The designations QC and SC invariably suggest a barrister who is considered and skilful in cross-examination. Court reporters usually take note when, in answers to tough-minded questioning from a QC or SC, a defendant or respondent replies that he or she simply cannot remember the circumstances of a certain event.
The tables were turned on Friday following a series of tweets from the prominent Melbourne barrister Julian Burnside. First up, Burnside tweeted that Susan Mitchell’s Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man , which was released on Saturday, was a “great book”. Burnside concluded: “Abbott will lead the country back to the dark ages.” Soon after, the Melbourne QC sent out a tweet: “Paedos in speedos”. Not surprisingly, the tweetdom interpreted Burnside’s comment as linking the Catholic Abbott with the paedophile scandal in sections of the Catholic Church.
Burnside then issued a tweet which declared: “This is an unprompted apology to Abbott. He is NOT a paedophile and I was not referring to him. He has many flaws but that is not one of them.” Asked by The Weekend Australian whether he was replying to a tweet which asked: “Are sexist abbotts like predator priests?”, Burnside replied that he could not recall. Well, now.
Mitchell’s 196-page tome is essentially an anti-Catholic sectarian rant of a kind prevalent in Australia a century ago. Mitchell’s message is that Australians should not elect the Coalition led by Abbott because he is a conservative Catholic who has “never left the Catholic Church”. Mitchell, who did not attempt to interview Abbott for her book, presents the Opposition Leader as a “mad monk” and an immature “zealot” who is ingrained with “sexism and misogyny” and who does not acknowledge the separation of church and state.
In the author’s view, Abbott has been reliant on “a series of older male mentors throughout his life”. They include, wait for it, “his father, who once hoped to become a Catholic priest”. Shame. Then there are the Jesuit priest Father Emmet Costello, John Howard, Cardinal George Pell and the late political activist B.A. Santamaria. All except Howard are Catholic.
Henry Rosenbloom, who runs the book’s Melbourne publisher, Scribe, has allowed a number of factual errors to remain in Mitchell’s text. I will detail these in my Media Watch Dog blog on Friday. The essential criticism of Mitchell and Rosenbloom is that they believe it is acceptable to describe Abbott as “dangerous” on account of his Catholicism.
Louise Adler, who as chief executive of MUP published Abbott’s book Battlelines, wrote in the Herald on Saturday that “the gap between Mitchell’s reading and my acquaintance makes me reflect on the disjunction between the public performance and the private reality”. Adler is a not a conservative.
The fact is that Abbott, both in government and in opposition, employed a number of senior women on his personal staff. He is politically close to such senior Liberal Party MPs as Julie Bishop and Bronwyn Bishop. What’s more, according to the latest Newspoll, Julia Gillard leads Abbott by only two points – 39 per cent to 37 per cent – when females are asked who would make the better prime minister. The evidence suggests that, unlike Mitchell and Burnside, many voters do not regard him as a dangerous misogynist intending to create a Christian theocracy in the Antipodes.
Abbott critics fail to understand he is a pragmatic politician with the ability to communicate in a direct language that virtually all Australians can understand. With the next federal election unlikely before late 2013, there is no point in the opposition releasing detailed policy and setting itself up as a target as John Hewson did in the early 1990s.
In his influential column last week, Peter Costello suggested Abbott’s economic and industrial relations policies have been unduly influenced by Santamaria’s legacy and that of the Democratic Labor Party, which went out of existence in 1978 when Abbott was 19. Three leading Coalition figures – Abbott, Andrew Robb and George Brandis – have had some relationship with Santamaria and/or the DLP.
Costello also mentions three others educated in the Catholic school system – Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Barnaby Joyce. Yet there is no common position among this lot on economic or social policy. Some are ardent economic reformers – Robb and Hockey come to mind. Others are quite liberal on social policy – for example, Brandis and Pyne. Moreover, Santamaria was a protectionist and a social conservative who attempted to talk Abbott out of becoming a Liberal MP.
According to Costello, the “DLP was good on defence and the Cold War but not up to much on economic issues”. Fair enough. But the DLP was also the first parliamentary party to oppose the White Australia policy and its principal influence on social policy was to achieve government funding for non-government schools which, in time, benefited the families of both Catholic Abbott and Protestant Costello and many more besides.
Abbott’s political success has surprised many commentators. The key to understanding the Opposition Leader is to play down ideology. Mitchell’s sectarian rant obviously excited Burnside. But it is unlikely to have much long-term effect.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.