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Best of 2010: Tony Abbott's missing moral core


Tony Abbott

First published in Eureka Street on 8 November 2010.

Tony Abbott has been in public life for a long time. Some of us remember his forays into student politics in the 70s; his stint in journalism with the Bulletin; his public flirtation with the priesthood; and now his meteoric rise to leadership of the Liberal party and to a hair’s breadth from the prime ministership itself.

It has not always been pretty, but it has always been entertaining – usually comic and at times tragic. During the whole episode of the supposed 'love child' with his university girl friend, he managed to maintain a quiet dignity, particularly in the face of the final revelation that the child he thought he had fathered was not actually his. 

But there is something I find deeply disturbing in the way he carries out his public role. Charming and disarming as he can be, I find myself wondering wherein lies his moral core. Not long after his election as leader of the Liberal Party, Abbott was trying to explain away statements from his past claiming that he sometimes makes 'unreliable statements' in the 'heat of discussion.'

At that time I thought that the way to get a handle on Tony Abbott was to realise that he was like a high school or university debater. He would say anything to win an argument, confident that there would be no consequences to his actions.

Abbott is a natural debater, able to argue whatever position he feels will advantage him at the moment. And it’s not about logic or coherence, but about thumping the table the loudest. Further it does not seem to be about some moral vision that he holds to, providing a consistent pattern of thought.

When the election was on a knife edge, Abbott was arguing that the party with the two-party preferred majority should form government, rather than the party that could form a majority on the floor of the House. Yet media commentators soon pointed out he had adopted the exact opposite position in the recent close elections in South Australia. 

For me the low point in his recent performances was his attack on the proposed military tribunal established to investigate possible war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan. This was an issue with some populist traction. An online petition attracted thousands of signatories. But the implication was that Australian troops should not be subject to the rule of law in their military engagements.

He went so far as to imply that the Australian government should intervene in the process, in clear violation of the separation of powers between government and judiciary. He seemed to demonstrate no faith in the military tribunal to find these soldiers innocent, if in fact they were innocent. And if they were proven guilty he would have been seeking to protect war criminals. 

Although it was a popular stance, he was in effect attacking fundamental bases of our social and political system. I’m still amazed at how lightly he was treated by the media on this issue. Imagine the outcry if he had suggested that a priest accused of sexual abuse should not have that claim tested in court because we should support priests who are working for the good of the community! Certainly Australian troops are doing a great job in Afghanistan, and their morale is being affected by the proposed tribunal. But Abbott’s stance would license  lawlessness. 

In the end this stance had less to do with the the case than with his need to reassert himself after his own dissembling in offering reasons why he would not accompany the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, on her visit to the troops in Afghanistan. When his 'jet lag' excuse was exposed and he came out flailing, hoping to land whatever blows he could on Gillard. The moral consequences of his stance were of lesser importance than his need to score some immediate political points. 

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.

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, Tony Abbott, morality, politics, Catholic, prime minister, Liberal Party, Coalition



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Existing comments

If Abbott wasn't a superficial Catholic, and moved from a profound faith, he would be a true statesman.

Vacy Vlazna | 11 January 2011  

Thanks Neil, for a considered, informative and enjoyable piece.

JaneAgatha | 11 January 2011  

Please eureka !!! why start the year by repeating an article from a man who clearly has such a personal bias against Abbot--it seems to show an unrestrained bias from eureka by choosing to repeat it.

brian | 11 January 2011  

I find a disturbing connection between the statements sometimes made by Tony Abbott and the manner in which he seeks to dismiss them. He has said some untrue things about women ,for example, relating their physiognomy to their capacity to lead, their claim to parental allowance. When confronted, he says"LOOK" I have admitted to it,or I am no saint(read I have confessed to it)and therefore I am absolved of it

Blaise | 11 January 2011  

"Much is made of Abbott's Catholic Faith" and rightly so. Mr Abbott is not a pretend committed Catholic. Mr Abbott is a muscular Christian, a loyal Catholic, Pro-God, Pro-Family and Pro-Life.Loyal to Our Lord Jesus Christ, loyal to the Pope and loyal to the Magisterium. Mr Abbott does not chase votes by trying to please every minority group as so many Catholic politicians in the Federal and State parliaments, while they do not accept some of the Church's teachings. Christians of all denomination are praying that Mr. Abbott will be elected Prime Minister at the next Federal Election and keep Australia Christian.

Ron Cini | 11 January 2011  

Please Brian! If the HonTony were theologically profound Catholic and showed some sign of being more of a humanist and less of an egoist, he might get a sympathetic run in this journal. His flakiness can't be exposed too often.

endee | 11 January 2011  

How very true, Professor! As a Catholic, I find Tony Abbott a posturing fraud. He behaves like an idiot in public, most of the time. I find it demeaning that he raises his Catholic Faith as a banner, while behaving so intemperately.

Annette Walker | 11 January 2011  

Why does everyone only read Machiavelli's "Prince" and nobody reads "The Discourses" ....? Is it something to do with the reader's ego?

Greig WIlliams | 11 January 2011  

Congratulations once again Ron Cini. You speak for so many of us.

Claude Rigney | 11 January 2011  

Abbott, in his public life, seems to conveniently forget an important principle inpressed on all those educated by the Jesuits:"The end does not justify the means".

Gerard | 11 January 2011  

And which of those loyalties, Ron, commends Tony Abbott to lead the secular government of this diverse nation?

Ginger | 11 January 2011  

To Annette Walker; Half of the nation or possibly more than half, support and have a great respect for Mr. Tony Abbott. To Endee; Mr John Howard never had a sympathetic run in this journal and Mr. Tony Abbott never will.

Ron Cini | 11 January 2011  

I prefer Tony Abbot then that DUMMY Julia Gillard. She is no popular as an opposition leader

saviour tony camilleri | 12 January 2011  

The fact that Tony Abbot stated that he would do nothing to prevent, or even reduce, the saughtering of 75,000 innocent children each year in Australia if he won government at the last election demonstrates that he has no moral core and is primarily interested in gaining votes rather than forming policy based on his concience and what is right. He reminds me of the Laodiceans mentioned in Apocalypse 3:16. "But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, not hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth" At least Julia Gillard, cold as she is, stands by her beliefs on abortion, despicable as they are.

Francis | 13 January 2011  

I've only just picked this up and as usual from Neil Ormerod, it is in my view absolutely spot on.The angry response from some readers, repeating mantras often used by right-wing Christians in the USA ( 'pro-God, pro-family etc) shows how resistant such people are to rational attempts to analyse the public stance and statements of politicians.But by putting themselves out there and asking us to vote for them, that is what they must expect us to do, not just react in a tribal way. If Abbott was a private individual, then of course measuring his conduct against his professed religious allegiance would not be necessary: one might just be charitable and say that we should not judge others but leave it to their own conscience. Politicians are public figures and ask for out vote. On the few occasions that the ABC has provided an opportunity - usually in dedicated 'religious'programmes well away from the mainstream current affairs focus - for prominent politicians to be questioned about the discrepancy between their public rhetoric or their proclaimed policies and their religious adherence, there has been a profound sense of discomfort and a lot of uneasy waffle as a response. I did not see Abbott put to this test, but other Liberals who identify themselves as Catholic certainly behaved in this way.

Ann | 15 January 2011  

If there is a choice between a robust Catholic, an atheist and a sanctimonious PM seen leaving church every Sunday, I take the robust Catholic every time as a leader.

Sue | 28 January 2011  

"If there is a choice between a robust Catholic, an atheist and a sanctimonious PM seen leaving church every Sunday" ..... I'd choose whichever was the least hypocritical. In the case of Abbott, he clearly fails that test.

Mike H | 09 February 2011  

At last someone who reads this man well. It is so obvious that he plays to win strategy is everything and the goal of winning. With big business media backing him all the way of course he is going to be cocky but to me Mr Abbott and the front bench would do the country a favour and retire I once thought Mr Tunbull was worth considering but he has sat there and said nothing as things just got worse he comes in on a disatisfaction rate along with the rest of the front bench.

maggie atlas | 24 May 2013  

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