Appearing in Australian Spectator, 8 October 2011
Fear and loathing (review of A Man’s Man by Susan Mitchell)
Once upon a time, left-wing academics hated things for a reason. These days, they seem to hate things for the sake of it, or perhaps simply out of habit, if this book is anything to go by. Make no mistake: hatred, with a good leavening of paranoid fear, is at the heart of this pile of bile, perhaps more so than in any other piece of writing since John Edwards’ 1977 hatchet job Life Wasn’t Meant To Be Easy: A Political Profile of Malcolm Fraser.
Mitchell seems to despise a great number of things. Take the picture on the front of the book: it is of Tony Abbott engaged in that most Australian of activities, cooking snags on a barbie, apparently as part of a fundraiser for a surf life-saving club. Presumably, Mitchell thinks that the image illustrates something very fundamental about the man, something bad and unpleasant. Hard to see what, though. Perhaps she simply doesn’t like the idea of charity barbecues.
This odd dislocation recurs throughout the book: we are supposed to fear Abbott for things which simply do not seem that scary. Yes, he has always had a very strong belief in himself. Yes, he did well in school. Yes, he grew up in a comfortable suburb. Yes, he excelled in a number of sports, and still does. Yes, he has always liked to win. Which raises the question: so what? Mitchell sees this as evidence of a deep-seated sense of destiny, but certainly it is no more profound than that of, say, Bob Hawke.
Equally, he has been associated with a number of older men, who have given him encouragement, advice, and sometimes assistance. But it seems like an odd complaint to make, since Mitchell, in her 1984 book Tall Poppies, talked about the value of networks and mentors. True, many of the organisations that Abbott was associated with in his early days were run by men, although it is difficult to see how it could have been any different for someone born in 1957.
Mitchell spends a good part of the book asserting that Abbott doesn’t like women and that they don’t like him. This leads to her some peculiar enemy-of-my-enemy contortions. She even ends up on the side of Pauline Hanson, whom she praises as a ‘powerful woman’ and a ‘charismatic role model’. On similar grounds, Mitchell refers to Gillard as ‘Australia’s first female Prime Minister’, implying that Abbott’s opposition to her is rooted in gender. It is an idea so foolish as to raise a chuckle more than a hackle.
On the question of women’s perception of Abbott, Mitchell seems to think that her antipathy is shared so broadly as to be near-universal. To support her case, she refers to… bloggers. Yes, bloggers. She also dredges up a number of journalistic opinion pieces and old articles, which unsurprisingly say exactly what she wants them to say. It doesn’t prove much, except that if you trawl the net for long enough you can find whatever you want to find. Actually, the most recent Newspoll has Abbott and Gillard about level on support among women (with the ALP well down), which makes Mitchell’s core argument look rather silly.
One of Mitchell’s most peculiar claims is that Abbott has limited life experience, a ‘not very wide-ranging CV’, and is therefore unfit to be a national leader. It seems a remarkable view, given that Abbott appears to have lived a life crowded with activity: several different jobs, a range of study, volunteer service with the surf life-savers and the rural fire brigade. Indeed, you can’t watch a television news bulletin without seeing him doing something in a factory or bicycling to a regional centre. It’s a far cry from the somewhat incestuous career paths of many people on the Labor side of Parliament.
Such assertions from Mitchell would be merely amusing if there was not a darker undercurrent. The nasty shadow of the book is Mitchell’s attitude towards Abbott’s Catholicism. He has, of course, never made any secret of his religious belief, although he has also made clear that it would not be the basis of a legislative program. It’s not that different, really, to what Kevin Rudd said, although Abbott probably would not go so far as to conduct media conferences with a church as the backdrop.
But on the basis of his faith Mitchell depicts Abbott as a sort of Taleban-esque figure, pushed along by figures lurking in the cloisters — what Mitchell refers to as ‘men in long gowns … worshipping a male God’ — and determined to enforce traditional church values on an unwilling Australia.
This is entering much more dangerous territory. One might have hoped that the religious bigotry of the Left might have evaporated over the past few decades, but apparently not. There are, of course, plenty of valid reasons to oppose and criticise Abbott (as with any politician); denomination should not be one of them.
But in the larger picture Mitchell’s book is likely to be more of a help to the conservative cause than a hindrance. The Left can no longer accuse Abbott of being negative or extreme, because the reply will be to point to this book. As for Mitchell, such is her fear and loathing of Abbott that presumably she will depart our shores if he becomes Prime Minister. Someone should offer to pay for her ticket, on the condition that she does not come back. Ever. It would be a bargain.
Derek Parker is a regular book reviewer for The Spectator Australia.