A Phony Argument

by Michael Camilleri

For reasons that are still a bit of a mystery to me, the Monthly’s weekday newsletter, PoliticOZ, linked to the not particularly good essay Not-so-Phony Tony yesterday.

I actually began reading the piece wanting to like it. The premise of the essay, that people’s dislike of Abbott is primarily an emotional thing, was intriguing and I felt like there could be something to it. But although this premise remains one worth considering, the actual argument laid out in its favour in the essay goes completely off the rails when it starts talking about how misplaced people’s fears are about Abbott’s Catholicism.

In a nut, the argument is that people’s disquiet about Abbott’s Catholicism is rooted in prejudice. That there’s nothing to fear about Abbott being an ultra-conservative Catholic because if he were really an ultra-conservative Catholic he would recognise the distinction between Church and State and not mix the two. Or that at the very least, since the policies of the Catholic Church include a radically more humane asylum seeker policy and since we know he’s not going to adopt that, we can rest assured he won’t implement any of the Catholic Church’s more conservative positions.

As someone who has two Catholic parents, was raised as a Catholic, served as an altar boy in his youth, attended Mass weekly for the first 16 years of his life and studied in Catholic schools for the entirety of his primary and secondary education, I feel in a privileged position to call such an argument specious. It’s evidence that there is nothing to fear rests on the premise that people are ideologically pure beings without any capacity to maintain conflicting thoughts in their head at any one time and to act inconsistently when viewed over the long term. David Marr’s excellent piece on Abbott (which I encourage you to buy, particularly if you want to read more about what makes Abbott tick) discusses the conflict within Abbott especially well. My takeaway from the piece was that Catholicism motivates a lot of the good that Abbott does and wants to do. But it also provides a justification for some of the more negative aspects of his nature.

Dislike of Abbott is not inherently prejudicial. People who fear Abbott’s brand of Catholicism fear the conservative aspects of Catholicism that are part of the religion, or at least its current manifestation (particularly, the submission to orthodoxy, the unequal role of women and the demonising of homosexuality). This fear is not irrational. This is particularly the case in a situation where the person concerned has done so little to lay out a substantive, practical vision of what they would do if chosen to lead the country.1

Now, I can no more deny that there are people who dislike Abbott for purely prejudicial reasons than I can deny that there are people that enjoyed the Transformers movies. However, in my entire life I have never experienced any prejudice on account of being Catholic and an attempt to conflate the strong dislike people have for Abbott with it just seems farfetched.2 I am acutely aware that such prejudice used to be par for the course, and that even in my father’s time, was still prevalent, but complaining about it now feels like an equivalent to the ridiculous charges of ‘reverse racism’ white people make about affirmative action. People who do not appreciate their privilege often consider the removal of this privilege persecution. They’re not the same thing and neither is prejudice and a fear of a Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

  1. The essay also suggests, somewhat halfheartedly, that Abbott shouldn’t be considered lacking substance given that he: (a) holds an economics degree; (b) was a Rhodes Scholar; (c) wrote a book on his political philosophy; (d) was a minister in a successful government; (e) has a family (?); (f) is repaying a mortgage (?!); and (g) helps out in his local community. The argument is that it is a contradiction for Abbott to both be insubstantial and to have amassed these accomplishments.

    The problem with this is that it fundamentally misunderstands the ‘lacking substance’ critique of Abbott. The critique is not that Abbott is unaccomplished (see previous paragraph for why this would be false); it is that he lacks any practical policies he wants to implement in government. Abbott is against everything. That’s fine. That’s step 1 of being an opposition leader. But step 2 is to explain what you would do if you were given the reins. Abbott has failed to do this. This is what people mean when they say he lacks substance. 

  2. I am comforted in this belief by the fact that Gerard Henderson is apparently on the other side.