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Whose rule book is Abbott playing from?

Neil Ormerod |  14 May 2014

Machiavelli statueIn late 2010 when Tony Abbott had risen to the leadership of the Coalition, as leader of the Opposition, I wrote a piece in Eureka Street questioning his moral core. I compared him to a high school debater whose commitment is only to the present argument, and what he needs to say in order to win. Put into a different situation, he is more than happy to argue the opposite position if it suits his then objectives.

The article concluded with the following observation:

Much is made of Abbott's Catholic faith, but it seems to me that the rule book he plays from has more in common with Machiavelli. Machiavelli famously concluded: 'Therefore it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it according to the necessity of the case.' In the end everything can be sacrificed to gain and maintain power.

Now with the formulation of the budget strategy clearly in the public domain, we have a direct indication of the rule book Abbott is following.

Abbott's election strategy in 2013 was based on two sets of claims. The first was that the Gillard Government had broken the people's trust through the introduction of a carbon tax. There could be no mitigating circumstances, not excuses, no forgiveness for this breach. Abbott's unremitting attack on Gillard was taken up with gusto by various shock jocks — recall Allan Jones' comment that Gillard's father 'died of shame'.

The second was that his government would be a government of no surprises, that there would be no cuts in areas such as health, education, pensions and public broadcasting, no new taxes, and that he would fix the so-called 'budget emergency' created by Labor. The promises on no cuts in vital areas and no new taxes were repeated with the regularity of water dripping on stone, burrowing into our political consciousness.

That these goals of no cuts, no taxes and bringing down the budget deficit were mutually contradictory seemed to escape everyone's attention. But they were what people wanted to hear, and Abbott was more than happy to give it to them. It matched the 'necessity of the case' in order to get elected.

Abbott must surely have been aware that the promises he was making could not be delivered. In fact in government he and Joe Hockey have made several decisions — abolishing the carbon and mining tax, repealing Labor's decision to wind back tax provisions for superannuation contributions for high income earners, putting billions into the Reserve Bank beyond its current needs — in order to heighten the sense of emergency.

All this to justify the cuts and new taxes. A concocted emergency is now being used to justify broken promises.

Of course what is most disturbing is the way the cuts and taxes are being targeted. While the deficit levy will be temporary, the cuts will be permanent.

The targets are two-fold: firstly, the most vulnerable members of society, the unemployed, the unwell needing medical attention, people with disabilities; secondly are the government's ideological targets, the ABC, the CSIRO for harping on about climate change, the renewable energy sector, foreign aid.

The first of these rubs against the grain of Catholic social teaching, with its strong commitment to the common good, particularly the most vulnerable — but it plays well to those looking for scapegoats in times of social anxiety. The second plays well with the think tanks and business interests who have the Government's ear.

Prior to the election Abbott spoke of the 'trust deficit' created by Gillard's broken promise. He has now presented the electorate with a swag of broken promises and seems to expect to escape unscathed.

In fact this will leave a significant part of the electorate more than a little disillusioned with the political process. It will play into the hands of small populist groups such as the Palmer United Party who will attract support simply because they are neither the Coalition nor Labor.

In the long run it will contribute to the destabilisation of the Australian political system. We can already expect such destabilisation when the Senate begins to reject many of the proposals in the current Budget.

It took John Howard until his third term before he let his personal leanings completely off the leash and attempted to introduce Work Choices to the applause of his ideological cheer squads. It led to his electoral demise, the second prime minister in Australian history to lose his own seat.

Abbott is doing much the same in his first term. He is over-reaching, thinking himself invulnerable to a political backlash. Whereas Machiavelli's prince could rule through force, Abbott must face an electorate whose trust in political promises has been completely eroded. Our political system as a whole, our trust in the poloitical process, will take a long time to recover.


Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, a member of ACU's Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry and a Fellow of the Australian Catholic Theological Association.



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Submitted comments

Neil , Surely you or anyone else can be at all surprised at Abbott's approach .He is simply acting from the same " Market " thinking as his good friend & confidant ,George Pell .We have long known not to expect any of their actions to display any hint of Christianity .

john kersh 14 May 2014

Thanks for this article. While I agree with it I also wonder if it's right for the Church to wash its hands of Abbott's views and say he, this individual, is machiavellian. Did not the Church play a formative part of his education? Has the Church not often (usually?) been on the side of the powerful? I'm reading a history of Spain at the moment, and the Church's close association with the dictator Franco was, well .... how could the Church justify that?

Russell 14 May 2014

A suggestion, no, a request for the Catholic political trinity of Abbott, Hockey and Pyne (and any others who may be their confreres, start going to mass at Redfern or, somewhere in Western Sydney - you get the idea. Get a different standpoint from that of the privileged who have no need to or even desire to change their own status quo, and indeed fear to even question it. Dare you to.

Agnes Day 15 May 2014

Good on yah Neil! Erudite as ever... Maybe identifying Abbot with Machaviavelli's Prince is not surprising as we know poor old Tony is a true blue Royalist.

Richard Stephenson 15 May 2014

Russell, I too am a product of the Catholic Church. My thinking is the opposite of Abbott's. The institution can be legitimately blamed for much, but, please, not for the political machinations of this man. As a Catholic, steeped by the Christian Brothers in the principles of social justice, I have always wanted to vote Labor but rarely did because of its support for unlicensed abortion and its paranoia about private schools. Now, through this PM's deception, I know where my vote will always go in future. Perhaps I will even become a member of the ALP and try to reawaken the abortion debate.

Grebo 15 May 2014

Bravo Neil! It is eminently fair that this critique of Tony Abbott's "Catholicity" comes from a theologian of his own faith. David Marr made the same sort of points you do but from a secular point of view on last Monday's Q & A. I think the general public are wise to this sort of religious hypocrisy by politicians. The Day of Reckoning will come at the next federal election. Hopefully Bill Shorten, if still the Labor leader, will eschew religion for politics and stick to the relevant facts.

Edward Fido 15 May 2014

An excellent analysis. Thanks, Neil. An article in another online publication in early February listed the 25 broken promises to that point. There have been three more between then and Tuesday, and another seven in the Budget speech. That is 35 - in 35 weeks. A record for any Westminster government in history?

Alan Austin 15 May 2014

Gentlemen, Neil and I are acutely aware of the failings of the Catholic Church - having experienced some of the worst of them. We're also aware of some of the best i the Church, in organisations like Caritas, St Vincent de Paule and the Edmund Rice Centre. The point of this piece is to express concern about the lack of moral integrity of the person now heading up our Government, and of his cohort. It is very worrying that such people are making decisions around such pressing moral issues as refugee policy, people's welfare, aid to developing countries and the environment including the climate crisis. We most certainly have the wrong people in charge! It's frightening.

Thea 15 May 2014

Excellent hard-hitting analysis. I look forward to a follow up essay on the theme, what are best ways to oppose Abbott in the next 2 1/2 years? Is Labor's softly-softly the right strategy for the present shell-shocked electorate, or does Labor need to go in harder? (The way Abbott went for Gillard).

Tony Kevin 15 May 2014

Great Neil. You say that now “we have a direct indication of the rule book Abbott is following”. We had it quite a while ago. In her ABC series Kitchen Cabinet just before the poll Annabel Crabb interviewed Abbott and asked him about the place of his Catholicism in his politics. His first reply was: “I am a traditional Catholic. My faith has shaped my life but it doesn’t in any way determine my politics.” He continued: “As a leader you can push the envelope… do you get to a point where you’ve got strong views on an issue, abortion or whatever, and then you read the signs around you and think no I can’t really prosecute that line?” Religion is convenience for Abbott. Then: “The role of faith is to show that it’s not all meaningless and that in the end there will be some solace”. This is ‘heaven in the sky’ stuff no comment on the need to look after our neighbour. He concludes: “While faith is a splendid thing in private life it can be quite a misleading guide in public life”. This is faith for consolation not for action and certainly not for Social Justice.

Mike Bowden 15 May 2014

Neil, you are absolutely right about the absence of any morality from Tony Abbott's stance. Much was made for years of Bob Santamaria's having been his mentor. Santa was an extremist, like Tony Abbott, and he did some awful things in the name of anti-communism, the last of them being his public flaying of Project Compassion because he claimed that its funds were ending up in the hands of 'communist' insurgents in Zimbabwe. But he wasn't a dishonest man and he must be turning in his grave at the thought that Abbott is actually subverting his basic social justice commitments in a Budget that attacks the weak and poor in order to advantage wealthy and powerful interests for political gain. Santa's basic belief in the Co-operative movement's ability to bring social harmony and equality and restore status to the marginalised is at morality and imagination's other pole from Tony Abbott's attitudes to the needy, much as the present (Peta Credlin directed?) softening of his public persona would have us think.

Joe Castley 15 May 2014

Thank you for your article. Sadly our country is now in the hands of psychopaths.

Jo 15 May 2014

Thank you for putting into words what many Australians know but are having trouble expressing the deviousness of this man. Devastating for the most needy in our community.

Sandra Webb 15 May 2014

I am not a fan of this article due to the opening line which was written some time back. To question the moral core of another person, is not our domain. I am happy for these things to be left to a higher authority. Morality comes in many forms - and the current hatred in the press is deemed to be OK by a large number of people who are joining a conga line and clapping the same tune. Abbott will be voted out by the same democratic process that put him in office - let the LNP adopt their policies and if they don't work =- OUT

Jackie 15 May 2014

"Much is made of Abbott’s Catholic faith, but it seems to me that the rule book he plays from has more in common with Machiavelli." When people want Abbott to take a position in line with the ethics derived from Catholicism, it is "he should be doing this, he is a Catholic". When people don't want Abbott to take a position in line with the same ethics above, it is "religion and politics should not mix". I prefer to just leave religion out of the debate at all (perhaps like the author suggests). But more pointedly, Abbott's real 2013 election strategy was not the two claims made in the article, but in highlighting the instability, and infighting in the Labor party, that gave the impression that the countries needs were subservient to those of personal glory and power. Abbott's election as prime minister had more to do with the deficiencies of the government of the day, and the complete inability by the Greens to compromise with a majority Labor government in Rudd's first term. Their gamble in playing hardball did not pay off, and we are all now worse for wear with no effective climate change policy years on.

reggie 15 May 2014

Appreciate the article Neil. Not sure, however, whether the so called deficit levy will be "temporary". The Greiner Govt introduced a Sydney CBD car parking levy as a "temporary" measure in the early 1990's. It is still there. There may be good policy reasons to maintain the car parking levy but a truthful approach from the outset would have been preferable.

Paul Crittenden 15 May 2014

What a good suggestion that Abbott, Hockey and Pine might go rub shoulders with the truly disadvantaged in our society. However, unfortunately, I suspect nothing at all will rub off. I am still waiting for a bishop/priest to refuse communion to these men who are disobeying the teachings of their church.

Janet 15 May 2014

Excellent analysis. Like you, i find the parallels and perhaps mutual influence between Abbott and Pell to be intriguing, if potentially rather sinister. Both seem able to find quite separate psychological and intellectual boxes for their "christianity", for definition of friends and foes, and for how they differentially treat these. And ultimately both have seemed to use Richo`s (or Machiavelli`s) prescription of "whatever it takes!" I actually thought that the Hockey attack on "entitlement" would be slimming down middle class and wealthy hand-outs to focus support of the most needy , but it turns out to be just an attack on the most poor and the most vulnerable, with some very meagre fig-leaves; how very disappointing.

Eugene 15 May 2014

I recall Pope Francis recently stating that it is not for us to judge the morality or otherwise of others. How does this article from a Catholic theologian fit in with that? It is fine to judge someone's politics in the public domain but it would be appropriate to back up the assumptions regarding Mr Abbott's political aims and commitments with some reference to facts rather than assumptions.

john frawley 15 May 2014

Thank you Neil, You have identified and named what for me has been the source of dull pain mild depression. I recognise now that these are signs of grief as some of the implications of budget on Australian culture are starting to become manifest. At its best the rules around access to unemployment benefits will spur young people to re locate to pick fruit. At its worst those whose intellects are still forming will be susceptible to a whole range of unscrupulous people who specialise on exploiting vulnerability of others in the service of their own gain. In the absence of adequate income there is always a Fagan willing to befriend an Oliver Twist. Make sure you lock your house and keep your wallet or purse close to you. When you are hungry cold and alone “You’ve got a pick a pocket or two”. Forget the romanticised musical version of Oliver the future is looking genuinely Dickensian.

John Francis Collins 15 May 2014

I face booked this comment after the budget was announced. 7 Catholics on the inner cabinet front bench. "How can Tony Abbot be of the same faith as Pope Francis"

Judith Hoogen 15 May 2014

In Time Magazine dated May 19, 2014, there is an article on a new best selling book on economics by a French academic, Thomas Piketty, who spent 15 years analysing economic data of 30 countries including France, the U.K., the U.S., Germany and Japan, to prove that the rich are really getting richer; and that their wealth doesn't trickle down, it trickles up, producing more and greater inequality, and points to the stark historical consequences of unchecked inequality. When a sincere person has the courage of his convictions, and those convictions are faulty, great harm can result both to himself and to many others.

Robert Liddy 15 May 2014

If it had the cojones, the church should threaten to excommunicate them for not living up to christian values. But it wont. Tony can just go to confession and be absolved for all his lying, and then he is morally free to continue his bastardy. How neat.

Steve 15 May 2014

The current Abbott attack is the culmination of a long history of his political approach; his prosthetics bill as Health Minister being a classic case in point.

Jennifer Herrick 15 May 2014

As a non-christian who spent 95% of my primary and secondary years at Catholic schools I came out with a strong sense service, especially public service. I considered politics as among the highest form of political service if it is recognised and utilised in that way. However I must say my association with politicians and participation in political activities left me with a clear understanding that modern politics is largely about ideologies and survival. Aided by private polling (equivalent of consumer research), tailoring of evidence/facts to fit agenda (as experts witnesses do nowadays), curated (aka filtered) media coverage and a lack of courageous public intellectuals modern day politics has moved well away from taking care of the social bottom line and mirrors very much the private sector which I am now part of. Prof. Neil's article shows the results of the shift in what we should be valuing in politics. Many condemn the young for ignoring politics. But I went into political action as a youngster and came out of it in my 30's disgusted by the utter erosion of morality, ethics, lack of service mentality and a loss of higher purpose that is in the interest of humanity.

Sundar 15 May 2014

Thanks Neil, astute article. Judging another person's 'morality' is a fine line but the way the article is written seems to concentrate on Mr Abbott's moral judgement as a prominent politician rather than as a individual. Tony Abbott is a master of saying what people want to hear, which is often contradictory (and he gets away with it!). E.g. during the election campaign when in WA he sided with the WA premier over the GST carve-up but when in Tasmania he aligned himself with its current status because he knew that it was a real concern with Tasmanians. His relentless condemnation of Ms Gillard for doing exactly what he said he wouldn't do and his manufactured "budget emergency" are problems of his own making. The "real" Tony Abbott will be fascinating to watch as this budget unravels. His credibility is blown out of the water and even die-hard Liberals are dismayed by his hubris, which is fully on display for all to see. It wouldn't surprise me to see even more extreme behavior. Like many, I am a product of the Catholic education system (prior to Vatican II) and compromise wasn't a part of the curriculum.

Jeff Kevin 15 May 2014

Financial changes for the most vulnerable Australians is most deplorable - what about the Church's social justice declarations; notably absent also in the budget was no change for our refugee brothers and sisters who through their desire to be free and safe are destined to a life in poverty. Labor needs to change its thinking as well!

Glenda Honan 15 May 2014

Beautifully put.

Sara Dowse 15 May 2014

It's Pounds to peanuts that the Libs will dump Abbott sometime before the next Election to escape somewhat the odourous mess he has created.

Kevin 15 May 2014

Janet: "What a good suggestion that Abbott, Hockey and Pine might go rub shoulders with the truly disadvantaged in our society." My understanding is that for many years now, Tony Abbott has spent a few weeks of his annual leave teaching aboriginal children on reserves in Queensland. It's understandable that this great news might come as a complete surprise: E.S. has to my knowledge never mentioned it about T.A. But it's not bad for someone with a missing moral core, eh? How many here with their massive moral cores do anything like that? I don't.

HH 15 May 2014

Cut & Paste: 2010, E.S ... "Put into a different situation, he (Tony Abbott) is more than happy to argue the opposite position if it suits his then objectives." 26/4/2012 : Bill Shorten, re. appointing Peter Slipper as Speaker: "I support whatever our Prime Minister (Julia Gillard) has said." E.S. ... (no comment.)

HH 15 May 2014

Would he face this massive opprobrium from the ES left,if PM supported SSM, Abortion, Artificial Contraception?

Father John George 15 May 2014

The Jesuit school old boys on the liberal side of politics betray Jesuit values and more importantly the values of the Catholic Church. They are a disgrace.

Gregory Gibson 15 May 2014

Don't worry HH, you'll have plenty of immorality to poke your stick at. With the decline in living standards will also come more abortions, more immorality, more domestic violence more abuse, more alcohol and drug use, more street kids looking to comfort each other in whatever way is available to them. Then you can be all charitable and do the St Vincent de Paul thing and help those less fortunate than you, and feel good like TA in the process.

Agnes Day 16 May 2014

And ditto for Dear JG: Don't worry JG, you also will have plenty of immoral people to condemn. See my above post. Blind Freddy can see the connection between immorality (according to your narrow terms of sex and sexuality) and the immorality of the lust for and worship of money/greed and the demonising of those less capable of supporting themselves, the less privileged. Perhaps those concerned about narrow sexual morality should read Eva Cox's Boyer Lecture, A Truly Civil Society". Oh wait, she's a feminist - God forbid, a woman with good ideas and compassion as opposed to pure economic rationality..

Agnes Day 16 May 2014

Here's a thought, why don't we bring in a Logan's Run government and pop everyone off at 40 years old but only after convincing them they were going to a higher place of existence of course (religion might be able to take over that job). That'd eliminate the deficit. Perhaps we could introduce voluntary euthanasia - a little less immoral so as to relieve us poor younger people of the terrible burden of having to economically cater for those wicked people who just won't die early enough - or forced sterilisation of those we good Catholics deem immoral and have abortions anyway. How about just socially cleansing our desired utopia of ALL the economically unviable riff raff, those that drain our economy because they can't get a job, those that become disabled for whatever reason, those that have breakdowns, all those dreadful people who have ended up that way because they were stupid (or evil) enough to not followed the Catholic way as professed by a few people here and, of course as represented by our polies at present.

Agnes Day 16 May 2014

Agnes,the issue is not your suggested sexual myopia but PM is judged more widely through prism of mere association with "unchristian" Cardinal Pell-pace Mr Kersh and Eugene] By the way, Agnes,I am your ideal lower class priest, a former Westie, with earlier childhood in attic room [sans hot & cold water, no individual kitchen and bathroom] in Crown Street Darlinghurst,Sydney [aka Razorhurst in those days]. The ambiance would make Bethlehem stable look like the Hilton.

Father John George 16 May 2014

Fr JG, artificial contraception?! what is this the cave days? more patriarchy ruling women's lives. give it up.

Jennifer Herrick 16 May 2014

Agnes is right. The consequences of this budget will force people down exactly the roads so many conservatives disapprove of. Not giving young unemployed people ANY support for six months will see more desperate young women turn to prostitution, for example.

Russell 16 May 2014

Dear Fr JG, , Call me a mixed up leftie Vat2-Catholic if thou like, but I do think that screwing the poor is not quite what the dear Lord preached. On your other issues i am intact quite a social conservative, though i think the way the church has handled "AC" and marriage (HSM) over the last 40 years has lost it a huge amount of credibility from even those of good faith. It takes all sorts.

Eugene 16 May 2014

Thank you Neil. I'm afraid you are right when you say that the minor parties will benefit. I, for one, will be looking beyond both major parties, PUP - not really comfortable with them. The Greens - only less uncomfortable with them although I do applaud Sarah Hanson-Young's efforts on Asylum seekers; and Senator Ludlam Our treatment of Asylum Seekers doesn't seem to attract much opprobrium. Labor are no better than the Coalition. Richard Marles is guilty by his silence. May be a political "messiah" will emerge.

Kevin 17 May 2014

I signed by post of a few minutes ago as simply "Kevin". I see a post from another Kevin and I thought it might be best to save him from blame for my views

Kevin Bradley 17 May 2014

This budget is unfair, unjust and unAustralian. It targets pensioners, students, the disabled, and the jobless - those least capable of affording a cut in real wages, and a blowout in their personal budget. On top of that this government has fobbed off 80 BILLION dollars of hospital and education funding to the States! Where is the equity and where is the justice behind a government that promised "no extra taxes, no hidden surprises"?? When is a lie, a lie? I am ashamed to see that Jesuit-trained politicians who should have some kind of developed Christian conscience regarding issues of Social Justice have broken promises, lied in a bare-faced manner to the electorate, hit the poor and underprivileged with crippling costs, and demand that the senate pass all these measures without any modification! I do acknowledge that the last Labour government was pathetic in its profilgate spending and lacked fiscal responsibility. BUT this is not the way to fix the problem. Top rating agencies globally give Oz a AAA+ rating, and that has to be taken into account. It is not enough for this government to say "we inherited this mess so we are going to inflict pain, stress, worry and economic pressure on those that can't afford it, while they sip their $1000+ bottles of Grange with the privileged few in the community. It is just NOT ON!

Yuri Koszarycz 19 May 2014

This article sounds like something that should have been read aloud over the past few days on ABC tv. It repeats the charges levelled there repeatedly. What isn't mentioned is the discovery made by Abbott, Hockey, and others about the huge financial deficit incurred by the previous government. Tthey did not have access to Treasury figures until then. Be fair, Neil Ormerod. Justice is fundamental in sound political thought, which goes back in the West to ancient Greece and Rome Machiavelli is a red herring.

Dr Susan Reibel Moore 19 May 2014

I admire Tony Abbot and Joe Hockey for their courage. They knew their budget would make them very unpopular because most voters consider only what will benefit them now ("When do we want it? Now."). But there are millions of Greeks, Spaniards, French, Italians who rue the days they voted for Parties who promised more benefits whilst the governments were near bankrupt. The budget deficit is $47 billion a year. More significant is the accelerating of indebtedness, one of the fastest in the world. None of the commentators on this page has mentioned this apparently trifling matter. There is no way to avoid bankruptcy other than by raising revenue and cutting expenditure - which is what the government is doing. As for the puerile attacks on the Catholicism of the Prime Minister & the Treasurer the attackers might like to consider the hard decisions surgeons make every day when they amputate a leg or the military commanders in Afghanistan who send men to almost certain death. Are these surgeons & commanders bad Christians?

FRANK MOBBS 20 May 2014

Brilliant, insightful article. Tony Abbott please read and recalibrate your moral compass.

Charles Higgins 25 May 2014

There are "catholics and then there are the real catholics"... it restores my belief in the latter...thank you!

Tony Grant 28 May 2014

Yuri Koszarycz, could you please define "Australian", as opposed to "un-Australian" Surely there must be a well-considered, meaningful definition of this over-used wordage. The old "fair go" is another Australianism which bears serious consideration, because it really defines nothing universal among us.

Laurie May 25 October 2014

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