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THE SURPRISING TONY ABBOTT

Surprise is a delight in politics. But there is no surprise in a caricature. And this is what our politicians have become.

Julia Gillard: unionist, lawyer, political staffer, Western Bulldogs fan, unmarried and shock, horror, once interviewed in her own house with no fruit in her fruit bowl.

Tony Abbott: conservative Catholic, apprentice priest, married with three daughters, Rhodes scholar, boxing champion, anti-abortion, a hard man with a hard line.

We want to know the identities of our politicians more as policies merge closer together. We want to know their character because we can’t believe they will deliver their promises. We hope to get a handle on how our leaders will frame policies in the three years in between elections when we have no control.

But how well do we know anybody – in public or in private? As a political reporter, I have been part of boxing our politicians and public figures. History and politics are not served by ambiguity. Everyone wants a pronouncement. Is he right or wrong? Is she black or white?

Identity is a little more nebulous than that.

One of the more interesting characters kicking around Macquarie Street in the 1990s was Malcolm McGregor. Talk about black and white.

He lived politics 24/7. He was renowned as ruthless, like the rest of the NSW Right. He worked for former NSW Labor leader, now foreign minister, Bob Carr. McGregor shared Carr’s love of history and had an amazing knowledge, spanning Australia, the US and the military.

He could quote ground breaking political speeches and some obscure ones besides. He was funny, charming, and did a mean impersonation of Paul Keating. A reformed alcoholic, his was a life lived at 1,000 miles an hour.

He shocked us all by switching to work for the Liberal Party, including John Hewson as Opposition Leader. He would not be put in a box. And then, he returned to the Australian Army. He has been a platoon commander, an infantry soldier, a teacher of his beloved history and most recently as Lieutenant Colonel, speech writer and advisor to the Chief of Army, David Morrison. He was made a member of the Order of Australia for exceptional service to the Australian Army.

For all his other talents, McGregor was ever the cricket nut. He has that beautiful capacity to write cricket for non-believers. So it was that he began writing a An Indian Summer of Cricket (Barrallier Books, 2012). As the creative process began, so did a gender dysphoria first diagnosed in the 1980s.

Back then, McGregor had chosen to ignore it and “man up”. But as the writing and despair continued, McGregor decided he would make the biggest change of his life. He would become a woman called Cate. It was like mate, she said.

The overwhelming response to her sex change from the triumvirate of Macho Industries – politics, army and cricket – was surprise. And immediate support. Morrison refused her resignation twice, telling Cate: “I’ve got your back covered”.

 

Malcolm (left) and Cate (right) McGregor. Image via The Herald Sun.

 Old mates like political editor Malcolm Farr have written lovely quiet pieces paying tribute to her courage. I have nothing but admiration for her. Cate’s book hit the shelves under her previous name Malcolm and she is now writing cricket for the Australian Financial Review.

And another surprise. One of the most thoughtful reviews is in The Spectator, written by Tony Abbott who has known McGregor for 30 years. In it, he urges McGregor to consider writing another book for those “on the precipice of changing their lives.”

“Like the best cricket commentary, it’s the digressions that make the story,” writes Abbott.

“How do we encourage people to be selfless when we won’t even let them be hard on themselves? These doubts, I suspect, stem from lack of sufficient faith in the power of our ideals and in our capacity to adapt. McGregor’s life might actually be answering questions that the book merely poses.”

Ironically for Abbott, the voting public has a decided lack of faith in the power of our politician’s ideals. McGregor’s decision to stand up for who she was is in stark contrast to most modern politicians.

Interestingly, since the prime minister has stood up and shown aspects of “the real Julia” – with her sexist speech and her fierce rebuttal of the AWU allegations – she has enjoyed a marked increase in support. Though the Coalition has the upper hand in the polls, Abbott has yet to tap that vein. He is more concerned with being a small target – controlled and on message.

He has been reining himself in ever since he set his sights on the prime minister’s office. All we know of his voice is “stop the boats, end the waste, there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.”

 

Tony Abbott: a more complex man than he lets on? Photo by Andrew Meares via AFR.

 

But every so often, observers get a glimpse of a more complex man. Read The Spectator review for just one glimpse.

Earlier this year, he delivered a speech about reading. When putting a care package of books reflecting the Australian story for his daughter taking her first overseas trip, he chose Breath by Tim Winton. A beautiful coming of age book through surfing and sex. Is this Abbott the conservative?

When speaking at the Governor General’s ceremony to award Daniel Keighran a Victoria Cross, he quoted Dr Samuel Johnson for the second time.

“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier,” said Johnson. Do they? Does the rest of Abbott’s post-feminist generation feel that way?

The Government has succeeded in making Abbott a caricature. I reckon Abbott would be much better served by letting his authentic voice out. He may even climb out of that box.

 

*Tony Abbott photograph on page one by John Woudstra, via smh.com.au.

 

RELATED ARTICLES

Is Their Past All We Have Left?

Conduct Unbecoming

Gillard. Nails in her Muesli

 

*Gabrielle Chan is The Hoopla’s political correspondent. She is a journalist and author with more than 25 years experience, having worked most recently as a regular columnist with The Australian. She has previously worked for The Daily Telegraph, the ABC and the South China Morning Post. Gabrielle has written and edited Flickers of History, War On Our Doorstep and FEAST and is a member of the NSW Anzac Advisory Council. She blogs at www.gabriellechan.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @gabriellechan.

 

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46 Comments

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    jonah stiffhausen

    Gabrielle,
    what a wonderful article.
    Just thought I’d get in first.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    mudhouse jane

    Scracth the surface and you see unimaginable depths. I have renewed respect for Julia Gillard now that she is less of a Labor parrot.

    For Tony Abbott: I will relate a story from the mid 90s where I had to delicately manage the “communication” about a much loved male staff member who was going to re-emerge, after surgery, as a woman. As Kate was coming back to work, we wanted to make things as comfortable as possible. What blew me away was the reaction of the blokiest blokes. They couldn’t have been more loving and supportive. That was when I saw the authentic people that they were.

    Times like this are when the crap often drops away, even if only temporarily. If politicians (male and female) could be real all the time, and not feel under constant pressure to be big swinging dicks, then maybe we would get some sensible decision making. Maybe we would get more of the right people going into politcs, too.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    Doc

    Not sure who I respect more, Cate for the bravery & honesty of the change or Morrison for the solid back-up.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    jodie

    Oh Hoopla, another header that bears little resemblance to the content. Abbott is not ‘surprising. He hasn’t changed since university. But connecting him to someone who has undergone a sex change – now that’s surprising!

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    paul of hay

    abbott proved what sort of man he was when he walked away from pregnant girlfriend.
    the fact the it later turned out he wasn’t father does not matter one iota, at the time they both (well him for sure) thought he was father.
    what a creep.
    that has been his pattern all his life, leaving seminary,
    and today cuts and runs from press conferences.
    cowards and leopards never change their spots.

    • Reply December 5, 2012

      jonah stiffhausen

      “abbott proved what sort of man he was when he walked away from pregnant girlfriend.
      the fact the it later turned out he wasn’t father does not matter one iota, at the time they both (well him for sure) thought he was father.”

      I would have thought the confusion left him little choice but to walk away. His girlfriend obviously had the morals of a whore.

      • Reply December 5, 2012

        ian

        And Abbott? Was he a whore too jonah? takes two to tango doesn’t it??

        • Reply December 6, 2012

          jonah stiffhausen

          Ian old Son,
          I suggest you get yourself a dictionary. The definition of a whore therein is “a woman who engages in promiscuous sexual intercourse, usually for money; prostitute; harlot; strumpet.”
          Perhaps the word you’re after is libertine?
          Don’t mention it.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    Ann Noyd

    If u r a journo why r u editorializing (shock horror no fruit etc.) Just give us the facts. We don’t need to know how u vote though that’s fairly clear.

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  • Reply December 5, 2012

    Caz

    What a sick world we live in! I just hope I never have to share the same loo as “Cate” on a tour bus or see “her” at a CWA meeting.

    This is the sort of thing that socialism leads to – all manner of deviance and perversion and a hair-dressers defacto living in The Lodge with not a piece of fruit in the bowl. I’ll bet she can’t even bake a sponge.

    Tony Abbott is a man of God and I just hope he brings back some Chritian decency into our lives when he gets to be PM.

    • Reply December 5, 2012

      mudhouse jane

      Well, I was thinking of joining the CWA, but now I am not so sure. I am hoping that what you have written is a joke and is meant to reflect your (pretend) evil twin. Te he he.

      • Reply December 5, 2012

        Caz

        No, no, no I am the real Caz. That other one is a soy-latte sipping socialist who rides a bicyle in size 40 lycra shorts. I’m more of a soul-mate with Joan of Parkes who made a very sensible comment on Akerman’s blog today. It was a work of art; the literary equivalent of the Cyst-ine Chapel. It’s on p.4. of his comments and is a “must read” for every feminist. But hold on to your lower organs in case you laugh so much you have a prolapse.

        I don’t know whether they’d let you in to the CWA. But if you can master Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen’s recipe for pumpkin scones, it might make all the difference.

    • Reply December 5, 2012

      Janet G

      I love your black humour and your Dame Edna glasses, Caz,

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    Mary Longford

    Jodie, agree!

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    monica attard

    Lovely story Gabrielle… I knew Malcolm. Glad she’s Cate.

    • Reply December 17, 2012

      Cate McGregor

      Thanks Monica. Appreciate the support. Hope you take a look at the book. I made right decision-belatedly. As for Caz if she doesn’t lime sharing the loo with me she can use a tree.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    Campbell

    interesting read

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    K.bites

    Would have been a much more interesting and remarkable story if the transexual woman, Cate had managed to achieve all that the heterosexual bloke, Malcolm was able to. Doesn’t say much about Abbott either way.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    Evie

    “I would have thought the confusion left him little choice but to walk away. His girlfriend obviously had the morals of a whore.”

    “Tony Abbott is a man of God and I just hope he brings back some Chritian decency into our lives when he gets to be PM.”

    Ah, I see the puritans have arrived.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    Evie

    PS: there’s nothing actually in this article which explains or puts the case forward for Abbott being a “complicated” man other than his (time and again) inability to compartmentalise his faith, his attitudes towards women and politics. I’m by no means a fan of Julia Gillard’s stance on asylum seekers or her hypocrisy when it comes to single-parent welfare, but I am also not a fan of the press gallery’s insistence on dismissing her misogyny speech as a powerplay or a blip on the radar when it quite starkly pointed out how abysmally women are addressed in politics by men in power alongside them.

    As a political writer I would hope that you would challenge the supposed caricatures of Tony Abbott that you claim have been purported by the media, but you’ve done nothing of the sort.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    Tracy

    Would have preferred to give this a miss. News please.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    carole/m

    Well I was just about to congratulate JONAH for making a comment without having to name call & denigrate women but alas I hadn’t read his 2nd comment, which reverts to his usual need to demean in order to boost his false sense of superiority.

    If she’s a whore, He’s a whore you cretin.

    Please excuse my outburst but I’ve had a gutful of this idiot.

    • Reply December 6, 2012

      jonah stiffhausen

      Carole/m,
      It’s time for your medication dear.

      I wonder if this outburst qualifies as “hate speech”? Is there a legal vulture in the house?

    • Reply December 6, 2012

      jonah stiffhausen

      Carole dear,
      see my post to Ian above re the meaning of words.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    JoanneH

    Tony Abbott didn’t show much empathy with his “sometimes shit happens” comment re. events surrounding the death of an Australian soldier, or when he implied that dying asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton was a liar, or on all the occasions when he has uses asylum seekers as political footballs.
    He has threatened to cut overseas aid, and tried turning natural disasters into squalid political gains (Abbott opposed flood levy, but wanted donations to Liberal Party instead).

    The only time Abbott has displayed anything like human sympathy was when he was fighting to save his billionaire mining mates from having to pay a tiny percent of their bloated profits into what he sneeringly termed “another great big new tax”.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    RobynMarie

    @jonah – really? the morals of a whore? Where do you get off saying that about someone you don’t know and a situation you were not in? You have the morals of a shit

    • Reply December 5, 2012

      ian

      RobynMarie, I’m even more surprised that jonah can make sexist comments like that on a website like this!!

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    Tony W

    “Where do you get off saying that about someone you don’t know and a situation you were not in?”

    Yes I agree with that. While it’s not unreasonable it to question the morals of a woman who falls pregnant to someone other than her boyfriend, we’d need to know more about the context before passing judgement. We’re not talking adultery here – many if not most single young men and women are serial monogamists, generally with a bit of overlap, which is often unavoidable. There wouldn’t be many young people who’ve never been caught up in a love triangle. Nor does that imply concurrent sexual partners – in fact in my observation, that’s generally the province of men.

    It comes back to the old double standards in society – men are playboys, women are damned whores and God’s police.

    “You have the morals of a shit”

    I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion either. A view of women informed by religion does not imply immorality. Nor should we pretend that all women are paradigms of virtue.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    carole/m

    Jonah is a Misogynist. Let’s call him for what he is, he’s an insult to the intelligent women who chose to contribute to this terrific site.

    • Reply December 6, 2012

      jonah stiffhausen

      Carole dear,
      finding the tenets of “feminism” hilarious does not a misogynist make. Or a troll, whatever they are. Actually I love you gals, but hate to hear you spoiling yourselves by being “assertive” and know-allish.
      Sweet and demure, do ya hear?
      C’mon, you can do it.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    ro.watson

    I, for one, am glad there is some editorial control on this site, as I see my reference to morals and pooh have been junked. Meanwhile who picks up after babies and dogs, and thank goodness for a flushing toilet,and the good grace of pooh to leave our bodies~never to be seen again.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    ro.watson

    Oh Carole,oh Jonah. I have never been good at the splits. I do draw the line at hate speech.

  • Reply December 5, 2012

    ro.watson

    And yip, Carole, the old spade is a spade~ here is a misogynist for all to see. I wonder about the back story to make someone so socially impaired?

    • Reply December 6, 2012

      jonah stiffhausen

      Ro,
      I’ll see your misogynist and raise you a misandrist.

  • Reply December 6, 2012

    Tony W

    “But every so often, observers get a glimpse of a more complex man.”

    Haha, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more puff pieces next year as journalists attempt to acquaint us with the inner workings of the man who may be leading the nation soon. After all, they’ve got to write something, and there sure as hell won’t be any policy to write about.

    Trouble is, what can you write about the inner workings of a junkyard dog? How do you plumb the soul of a political animal? What can you say about a man with no convictions beyond religion, a self confessed “weather vane” on climate change, the very policy upon which he has publicly staked his entire political future?

    Even poor Gabrielle is scratching for material already. The guy writes a book review and we get “The Surprising Tony Abbott”. I’m sure if he baked a cake we’d get “The Enigmatic Tony Abbott”. The only thing even mildly surprising in that book review is his Freudian admission of what every journalist has failed to remark upon – that he is a deeply insecure man, struggling for identity and full of self doubt: “These doubts, I suspect, stem from lack of sufficient faith in the power of our ideals and in our capacity to adapt.”

    Here’s a man who once identified with priests, and now in political life he is still unable to identify himself except by reference to others – “the political lovechild” of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop, “channelling” Noel Pearson, and endlessly quoting literary figures from bygone eras. He even wheels out his wife and kids to identify him for us. And yet Gabrielle suggests he “would be much better served by letting his authentic voice out.” Has it not occurred to anyone that he is yet to find his own voice?

    The trouble with Abbott is that he believes himself destined for greatness in the service of his fellow man. Or God. Or both. The poor bloke flogs himself mercilessly to fulfil that self imposed obligation. I suspect he really does “think meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.” Now in his 55th year he’s getting desperate – 2013 is his last roll of the dice. Tortured by the memory of 2010, he’ll stop at nothing to prevent this last chance slipping through his fingers so cruelly. Consider the oblivion awaiting him if it does.

    Of course, as a chameleon, with nothing but empty slogans for policy, we’ll never know what kind of PM he’d make unless it actually happens. But then, neither does he. Maybe that’s why he urged McGregor to write a book for people “on the precipice of changing their lives.” Because if he does succeed in his latest quest for self-actualization, the first thing he’ll do as PM is ask himself, “What the f..k do I do now?”

    A more appropriate title for this article would have been “The Man Who Would Be King.” As in Sean Connery. If I recall correctly he came to a rather sticky end.

  • Reply December 6, 2012

    Nat

    This story doesn’t surprise me. It’s easy to find compassion for those you know personally and professionally. They are real people. It’s a much bigger story to have compassion for a faceless nameless stranger. I have not seen this in abbot. I want to know his policies. I do not trust him due to his previous demonising others who disagree with him.

  • Reply December 6, 2012

    VRog

    Jonah, I really hope you’re just a s&!t-stirrer and not a misogynist, but it seems doubtful. You sound like a lot of MRAs (men’s rights activists) I’ve come across on the interwebs who seem to believe that women having equal rights to men is taking rights away from men. It’s a false equivalency. Women and men having the same rights is a win-win situation. Maybe you need to check your privilege?

  • Reply December 6, 2012

    carole/m

    Well there you are Jonah, were have you been hiding. Still so full of yourself. Wonderful to know that you can actually read a dictionary.

    As you will be aware, Dictionaries change over time to include common usage.
    Maybe it’s time to add “male whore” & “male slut ” & male ……. etc in front of all the other names men like to call women .

    The woman you so arrogantly called a whore must really be a terrible person, hell, she spent more than 20 years of her life raising and educating the child . Let’s give her a big slap down for that. And your mate Tony!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Reply December 6, 2012

    carole/m

    New must read re the AWU sham.

    http://www.themonthly.com

    Article by John Van Tiggelen, journalist & editor of the monthly.

    December 2012 – January 2013
    Editors Note by John Van Tiggelen

    Gabriel Chan you stated ” I reckon Abbott would be much better served by letting his voice out.
    He may even climb out of the box”.

    Problem for phony Tony is every time he opens his mouth he digs himself a bigger & bigger hole.

    If you read this article by John Van Tiggelen &
    Margo Kingstons ” Tony Abbott and his Slushy Fund” , It would seem that he has no Integrity at all.

    Margo Kingstons article ” Tony Abbott and his Slushy Fund” it’s obvious that he has a huge problem with a lack of Integrity

  • Reply December 6, 2012

    carole/m

    whoops !! just ignore the last three lines.

  • Reply December 9, 2012

    Heather

    Well I think Tony W’s comment was a better analysis of Tony Abbott than the above article.

    It appears to me that Chan is bringing The Australian’s prevailing love affair with Tony Abbott to this column.

    Not convinced in any way.

  • Reply December 9, 2012

    Rhoda

    Didn’t really get the point of this article either, sorry.

    My view of Tony Abbott is that he has religion and in a very fifties way. I think it screwed him up to be quite frank. He and his confessor the Cardinal Pell would like nothing better than to return to the good old days although it will never happen now. In fact I’m astonished to find anyone going to church at all these days let alone to confession.

    Religious people do not navigate well. The road to heaven is a very narrow one.

  • [...] The Surprising Tony Abbott [...]

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  • Reply October 4, 2013

    joney

    Tony Abbotts values and morals are all over the place i don’t think anybody could work out where this blokes coming from.

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