How Tony Abbott laboured over choice of party
NEWLY discovered letters that Tony Abbott wrote to his Melbourne-based mentor B.A. “Bob” Santamaria illuminate his inner struggle to decide which major political party to join.
They show that the person we know as a roguish right-winger during his university days and now as a highly combative Opposition Leader could have ended up a Labor MP.
In his 1994 inaugural parliamentary speech, Abbott described Santamaria as the person who first sparked his interest in politics. This was in the mid-1970s, when Abbott’s power base in student politics was the Democratic Club at Sydney University, which was affiliated with Santamaria’s National Civic Council.
In 2007, Abbott, then health minister in the Howard government, visited the State Library of Victoria – where 150 boxes of Santamaria’s records and correspondences are housed – to launch the second of two books of documents about Santamaria’s career. Only part of the Abbott-Santamaria interaction took the form of letters but those that survive are precious. This especially applies to some letters written in 1986 and 1987 – a crucial period in Abbott’s life as he moved from the world of NCC true believers into mainstream party politics.
The first pertinent document – dated March 7, 1986 – was written when Abbott, then training for the Catholic priesthood, was working at Our Lady of the Way parish at Emu Plains in Sydney’s west.
He was an unhappy trainee who needed to be re-energised by Santamaria’s zealous criticism of modern social and political trends. In this epistle, he congratulated Santamaria on “a marvellous speech which stirred and inspired many and impressed even those who are not normally sympathetic”.
The next surviving letter – dated April 21, 1987 – was just a month after Abbott had abandoned his plan to join the priesthood. Written from the home of Abbott’s parents in Sydney’s northern St Ives, it indicates that Santamaria had offered him a paid position as organiser with the Council for the National Interest in Melbourne. The CNI was a body to promote discussion on defence and foreign policy that Santamaria recently had helped to set up. He saw it developing into a national political organisation under Abbott’s dynamic leadership.
Abbott declined Santamaria’s offer. Things would be different if he were still 21 and fresh out of university, or 35 with an established professional reputation. But this was not the case. He had just dropped out of the priesthood and could no longer risk “another great gamble”. His life to date, Abbott wrote, combined “much promise but little actual performance”. He believed that the time had come for him to build a career so that he could show a future wife and employer that he was solid and dependable.
Abbott told Santamaria that the ‘Bulletin’ had made him an offer of a job as a journalist that he could not refuse. He felt he could do more to advance the values of the NCC by writing for the ‘Bulletin’ as opposed to working directly with Santamaria in Melbourne.
Although Abbott quickly gained attention writing for the ‘Bulletin’, he soon felt discontented again. He was still living with his parents at the end of 1987 when he wrote his next surviving letter to Santamaria.
In it, Abbott confessed he was sick of the NCC criticising unwelcome social and political trends from the sidelines. He wanted to change society by working from within. This meant sharing the fears and concerns of the “common herd”. It was crucial to “make the compromises that life requires, be wrong, get blood on one’s hands – but at least be in it”.
For “vigorous, self-starting people” such as himself, the real issue was to secure a direct parliamentary presence. NCC people needed to “coalesce around leading individuals in the major parties”.
But which of the major parties was the more suitable?
Labor’s previous 30 years of hostility to Santamaria weighed against it but Abbott wrote, “our roots and the origins of our political culture are there”. But if the ALP was not “dominated” by Santamaria-style ideas, it would succumb to “the grip of the Left or of soulless pragmatists”. This was intolerable.
However, the Liberal Party was just as problematic. It was “without soul, direction or inspiring leadership”, while its members were divided between “surviving trendies and the more or less simple-minded advocates of the free market”.
The Liberal Party’s mixture of “hand-wringing indecision or inappropriate economic Ramboism and perhaps their lack of political professionalism” struck Abbott as a fatal combination.
The choice on offer was bleak. “To join either existing party involves holding one’s nose,” he wrote. “Either way would upset some. But to do nothing dooms us to extinction.” For a while, the choice for Abbott seemed to be the ALP. The NSW Labor government led by right-wing stalwart Barrie Unsworth was due to fight an election in March 1988 and this was surely “a window of opportunity” to be exploited.
In a careful but forceful reply, Santamaria rejected the suggestion of the NCC “going back to our Labor origins in an organised way, as our central strategy”.
Santamaria noted that Catholics had largely run the NSW ALP since the 1950s but that the only result of Catholic influence in Labor governments, both in NSW and federally, had been “jobs for the boys”.
Santamaria also was dismissive of “the reptilian Liberals”, who lacked the capacity to win or wield power.
So perhaps Abbott was not so wrong after all. Santamaria did not doubt that, in the person of young Tony, there was an opportunity for “a real apostolate in Labor ranks”.
Significantly, as a result of the 1987 correspondence, Abbott felt free to embrace mainstream party politics.
It is already known that Abbott voted for the ALP in the 1988 NSW election and that Bob Carr and Johnno Johnson tried to recruit him as a member of their NSW Right faction. Yet, at this stage, the two major parties seemed equally unlovely in his estimation. This meant that it wasn’t difficult to switch from one to the other. In 1990, Abbott became press secretary to Liberal leader John Hewson, even though Hewson surely embodied the “economic Ramboism” Abbott had so recently dismissed.
Hewson’s defeat in the unlosable election of 1993 did not force Abbott to reorder his priorities.
As demonstrated by his correspondence, Abbott was already wary of puritanical zeal. Forced to choose between Santamaria-like zealotry and actual political power, Abbott was going to opt for power. Compromise had ceased to be a dirty word.
From 1987 onwards, Abbott, with Santamaria’s reluctant blessing, embraced pragmatism. Provided that it was not “soulless”, pragmatism and political accommodation were absolutely OK.
It will be in the same pragmatic, yet forceful, spirit that Abbott, as leader of the Liberal Party, will fight and most likely win the next federal election. But how different things could have been!
The authors wish to acknowledge the assistance of Geoffrey Browne.
Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt are co-authors of ‘Alan “The Red Fox” Reid’, published by The University of NSW Press
The Weekend Australian, October 13 -14, 2012, pp1-2.