I’m not sure what I was expecting from Susan Mitchell’s book, ‘Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man’. I knew it wasn’t going to be a balanced, objective biography because Mitchell had said in a public lecture that it was a polemic. Which is fine. Polemics have their place in robust public discussion. But what could a polemic about Abbott contain? ‘Grrrrrrrrrrr! Abbott is terrible! Abbott is so terrible! In conclusion, Abbott is terrible.’
Again, I’m in the position of being a conservative writer who disliked something written by a lefty. Not only is my interpretation filtered through my dusty right wing lenses, but your interpretation of my review will be (and, frankly, should be) put in that context.
Lefties will love this book. It says exactly what they want to read: Abbott is terrible and we are rational, reasonable people for thinking that he’s terrible.
But, for me, the book was uncomfortably sleazy. Mitchell has two messages: voters should know everything that they can about potential leaders; Abbott was groomed in male institutions to be either Prime Minister or Pope and has been dominated by these ambitions.
The first message results in a book which, at best, can be called Suetonian. Rejecting the usual conventions of biography, the book is a collection of rumour and supposition. Mitchell plays armchair psychologist not only to Abbott but to members of his family and family friends. The analysis is always informed by confirmation bias: Mitchell is crafting a coherent, decades-long story of an ambitious misogynist, so relatively minor events in Abbott’s life are magnified into destiny-forming moments of crucial importance.
I played a bit of a game with the first few chapters after I read them. I see Abbott as an extremely vulgar and crass man. So I went back through Mitchell’s account of his younger years and emphasised those parts which confirmed my perception. The result was not unlike Mitchell’s account, but painted a different picture. I wondered if this was not the point of her book: she was trying to paint her picture of Abbott for the reader. Many interpretations of the man are valid, and Mitchell is presenting just one.
This approach leads to a distortion of the second of her points: despite a lot of evidence that her account of his motivations are incorrect (Abbott accepts a newspaper job instead of a job with Howard, but a few paragraphs later, Abbott is desperate to get into politics), she keeps hammering away. It felt that she had an unfalsifiable thesis: the points in her favour confirmed her argument, and the points against her also confirmed (somehow) her argument.
So what’s the point of the book? To smear Abbott for the enjoyment of those who already agree that he’s dreadful. Big deal.
As a conservative (painfully aware that I’m on a sinking ship of intellectual credibility as the hoons like Abbott and Bernardi tear holes in the hull), the message I took away from the book was that the left are flatly disinterested in taking some responsibility for the current political climate. For Mitchell, Abbott was the reason why things are so bad. He’s a pugilist, taking his whirling dervish boxing style into the political arena. If only somebody else — Turnbull is proposed in the final chapter — were Opposition Leader, everything would be better.
Clearly, the left has amnesia. Three-word slogans were the domain of the populist left for decades. Complex policy discussions were routinely reduced to chants and mantras. I can think of more violent demonstrations against police in support of progressive causes than I can conservative causes.
Abbott did not appear in a vacuum. Mitchell blames his upbringing but I can’t help but feel she ignores the development of right wing populism and its appeal to a vulgar opportunist like Abbott. Abbott is the telos of decades of left wing populism. He’s what happens when ugly views hijack the ‘groundswell’ techniques used by union movements, environmental campaigns, and other bleeding heart causes.
Mitchell’s book will be popular for a few months among the chattering classes. It will reassure us that Abbott really is the bogey monster we all think he is. Then it will do nothing to mobilise people against the eschatonic nightmare of Abbott becoming Prime Minister.