poisonous atmosphere in which he was forced to lead, being white-anted by his own cabinet. People also forget that politics is the art of the possible, and that with the best will in the world he would have been unlikely to have succeeded in removing or defanging 18C.

    I admire Tony Abbott more than any other contemporary Australian politician, and most of his predecessors, and it is a national tragedy that the pygmies of the leftist Liberal Party and their media running dogs were able to bring him down.

  • PT says:

    Ian MacDougall you seem to have a lot of hatred for the mining industry. Why? Is it the “green-eyed monster”?
    You also seem to love shooting your mouth off about things you don’t know much about as well. WA’s iron ore resources belong to the State. That is why the State Government collects a royalty of 7.5% of the sales revenue. So it IS public property – it just isn’t the property of you lot over in NSW. BTW Lang Hancock would never have paid the magic pudding tax Henry and the Goose cooked up on iron ore anyway. He wasn’t an operator. He and his friend secured the mineral leases, but negotiated with Rio Tinto to let Rio develop and operate the mine in exchange for a royalty (he also got some payments for traversing his land). So his payment would have probably been deducted from whatever tax was levied on Hamersley Iron (the name by which Rio’s Pilbara operations was called in Hancock’s lifetime) as it was a “business cost”! Roy Hill, incidentally, didn’t start shipping iron ore until 2015 – so no mining tax would have been payable on that at the time Gina Rinehart made her bid for Fairfax anyway!
    Incidentally, I think it’s outrageous that Canberra tried to set up a resource rent tax on a resource it did not legally own – it was nothing but a cash grab to take even more money out of WA to spend on buying marginal seats in Sydney and Melbourne. The Goose couldn’t even understand the tax he put up either, assuming he was going to get $2 billion in its first year, when even the original proposal wasn’t going to paying anything for the first few years. How do I know that? Well Ken Henry admitted that no mining project would be funded unless the return on investment (ROI) was greater than 15%. But his own papers showed that even with the state royalty being deducted from the tax payable, all projects with a ROI of more than 10% (i.e. below the business case threshold) would pay MORE to the various governments than previously did. Yet Henry insisted that the tax would have “no effect” on the sector in the short term, and would actually cause the sector to grow faster in the medium to long term (this is why I call it a “magic pudding tax”). How did he make this claim? Well he said that the pay back time (that is the time taken for the investor to earn back their initial investment) would be less under his scheme. This was because 40% of the investment was a “tax credit” that would be used to offset this “super profits tax”. And with the state royalty also getting a “tax credit”, Henry believed that for the first few years of a mining project, the project would be paying LESS MONEY to the State and Federal Governments! Hence the payback time is less. But this is ONLY if no tax is collected initially! Yet the Goose (and he really was in this instance), imagined he was going to reap the tax payment immediately, and quoted Treasury’s high revenue scenario as if it were really going to happen! By rights the tax should have been struck down as unconstitutional by the High Court anyway as it was clearly a resource rent tax on a resource that was CONSTITUTIONALLY OWNED by the state!
    As for this stuff “Anything governments don’t like they tax, and that of which they approve they either don’t tax or they subsidise”. That tax you – clearly they don’t like you do they! Henry, as I’ve said above, claimed his tax would actually make the sector grow faster – he’s apparently a believer in a Brown Tax, not that anyone has been successfully introduced anywhere. So by this “logic” Canberra should impose such taxes on things they DO like so they’ll get more of it! Just think, if they’d imposed one of Henry’s magic taxes on the Car industry, it would be booming by now! But the truth is that Government taxes things they think they can get revenue on – in 2010 they were obsessed with the mining boom, and had dollar signs in their eyes, imagining they could get hold of a new cash stream to spend in Sydney and Melbourne. It’s also the real reason why they have high taxes on tobacco and alcohol – they know people who buy that stuff will continue to use it, and they can pretend that its being done “for their own good”. The stuff they subsidise are things like the car industry (there a lot of jobs and votes in it) and renewables (votes and virtue signalling). Then again, since Ken Henry (lately of the NAB, who made such a splash in the Royal Commission) is such a guru, perhaps his magic tax should be slapped on the solar panels and wind farms. We’d be “zero emissions” in next to no time apparently.

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