Abbott's animal charms


Political Animal, David Marr, Black Inc. Publishing, April 2013

Cover of David Marr's book Political Animal: Tony Abbott standing in shadowsBarry:

David Marr's Quarterly Essay 'Political Animal' (September 2012) set felines squarely among the critical pigeons.

Mined for its curiosity factor by Crikey, panned as partisan by Quadrant (Marr is a 'ruthless, steely-eyed ideologue of the Left') and dismissed as overblown by the Sydney Institute, most discussion revolved around the 'she said, he said' defamation proceedings (delayed until February 2014) concerning physical intimidation Abbott allegedly used in his salad days of university, counter-reactionary opposition to social change, and rugby.

This Black Inc. edition, with inflamed legal context and increased depth, is Marr's essay on steroids.

He scours the dank recesses of Australian political life with new insights into Student Tony and comments on disputed turf, in a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a deeply fissured figure bifurcated into Values Abbott (largely pre-leadership) and Politics Abbott (the new women-friendly soundbiter).

It sizzles with post-essay responses, Abbott's arbitrary use of language and rejection of criticisms, lending new light to Abbott's ongoing approaches to media and issues (such as his continued labelling of boatloads of asylum seekers as 'illegals').

Marr's is a necessarily partial view of Abbott's psyche. Balanced? Mostly. Critical? Assuredly. Presenting former journo Abbott as junkyard dog and supreme negator is one thing. Citing former PM Paul Keating's statement — 'Tony Abbott's policy is: "If you don't give me the job, I'll wreck the place"' — however, is overkill.

How do you find the overt warnings, Jen? I find Marr more effective when he wields his stiletto, as with his take on Abbott's jeremiads: 'His pitch to the fearful is the nameless dread of change in a fragile world ... [in] a profoundly conservative brand of politics that deals in panic and threat.'

Casting a Victorious PM Abbott as a puppet of Pell and Howard, or a fiddler with women's rights, seems risible; Abbott is bound by social restraints. Still, Marr ominously cites Abbott's mantra: be guided by principles but don't spook the cattle: 'sufficiently impress the public [but] don't worry the public [into thinking] you would be a risk if you found yourself in a position of power'. (How does Marr's Abbott come off to women, Jen?)

Perception counts; choice looms. 'On most ... social issues that define modern Australia Gillard's party and Abbott's party see eye to eye,' Marr opines, accurately. His Abbott is a disciplined pugilist, refraining from wild counterpunches, lest he soil his scorecard and lose the bout.

I still find Abbott's notion that written truths are weightier (more valid?) than spoken truths disturbing (Marr notes Abbott's ABC appearances dwindled remarkably since that gaffe).

Reinforcing my distaste at Abbott's policies and practices, Marr grounds his fears of Abbott Resurgent in a visible lack of grace. Bullying and badgering. Dissing the late anti-asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton, prone on his deathbed. Treating women contemptibly. I'm transfixed by Marr's Hulk Abbott, raging silently at a telejournalist's queries with unacted violence and dead air.

Political Animal demands acceptance or rejection of Wall-Bashing Tony's existence, or Strident Homophobe Tony's fears. Are you convinced, Jen? 


Well, Barry, I can't say I was expecting Marr's extended character study to change my mind about the Man-Who-Would-Be-Prime-Minister (in short: I'm no fan), but I was a little more open to a change of heart.

Abbott — or 'Abbo' to his mates — arrives on the page highly ambitious yet dangerously blinkered. A 17-year-old with a 'rough-house brand of Catholic evangelism', driven not by piety, but by 'glory and discipline'.

What is perhaps most surprising about these early years was that the Liberal party wasn't initially on Abbott's radar. Yet his decision to, in the end, become a card-carrying member was, Marr argues, completely in character. 'His values have never stood in his way,' he notes drolly.

It's unfortunate that the same can be said for the women in his life. Political Animal does little to dispel the belief that they've played a support — or archetypal — role in Abbott's drama. From his mother and sisters who were convinced he was 'cut out' for political greatness, to his wife Margie, who has next to no voice in the book.

His former pregnant girlfriend Kathy McDonald is presented as the woman who almost stood between Abbott and the Rhodes scholarship and priesthood; and Barbara Ramjan, the fellow student who beat him in student politics, as the woman who provoked him.

The Ramjan affair really threw Abbott, didn't it Barry? Despite denying that any threat took place during his only (off-the-record) interview for the book, we didn't buy it. How could we? One look at his moves tells us something of his motives. 'He walks as though he has to will each leg forward,' Marr writes. 'His face is skin and bone. He smiles but his eyes are hooded. The overall effect is faintly menacing, as if he's about to climb into the ring.'

Marr has such a distinctive voice that towards the end I grew more aware of his presence on the page — and of a shift in mood. Somewhere along the line — perhaps at the juncture of 'superhero' Abbott plucking children from a burning building — Marr seems to abandon his critical position and, dare I say it, take to Abbott's corner. 

I find this burgeoning bromance more than a little disquieting. (Watch Marr championing Abbott on a recent episode of Q&A for further evidence.) If its purpose in the book was to engender empathy then it didn't work on me. [Barry: I prefer to think of Marr's lissome rapprochement with Abbott as classic Stockholm syndrome.] 

Which Abbott do you think we will get if he becomes our next PM, Barry? Your guess is as good as mine. As for Marr, he's keeping mum. 'I wish I could quote his answer,' he writes cryptically. 'My sense is we'll get the Abbott he decides to give us at any particular time.'

Abbott may not have jumped for joy to be put under the microscope, but in Marr he couldn't have found a more thorough biographer. More worrying for me in this election year is that he may also have found an unlikely ally. 

Barry Gittins headshotJen Vuk headshotBarry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army. He has written for Eureka Street, Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Jen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. 

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, Tony Abbott, David Marr



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Existing comments

Peter Costello’s forthcoming review of this book in a Saturday Extra will make for entertaining reading. Tony Abbott is there because of John Howard and Howard’s perfect political sidelining of Costello for years while in power. The Dynamic Duo of Gittins and Vuk reveal in their discussion how very little there is to say about Tony Abbott beyond what we already know. It is this lack of any real vision for the future, as much as his bullying reputation, that makes Abbott such an unpleasant prospect. He has learned the tactics from Howard of how to silence his own colleagues in the Party. It’s the negativity and fear surrounding this man that is so dispiriting. As for David Marr showing changing signs of warmth toward Abbott, well he would wouldn’t he? He has a book to sell. Marr is well-versed in the grim reality of Australia’s two-party politics. He just possibly wants to be on the side that’s winning, too.

FROM THE GALLERY | 02 May 2013  

Great review Jen and Barry! I agree, I thought Marr had fallen in-love with Tony when he gushed profusely on Q&A about the would be PM - couldn't believe it! But maybe he saw something that we are all missing. Personally I love Tony's ears, he looks like a sort of mouse......

Felicity Costigan | 03 May 2013  

Did anyone read the sub-title of Political Animal? It reads The making of Tony Abbott. Tony Abbott is a work in progress. To mix metaphors - he is an evolving chameleon. Something that surely must have impressed David Marr is Abbott's unabashed love for his (Abbott's) lesbian sister. As I am sure I would be impressed if Tony would imitate Damien of Molokai and embrace our modern day lepers, desperate asylum seekers.

Uncle Pat | 03 May 2013  

Nicolo Machiavelli wrote "The leader should have the reputation for honesty, integrity, and religion, but not always the reality". This appears to be the type of brush with which Abbott is constantly and unfairly tarred.

Claude Rigney | 03 May 2013  

I want to take up only one point. Barry Gittins sees "Abbot's notion that written truths are weightier (more valid) than spoken truths disturbing." Mr Abbott has not been commenting on the philosophy of language. He directly applied that statement to himself, stating we should only take from him as as factual that which is scripted. The Thought of the Prime Minister of Australia, representing us around the world, with this disability, which he has publicly admitted, is appalling.

Caroline Storm | 03 May 2013  

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