Marred by deceit
There are three revealing anecdotes about Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott in The Costello Memoirs, which I co-wrote in 2008. David Marr quotes two of them in full in his widely acclaimed and denounced polemic Political Animal, The Making of Tony Abbott. But he does not even mention the third, although it is the most problematic of all and most central to Marr’s argument. Let me offer him some unsolicited advice.
The first anecdote, on page 19 of the Quarterly Essay, is a light-hearted note about Abbott the student campaigner as recalled good-humouredly by Peter Costello. Abbott was organising his mates in St John’s College at the University of Sydney to vote for Costello in a student election:
Tony settled on a plan … he would assemble them at a nearby hotel for beer and then lead them en masse to the rally. But as the afternoon wore on, the beer proved far more compelling than the rally. They never made it. The vote was lost.
The anecdote illustrates Abbott the student joker. You can almost hear his loud ho-ho-ho laugh in the background. Unlike Costello, Marr repeats it deadpan—although he covers the theme in his chapter on Abbott as Prince Hal.
The second story is a little more serious. It is on page 63 of Marr’s essay and quotes Costello still in good-humoured vein:
Never one to be held back by the financial consequences of decisions, he had grandiose plans for public expenditure. At one point when we were in government, he asked for funding to pay for telephone and electricity wires to be put underground throughout the whole of his northern Sydney electorate to improve the amenity of the neighbourhoods. He also wanted the Commonwealth to take over the building of local roads and bridges in his electorate. He wanted the Commonwealth to take over hospitals. He used to tell me proudly that he had learned all of his economics at the feet of Bob Santamaria. I was horrified.
Again Marr is deadpan, although he notes that economic policy is an important chink in Abbott’s armour. But he omits one significant and sympathetic sentence from the Costello quotation:
Tony always saw himself as something of a romantic figure, a Don Quixote ready to take on lost causes and fight for great principles.
The third recollection of Abbott in The Costello Memoirs, the one which Marr overlooks entirely in his Quarterly Essay, is far more important and relevant to his major theme than the other two and deals with the issue of whether prime minister John Howard would or should have resigned in favour of Costello.
Howard had suggested that he would step down before the 2004 election, but he later changed his mind. Costello publicly declared his continuing loyalty to the government. A few weeks later, Joe Hockey invited him to his ministerial office for drinks with Ross Cameron, Christopher Pyne, and Tony Abbott. The relevant parts of their conversation as quoted in The Costello Memoirs are sometimes ambiguous but their meaning is clear enough. The passage is best quoted in full:
They had been out to dinner together. Howard loyalist Abbott made a point of telling me how much the party had respected the decision I had made. It was, he said, the right thing to do. “If we win the next  election Howard will stand down,” he said.
“I expected him to stand down after the last one, Tony. How do you know he won’t try to go again if he wins the election?”
“No, mate, this is his last election. That’s clear. He’ll do what’s right for the party.”
“And if he tries to go again? Will the party tell him to go?”
“He won’t need to be told. He’ll do the right thing.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“A few of us will go and see him. He’ll do the right thing.”
“Are you prepared to go and see him?”
“If necessary, but it won’t come to that.”
There is wriggle room in this after-dinner exchange. There are undertakings but not solemn promises. People change their minds as circumstances change.
Yet the meaning at the time seemed clear. It goes to the issue of Abbott’s credibility and is material for Marr’s big theme that Abbott the Political Animal will always put political advantage before principle, just like Julia Gillard. It may be that Marr missed its significance, just as he says he missed the significance (until alerted by the government and its mules in the media) of his anecdote about Abbott’s wild reaction to his defeat (his alleged punching a wall next to his female opponent’s head) in a student election of 35 years ago. One explanation is that Marr is more a literary than a political journalist.
Marr has insisted several times that his Quarterly Essay is not an anti-Abbott tract. He protests too much. True, he lists some of what he sees as Abbott’s commendable points, such as competence, humour, even charm. He also expresses a pious hope that Abbott will reform. But the overwhelming thrust of the essay is that if Abbott becomes prime minister it will be bad news or worse for Australia. The crowds that pack the halls to hear him dissect Abbott clearly and noisily agree with him. He has become a leading barker for the Gillard government.
Yet his criticisms of Abbott are trivial. They are intimated by the essay’s title, Political Animal. One of his lines of criticism is that Abbott used to be a rough-and-tumble rugger bugger when he was a teenager. Many youths are. It is not a hanging offence. Another is that as a raw youth he had “a problem with women.” So do most male teenagers. There is no evidence that Abbott has had this problem over the past 30 years. But the crowning criticism is that as Abbott climbed the greasy pole of politics he has from time to time compromised his beliefs, including his Catholic beliefs. Some readers will have to pick themselves up off the floor over their shock at this revelation, but most of Marr’s many admirers are aware that there has not been a politician in the history of the world who has not been a trimmer, a compromiser. Politics is the art of compromise, and we demand that politicians compromise. We want them to get things done and not just deliver fine speeches.
Yet this is the essence of Marr’s critique of Abbott. It is essentially banal. A few years ago Marr wrote an acclaimed biography of Patrick White. He should stick to literature.