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Tony Abbott's missing moral core


Tony AbbottTony 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

I'm very surprised - 'disturbed' even -that a professor of theology should demean anyone exploring a possible vocation by entering a seminary by describing it as a "public flirtation with the priesthood". Thast's very offensive, and demanding of a public apology.

Ormerod ponders the absence of Abbott's 'moral core' and in the same breath points to his 'quiet dignity'in regard to a so-called 'love child'.Abbott's response to this episode was rightly lauded by all spectators.At another time,Professor Ormerod,might explain his use of the term 'love child'..in theological terms.It'd be interesting, and I'd suspect 'disturbing'.
Most disturbing to me are the Professor's references to Abbott's " dissembling in offering reasons why he would not accompany the Prime Minister to Afghanistan".It was subsequently revealed that Gillard was simply playing politics...Abbott had made his own arrangements for a visit and traditionally for his safety as well as those soldiers who would be guarding him, such visits are not publicised in advance.Professor Ormerod is entitled to publicly flirt with any party of his choosing,pointedly Labor or otherwise, but let it not be at the expense of any veracity.

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 08 November 2010  

Tony Abbott is a good man. None of us are perfect, but to concentrate on perceived faults or moral choices is a fruitless exercise. Maybe the author should examine his own life before commenting on the moral 'cores' of others.

Julia Gillard is pro-abortion, same sex marriage, has no belief in God and has had several de facto relationships, yet I don't see anything written about her moral core values, especially in a Catholic publication like Eureka Street.

Trent | 08 November 2010  

Neil, a very interesting article. Despite the well-reasoned argument, I fear your piece will attract criticism from those who believe Eureka St delights in 'sticking the boot into Tony Abbott'!

It is a perceptive article though. My father, a long time Liberal party supporter, cannot stand Tony Abbott's completely unethical behaviour in the 'witch hunt' of Pauline Hanson.
Despite being unaligned to a political party,

I have often wondered about the inconsistency between Tony Abbott's lack of a Catholic moral position on issues such as asylum seekers and social justice, when he is willing to go into bat on issues such as sexuality or bioethics.

MBG | 08 November 2010  

Thank you, Neil. You have put words on our incoherence. Abbott is a disgrace to politics and seems to have brought good men like Turnbull and Hockey down to his level.

I will be forwarding this article to my friends overseas, so that they may be prepared if the bad day comes.

Frank | 08 November 2010  

Thank you Professor
You have been able to put words to the perception I have of Abbott
He indulges in cheap populist shots and I rarely find his argument credible especially concerning the deep moral issues of refugees and their place in our country.

GAJ | 08 November 2010  

I agree with Neil's article re Tony Abbott. Let us hope he never attains the Prime Minister's role. he shoots from the hip without thinking.

Bev Smith | 08 November 2010  

Any examination of Tony Abbott's political character should include consideration of his comments on B.A.Santamaria. Abbott was generous in his praise and, rather vaguely, described Santamaria as his 'first political mentor'. Was Abbott referring to Santamaria's persistent (and at times less than honest) endeavours to achieve political power, based on the dubious principle that the end justifies the means?
Or simply a 'dog whistle' to attract support from former and currrent DLP supporters?

Bob Corcoran | 08 November 2010  

Sure enough if one attacks Tony Abbott - the self-declared political love child of John Howard and Bronwyn - one is accused of being pro-Labour or, worse pro-Julia Gillard.

All Neil Ormerod did was write about soomething he finds deeply disturbing about Tony Abbot's public utterances and behaviour. Ormerod's status as a professor of theology carries no more weight with me than if Joe Hockey had written it - but then in the current state of Australia's political set-up that will never happen. It is an opinion piece.

I think Eureka Street should invite Brian Haill and Trent to write opinion pieces on "what they find disturbing about the public utterances and behaviour of Julia Gillard" provided of course they are prepared to say who & what they are - just as Neil Ormerod said who and what he is.

In discussing politics I prefer to put principles before personalities but then I never intend entering politics where given the power and influence of the media personalities are more interesting than principles. Conflict is more interesting than cooperation. War is more interesting than peace. Sound and fury more interesting than reticence and calm reason.

Uncle Pat | 08 November 2010  

In an article which purports to set a standard for truth and ethical behaviour, this piece was jarringly and bafflingly designed to disguise the truth by presenting it selectively, and deliberately misunderstand a good man. From one of the first comments "his public flirtation with the priesthood" (Did Tony Abbott call a press conference? Or was it in fact his private decision to genuinely explore whether he had such a noble calling? Does Omerod perhaps mean:"later publicised"?). In relation to reliable statements, was it not refreshing and admirable that Tony Abbott was the first politician who basically warned the public (with a frankness rarely seen in others in modern highly-crafted, heavily spin-doctored political life) that due to the 24/7 news-cycle tune to which politicians now dance (and which Obama also lamented) that much is said 'on the run'; that much is asked on out-of-portfolio matters, about detailed material which lies in sheafs of policy texts back in various Ministers' offices; that factors constantly and sometimes even dramatically change; and that politicians ought not be relied upon to be commenting accurately unless they had the researched and reliable details written in front of them? Think about it.

If Tony Abbott stood up for our troops to ensure that those who act within lawful Rules of Engagement - even with fatal outcomes for non-combatants due to the wrongful behaviour of the enemy - that consideration should be given to NOT drag the soldiers through a show trial, lest every other soldier become demoralised and battle-shy in as taxing a circumstance, then this is possibly a good thing. There are many decisions made every day by Directors of Prosecutions, Medical Authorities, and other professional associations, not to proceed with a prosecution or discipline matter because there is 'no case to answer': because the activity fell within the ambit of lawful behaviour, even when there has been a bad or even tragic outcome. So to decide to charge them, after 18 months of deliberating over whether to or not, with a trial to be held even further down the track, is cruel for the soldiers themselves and appalling for those still in the field who need to know with certainty whether they can act a particular way, in particular circumstances eg return fire when they are under fire from a combatant. Time and developments change imports of events: it may be that there has been so much publicity, it is possible that a trial IS needed now, for the benefit of the soldiers to clear their names, for clarity for the other service personnel, and for Australia's reputation - but to have let it dither on like this and become a bigger issue, and to not to have made an early and appropriate decision, seems plainly wrong - and demonstrative of an insularity from the realities of pressured decision-making on the battle-ground.

As for Tony Abbott's visit to Afghanistan, he told Julia in confidence he was going there! She said "You're better at all that running and jumping, Tony", then apparently put in place her own travel plans - and asked him (for what could only be showy political upstaging reasons) to accompany her. Details of his travel there, which he had confided to her as PM, were classified for security reasons and he could not confirm or deny them publicly. (He is also is still a human being, and would undoubtedly have been caught off-guard by such a trick by a person he respects as a Parliamentary colleague.)

Many people who witnessed this little game were incredibly disappointed in our PM. It didn't become her to stoop that low, she is better than that.

And you Omerod, are so much better than this article would have readers believe.

If Tony Abbott obtains high office to do some good for Australia, then more power to him.
You could try re-thinking your views and maybe even begin supporting him.

As George Bernard Shaw observed "If you cannot change your mind, you cannot change anything".

Sophie | 08 November 2010  

Interesting article, and quite a deal of food for thought.

The inconsistencies in Abbott's behaviour, even since coming to the leadership of the Liberal Party, are perhaps what is to be expected in a politician (as repugnant as that notion may be). But in someone who proclaims himself a man of faith, who says he is guided by that faith in making his political decisions, it is extremely disturbing.

I think it's fair to say the issue of the priesthood was a 'public flirtation'. While not attempting to demean any possible vocation Abbott may have felt, there is no denying that the issue was used to gain a good deal of media coverage and public sympathy. In itself, that flies in the face of the whole notion of vocation - one does not seek public approval for one's devotion to the divine.

It's been argued that Abbott is held to a higher standard than Julia Gillard, purely because he does consider himself a person of faith. I don't believe that's so. Any politician, indeed any public figure, should be held to the highest standard possible, and that includes acting consistent with their stated ethics.

Marian Dalton | 08 November 2010  

Beautiful analysis - particularly loved the analogy with priests and service men and women who both serve the community and yet all of whom might break the law - and should be prosecuted accordingly.

The Liberals promoting the thesis that no oversight of military behaviour can take place seemed utterly bankrupt - and yet they did have that appealing element (which Tony also has on occasions) of a simple but seemingly upright or moral attitude. Beware of the simplistic appeal to the gut reaction. It is too often shown to be deeply destructive and lacking in moral fibre. And the media need to keep such principles in mind. Giving the Liberals a free run in their effort to undermine a structure they had been instrumental in establishing was a particularly ugly piece of politicking.

Thanks for the spot-on piece. The fact it is critical of a Liberal politician doesn't mean Eureka Street should avoid it - the truth must be named wherever it is found (or lost).

Marion Barker | 08 November 2010  

Neil, a wonderful analysis of the moral fibre, or lack thereof, in our alternative prime minister.

Tony Abbott seems to be of the view that the doctrine of the separation of powers implies a separation between political and moral discourse and practice.

I think it is essential that our political iron-man keep to a daily diet of moral fibre - it would certainly improve his image.

John Edwards | 08 November 2010  

Professor Ormerod is to be congratulated because he has put in a balanced way the view that the majority of Australians have towards Abbott. I am sure that when the independents went with the Government in the last election perhaps what swayed them above all else was the nightmarish thought of having Abbott as P.M.

I believe that Machiavelli resurrects himself every so often. He does this in Abbott whose negativity and philosophy of ends always justifying means is a nadir point in Australian politics.

john hill | 08 November 2010  

Sophie refers to "fatal outcomes for non-combatants due to the wrongful behaviour of the enemy" and then refers to " dragging the soldiers through a show trial".

There will be no shop trial, only a court marshall in which the defence can mount its case.. There is not evidence so far publicly available that the adult the Australians killed was an "enemy", in addition to being the father of some of the the five children killed. The director of military prosecutions would not bring charges relation to alleged breaches on the laws of war that unless she believed that are reasonable grounds for doing so,

The ADF accepts that its soldiers must obey the law, just as police must do in Australia when killing people.

b toohey | 08 November 2010  

I find this article a very bigoted piece of writing. What about our Prime Minister's code of ethics? Have you fought in a war? obviously not, atrocities happen on both sides.

very good comment Sophie, I agree a lot with what you said.

C. Marr | 08 November 2010  

A very interesting and well prepared piece that both gives Abbott his due and identifies some problems in his position on a number of issues that, surely we can agree, are ethical. The analogy between priests and soldiers is spot on. We must presume these soldiers are innocent until (and if) proven guilty but we must not sidestep the process that will determine that. I am also disturbed at the reluctance to take on the issue of climate change which obviously has huge ethical implications, especially if it is to affect the poorer countries (which it seems it will) more than the rich countries.

I was also disturbed that a few of the commentators on this article simply took offence without seriously considering its intelligent and analytical content.

Wendy | 08 November 2010  

Um, how does that make him different to any of the other politicians, really? Just looks like another "Bash Tony".

How about the irrational, indiscriminate bashing of Tony. Most of the people that make accusations about him generally are generally the sheep crowd who believe every word that comes out of the ABCs mouth.

Regarding the rules of engagement, professor, stick to God not law.

John | 08 November 2010  

As a child I heard a visiting Redemptorist priest's sermons.
Perhaps because I was just a small child, I remember only one thing....
Mr. Business went to Mass, never missed a Sunday, but, Mr. Business went to hell for what he did on Monday.

For those on these pages who are just defending Tony Abbott on the grounds that he is a Catholic and yet presume to judge the PM. please remember what Trent said,
"Maybe the author should examine his own life before commenting on the moral "cores" of others".
Pauline Hanson's despicable policies were taken up by John Howard because she had taken 1 million voters away from the Coalition.

Tony Abbott was the man who organised the underhanded slush fund to bring her down, but he didn't want his name brought into it.
Why would anyone defend him let alone vote for him. Macchiavellian in deed.

Phil | 08 November 2010  

Well said Neil and good thinking behind it. It's well and truly time that we Catholics stopped finding excuses for Tony Abbott.

Jim Jones | 08 November 2010  

I very much enjoyed reading this article. There is something about Mr Abbott's bullish demeanor that irritates me. Ideally those in power would model a reflective form of leadership and exhibit kindness and respect for all, at all times.

Rose | 08 November 2010  

At a public meeting before the last election Tony Abbott was asked what were his passions. He was unable to articulate anything that really fired him up saying only that he believed in the will of the people and we should read his book. I agree. Has he a genuine centre?

Elizabeth Clarke | 08 November 2010  

I don't think you have a handle on politics, actually, when you make the comments above about Tony Abbott. Abbott is an intelligent man who likes to think before he speaks or to have studied the topic before he comes to a conclusion. Speaking off the cuff to a frenzied media is not his way of doing things, and when he does say things like I sometimes speak without thinking, etc, that is the fact of the matter. i cannot recall the number of times I have been asked to make a comments about a topic and after having done that, i think, what a goose for saying that.

He too is human and contrary to what you may think, he is not the pretender to the throne. He is the real thing. His religion is not a convenience, the church may be an inconvenience in view of the exposures of paedophilia, but he has a deep-seated faith and his religion is his own business. He is not the one to thrust it down people's throats. There are some details about the man that he wants to keep private but nothing is sacrosanct to the media and now we have your judgment. Get to know the man, don't presume to know him and then you won't pontificate about what you think he is about..

Shirley McHugh | 08 November 2010  

I congratulate Brian Hall, Trent and Sophie. They have the courage to stand for the truth and defend Tony Abbott. Tony is a good man, a loyal Catholic, Pro-God, Pro-Family and Pro-Life, respected and admired by many Australians and hated by Many socialists and left-wing followers.

Ron Cini | 08 November 2010  

Having your morality attacked by Neil Ormerod is the equivalent of being flogged with a wet bus ticket.

Peter | 08 November 2010  

And we could add to the list his recent visit to Adelaide to visit the proposed Detention centre where at a public meeting he opened with "I believe that refugees coming to Australia should come legally" (cheers from the audience) and followed with "It' too late to be doing something at this stage we need to 'STOP THE BOATS'" (more cheers from the crowd) and finished with "when the PEOPLE SMUGGLERS see these lovely houses and beautiful surroundings the message will come out COME TO AUSTRALIA".

Ray Ham | 08 November 2010  

There is nothing worse than a politician(or anybody)saying they follow the teachings of Jesus then show a total lack of humanity and compassion for vulnerable people like asylum seekers.

Instead of moral leadership he goes to Adelaide and reinforces the populist racism, that they don't deserve a respectful standard of accommodation and attitudes after what they have been through. And so he goes on. It is this kind of hypocrisy which is an appalling role-model for religious and humanists.

Julie McNeill | 08 November 2010  

Neil Ormerod says he remembers Abbott from student politics,and in the 70's.I assume they crossed paths in a serious way.Otherwise how could a presumed intelligent man bring himself to produce such a mean article!

Brian | 08 November 2010  

As stated, much is made of Tony Abbott's Catholic faith and it usually expressed for a negative effect.

What I cannot fathom is that if the Catholic faith so dominates Tony Abbott's way of thinking, how does this reconcile with his hard line pronouncements on how to deal with the boat people.

Peter Connell | 08 November 2010  

I think you have all been too kind when talking about Tony Abbott. As he said " don't believe what I say" and don't believe what I sign. What should we believe Tony?? Are you a Catholic in name only? Go to Church on Sunday, and tell lies for the rest of the week. You are definitely no Prime Minister material. You are not capable anyway, let alone not trustworthy. Your own words!!

julie | 08 November 2010  

I am tempted to write an article about "Julia Gillard's Missing Moral Core" to see if Eureka Street will publish it. I think it is ridiculous for Mr Omerod to write ""the issue of the priesthood was a 'public flirtation'.

While not attempting to demean any possible vocation Abbott may have felt, there is no denying that the issue was used to gain a good deal of media coverage and public sympathy"".

Does any reader of Eureka Street believe that the Catholic tag has been helpful overall for Tony Abbott? The media in general is anti - catholic and Tony cops flak for being catholic even here on a catholic publication

Catherine | 08 November 2010  

How could a person with such a position as Ormerod write such an article. Presumably he is of the same bent as Frank Brennan who kept up his attack on Cardinal Pell. The Jesuits have a lot to answer for. "Flirtation with the Priesthood " was a sick comment to say the least.

John B. | 08 November 2010  

An agreeable, well pointed article. Let us not be too confused though regarding just why it is the media take it mighty easy on this politician, and the majority of his offsiders...Can we just not feign not understanding exactly what is going on in this nation - regarding the right-leaning media and the likes of the mining companies!

This man literally campaigned in August 2010 as the 'self-proclaimed Iron-Man of Australian politics.' Stating and meaning "this is the supreme challenge of my life." Phew! I cannot imagine what this person's 'low point' would represent!...

Stand up Australians. In all good conscience - exactly how can we accept this brand of 'old politics' as if we do not have voice boxes?...

Karen-Maree Kelly | 08 November 2010  

I have never once found Abbott to be charming.

Marilyn Shepherd | 08 November 2010  

Ormerod ponders the absence of Abbott's 'moral core', I am pondering the absence of his evidence.

In addition to some of the weird statements in this piece which others have pointed out (public flirtation?) I also have questions about this bit:

"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."

Can someone point me to the evidence of this this? Google gives me nothing.

This is what Abbott said after the SA election in March 2010.

On federal election night, he pointed to the Coalition's *primary* vote and the number of seats (as it was known on the night). The primary vote - while a mark of electoral success for political strategists is irrelevant; it is the number of seats which is a key determinant in the FEDERAL Constitutional dance to form a minority FEDERAL government (and even then the sitting government gets the first option). I do not recall Abbott mentioning the Coaltion's 2PP ever in that context or him being corrected about the SA vote. That would be dumb anyway as each state has its own constitution and procedures for any hung state parliament. I recall Tasmania and WA being brought up by the commentariat until others pointed out that - again - that states have different constitutions.

Can anyone verify Ormerod's assertions?

I also don't think Ormerod is being fair or even handed about this anyway.

Abbott's comments on election night and afterwards were primarily about positioning, to grab the attention of the independents. Gillard did the same in her election night speech, sychophantically so in her case, and she focussed on 2PP - as that was looking more favourable for her on the night. She continued to focus on the 2PP afterwards until the 2PP wasn't falling in her favour, and then tried other angles, like not counting Crook's seat amongst the Coalition's tally etc. 2PP is irrelevant in terms of both electoral success and in terms of hung parliaments anyway - but again, that was her attempt to get attention, find some reason for legitimacy. Does she lack a moral core for dropping the 2PP argument when the counting didn't suit her?

Anyway, I don't have a dog in this fight in terms of being Catholic or otherwise. However, given that I was considering some study at ACU, I may have to rethink this in view of the quality of the evidence, analysis and interpretation displayed by the good professor here.

Thanks for the heads up Prof!

ML | 09 November 2010  

Is there anyone at Australian Catholic University who is NOT a left wing, Labor Green supporter ... and hence a Liberal/Conservative basher?! Would it be possible for ACU staff to try to pretend to be non-partisan ... please!! Tony Abbott is pro-life and willing to look a fool for his faith.

Miriam | 09 November 2010  

Is is disturbing to see a professor of the ACU produce a piece that is so blatantly partisan. It seems that the ACU is not even trying to pretend it is a non-partisan institution. As a tertiary student and the parent of two university aged children I have serious concerns about the bias of staff at the ACU.

Cathy | 09 November 2010  

To Brian Haill. While agreeing with much that you say, you can't ask Professor Ormerod to explalin his use of the term 'love child' when he only uses it in quotes.

Gavan | 09 November 2010  

For those who doubt the weight of Prof Ormerod’s few examples, there would seem plenty of others. Mr Abbott was forced to apologise for comments on homosexuality last March. He apologised to asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton in 2007.

Then there was this Lateline exchange with Tony Jones before the previous election:

JONES: Tony Abbott on another matter, have you met Archbishop Pell during the election campaign?

ABBOTT: Not that I can recall.

JONES: Not that you can recall, because we believe that you've had at least one meeting with him quite recently? You don't recall that?

ABBOTT: Well, when? Where?

JONES: At the presbytery in Sydney.

ABBOTT: Ah, actually now that you do mention it, I did meet with Cardinal Pell. So what? Why shouldn't I meet with Cardinal Pell?

JONES: Why couldn't you recall meeting him, I think, 10 days ago?

ABBOTT: Look, whenever it was, so what? Why shouldn't I meet Cardinal Pell. Cardinal Pell is a fine man. He made a very good statement the other day about the Labor Party's policy, why shouldn't I meet with him?

JONES: Well, the reason we're asking about this, obviously, because your behind-the-scenes activities in the '98 election were quite renowned and I'm wondering is there any possibility that in your discussions with Cardinal Pell which you couldn't recall a moment ago - in those discussions did you actually bring up the issue of private schools?

JONES: Not at all?


Alan Austin | 10 November 2010  

Thank you for your post, Alan Austin.

Many deep-thinking readers of Eureka would be appalled and stunned at Tony Jones star-chamber type of questioning.

Cardinal Pell is first and foremost a priest. A particularly high-level one. It is not known whether Tony Abbott was seeking pastoral advice, counselling, private sacraments such as reconciliation (a protected communication) or communion, had other reasons for the visit, or a combination of any of these.

Clinton, Mandela, Blair, Obama etc all were known to seek comparable input, particularly in a period where high performance was required.

Even Gillard, a self-declared atheist, may well have recourse to self-betterment input from time to time, (wise people who are required to operate at peak levels usually do.) (And if she does not, that may be something which requires addressing - who knows?)

What is appalling about this invasive breach of a human being's privacy is that in future, other leaders may be loathe to seek such input.

We are a land which generally enjoys religious freedom, and yet a well-respected journalist (working for the taxpayer-owned ABC), sought to trammel this personal freedom - in a publicly humiliating way, cornering a person about a private matter, a person who may have possibly construed the question as one which was asking whether there was a visit which was an election campaign meeting. It showed completely no understanding of, or sensitivity for other people's beliefs, nor respect for another person's privacy, and zero comprehension of the demands of high office.

The ignorance and arrogance which seemed to lie beneath this probing is breathtaking, and yet it will probably never be subject to the analysis which the reply was.

What is most fascinating is that a reader of Eureka (a Catholic publication), posted it without any accompanying insight into fair-minded and reasonable possibilities.

What a shame.

Sophie | 10 November 2010  

With all due respect to Sophie, the point of Alan Austin's post was to provide an illustration where Tony Abbott was caught out telling what is euphemistically referred to as a "porkie". It had, I'm afraid Sophie, nothing to do with privacy, confessionals or double standards, just truth. Tony Jones is a television journalist - he does not have to have respect for the putative virtue of the politicians he interviews, and indeed we should applaud journalists who don't let politicians squirm their way out of answering questions honestly - too many of them let the evasions and circumlocutions pass unchallenged through to the keeper. As for Tony Abbott, he's in a rough game, he aspires to lead the nation and so he's old enough to take care of himself and to know better than to assume all voters are stupid.

Stephen Kellett | 10 November 2010  

How about analysing Julia Gillard's moral standing? I think you would run out of space!

Margrethe | 12 November 2010  

We all want the truth, and journalists who courageously seek it (in relation to matters which are of proper Public Interest as opposed to gossipy or tactical interest) are to be congratulated.

I agree with Stephen Kellett on that important point.

Interestingly, Obama was once asked about his underwear.

He did not reply "truthfully", he was wittily evasive.

People understood from his answer that the journalist had overstepped a boundary.

There must surely be ethical limits as to what is asked?

Perhaps in future where there are questions which infringe human liberties (some of which are protected by international conventions to which Australia is signatory) the person can simply respond:


and all fair-minded people would accept that the politician is not trying to dodge a question, but is delineating the privacy boundary.

It is a difficult area of debate, I do appreciate that, since truth is what we crave -and ought to receive - about matters which have an impact upon the effective functioning of our democracy.

There has been an environment created nowadays where there is a sense of entitlement to the full facts about ANY matter, personal or otherwise, which sometimes has nothing to do with the function of public office.

One high-profile married couple (a member of whom served in one of our parliaments) was questioned about a tense conversation which was held in their own backyard, between the two of them, and which was spied upon by a cameraman.

Sometimes questions relate to matters which are classified for reasons of national security.

To believe that there are no limits on what can be asked - but that all such questions must be answered fully and frankly, is wrong.

If you want full frankness, you must accept the fiduciary obligation arising which says that the question must be about matters connected to the nature of the functioning of the democracy for which the person is an elected officer.

It was legitimate for Tony Abbott to ascertain whether the query was about a meeting with someone for election-related reasons, or a private person seeing a priest. (No normal person seeing a priest for sacraments/pastoral reasons would characterise this as 'meeting with' or 'having a meeting'. Ask anyone who goes to confession or Mass or communion whether they are going 'to have a meeting with the priest'? - they will look at you as if you are mad.) It was actually rather kind of Tony Abbott to end up accepting the term, to not make Tony Jones look too much of an ignorant goose.

The sad part is that the poor recipient on the end of the improper questioning is ironically made to look bad, when perhaps in some cases the questioner should be ashamed and called to account.

Ethical behaviour is not a one-way process, it is a standard for everyone to adopt, if our system is to work well and admirably.

The main problem now seems to be that the media has become insatiable in its desire for news - and to be part of the story, not to simply capture the story - and our elected representatives are almost left with no time to do the substantive work for which we elected them. And their treatment by the media is often appalling. These factors - insatiability, inappropriate intertwining, and weird treatment - discourage all manner of people, who would otherwise be attracted to serve in public life, from stepping forward. Perhaps THIS problem is the one we should really be expending our energies on, and looking to improve.

Sophie | 13 November 2010  

Perhaps it can be described as a serious lapse of judgement. Tony Abbott DID employ David Oldfield on his staff. Need I say more?

Chris Cudmore | 13 November 2010  

I really love Ormerod's point about Machiavelli, for I have only ever seen Abbott act like a Catholic when it has suited him (which is not very often). If Abbott is indicative of modern Catholics, I'm glad I gave the whole Catholic thing up. And Ormerod has nothing to apologise for. As for Abbott, you also only get an apology from him when it suits or is politically expedient (just ask Andrew Wilkie about that one).. Fantastic article.

Bek | 13 November 2010  

I am always interested in the way in which an article about a political issue or personality brings forth responses that do not actually debate the points in the article but seem to stem from some sort of tribal affiliation regardless of the insight, value, sense, truth and relevance, or otherwise, of the points in the article.
The comments I found most amusing were "That's very offensive, and demanding of a public apology", "Tony Abbott is a good man." and "Have you fought in a war?".

And from the other side "Let us hope he never attains the Prime Minister's role." " There is something about Mr Abbott's bullish demeanour that irritates me."

Now the good professor obviously put a lot of time and thought into his article about moral consistency so the least we can do is evaluate it on the insight, value, sense, truth and relevance, or otherwise, of the points in the article.

At the moment the comments about the article can be summed up as:
1. Tony Abbott is a good Liberal Catholic and I am a good Liberal Catholic, so anything said against Tony Abbott is said against me. I take this as a personal attack against me so the professor is wrong. Not only is he wrong but the professor and his ilk are all bad.

2. Julia Gillard and the Greens are not good Catholics. Furthermore they believe in things I don't agree with (no matter how consistently) therefore they have no moral core and therefore Tony Abbott does have a moral core.

3. I don't like Tony Abbott at all, therefore anything bad you say about him is fine by me. Therefore he does not have a moral core.

4. I agree with the professor that the sign of the existence of a moral "core" is consistency and that Tony Abbot certainly does display the signs of inconsistency. Therefore he has no moral core.

My personal assessment is the article does show what the professor intended. In terms of the evidence he has presented I can see that Tony Abbott is inconsistent in his declarations of moral opinions. I certainly don't believe that consistency in moral opinion makes one necessarily good. I am also not sure that it is always possible to define anyone's moral core. I know that my moral core drifts rather erratically at times, probably several times a day.
In my view, public perception of moral consistency is a marketing tool used by politicians and their commentators all the time, for their own ends.

Does it really matter politically? Possibly.
Does it affect our national "soul"? Probably.

Philip. Melbourne. | 13 November 2010  

Sophie, the instantaneity of communications now puts incredible pressure on everyone to have a ready answer and discourages thoughtful reflective ones. (I’m not unconscious of the potential irony in us all here responding on Eureka Street!)

You’ve made sensible comments about the limits of media scrutiny, privacy and legitimate discretion by politicians as to how or what questions should be answered. However I would press, in relation to the Tony Jones/Tony Abbott interview, is this: that if Tony Abbott’s visit to George Pell was simply a confession, the most Tony Jones’ reporters would have known was that Tony Abbott was seen visiting the place where George Pell was known to be/reside, and so it’s something of a presumption to think his question was intrinsically misplaced or mis-termed.

We cannot expect that a political journalist wouldn’t or shouldn’t have wished to probe the purpose of the visit, especially when George Pell was commenting significantly on contemporary political policies. And in that case, the question put to Tony Abbott - whether he had met with George Pell recently - was not an equivalent to Barack Obama’s underwear question: it was not obviously private, and all Tony Abbott had had to say was ‘Yes, but it was in a private not political capacity.’ However, he said ‘No’. Was that the strict and proper truth? Embarrassingly, he was caught out.

I often think many voters crave, in our politicians, honesty more than anything, even tactical cleverness.

Stephen Kellett | 14 November 2010  

Tony Abbott is an easy target. Love him or hate him he leads with his chin and like many people I find that endearing in a perverse way.

Neil Ormerod has made a fundamental mistake in attacking him over the military tribunal issue.

Australia is party to an agreement it should not be party to. To imply that the new system will dig out Australian War Crimes better than the old military system is to imply that many Australian soldiers in the past got away with war crimes and that our military systems sllowed them to do that.

I find that implication abhorrent and as an old soldier I would totally repudiate it. "If it ain't broke don't fix it!" The old system wasn't broke.

A soldier's life is hard enough without having to cope with the opinions of armchair academics who've never had to face anything more dangerous than crossing a road in the rain.

Peter Stokes | 15 November 2010  

Tony Abbott often says he is not perfect. But as he attends morning mass more consistently than anyother MP clearly he is consistent in his spiritual life. He is anti abortion, pro marriage, anti divorce, a strong supporter of faith communities,committed to indegenious people any he has many other other fine points.

paul | 15 November 2010  

A very balanced appraisal. Would love to know that Tony was really listening. He has a lot to give if we saw his sticking to his "principles", or even some Gospel values. Thanks neil!

leo kane | 15 November 2010  

The Jesuits have a lot to answer for? Yes, John B. (8/11), because they educated Abbott!

It's a pity that Abbott's 'Catholicism' doesn't include the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching: social justice is at the heart of the Gospels.

Audra Natalia | 15 November 2010  

I would have thought that a professor of theology at a Catholic institute would know a little about removing the plank from his own eye before attempting to remove the moat from his brother's eye.

Alex Reichel, Oyster Bay | 15 November 2010  

Thank you Professor Ormerod I was beginning to think I was alone in my assessment of Tony Abbott. He has taken Graham Rihardson's persona "Whatever it takes" as his own. The Aust Press is very short on journalists with intestinal fortitude to tell it as it really is.

Peg Saunders | 15 November 2010  

Dr Ormerod's article points to serious concerns; but being between a rock and a hard place, as Mr Abbott has been, with little time to spare, would not be easy for any of us. In areas in which he has been well advised, his performance has been splendid. My quick response on moral core, which is all I have time for, is that like all of us, Tony Abbott is living and learning. In the whole of my 45 years in Australia I have never heard as many disgraceful lies as those perpetrated by Labour in this federal election. My own children were raised in Matraville, Kingsford-Smith electorate. "People do they can," wrote James McAuley years ago in his celebrated poem "Because". Tony has matured enormously over the years, but of course there is much still to learn. Blatantly, his desire is to serve Australia and the world in ways faithful to Catholic teaching. He deserved to win, and he lost 2-1. THAT makes me shake my head to echo Shaw's St Joan in a great play: "How long, O Lord, how long?" That last line is embedded in my own head.

Dr Susan Reibel Moore | 15 November 2010  

Reading the latter comments prompts me to go back to the article. Neil Ormerod essentially locates Tony Abbott’s moral “core” in what he thinks is Tony Abbott’s apparent readiness to espouse whatever seems most expedient or popular; a kind of Machiavellian (aka “unprincipled”) flexibility. Mmmm. I think a lot of politicians from both major parties might fit that characterisation. Moreover, I think a more nuanced analysis is warranted. I think Tony Abbott has principles: I think he is much more a son of Santamaria than he himself would proclaim. That is to say, I think at core he really thinks he is on a crusade for the social kingdom of Christ, even if he does not share all the emphases and priorities of the über-traditionalists. I think he sees it as important to advance a particular character of “Catholic” policy but is sufficiently self-aware of human-ness to avoid the extremes of the eschatologically-obsessed. I don’t think he is either a philosopher or a theologian, but - and here I agree with Neil Ormerod - rather a broadly intelligent warrior (His temperament would never have allowed him to become a liturgical or teaching priest.)

None of this makes Tony Abbott right (except in the right-wing sense) or attractive or even worthy in all his political positions. What it does make him is a curious mixture where the ruthless mingles with the semi-thoughtful, the sincere, and the self-conflicted. And so, I would urge all those who leap to his defence simply because, alongside this crusading political ruthlessness, he supports anti-abortion or anti-divorce stances, to ask themselves: “what kind of moral core do I myself have and want to see reflected in politicians?”

Stephen Kellett | 15 November 2010  

I am pleased I am able to have read the splendid number of comments on this article and having done so can only say most fall into two very clear groups the rational and the blind faithful. No doubt in my mind Professor Ormerod belongs to the former and not the latter

David O'Donoghue | 18 November 2010  

"He would say anything to win an argument, confident that there would be no consequences to his actions. "

I'm positive he still feels that way. Knowing the biased media will not pull him up on ANYTHING he says or does, he is free to do as he pleases. Not a healthy situation for democracy.

Rx | 23 November 2010  

The word 'hypocrite' was noticably missing from your story ... at least (unlike Costello)Abbott didn't give his "Vision for Australia" speech from the Machiavelli Club (during the very same week Gough cellebrated his 80th birthday there. They are all self centred.

Greig WIlliams | 26 November 2010  

Given Kevin Rudd has been exposed as essentially being two-faced by Wikileaks, I'm breathlessly looking forward to the sequel by Dr Ormerod. (One has to suspend one's disbelief that Julia's contortions /fabrications themselves haven't resulted in my asphyxiation.)

HH | 07 December 2010  

There is an awful lot of spin in the responses. "Oh, Abbott is a good man!" .. "Tony is a good man!"


DOUGLAS | 19 December 2010  

Not spin - these comments that Tony Abbott is a good man tell the truth. He has never presented himself as being perfect - none of us are. Please meet him and get to know him. You would want that courtesy granted to yourself. What IS spin? The jaundiced view of some in the media (the filter via which you clearly judge him, by saying "Rubbish"). Your present attitude seems sadly the impact of media spin. Wouldn't you rather know the truth?

Sophie | 06 January 2011  

All I know is that , if Tony Abbot looses tonight, I will celebrate and get drunk after many years.

janko | 18 May 2019  

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