In politics it is often difficult to separate fact from myth. Labor parliamentarians and some commentators are now running the line that, due to his rigorous exercise regime, Tony Abbott is not doing enough political work.
On another front, the journalist Paul Kelly and Maxine McKew, the ALP MP for Bennelong, have looked at the federal Opposition Leader and seen the late Melbourne-based Catholic political activist B. A. Santamaria, who died in 1998. Now for some facts.
Last year Abbott completed his book Battlelines. He wrote the substantial work himself. Abbott is a rare breed in politics – despite a heavy workload he writes his own books and major speeches. He even wrote his addresses when he was a senior minister in the Howard government. This is not a criticism of politicians who rely on speechwriters; it’s a defence of Abbott’s work ethic.
Then there is the matter of Santamaria, one of the best known names in Australian political history. Here a bit of empiricism would not go amiss. Santamaria was not a member of the Liberal Party and he said he had never voted Liberal in his life. During their incumbencies, Santamaria criticised all Liberal leaders at
the Commonwealth level – including the long-serving prime ministers Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard.
In an entry in The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia the academic John Warhurst writes: “Santamaria himself had never voted Labor, and this sowed the seeds of an ultimate split from Labor.”
Warhurst has acknowledged this is an error. Santamaria voted ALP until the Labor split of the mid 1950s and then voted for the breakaway Democratic Labor Party, which gave its preferences to the Coalition.
Writing in the Canberra Times this month, Warhurst said “Tony Abbott is the most prominent current political leader with ties to the Labor split of the 1950s, through his personal association with B. A. Santamaria”.
Yet more embellishment. As Abbott has acknowledged in Battlelines and elsewhere, Santamaria was an early political mentor. However, he discouraged Abbott from becoming a Liberal MP – advice that was rejected. Clearly Santamaria’s influence on Abbott has been exaggerated.
Then there is the matter of policy. On Lateline on Friday McKew declared: “Abbott owes more of his economics to someone like B. A. Santamaria than, say, a Milton Friedman.”
The fact is, contrary to mythology, Howard did not preside over the kind of free enterprise government associated with Friedman. Moreover, Abbott was a member of the Howard government whose economic policy Santamaria opposed.
In The Australian on March 13 Kelly wrote that Abbott’s advocacy of parental leave – financed by a levy imposed on big business – “shows Abbott’s emotional preference for Santamaria over Howard”. No, it doesn’t. If only for the reason that Santamaria was never an advocate of maternity, still less paternity, leave. He advocated generous child endowment instead.
Kelly also identified in Abbott a “suspicion of big business unusual in a Liberal leader”. A similar line was run the same day by the Australian Financial Review journalist Louise Dodson, who wrote “the free enterprise party of Robert Menzies … is undergoing a radical transformation”.
The fact is, Menzies never really liked big business. As his one-time colleague Paul Hasluck once commented, “Menzies was not in love with big business, nor as a general rule were the leaders of big business his favourite company”.
The opposition to Abbott’s Catholicism, which is strong in the media, reflects a growing secularism bordering on atheism (which is prevalent among one-time religious believers) along with the remnants of anti-Catholic sectarianism. Here Kelly’s critique of Liz Jackson’s recent Four Corners program on Abbott was correct. He said Jackson went along with “the ABC’s dominant ideological mindset” that depicts “his Christianity as a negative repressive factor”.
Abbott’s dilemma was evident on an episode of ABC TV’s Q&A last month. Discussion focused on Abbott, even though he was not a guest. The leftist panellist Mungo MacCallum said Abbott was unable to separate “the ideals of the church and state”. In other words, Abbott is beholden to Rome.
The presenter, Tony Jones, then called for a question from Louise Easson in the audience. She asked whether the panel believed Abbott was at odds with Vatican teachings on social justice in general and homelessness in particular. Jones did not raise any questions about the inconsistency in the criticisms of Abbott.
As a minister in the Howard government, Abbott supported the reform agenda of Howard and Peter Costello. He did not try to impose a Santamaria-style economic centralism on the Coalition. He drew a distinction between church and state and did not seek to impose his private morality on society at large.
Contrary to some views, Abbott is not a born-again true believer. Rather, his faith has been influenced by old-fashioned Catholicism. He believes in the inevitability of sin, the need for forgiveness and ultimate potential salvation for all. Abbott is no fanatic. In fact, his faith is probably not much different from that of Kevin Rudd.
Abbott may, or may not, be a good prime minister – if he ever achieves his goal. But neither his physical exercise regime nor his religious beliefs should be held against him.