Greg Craven: Now to find out who Tony Abbott is

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Australia's new Prime Minister has been so maligned by Labor that it's hard to see beyond the caricature.

Much of the discussion around Tony Abbott has been ill-informed. Photo / Getty Images
Much of the discussion around Tony Abbott has been ill-informed. Photo / Getty Images

As a public personality, Australia's new prime minister is an involuntary paradox. On the one hand, Tony Abbott is one of the most discussed people in Australia. On the other, much of the discussion is so ill-informed that it conceals, rather than illuminates.

For this, we largely have to thank Labor and its more enthusiastic media boosters. For years, they have peddled a cardboard caricature of Abbott so simplistic and so pervasive that you could hide either a saint or a psychopath beneath its shade.

In one sense, the very unfairness of this treatment probably has helped Abbott enormously.

A plausible thesis is that large sections of the population actually have been convinced that he is scary, but having decided to vote for him anyway, have tuned out of the election. Labor's problem being that once you have sold someone as a monster, but he still seems preferable to you, where do you go?

Yet the reality is that Abbott almost certainly is one of the most complex individuals ever to hold supreme political office in Australia. Even considered solely as a bundle of conundrums, he is the proverbial politician with enough material to ground an entire conference.

Consider. Here we have a Rhodes Scholar - and no, Kevin Rudd never got one of those - who genuinely likes to call people "mate" and hit bushfires with blankets. A deeply religious man, who is massively pragmatic, both philosophically and temperamentally. A social conservative whose rightism does not necessarily extend very far into economics, and who is personally deeply tolerant. All this, plus being the opponent of same-sex marriage with a gay sister whom he deeply loves, and the constitutionally conservative monarchist who probably will put indigenous recognition into the Constitution.

This is not material to be reduced to yet another yawningly predictable Tandberg cartoon, although it might conceivably serve for a quirky collaboration between Shakespeare and Woody Allen. Bizarrely, this kaleidoscopic political personality has been obscured behind a simplistic and desperate attempt to convince us that Abbott is "unelectable", a cause that ultimately has proved as pointless as its assumptions were myopic.

Now we are left to discover the persona of our prime minister after his election. It is worth pausing to consider just how vile some of these tactics were, if only because they are far from over. The best example is Abbott's much vaunted Catholicism, an apparently fatal character flaw he shares with this writer.

Most of us - rightly - were appalled when Julia Gillard was vilified on the grounds of her gender, less often than was claimed by her supporters, but more frequently than is conceded by her detractors. We were upset when she was characterised as a "witch", with all the negative female stereotyping this carried.

Yet many commentators routinely parody Abbott as "Father Tony", "Captain Catholic" or most commonly "The Mad Monk". Exactly why is religious vilification more acceptable than misogyny, and which part of the character of the appalling Grigori Rasputin is to be ascribed to Anthony Abbott? I suppose the imputation of giant genitalia might at least be considered flattering.

The reality is that Abbott will be influenced by his Catholicism in the same way as Gillard was influenced by her womanhood and Bob Hawke was influenced by his agnosticism: it will contextualise, but not define him. So Abbott will not move to outlaw abortion or criminalise contraception.

He will not grant favours to his Catholic mates. Cardinal George Pell will not become Minister for Foreign Affairs. But if we want to ponder things worth thinking about, it is a fair bet that Abbott's sympathy with indigenous people has something to do with his exposure to Catholic social justice theory. It also is highly likely that someone formed by the Jesuits is going to place at least a passing value on education. And anyone trying to predict Abbott's industrial stance would be well advised to factor in some fairly interesting Catholic intellectualism on the legitimate place of trade unions, as well as Hayek. This type of analysis is important because we not only have a particularly interesting Liberal prime minister, but an interesting Coalition government. This is not the old caricature of a club of capitalists leavened with a syndicate of squatters. This will be a government seeking to marshal some very different trains of thought.

At one end, you do have a bundle of significant players who have been culturally and intellectually influenced by - among other things - their Catholic origins. These include Abbott, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Barnaby Joyce and Christopher Pyne. To describe these as comprising the "DLP" wing of the Coalition is crude, even assuming the average journalist knew what the DLP was or stood for. But to say that all share certain critical assumptions as to the intrinsic value of individual human beings and their right to express that individual humanity is merely to express an obvious truth. Considering where this might lead an Abbott government is the sort of character analysis that is interesting, as opposed to self-confirmatory condescension.

It also is worth asking how such tendencies will mesh with more libertarian elements of the party, whose view of individual "freedom" tends to type people as integers permitted to roam merely within the boundaries of vast economic equations.

The potential difference of assumptions and outcomes in such fields as education, health and social policy here are vast. One should not necessarily assume that Tony Abbott is more "conservative" here than a Malcolm Turnbull or a Greg Hunt, or even what conservative means in such a context.

An intriguing question is how Abbott the personality will fare in office. It is a reasonable bet that for at least three reasons, he will have a better time as prime minister than as opposition leader. First, there is such mild respectability as doth hedge about a prime minister.

Second, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot possibly live up to Labor's horror story. Inevitably, Labor's own self-serving script will reveal Abbott if not as a hero, then at least as an improbable improver.

Professor Greg Craven, lawyer and academic, is the Vice-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University (ACU).

- NZ Herald

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