In his current guise as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott sometimes channels the “Father” Tony he might-have-been as a religious minister. This is no bad thing. At the very least, it proves that there is a real person in there too – and one with a pretty uncommon back-story.
Attending commemorations on D-Day’s 70th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of WWI, Abbott’s pastoral humanity shone through. He visited memorial after memorial, cemetery after cemetery, marking the final resting places of countless thousands of soldiers killed in battles long-since concluded. And he listened with warmth and understanding to veterans of those terrible times in Normandy – noting that they were ordinary people called to confront unspeakable “evils”.
That Abbott felt the pathos deeply on these occasions was beyond question to anyone witnessing his comportment up-close. Echoes of his past life as a seminarian show up in his words too which often reflect the lexicon of the Jesuits who trained him. Remember how he used to call on Julia Gillard to “repent” on the carbon tax?
Illustration: Simon Letch.
In his subsequent swing through Canada and the US, it has been evident again but this time, in terms of his approach to politics, which in Abbott’s dichotomous world view tends to comprise good and bad, or right and left. Ostensibly, the goal of the trip was to break bread with the most powerful figures in the world. Less obviously, it was to bear witness to Abbott’s own political touchstones.
Missing however is the cogent narrative which so effectively framed his successful North Asia tour of Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing recently. Then, it was all about free trade agreements, and about Abbott’s diplomatic skills in reconciling Australia’s economic and strategic interests with the boiling rivalries of that region.
The Canadian stop-over en route to Washington was one such touchstone but it only served to fuel a perception that this trip is about nothing but flowery words and colourful picture opportunities. The real reason for the Canadian visit lay in what Abbott refers to privately and (half) jokingly as “apostolic succession” – the process of handing down power to ensure an unbroken lineage of papal authority.
Cosying up to Canada: Tony Abbott. Photo: Andrew Meares
In 2005, Abbott met Stephen Harper in Australia and was instantly impressed. Harper at the time was Canada’s opposition leader and was not expected to go much further. He was in Australia to seek counsel from John Howard, a near 10-year prime minister leading what Abbott likes to describe these days as a successful centre-right government.
Scroll forward almost a decade and the roles are reversed. It is Abbott the novice member of the conservative club, calling on the Canadian, a successful long-term conservative, seeking a quasi-papal “laying on of hands”. As politicians hailing from the conservative wings of their already conservative parties, Harper and Abbott are natural soulmates, as are their countries.
“We are multicultural resource-driven federations,” he said in Ottawa. “No two countries on earth are so similar. No two countries on earth are more like-minded.” In the context of the renewed carbon price debate, the reference to being “resource driven” was no accident and would not have been seen as such in Washington.
Conservative politicians Statement of intent: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott during welcoming ceremonies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Where Beijing respected Abbott’s strength of purpose and his unvarnished honesty in declaring a closeness to Tokyo just days before visiting China, the Australian’s garish solidarity with Canada risked being seen as something else: a bit of impolite political gamesmanship just days before being received for a White House visit.
With the Obama administration now aggressively pursuing climate change policy and hoping for a new globally sanctioned pricing system, Abbott’s allegiance with the anti-carbon price Harper is a clear statement of intent. It suggests Abbott regards Obama as a lame duck whose final years are less important.
It is a message directed to the UN too which is now trying to get international climate action back on the agenda. That came up explicitly in Abbott’s Tuesday meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who wants Australia to commit to attending a special meeting on the day before the general assembly in September.
Soulmates: Prime Minister Tony Abbott shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
What the UN chief got from Abbott was evident from the official ‘read-out’ issued by the two: “The UN Secretary-General spoke about the forthcoming climate summit that he will host in September. The Prime Minister agreed that it was important for every country to play its part in reducing emissions, and the importance of doing so in ways that did not undermine economic development, which was so vital for global growth and prosperity.”
In other words, nothing. Soothing words of solidarity contradicted by a firm determination to do nothing internationally.
Abbott’s humorous depiction of his audience with Harper is not to be taken literally. But it is telling that his deification of the Canadian as the leader of the centre-right club has so obviously rivalled the status accorded to Washington.
This is Abbott’s secular religion. No doubt he hopes one day to be laying on hands himself anointing some as-yet-unidentified rising star of the centre-right.
Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.