CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
What is Tony Abbott on about?
, April 17, 2010
Tony Abbott has always been a political conundrum: fiercely loyal yet stubbornly determined to do things his own way; courageous to the point of foolhardy; brilliant but impetuous; and a lofty idealist who also revels as a political street-fighter.
His clear-headed and disciplined approach since becoming leader late last year surprised his many critics, and he completely wrong-footed the Rudd Government who had no plan to deal with the highly political Abbott style.
But now Mr Abbott's most rusted-on supporters are starting to question some of his recent statements and political judgment.
During a recent Channel Nine 60 Minutes
profile, Mr Abbott was asked for his views on abortion — as if they were already not well-known.
In earlier interviews Mr Abbott had used the clever line that his private view was not too dissimilar to those held by Kevin Rudd or New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally, who both have described themselves as pro-life.Clinton's line
But instead he offered up the wishy-washy Bill Clinton line on abortion — that he hoped it would be "safe, legal but rare".
This explanation is unlikely to placate the rabidly militant pro-abortion commentariat who would be concerned that "Tony Abbott PM" might wind back abortion law reform in Australia; but it rang alarm bells among pro-life groups.
With so few real champions of the rights of the unborn in Australian political life, it was a surprising for them to see someone like Mr Abbott appearing to backslide.
But just to prove that it is impossible to please your enemies by appearing reasonable, in the same interview Mr Abbott expressed a personal observation that he felt homosexuality made him feel "a bit threatened … as most people do".
It was perhaps an off-hand admission, which many heterosexual Australian men might relate to, but this raised the ire of the gay rights community.
Mr Abbott later compounded his sins by saying he felt homosexuality "challenges orthodox notions of the right order of things".
The response from the gay community was over-the-top.
Long-time campaigner Rodney Croome wrote in the ABC's The Drum
website that Mr Abbott had "smacked down gay and lesbian Australians with some of the harshest words we've heard from a national leader in years".
The gay activist then twisted Mr Abbott's words by saying that the Liberal leader had described homosexuals as a "threat", when he had said no such thing.
"That's much more serious than John Howard's comment, made in 1996, that he would be disappointed if one of his sons was gay," Mr Croome wrote.
"Abbott's use of the word 'threatened' says there's something menacing, even predatory, about homosexuals. His phrase 'the right order of things' echoes traditional religious and legal ideas about homosexuality as unnatural, sinful and 'disordered'."
After causing such an outcry, Mr Abbott then sought to clarify his words on a Melbourne gay and lesbian community radio station.
"I think blokes of my generation and upbringing do sometimes find these things a bit confronting," he said. "Anything that is different can be a bit challenging."
According to the Melbourne Age
, Mr Abbott reiterated his opposition to gay marriage but said he favoured formal recognition of same-sex relationships.
He was "very happy to look at" civil unions, the Age
"I'm in favour of stable, enduring relationships. I'm in favour of people keeping their commitments to people. I would be very sympathetic to some institutional arrangement which encouraged that across the board, rather than in just what might be described as the more common or traditional contexts," Mr Abbott is reported as saying (The Age
, March 26, 2010).
On the surface this statement appears to at least open the door on same-sex civil unions, which Christian and other groups have been opposing because they undermine the institution of marriage between a man and a woman, and would likely be used as a vehicle to justify the adoption of children by gay couples.
What all this says is that Tony Abbott will need to be clear and concise and up-front about his views on cultural and ethical issues when they are put to him, as they will inevitably be over the course of the next few months.Instinct
Mr Abbott has the journalist's instinct for getting tomorrow's headline, before moving on to the next issue. It keeps him a step ahead of his opponents. It helps keep his profile in the public's mind, and what he says is often far more interesting than the forgettable blather that most politicians offer up.
But it is also foolish to attempt to be all things to all people, because some will always remain dissatisfied.
Mr Abbott's views on moral issues are as well-known as those of any person in public life.
His minders and "focus groups" may be telling him he needs to engage with certain groups in the community who feel alienated by some of his conservative views.
However, Mr Abbott also needs to be authentic. One of his strengths is that, unlike Mr Rudd, he is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get politician.
John Howard is proof that the Australian electorate can respect a politician's worldview even when they don't identify with it.
The extraordinary 14-hour triathlon which Mr Abbott took part in (3.8km swim, 180km ride, 42.2km run) has secured an indelible image of him in the mind of the Australian public. It showed that the new Liberal leader has an iron will and determination, as well as a highly disciplined approach to his own health and fitness in the midst of the extremely busy life of a politician.
But Mr Abbott will have to transfer that discipline into his public performances, which will need to be measured, consistent and true to himself, if he wants the public to really believe in him.