On Australia’s New Catholic Prime Minister

In the last fortnight the Australian people elected a new government under the leadership of Tony Abbott, a pro-family Catholic and constitutional monarchist. He has a wife called Margaret and daughters Louise, Bridget and Frances.

Abbott was educated at St. Ignatius College, Riverview, the University of Sydney and Oxford University.

Riverview is the most prestigious Catholic boys’ school in Sydney built on a hill at Lane Cove overlooking Sydney harbor.  It has produced numerous politicians, judges and rugby players.

Abbott studied law and economics at Sydney University in the mid to late 1970s. He also played rugby, got involved in student politics and was elected President of the Students’ Representative Council.  From Sydney University he won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.

 

In the 1970s the Australian Universities were centers of political activism.  Tertiary education was then free (tax payer funded) and jobs were plentiful. Many students devoted their time to political causes rather than scholarship. The campus cafeterias were littered with broadsheets from the Marxist groups–Maoist, Leninist, Trotskyist, Euro-communist, Generic Greens, Vegetarian-Greens, Vegans, and feminists of each sub-species.

There were other students who ignored the propaganda, regarded the Left as “rat-bags” and got on with their social lives, their studies and sporting interests. These were the pragmatic types who understood that at the end of their undergraduate years they needed to marry well and obtain a good professional position.

Tony Abbott was unusual in the sense that while he thought the Left were definitely “rat-bags” he didn’t think they could be ignored.   He tried to offer some intellectual opposition and he did it with a high degree of provocative charm. Legend has it that he walked into lecture halls and announced that he was a privately educated, rugby-playing, heterosexual Catholic, and invited the students to elect him as the SRC President precisely on those politically incorrect grounds.  It is also claimed that he promised to pull down the posters of Che Guevara and replace them with images of the Queen and John Paul II.

He thereby managed to arouse the pragmatists from their apathy and they came out to vote for him.  Having notched up the Presidency of the SRC he was well qualified to apply for the Rhodes.  When a journalist asked him how he managed to win the Rhodes he responded that he thought it helped that he was a member of the same rugby club as the Governor of New South Wales.

While at Oxford he distinguished himself as a boxer, winning an Oxford blue.  He also came to the attention of the British press who reported that he shared some risqué jokes with Prince Andrew at a high society event.  He also organized a student demonstration in favor of the British defense of the Falkland Islands, something of which, no doubt, Prince Andrew would have strongly approved.

After Oxford he spent a few years in the Sydney seminary before deciding that his talents were best applied elsewhere. Exercises like making models of the Church out of play-dough or writing 500 word “essays” on the Desert Fathers, didn’t really engage the breadth of his abilities.

After working as a journalist, a plant manager for a concrete company, a political staffer and the Executive Director of ACM (Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy) Abbott went into politics and became the member for Warringah, a reliable “blue-ribbon” Liberal Party seat in North Sydney.

Abbott was first appointed to the Cabinet of the Howard Government in 1998 as the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, and in 2003 he became the Minister for Health and Ageing, a position he retained until the Howard government’s defeat in 2007.

In 2009 he became the leader of the conservative Liberal Party, defeating Malcolm Turnbull by one vote.  Turnbull was in favor of the Rudd government’s Emissions Trading Scheme which was highly unpopular in the mining industry and Abbott opposed it.  Abbott and Turnbull were also on opposite sides in the 1999 Constitutional Referendum.  Those in favor of retaining a Christian constitutional monarchy defeated the republicans and Abbott was a key figure on the monarchist team.

Abbott then led the Liberal Party at the 2010 election.  The outcome was a hung parliament.  A small group of independents backed the Labor Party then under the leadership of Julia Gillard (who was a socialist Left student activist in the 1980s) and Australia endured what was arguably its most unstable government in its history.

Gillard gave two extraordinary anti-Abbott speeches during her term as Prime Minister.  One, delivered within the parliament, accused Abbott of being a misogynist. The second, delivered outside the parliament, was a rant against men who wear blue ties.

The misogyny charge is connected to Abbott’s often stated belief that abortion is a really bad thing.  He thinks it hurts women as well as the babies who die.  When he was 19 years old his girlfriend became pregnant and she claimed that the baby was his, though DNA testing later proved that this was not so.  In any event, the baby was not aborted but safely delivered and put up for adoption.

Thus the ideological Left make much of Abbott’s opposition to abortion, the fact that he spent a few years in a seminary, and the fact that he has a good working relationship with Cardinal Pell.  Julia Gillard’s strategy was to scare women into thinking that he was some kind of medieval monster.  It didn’t work.  In the last few days of the election campaign even the press were treating the scare tactic as a bit of a joke.  One comedy show collected comic images of politicians kissing babies, but the comic image of Abbott showed him kissing a nun instead of a baby.  The caption beneath the image read: “I didn’t realize she was a nun, I thought I was kissing Cardinal Pell.”

Last week Abbott announced the names of his Cabinet ministers.  Journalists from papers like The Guardian went into moral outrage over-drive when he chose only one woman for a Cabinet position.  He said there would have been two if his long-time ally, Sophie Mirabella, had not lost her seat.  In his statements to the press he made it clear that appointments would be based on talent and experience, that is, on who is the best person for the job. In other words, the era of affirmative action is over.

I heard the Cabinet news over breakfast at a guest house in Washington, DC.  Some other Australians were lecturing our American hosts on the subject of our newly elected social dinosaur.  He didn’t appoint the Minister on Women’s Affairs to Cabinet, there is only one woman in the entire Cabinet, there is no Minister for Climate Change at all, he’s opposed to gay marriage, he wants to keep the Queen, he likes sports, he wears speedos…. (In fact a pub-owner in the outback town of Alice Springs has paid $3400 for a pair of Abbott’s speedos which now adorn the wall of the Bojangles Saloon, and the working class voters in western Sydney are not really into gay-marriage, regarding it as an upper class problem).

I sat quietly at the end of the table fiddling with my iphone and hoping that my responses to the waitress would not betray any trace of an Australian accent.  The sort of people who think it is reasonable to discuss politics with complete strangers tend to be a little more cautious if they think the other person is British.  An Asian-looking chap seated beside me also kept his head down and his eyes focused on the buttons on his phone.  I wondered whether he too was an Australian who voted for Abbott.

If discovered I intended to say that it was about time people stopped relating to women as if they had a disability in need of treatment.  I resent being asked to do something simply because a female is needed to fill a quota.

The hope is that with the election of the Abbott government the adjective “Australian” will again signify “no nonsense decency.” By far the majority of Australians want a government that will prudently manage the economy and Australia’s wealth of natural resources. They want safe hospitals with world-class medical treatment. They want schools that actually educate children rather than wasting time on political consciousness-raising campaigns. What they don’t want (unless perhaps they voted Green) is for the government to focus its attention on social engineering and the persistent rubbishing of the Christian culture on which one of the most stable and successful democracies in the world has been built.

In his election night speech Abbott declared that Australia is again “open for business.”  The ideology of the student activists of the 1970s is no longer setting the policy agenda.  The people now running the country are the types who went to parties, played some sport, got real jobs (not jobs as professional ideologues), and if they were lucky enough to find a soul mate, got married.  Some of them, like Tony, even went to Mass.  Some of them still believe in God, others don’t, but not one of them thinks it’s the job of the Australian government to be the bearer of enlightenment and salvation.  This is a major improvement.

Tracey Rowland

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Professor Tracey Rowland is Dean and Permanent Fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne). She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II (2003), Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008) and most recently, Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010).

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