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Misguided vote of no confidence

15 October 2011 1,551 views No Comment

THE screaming subtext of Susan Mitchell’s political potboiler, Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man, is that no woman should ever vote for him. Yet almost no one who knows Abbott, however much he or she might disagree with him, would dismiss him as a misogynist.

The judgement of Adele Horin (no fan) was that Abbott was ”easy to hate” but also ”easy to like”. Mia Freedman – whose reaction to Abbott’s accession to the leadership was: ”PS Libs, are you on crack?” – said after actually talking to him: ”I did like the guy. In person, it’s hard not to.”

It’s instructive that Mitchell never sought to interview Abbott or anyone close to him in preparing this vicious polemic. She did interview him for TV 17 years ago when he was a new MP but, that aside, has assembled this ”biography” by homing in on almost every published criticism or known error and exaggerating it.

Each mistake that Abbott has made is presented in the worst possible light. Every accusation that’s been peddled is treated as self-evident truth. Every misjudgment or over-the-top statement by an associate proves Abbott’s guilt by association. Hence, this book reads like a succession of parliamentary censure speeches – but all from the one side.

During his time in Federal Parliament and before that as a journalist and student politician, there has been much that Abbott could have done differently and better. It is the fate of senior politicians to be damned for faults they don’t have and, less frequently, praised for virtues they don’t possess.

At least by the standards of public figures, Abbott is more than usually thoughtful and self-aware. He’s also a tough and unrelenting political advocate but this is hardly a vice in the leader of a political party.

His politics are not mine. Any sneaking sympathy I currently might feel for the federal Opposition is much more a function of dismay at the state of the contemporary Labor Party.

Yet Abbott is arguably the most substantial conservative politician of his generation: a senior and effective minister in the Howard government, in which he was often cast not just as parliamentary enforcer but as philosopher in chief; the author of three books and innumerable magazine and newspaper articles; and the principal reason the Coalition did not descend into chaos after Kevin Rudd became the prime minister.

Throughout, Mitchell not only talks up the leader Abbott deposed, Malcolm Turnbull, she also becomes a defender of Pauline Hanson. To Mitchell, Abbott’s campaign against Hanson’s One Nation party was not a defence of principle over populist conservatism, it ”was always the powerful woman he had in his sights”.

It is hard to imagine a sillier charge against someone who has many women advisers and whose worst moment as Opposition Leader came from attempts to win party support for a generous paid parental leave scheme.

Mitchell’s ”biography” is riddled with factual errors, just one of which should puncture its ambition to be taken seriously.

Mitchell claims Abbott was against ”RU486, the morning-after pill” but she has confused two different drugs: the morning-after pill, which has long been available from pharmacies and – in Abbott’s time as health minister – became available without a prescription, and a very different drug that, under legislation passed long before Abbott became minister, could only be imported with ministerial permission. Abbott never had cause to block any such application because none was ever made to him.

As a supposed work of non-fiction, Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man is neither fair nor accurate. It’s hard to know how much the Labor Party will try to make of it. My feeling is that any attempt to do so would make them look increasingly shrill and desperate.

Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald, October 15, 2011