Who is Tony Abbott? Do we know him? I would not ask these questions, for example, of John Howard. His family was very much fashioned by World War I – both his father and grandfather enlisting (one incredible story has them meeting up, on the battlefield, a few hours before the lethal hostilities resumed). John Winston Howard, born in 1939, got his middle name from Winston Churchill. John Howard is what was once known as an Australian Briton.
Born in England, Abbott is a Catholic monarchist – a curious combination. One of his close friends, the late Christopher Pearson, used to hear the Mass in Latin. For a time, I likened Abbott to Guy Crouchback, a character from the pen of the English Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh, a man with a reactionary and religious bent – hence Abbott's spell in the seminary as a young man.
But how do you square Catholic theology with wealthy Australia offloading its asylum-seeker problem to impoverished countries such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru? Cambodia? I'm sure one Catholic who wouldn't buy it is Pope Francis.
I always thought Abbott shared, with Julia Gillard, an awkwardness with Australian culture that was expressed, in Gillard's case, through her exaggerated accent, and, in Abbott's case, through the countless interviews he gave as opposition leader in his budgie smugglers.
When Rupert Murdoch tweeted his endorsement of Abbott before the last federal election, he described him as a conviction politician. Is he? By his own account, Abbott nearly joined the Labor Party and, prior to him becoming Prime Minister, I always understood him to be a DLP type. Not any more.
The DLP has always been clear about what it deems to be moral issues – for example, West Papua. Last year, Abbott described the actions of three West Papuans who climbed the wall into the Australian embassy in Bali to protest about the plight of their people as grandstanding. He then declared that conditions in West Papua were improving. DLP senator John Madigan flatly told him he was wrong.
In 2011, journalist John Van Tiggelen wrote an extended profile on Andrew Bolt after the case in which Bolt was found guilty under the Racial Discrimination Act. I saw that case up close through the eyes of a friend, Anita Heiss. Irrespective of the argument about that particular legislation, Bolt's treatment of Heiss was journalistically indefensible and caused deep and repeated hurt. I saw that as clearly as I've seen injuries on the football field.
In the aftermath of the case, Bolt was apparently thinking of stepping away from the media when a "very influential person" (Bolt's words) arrived at his house and urged him to keep going. Van Tiggelen established the very influential visitor was Abbott.
Abbott's government is now seeking to alter the Racial Discrimination Act. As has been observed elsewhere, the government's original proposal would have meant that indigenous AFL star Adam Goodes could be called an ape everywhere in Australia but on the football field. Then, this week, Abbott reintroduced knights and dames and, like Henry VIII, the decision was his alone.
The Anzac legend becomes more distorted and hyperbolic every year, but there are elements of the story that are important to me. One is that Australian soldiers wouldn't salute the English officers. Why should they? Respect does not come with titles – respect is earned. That belief, as much as any, defines me as an Australian.
Now Tony Abbott has reinstated a vain and empty honours system from another time and place. The country, which is outsourcing its asylum-seeker problem to its poorer neighbours, has just reinstituted an order of knights and dames in its society. Where is our self-respect?