Q&A with David Marr, author of Quarterly Essay 47: Political Animal

David Marr chats with Will Heyward about Quarterly Essay 47: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott.


Your essay characterises a young Tony Abbott as enthralled by an ideology that, ‘deplored the pill, homosexuality, rampant materialism, married women in the workforce, environmentalists, drugs [and] abortion…’ ‘The question,’ you ask, ‘is how much has he jettisoned since?’ What’s the short answer to that question? How loyal to such an ideology would a Tony Abbott government be?

That was the list of Santamaria’s obsessions at the time Abbott plighted his troth to the old DLP campaigner in the late 1970s. Though utterly loyal to these ideas at the time, Abbott has since learnt and grown. But he has kept the deep disquiet about the drift of the world he absorbed in those years. These fears make him profoundly conservative without binding him to any particular Santamaria doctrines. Abbott hasn’t abandoned them all but isn’t going to let them any of them stand in the way of winning power.

**You make the point that both Abbott and Gillard are very unpopular leaders – does this almost universal unhappiness suggest some sort of systemic failure of the political system? Why is there a drought of compelling politicians? **

Unhappiness with the choices politics presents us has been around for years but since the sacking of Rudd Australians have been particularly unhappy about the leaders on both sides of politics. Rudd and Turnbull inspire the public. Gillard and Abbott suit their parties. The problem is not entirely systemic but the 'professionals’ who run the parties have never been more powerful. The elections of 2013 will decide whether this topsy turvy situation endures.

Did writing Political Animal uncover anything for you that changed your opinion of Abbott? Is the reputation he has of being a bully and a hothead, albeit a sincere one, fair?

Abbott is a more complex creature than I imagined before I began work on the essay. I hadn’t realised what an awful figure he cut in his university years, nor what fine principles he might bring from his old DLP days to the leadership of the country. There is a fine side to Abbott but no guarantee at all that he will allow this to stand in the way of winning power.

I quite believe him when he [Abbott] said, ‘I’ll do anything to get this job, anything other than sell my arse.’

The above line is a quote in your essay from Tony Windsor who seems to think that Abbott is desperate to be Prime Minister; I got the impression that you agree. Should power be given to those who want it, or to more reluctant candidates?

Power goes to those who want it and are willing to do the hard yards to win it. It’s not a game for the reluctant or shy. Abbott is neither.

Quarterly Essay 46: Political Animal is out now in paperback ($19.95) and ebook ($9.99).

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Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott: Quarterly Essay 47

Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott: Quarterly Essay 47

David Marr

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