The commonplace ALP apologist is the political equivalent of a football fan who sports a Collingwood Always sticker on his car window. Every (alleged) boorish act performed by Tony Abbott as an undergraduate provides insight into the man preparing to be our next prime minister, while Julia Gillard’s time in the far-Left Socialist Forum is dismissed as inconsequential. Ditto the Slater & Gordon business. David Marr would agree with them, but his “Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott”, Quarterly Essay 47, represents something more than the work of a Labor hack. There are even a few passages in his portrait of Abbott that could be considered not only fair but almost generous. David Marr is no Labor Party stooge. He is, however, a ruthless, steely-eyed ideologue of the Left.
Marr’s last treatise on a political leader, “Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd”, Quarterly Essay 38, hit the newsstands in early June, 2010. Marr contended that beneath Rudd’s public mask of imperturbability beat an “angry heart” driven by childhood-induced rage. The part about Rudd having a short fuse has been confirmed, but the rest of Marr’s thesis was, to put it politely, conjecture. This demolition job seemed to come from nowhere, and yet Marr had his suspicions about Rudd from the start. In The Henson Case (2008), he lacerated the newly elected prime minister for denouncing Bill Henson’s photographs of naked adolescents and children as “absolutely revolting”. According to Marr’s anti-bourgeois bohemian sensibilities, Rudd could not really be a “Philistine” since he owned art. On the strength of this astonishing premise, Marr felt free to characterise the PM’s public stand as an act of perfidy.
Thereafter, the vigilant Marr remained alert to the possibility of Rudd one day abandoning leftist principles altogether in the pursuit of public approval. The alarm bells rang in early January, 2010, when Rudd lacked the courage, decisiveness and integrity to call a double dissolution and have the federal parliament pass into law his Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Prime Minister Rudd could no longer be trusted to do the right thing, which in the good-versus-evil world of David Marr is always the Left’s thing. Rudd had to go. The ALP’s faceless men, and a not-so-faceless woman, were already convinced Kevin 07 had exceeded his use-by date, and Marr’s “Power Trip” monograph proved helpful to their cause. We were still in the month of June when Rudd departed the Lodge.
“Political Animal” is unlikely to have a similar impact, if only because Marr’s abhorrence of all things conservative leads him to perceive the concerns of the Coalition in strictly two-dimensional terms. His account of Malcolm Turnbull’s demise as the leader of the Liberal Party entirely misses the mark, no minor problem in a tract that promises to bring us the inside story on the rise and rise of Tony Abbott.
Marr, a fervent believer in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, vilifies sceptics or dissenters as “deniers” or, even worse, “arch-deniers”. Abbott was chosen to replace Turnbull because the Liberal Party would have been a train wreck if it had colluded with the ALP in the Senate to pass the ETS. Yes, Turnbull was affected by “the Godwin Grech affair”, but this was mostly extraneous to the decisions made on December 1, 2009. Marr caricatures those in the Opposition who opposed the ETS as “the backwoodsmen, the sceptics and the friends of mineral industries”. Denigration might be an effective weapon in the brutal art of polemics, but having “skin in the game” means that Marr gets the story wrong in “Political Animal” over and over again.
Marr’s account of the negotiations between Abbott and the Independents that occurred in the aftermath of the 2010 federal election is another example of the author’s tin ear. Marr presents a diatribe by Tony Windsor that involves the Independent Member for New England twice describing Abbott’s demeanour during their hush-hush talks as “quite pitiful”. Leaving aside the small matter of Windsor’s indiscretion, Marr fails to offer any evaluation of his source. Is it at all possible that Windsor might have reasons for remembering events in a certain way? (see Quadrant Online, Aug. 19, 2012,"The oaf from New England").
But that is not the worst of it. Although not directly quoting him as saying so, Marr attributes the following opinion to his interviewee: “Windsor thought Abbott would even have agreed to a carbon tax if that would make him prime minister.” Every conservative who lived through the high drama of December 1, 2009, knows that Abbott is seriously unlikely to have suggested such a thing. The most generous explanation for its uncritical inclusion here is an extraordinary lack of understanding on the part of David Marr.
In the end, of course, “Political Animal” is no more about trying to genuinely understand Tony Abbott than “Power Trip” attempted to explain the inner-workings of Kevin Rudd. David Marr, the anti-bourgeois bohemian, is at war with the forces of reaction and uses PC rectitude – and whatever other weapon comes to hand – to do battle with the enemy, which is everywhere. Members of the bourgeoisie, by Marr’s definition, are not only the Fat Cats who own and control the means of production, but their partners in crime, “the battlers” and “the forgotten families”, people who do not know the difference between art and pornography and are prone to religious superstition along with other forms of bigotry.
This makes Tony Abbott, a conservative and a practising Roman Catholic, doubly dangerous. As Marr explained in The High Price of Heaven (1999), the Catholic God is censorious about everything from euthanasia to abortion, Karl Marx to phone sex. The God of Abbott, gasp, is no bohemian. Tony Abbott, like Kevin Rudd before him, has to be taken down. Andrew Bolt is right to condemn the media’s focus on the Barbara Ramjan allegation as a “stain on journalism”. There are those who will claim that the inclusion of this unsubstantiated accusation – denied by Abbott – about an incident that occurred 35 years ago is a bit much coming from Marr, on record as disapproving of people “making up things and setting out to destroy them on the basis of fictions”. But Marr has a war to wage and including the Barbara Ramjan claim is simply a part of that – nothing personal, Tony.
It probably is nothing personal, because Marr describes Abbott’s performance in the interview for “Political Animal” as “pithy, funny and illuminating”. There are moments in “Political Animal”, although sometimes you have to read between the lines, which reveal Abbott to be a warm and compassionate man who has grown through adversity and will make an excellent prime minister. Those moments, however, are short and few. The expression “head-kicker and hardliner” mentioned on the back cover would be better directed at David Marr than Tony Abbott.
Daryl McCann is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online