By Anne Summers
Illustration by John Shakespeare
There’s a new addition to the line-up of key Australian icons such as Phar Lap’s heart and Ned Kelly’s death mask: Tony Abbott’s ego.
Seldom has the country seen the likes of this former prime minister’s stunning display of bravura chutzpah. Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd, both potential contenders for the prize of ex-PM with the Biggest Ego have been left in Abbott’s dust.
Tony Abbott’s ego is the size of Uluru.
It means he doesn’t give a damn, which is why he has become so morbidly fascinating. It’s hard to believe that he’s still there, brazen and bald-faced, badgering us with his weird ideas, occupying too much political space.
His ego is like kryptonite. It protects him from all harm. It means he can disregard all criticism. He can overlook his own contradictions. And have no qualms about touching up taxpayers for his latest exercise in self-gratification.
His prime ministership now forever behind him, Abbott has declared he will remain the member for Warringah, his backbench status giving him “more time to be a very conscious local member”, as he told the Manly Daily in July.
Yet in an exemplary display of massive ego-enhancement, he is totally unrepentant about taking the taxpayer for a ride.
Last week it was reported that in 2016 Abbott clocked up huge travel and expenses costs jetting round Australia.
Rather than be embarrassed about this, he attacked the Liberal Party colleagues who had leaked the information.
My calculations, based on the figures published by the Department of Finance for 2016, show that Mr Abbott spent $79,236.13 on “domestic scheduled fares” and received $37,471 in travel allowances, a total of $116,707.13.
The other five former prime ministers – Julia Gillard, Bob Hawke, John Howard, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd – between them in 2016 spent a total $73,152.21 on “domestic scheduled fares”.
(For the record, Abbott’s predecessors claimed for domestic travel as follows: Gillard – $22,631.24; Hawke – $13,971.31; Howard – $30,837.91; Keating – $2,149.86; Rudd – $3,662.49.)
Abbott managed to outspend all of them by travelling around Australia for an incredible 65 days. This was in addition to the 51 sitting days of federal Parliament in 2016 that required him to be in Canberra. All up, the “very conscious local member” spent almost four months away from his beloved Warringah.
Mr Abbott’s acquittal for most of those 65 nights away states their purpose as “former prime minister – official business”. This is a new category of employment.
Perhaps it only applies to him since none of the other former prime ministers make similar claims. Perhaps only someone with no issues of self-confidence, or shame, could argue that he is both just a humble backbencher (“I am very happy being a backbench member of the government…” as he told the Manly Daily) while also performing official duties as a former prime minister.
Exactly what those “official duties” are is not disclosed publicly and it is only when Abbott attends an event that receives media attention that we know what he’s up to.
We don’t know, for instance, what “official duties” required him to be in Melbourne for 11 Monday nights in 2016, including six in a row in May and June.
Abbott’s ego means he seems utterly undeterred by hostility. A large section of the Australian electorate loathe him; 43 per cent of voters said, in a Guardian Essential poll in July, that he should resign from Parliament. And yet he travels on. Most of his own parliamentary party colleagues now despise him and have said so on the record.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, once among Abbott’s biggest supporters, now calls him “quite self-indulgent” and “deliberately destructive”.
Fellow Jesuit alumnus and former cabinet colleague Christopher Pyne has attacked his ideological inconsistency while PM, criticising him for raising taxes, failing to dilute 18C and shut down the Human Rights Commission and the embarrassing stack of “zombie bills”, designed to cut spending, that sat in the Senate for two years before being quietly dispatched to wherever bills go to die.
None of this seems to worry Abbott. He’s not hiding under a rock or licking his wounds or going into a long night of self-reflection and renewal. Rather, he’s in our faces more than ever, with views on everything and an insatiable media ready to broadcast his every thought bubble.
He will do anything for attention, including admitting to Annabel Crabb on ABC TV recently that in 2009 he was so drunk that he passed out and missed critical parliamentary votes on the Rudd government’s GFC stimulus package.
What’s going on here?
Is the budgie-smuggling, pollie-pedalling former PM trying to claim he’s not a sports freak after all? He’s not the man who needed to ride his bike up Red Hill after Question Time to regain his prime ministerial equilibrium?
No, we got that all wrong.
He’s actually just like the (decreasing number of) Australians who think nothing of downing three or four bottles of wine over a working dinner. Pity about the passing out but, hey, it was eight years ago and the government had the numbers anyway.
This is not the first time Abbott has used booze to try to win plaudits from punters. It worked in 2015 when he skolled a beer at Sydney’s Royal Oak Hotel, instantly earning comparisons from a rapt media with Bob Hawke’s legendary skills in that department. Now he’s upped the quantum, and upgraded the beverage, but he’s still playing the same game.
But I’m not buying it. His lean frame and taut skin betray him as a fitness fanatic whose only secret vice is the occasional shandy lite.
Nor can we accept at face value his commitment to Indigenous advancement.
As prime minister he famously decamped the operations of his department to a remote Indigenous community for a week each year to show he was walking the talk. Yet this week he said that to teach Indigenous history in schools, as is being proposed by Nigel Scullion, the federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, would be “a capitulation to the left” unless schools also taught British history and the rise of the West.
Interesting to see how Abbott would frame January 26, 1788 in those history lessons.
But Abbott’s biggest agenda item right now is to stop same-sex marriage becoming legal in this country. It was his devious avoidance strategy as prime minister that gave the country the plebiscite mess that has made us a political joke. Now he feels duty bound to ensure that the bastardised version of that plebiscite is defeated.
No one who gets in his way is safe.
Weeks ago he publicly humiliated his baby sister Christine Forster (who wants to marry her female partner) by reminding her – via the media – that after she left her husband nine years ago she’d joked that having “just got herself out of one marriage, why would she be rushing into another one?”
Last week on radio he was even more brutal, telling 2GB’s Ben Fordham his sister’s children would be better off being raised by different-sex parents.
He also said that his position on this issue “is not driven by religion”.
That is just as well since his old school, St Ignatius, Riverview has now endorsed same-sex marriage.
Abbott’s intellectual support team is dwindling. Of his three original mentors, with BA Santamaria no longer with us and Cardinal Pell awaiting a court appearance on charges of child sexual abuse, only John Howard remains.
The two of them plan to hit the road to campaign for a No vote in the same-sex marriage postal plebiscite.
Word is they have booked multiple town halls round regional Queensland.
They evidently think they can reprise their defeat of the 1999 republican referendum but chances are their double-act will be as pathetic as the Chopper Read and Roger Rogerson stand-up shows – and only marginally less offensive.
Abbott’s ego might shield him from reality so he needs someone to tell him he is very mistaken if he thinks he can win approval, let alone affection, by his feverish travels round the country.
The punters have memories.
He is the man who in 2012, when he was Leader of the Opposition, charged taxpayers $8800 to take one of his daughters to the Tamworth Country Music Festival and more than $10,000 so his family could attend Derby Day and the AFL grand final.
He is the man who claims travelling allowances for his annual Pollie Pedal, arguing in 2011 that this bike ride was a “serious act of community engagement” and not just “a frolic”.
He is the man who stood outside Parliament House on March 23, 2011 in front of a now notorious sign that demeaned Australia’s first female prime minister in the following terms: “JuLiar Bob Brown’s Bitch”.
If Abbott’s ego is preventing him from facing the facts of his political extinction it’s time for an intervention.
Tony, your ego is, literally, costing us too much. Too much money, too much damage to the government and to Australian politics. Take a leaf from the Gillard songbook and retire – gracefully. It will earn you far more approbation than your current course.
And funnily enough, if you put your ego where it belongs, beside those other Aussie icons in a museum, chances are people might eventually start to see you as the loveable larrikin you think you are.
This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald September 1 2017