Abbott: a politician straight out of Manning Clark’s imagination
Along with Gallipoli, this autumn sees the centenary of arguably Australia’s most controversial twentieth-century historian, Manning Clark, who was born on March 3, 1915. A genuine if flawed visionary, there is every sign that his presence may be felt well into the future. His six volume ‘A History of Australia’, though full of niggling factual errors, is highly readable and of great cultural significance. It embodies its author’s lifelong attempt to make sense of life and thought in Australia.
The Clarkian centenary has been marked by a round of commemorative events in Canberra. It inspired a program on a community radio station and there have been functions and talks at the Australian National University where Clark was Professor of History for a quarter of a century from 1949.
The most noteworthy published commentary by far was a lively op piece in ‘The Canberra Times’, written by Sebastian Clark (“Abbott is not the man to lead us to a better future”, Times2, March 2, p5) the first-born child of Manning and his wife, Dymphna, and president of Manning Clark House in Forrest.
The younger Clark’s op ed piece transcended filial piety. It barely mentioned his father’s huge achievement in popularising interest in Australian history. Instead its somewhat unfair focus was on delivering a powerful upper cut to our pugilistic Prime Minister Tony Abbott, with particular reference to his Catholic upbringing.
The op ed piece stated that our Prime Minister, because of his stance on refugees and children in detention, “has well and truly abandoned the teachings of his Jesuit instructors”. The author doubted whether “such a cruel leader could clear a path to a better future”.
For people who appreciate Manning Clark the historian it would be unfortunate if Abbott was dismissed with these few hostile remarks written in the wake of the federal Coalition’s monstering of Professor Gillian Triggs. The Prime Minister and the Clarkian centenary are, in a strange way, made for each other. Indeed the one gives heightened resonance to the other.
It needs to be realised that Prime Minister Abbott, precisely because he is both so hugely fallible and naturally emphatic, could easily have stepped straight out of the pages of Manning Clark.
The historian’s six volumes are bursting to the seams with numerous portraits of similarly conflicted characters. Alfred Deakin, Robert O’Hara Burke and Henry Lawson are prime examples.
Even more important is the fact that Abbott also personifies one of Clark’s key enlivening notions. Running through the historian’s long and complex narrative at varying degrees of intensity is the idea that society in Australia from European conquest in 1788 until very recently was driven by a great triangular ideological contest.
In the 19th century, and well beyond, upholders of the British ascendancy in Australia had to contend with an Irish-derived (and therefore disruptive) local form of Catholicism as well as with imported forms of secular enlightenment and radical politics which for a time included Communism.
This vision of an abiding triangular conflict was conceived in Cold War Australia and inspired Clark to write his highly charged history of Australia. The outcome, however, was far less fruitful when the historian tried to adapt his mighty notion to the sphere of political prophecy.
In the 1950s Clark inexplicably looked forward to Australian Catholics and Communists sinking their differences and ganging up against the conservatism of long-serving Liberal prime minister Robert Gordon Menzies.
In the event the exact opposite happened. Anti-communist hysteria was whipped up in part by Melbourne-based Catholic activist B.A. (“Bob”) Santamaria, whose zeal impressed Clark deeply and who was Abbott’s future mentor. Santamaria’s impact split the Australian Labor Party in the mid-1950s and later forced many ex-Labor Catholic voters into giving their second preferences to Liberal Party candidates.
This historic lurch to the right helped to extend the incumbency of Menzies and his Liberal successors until 1972. The long-term effect of deradicalisation 1950s-style is still being felt today with many of Abbott’s federal cabinet colleagues being fellow Catholics.
In his formative years, Abbott was shaped by a variation of the same fraught confrontation that Clark beheld in the 1950s. Ever loyal, Abbott was a rusted-on supporter of Santamaria during his youth. Hence as a student politician in the 1970s he actively combated Marxism-Leninism, gay liberation and radical feminism.
A similar reverence for past verities led Abbott in the 1990s to campaign with characteristic gusto against the creation of an Australian republic. Indeed his monarchism was a key factor in determining Abbott’s choice when he had to decide on his actual party political alignment.
Abbott’s obscurantist bent has sometimes been a source of much energy , both negative and positive , at key moments in his career. It certainly energised him when he became federal Liberal leader in 2009. Relentless opposition, directed against the carbon tax and stopping the boats,led to a healthy election victory in 2013.
In office, Abbott’s Catholic heritage continues to buttress his conservatism. The more so because he was born in Britain, the former strain of Irish rebelliousness in the Australian Catholic tradition was always foreign to him. His early education at Jesuit institutions in Sydney seems to have imbued him with the notion that things are often best organised when power is exercised by a largely unquestioned elite. This attitude underpins an instinctive preference for a command and control style of political leadership.
Abbott, like Manning Clark himself, grew up the shadow of the old British ascendancy but in his case there has been no act of rebellion or rejection. As indicated in his excellent and highly revealing book ‘Battlelines’, a spell as a Rhodes Scholar in England left him with a gnawing sense that life back in Australia was bound to seem like a “long littleness”.
This is a form of spiritual exile. An impatience with Australia’s wonted remoteness from the centre of things may also help to explain the Prime Minister’s 1915-style fondness for immersing himself in Middle Eastern hotspots. With such a mindset, events outside Australia are often more fascinating and alluring.
A similar reverence for faded ancestral glory was the background to Abbott’s startling Australia Day announcement of his decision to award Prince Philip a knighthood. This led on to his deeply unsettling experience with the spill motion in February.
The Prince Philip imbroglio revealed a dissociation from mainstream Australian attitudes as did, far more seriously, the stalled 2014 budgetary measures. Repairing this divide requires a deliberate effort at conciliation. Such a path can be sustained only if Abbott reins in some of his deepest pugnacious instincts.
Any such reference to endless inner conflict brings us smartly back to the sombre world of Manning Clark. The Prime Minister’s spell of adversity in many ways confirms the bleak vision of the historian.
The result is a fascinating paradox. Sympathetic readers of Clark might, in their capacity as concerned citizens, deplore Abbott’s record as Prime Minister Yet for them there is also a perverse delight. Abbott in office is breathing new life into Clark’s abiding vision of a sunny land afflicted by dark internal conflicts.
As Prime Minister, Abbott has ensured that the very latest phase of Australia’s history, commencing with the change of government in 2013, does indeed fit snugly alongside all the other equally lurid tales of dysfunctionality and angst that make up the six volumes of Manning Clark’s ‘A History of Australia’.
In reality, the very much alive Prime Minister and the deceased, but still influential, professor have many things in common.
Emeritus professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including his memoir, ‘My name is Ross: An alcoholic’s journey’, which is available as an e-Book and a Talking Book from Vision Australia.
‘The Canberra Times’,Times2, April 20, 2015 p1 and ‘The Brisbane Times’, April 20, 2015 online