Having spend most of my writing career documenting and analysing the lives of women who have made important and valuable contributions to the nation, why would I want to write a book about Tony Abbott?
The reason is simple. Of all the men who have held or sought to hold the office of prime minister, I believe he is the most dangerous. This is not just because of his retrogressive attitudes and beliefs regarding women and their role in the world, but more generally because his ideological framework is so narrow. The man, his values, and his beliefs have been created and nurtured by men from another era — men whose ideas are rooted in the past.
Tony Abbott is a man educated and mentored by older men; a man who has rarely worked outside institutions created and run by men. He follows a narrow path, and he lives in a narrow world. He is a man who, unlike many of his male colleagues, is unable to comprehend what women — who are 50 per cent of those Australians he wishes to govern — need and expect from a modern leader.
The fact that he came within a whisker of becoming prime minister in 2010 makes it even more important that we look behind his use of inflated rhetoric and his clever media manipulation, behind the labels of the Mad Monk and Captain Catholic used by his critics, to understand what he really does believe and what motivates him in his ambition to lead Australia in the 21st century. Apart from Michael Duffy’s 2004 publication comparing Tony Abbott and Mark Latham, there has not been a full-length political and personal analysis of Tony Abbott. The public has a right to know everything it can about those who wish to lead them.
I first met Tony Abbott in early 1994 when I was living in Adelaide. Christopher Pearson, then editor of The Adelaide Review, whom I had known since he was a left-wing activist, convinced me to interview him for my ABC television program Susan Mitchell: in conversation, claiming that Abbott was on his way to becoming a future prime minister. During the interview, not only did Abbott expound on his opposition to an Australian republic, but also on his opposition to abortion, homosexuality, women’s liberation, gay liberation, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. I was shocked that a man of his young age, aspiring to be prime minister, should hold such retrogressive and repressive views towards the major social and economic changes of recent times. I thought that, eventually, maturity and political experience would soften his uncompromising, hardline, black-and-white opinions.
Despite moving to live and work in Sydney and Brisbane, I continued to track his political career and Christopher Pearson’s contribution and increasing involvement in it.
As it turns out, Tony Abbott’s attitudes to all of the issues that he opposed when I first met him have never changed — except for that of multiculturalism. He revealed in his 2009 book Battlelines that he was no longer afraid that it would erode ‘Australia’s distinctive identity’ by swamping ‘our version of English-speaking culture’. But despite this change of heart, it is true to say that anything new which challenges traditional values is an immediate threat to Tony Abbott. Any change that threatens to alter what he considers to be ‘the right order of things’ is to be resisted and, if necessary, vigorously opposed. His basic beliefs remain as they have always been: fixed and non-negotiable.
He has, however, added more issues he opposes to his list. He is now also opposed to RU486 (the morning-after pill), embryonic stem-cell research, the ordination of women priests, gay marriage, and voluntary euthanasia. Meanwhile, Christopher Pearson’s views have become inseparable from those of his hero, Tony Abbott, including his conversion to the Catholic religion. The person I once knew bears almost no resemblance to the current deeply conservative weekly columnist in The Australian. He is now dedicated to Abbott becoming prime minister.
Tony Abbott has been very reliant on a series of older male mentors throughout his life. These men include his father, who once hoped to become a Catholic priest; one of his schoolteachers, the Jesuit priest Father Emmet Costello, who tried to steer him towards politics; former prime minister John Howard, who facilitated his entry and his continued promotion within the Liberal Party; and Archbishop Pell, his personal confessor.
In writing this book, I set out to find the answer to several questions. At a personal level, did Abbott choose to become either a priest or a prime minister, or was he programmed by his mentors into seeing these as his only two choices? To put the same question a different way, is he a product of the mentors who have shaped him, or has he just used and flattered them in order to fulfil his unquenchable ambition — is he a cunning, manipulative opportunist, or a sincere follower of other men’s ideas? And is his empathy for others limited because his understanding of women’s rights, gay rights, and the rights of the homeless, the poor, and the elderly has been hemmed in by his strict adherence to conservative Catholicism, his comfortable North Shore upbringing, his privileged all-male private Jesuit education, his elite Oxford experience, his adoration of traditional English institutions and heroes, and his attraction for all-male institutions and their shared sense of entitlement to power?