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Tony Abbott: The Irrelevance of Australia?

Wed 23 Oct 2013 In: Comment View at NDHA

Last month, Liberal leader and conservative Catholic Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister of Australia- much to the unease of many Australian social liberals and the Australian LGBT communities. But what do we know about Abbott and how bad will it get for LGBT Australians? Abbott (56) was born in London and his family emigrated to Australia when he was three. He is a social and constitutional conservative, first appointed as director of the anti-republican Australians for Constitutional Monarchy in 1992. In 1994, he was elected as the Liberal member for the federal seat of Warringah in New South Wales. In 1998, he was appointed to the Howard administration's Cabinet as Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business. In 2003, he moved on to become Minister for Health and Ageing, which position he held until the defeat of the Liberal/National Coalition Government under Howard in 2008. Serving as shadow Cabinet Minister under Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, Abbott resigned from the shadow Cabinet and narrowly won a leadership contest called over Abbott's opportunist stance against the reality of human-made climate change and the carbon tax that resulted. He narrowly won Liberal leadership in 2009. Thereafter, he seems to have been the beneficiary of artifice - namely, long-term Australian Labor Party state government incumbency fatigue in large eastern Australian seaboard states such as Victoria and New South Wales, as well as Queensland. Abbott took credit for these spoils of war, and also benefited from the dysfunctional internal culture of the Australian Labor Party and its byzantine factions, which led to civil war between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, destabilising the premierships of both his predecessors. As Prime Minister, Abbott has disestablished the post of federal Minister for Science, leading to scorn from Australian science and technology industry groups, spokespeople and lobbyists. The above is the political Tony Abbott. But what about Abbott's religious beliefs and how have they affected his politics? Abbott's family were recent Catholic converts. As a child and adolescent, he attended two Catholic institutions in New South Wales, St. Aloysius and then St. Ignatius' Colleges, before going on to study at the University of Sydney, before being selected as a Rhodes Scholar at Queens College, Oxford University, where he achieved an MA in Politics and Philosophy. At the same time, he demonstrated in support of Governor General Sir John Kerr's controversial dismissal of the Whitlam ALP federal government in 1975, as well as for the Thatcher administration against the Argentine occupation of the Falkland Islands in 1983. During his student era, there were questions about his personal conduct on numerous occasions. In 1984, Abbott entered St Patrick's Seminary in Manly, Sydney. While there, he came under the influence of conservative Catholic Australian activist B.A.Santamaria, founder of the influential Australian Catholic Right “Democratic Labor Party" and National Civic Council, which had split the Australian trade union movement and ALP in the fifties over an anti-communist red scare. However, by this time, Santamaria was targeting feminism, abortion rights and LGBT politics as the New Left coalesced, in conflict with conservative Catholic orthodoxy when it came to gender and sexuality. In 1987, he decided to leave the ordination process, fell in love with a New Zealander, Margaret Aitken, and married her. They have three daughters, Louise, Bridget and Francis. He became involved with the Liberal Party under John Hewson (1990-1993), helping to develop its radical anti-welfare and anti-union Fightback policy, but fell out with Hewson. At that point, he became involved with Australians for Constitutional Monarchy and established a close working relationship with John Howard, leading to the latter's prompting for Abbott's Warringah candidacy in 1994. As for his religious philosophy, he stonewalled the introduction of RU486 (mifegyne) as a form of non-surgical abortion in Australia due to his conservative Catholic anti-abortion beliefs, leading the federal Parliament to strip Health Ministers of the right to interfere with the pharmaceutical regulatory process in 2006. In Opposition, he made some hesitant reformist statements, arguing that the Howard administration had been wrong not to apologise to Aboriginal Australians for the forced seizure of Australian Aboriginal children and their forced fostering and adoption out to white Australian families. He also claimed to be "opposed" to the Howard administration's controversial anti-union "Workchoices" policy. However, this apparent "reformism" was only temporary. He revealed his true colours when the perennial issue of refugee and asylum seeker detention came to the fore under the Rudd and Gillard administrations, and Abbott engaged in populist rabble-rousing on the subject. His climate change denialism has been noted above. Ironically, both stances have led him into conflict with liberal Australian Catholics and the Australian Catholic hierarchy. Abbott opposes abortion, pre-embryonic stem cell research, voluntary euthanasia/assisted suicide and marriage equality. The latter has become a flashpoint within his premiership, with attention now focused on a federal Australian High Court case against the ALP-governed Australian Capital Territory's announced intention to introduce marriage equality in defiance of Australia's federal Marriage Act, amended in 2004 to allegedly prevent marriage equality in the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. Abbott refuses to give Liberal federal MPs a conscience vote on the issue of marriage equality, insisting that they vote against it as a caucus. The Liberal/National Coalition's federal MPs are also embroiled in a federal parliamentary expenditure scandal. Abbott also has philosophical rivalries with Communication Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a social and constitutional liberal and his predecessor as Liberal leader. Welcome to the Howard administration, Part Two? Abbott's ascendancy reveals many unsavoury things about contemporary Australia under the Howard administration, as well as the destructive effects of religious interference on democratic politics. It may explain significant divergences between Australian and New Zealand politics, such as the retardant effect of conservative Catholicism when it comes to marriage equality in Australia compared to New Zealand, Australian foreign policy conservatism when it comes to nuclear weapons during the Cold War and, paradoxically, the relative marginality of anti-union politics in Australia. All in all, Abbott strikes me as a rigid dogmatist, unable to break out of his ideological blinkers for the common good. I don't think Australia will benefit from his doctrinaire premiership. Fortunately, New Zealand is another country altogether. It's possible to understate the differences between our two nations. However, thankfully in some cases, profound differences there certainly are. Recommended: David Marr: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott: Collingwood, Victoria: Black Inc: 2013. Ross Fitzgerald: The Pope's Battalions: Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor Split: St Lucia: University of Queensland Press: 2003. Xavier Connor et al (ed) Santamaria: The Politics of Fear: Richmond: Spectrum: 2000. Not Recommended: Tony Abbott: Battlelines: Melbourne: Melbourne University Press: 2009 Tony Abbott: A Strong Australia: Canberra: Liberal Party of Australia: 2012. Craig Young - 23rd October 2013    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Wednesday, 23rd October 2013 - 4:04pm

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