IT’S just a year since the Coalition, under Tony Abbott’s leadership, attained one of the biggest election victories in Australian history.
When Abbott became Liberal Party leader in December 2009, quite a few commentators claimed that he was unelectable.
Later, in the lead-up to what looked like inevitable victory in September last year, the word went around sections of the commentariat that he would be a do-nothing prime minister.
Like most prophesies, both predictions turned out to be wrong.
On August 28 ABC Radio National Late Night Live presenter Phillip Adams announced that leftist publisher Morry Schwartz’s The Monthly was “the first cab off the rank with the birthday celebrations of Abbott’s federal government”. He praised Neil Moore’s painting on the cover, which he said depicted the Prime Minister as “a combination of (the Dutch painter) Frans Hals and someone on speed”.
Quite so. The Abbott who is portrayed on the cover of the September issue of The Monthly looks, well, demented.
It is the illustration for yet another psychoanalysis of Abbott by leftist commentator David Marr.
Marr is on record as having declared in 2004 that journalism is a “kind of soft-leftie kind of culture”. In recent years he has written critical monographs of Abbott and George Pell for Schwartz’s Quarterly Essay.
On each occasion he has been asked into the ABC’s studios for what turned out to be easy interviews. Marr’s softly, softly interlocutors have included Geraldine Doogue and Emma Alberici (re Abbott) along with Philip Clark, Virginia Trioli and Peter Lloyd (re Pell).
On neither occasion was anyone with knowledge of Abbott or Pell invited to the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster to debate Marr.
It was much the same with the author’s appearance on Late Night Live. Adams agreed with Marr and Marr agreed with Adams.
It was as if two besties were talking to each other on their shared beliefs, confident that no sensible person would oppose their interpretation of Abbott.
Adams began the interview by suggesting to Marr that, in his Monthly article, he had argued that Abbott had won in September last year because he favoured freedom. Marr did not demur.
His Monthly article, titled “Freedom Rider”, maintains that Abbott proclaimed freedom before the election only to renege on this promise after becoming Prime Minister. It is true that before last year’s election Abbott delivered several speeches advocating freedom of expression.
What he had in mind was amending section 18(c) of the Racial Discrimination Act, which had led to Federal Court judge Mordy Bromberg’s finding against News Corp Australia columnist Andrew Bolt in the 2011 Eatock v Bolt case.
Abbott was right to be concerned about the impact of Eatock v Bolt on free expression. After all, in his judgment Bromberg referred to Bolt’s “tone” on no fewer than 10 occasions and twice suggested that the journalist’s comments should be “read between the lines”.
A writer’s “tone” is a highly subjective judgment and only blank space appears “between the lines”.
Abbott recently dropped his intention to amend the Racial Discrimination Act.
The Coalition’s legislation was never going to pass the Senate and there was opposition to any change from some premiers and many community groups.
Abbott’s reluctant decision to junk his proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act was not a statement that his commitment to free expression had outlived its purpose, as Marr claims in The Monthly.
Rather, it was an acceptance by Abbott of a political reality.
Marr’s thesis is that Abbott is, and always has been, opposed to liberty, except for a short period in the lead-up to last year’s election. This is partly an exaggeration and partly false. Freedom of expression was not a big issue in that election. More seriously, Marr claims that Abbott’s alleged “uncertain respect for free speech” goes back to his time as a student at the University of Sydney in the mid-1970s.
According to Marr, Abbott was “one of Bob Santamaria’s acolytes, working to silence student unions by starving them of funds”.
The fact is that in the 70s student unions were dominated by the Left, which used compulsorily acquired student funds to advance left-wing causes and to silence their opponents.
It’s true that Catholics such as Abbott, who had a connection with Santamaria, were involved in this activity.
But so were non-Catholic Liberals such as Peter Costello, Michael Kroger and Eric Abetz, along with some social democratic Jewish students such as the current Labor MP Michael Danby. Neither group had any connection with Santamaria.
Both in his Quarterly Essay “Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott” and in hisMonthly piece, Marr presents the students who opposed the Left on campus before and after the 70s as opponents of freedom. This is mere tosh.
At the time, the campus Left was busy shutting down debate. In recent times, this has been conceded by several former student radicals and mainstream leftists.
The June edition of 3010, published by the University of Melbourne, contains an article by Ray Gill on the student newspaper Farrago.
Two former editors — novelist Christos Tsiolkas and James Button — told Gill they regretted that they censored their political opponents. Tsiolkas said he wished that he and his “independent left” colleagues had been less self-righteous.
Button regretted that he cut parts of an objective profile of one-time RSL office holder Bruce Ruxton. Button said he now understood that “you don’t have to agree with everything you publish”. Tsiolkas and Button edited Farrago in the 80s. University campuses were less radical then than when Abbott was a student a decade earlier.
When Abbott was advancing democracy at Sydney University in the mid-70s, the leading campus leftists were supporting communist dictators such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot.
The fact is that Abbott is a mainstream politician.
Anyone who thought he was a libertarian in the lead-up to last year’s election or who believes that he has become an authoritarian during the past year simply misunderstands the Prime Minister.
Marr began his Monthly article by suggesting that Abbott was somehow responsible for an investigation by NSW Police into an alleged computer hacking by someone opposed to one of his daughters.
To paraphrase Adams, this scenario could have been conjured up only by someone on speed.