Chris Wallace in her excellent BreakfastPolitics today titled Gerard Henderson's column about attacks on Tony Abbott's catholicism as In which I flay Mitchell & wrist tap Costello for sectarianism.
The core of the piece was a critique of Susan Mitchell's book Tony Abbott: A Man's Man. In passing he throws a soft punch at Peter Costello for his column accusing Abbott of being more DLP than Liberal.
The core of Henderson's complaint is one he frequently returns to - that attacks on Abbott are thinly veiled sectarianism and that in reality they are attacks on the Catholic Church.
Costello's piece is unfairly tagged in this way - it really was - as I wrote elsewhere a piece trying to depict Abbott as a collectivist rather than as a Catholic, though some unwise words late in the piece did create the opening for the Henderson critique.
Mitchells's book, however, deserves to be considered more widely than Henderson has done. Firstly, I doubt whether Mitchell is "sectarian" as this would imply an attack from a protestant as opposed to an irreligious position.
At the core the Mitchell thesis is that all the mentors in Abbott's life have come from a paternalistic, misogynist mindset. The fact that these key influencers have mostly come from a particular strand of conservative Catholicism has been allowed to distract from that core message. Tony Abbott is the destructive pugalist that she describes - and that is the message that the progressive side of politics needs to understand.
That such a view is not identical to Catholicism is best identified by reading Kristina Keneally's explanation in Eureka Street of why she supports gay marriage. In Twitter conversation she was asked to explain how she reconciled her feminism with her Catholicism, to which she replied she couldn't do it in 140 characters but would consider it for another Eureka Street post.
Mitchell is also wrong to think that merely exposing the paternalist side of Abbott will lead to success. As George Lakoff outlines in Moral Politics the paternalist mindset is how conservatives "think". They appeal to a model of society which combines libertarian values with a strong directive central figure to punish wrong-doers. This actually has wide appeal because everyone thinks the central power is directed at someone else - and the fact that gats, the unemployed, ethnic minorities, even big business can all get at different times "targeted" the overwhelming message is of the big strong leader defending the individual from "the others".
Mitchell provides an interesting example in her quote of Winston Churchill "The women's suffrage movement is only the small edge of the wedge; if we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers and husbands."
She is also wrong to raise a fear that Abbott's Catholicism creates a fear of a risk to the separation of the Church and the State. While that doctrine was in the English tradition principally founded in the long term settlement of the issue that bedevilled the British Monarchy in Tudor and Stuart times, there is little real risk that Abbott sees any role for the re-establishment of the arbitrary rule by God appointed monarchs or bishops.
There is, however, reason to be concerned about the ongoing "appeasement" movement by all politicians that continues to create roles for religious sponsored charities. But part of the response needs to be for more secular charities.
My proposition is that Mitchell is right in her assessment of Abbott and the influences upon him, but is wrong to describe it as merely Catholicism.
What more do we know of Abbott?
Today he outlined what Wallace called "My (very short) plan for economic happiness." It rested on six planks;
The best way to have lower taxes and better services is to build a more productive economy.
Here's the Coalition's six point plan: first, encourage more people into the workforce; second, make public institutions more effective and responsive; third, cut red tape; fourth, improve competition rules; fifth, get greater value from infrastructure spending; and sixth, reform workplace relations to encourage higher pay for better work.
The first point about workforce participation is explained as a mix of more women through paid parental leave and more programs to get people off welfare. The reform of "public institutions" is described as "community-controlled" schools and hospitals.
Nothing is said about points three, four and five. The "cutting red tape" has become a mantra about de-regulation that no one really knows what it means. There is no explanation of improving competition rules, but it looks like a bit of an appeal to the "get Coles and Woolies" faction.
Finally he is making an appeal on workplace reform that others thought had escaped him - not that I can see how any part of the Fair Work Act makes it harder to reward employees with higher pay for greater productivity. (These AIG surveys of business attitudes are notoriously bad methodologies).
So we have what looks like a plan - but isn't. It looks like the big strong directive Government that will "bash up" the others - welfare recipients, bureaucrats, public institutions, big business, and unions.
Mitchell's other big claim about Tony Abbott is that he is really still exactly the same person he was as a schoolboy and a University student. As I've previously noted the young Tony Abbott and I were involved in student politics at the same time. Long story but I was the Vice-President when he was the President of the Sydney University SRC in 1979. As an interesting aside the Hon sec Treasurer who went on to be the next SRC President was Paul Brereton - now both a Major-General in the Reserve and a Supreme Court judge. (Since the time of writing Paul has retired from the Defence force and following a nice e-mail from the CRESD Webmaster I have removed the link that used to be at the underlined section. DH 14 Sept 2014) In his latter capacity he is currently hearing both the Rinehart and Pratt cases.
Note: I have also previously noted the reference to my Aunt in an earlier Mitchell book. I didn't point out that we thought it a bit rough that Mitchell described her as being a bit more free because her mother was dying of cancer.
Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est