James Allan

Oh, Canada! Our new PM doesn’t really eat babies

Australia’s new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has received a bizarre press here in Canada. It’s as though the former governing Labor Party’s public relations team had written a series of false and half-truths about the man and the press here in Canada had swallowed them all whole.

So Canadian newspaper readers have an image of Abbott, now Prime Minister Abbott, as some sort of hard-line Catholic, with misogynistic tendencies, who would like to crush unions wherever he sees them and who is the driest of dries when it comes to the economy.

vancouver2Each of these peddled stories is a myth, pure and simple, and yet my wife and I, who are in North America for my 2013 year-long sabbatical, have seen all of them regularly regurgitated in Canada’s main newspapers.

So how about some mythbusting? Let’s start with the notion that  Abbott is some sort of proselytizing zealot. What rot! I am a long-time atheist who way-back-when taught philosophy of religion and who likes his Dawkins, Hitchens and Hume. Mr. Abbott, by contrast, is a devout Catholic. But during his many years as a health minister in a former right-of-centre government he never pushed for any ‘Catholic’ public policies. He said he regretted divorce and abortion, but he didn’t move to outlaw them. (And that seems a perfectly sensible attitude to me.)

Indeed, the former left-of-centre Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was also devout, used to regularly talk to the press outside his church. Abbott never did. It was just that the press tended to like Mr. Rudd’s politics more. Or perhaps there is some other reason that Mr. Rudd’s equally religious worldview never warranted the merest mention, while Mr. Abbott’s was raised virtually daily.

Then there is that misogynist speech another former Labor Prime Minister, Ms. Gillard, made against Mr. Abbott in Parliament. But what no Canadian reader is ever told is that the Gillard speech came in Parliament during an investigation and vote over the improper conduct (think texting) of the then Speaker of the House, who really had acted shamefully. Ms Gillard, operating a slim minority government, could not really afford to lose the Speaker and so blasted Mr. Abbott as a misogynist. But on what grounds?

It can’t be because Mr. Abbott was criticizing Ms. Gillard’s performance as Prime Minister, given that almost 60% of Australians thought she should be out of office. And it couldn’t in any way be an excuse for what the Speaker had done. Oh, and were Canadians ever told that Ms. Gillard’s misogynist speech, so well received here, ended up doing nothing to improve her popularity with Australian women, who were nearly as negative about her as men in Australia.

So it seems to be that the only grounds for claiming this was that Mr. Abbott is a devout Catholic. Just play the victim card and see what happens.   In the end, nothing happened to help Ms Gillard, who was removed from office not by Mr Abbott but by Mr Rudd and the men in her own Labor Party – just as she had a few years earlier removed then Prime Minister Rudd.

What else? Ah, yes, there are the claims that Mr. Abbott is the driest of dry economic conservatives and an anti-gay bigot. But when you hear the latter charge over here, you almost never hear that Mr. Abbott’s sister is a lesbian, that she tells everyone he’s the most supportive brother imaginable, and that she and her partner campaigned for Abbott.

Mr. Abbott is against same sex marriage. There’s a difference between that and being anti-gay, or there is unless you refuse to acknowledge any and all arguments about marriage on any grounds other than individual choice – which is not something devout Catholics accept. Newspapers here in Canada might have explored this, but it was easier it seems just to buy the Labor Party PR bumpf, without stopping to note that Labor also campaigned against same-sex marriage in the two elections won by Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard.

I suppose it’s okay to be against same-sex marriage, but only if you’re on the left of politics.

Nor is Mr. Abbott an economic dry, at least not nearly as much as I’d like him to be. He is certainly far, far more likely to get the government back to running surpluses than the spendthrift Labor Party, but Mr Abbott is also inclined towards generous and expensive paid parental leave programs and disinclined to move in and slash and burn the public service. You don’t read that about him here in Canada.

All in all we can say that Mr. Abbott is a conviction conservative. But he’s a sincere and likeable conviction conservative who is not personally wealthy, who  for years and years has volunteered to work in remote Aboriginal communities. That’s the reason an Aborigine who was once the Labor Party’s president voted Liberal for the first time in his life.

Canadians haven’t been told that either. Oh, and Canadians wouldn’t know, having not been told, that Mr. Abbott was a Rhodes Scholar. Of course iot would have been hard to mention that while painting the man as a Neanderthal reactionary.

I was amazed at the coverage Mr. Abbott has received here in Canada, but only until the penny dropped. Ah-ha, Canadian correspondents reporting from the other side of the world must be taking their cues  from the ABC and Fairfax press.

That would explain everything.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland. He is presently on sabbatical, teaching at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto

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