Fifty years after JFK, can LBJ teach a lesson to Tony Abbott?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Tony Abbott lately.
Why? I guess because I’ve been wondering what kind of a Prime Minister he’d make. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for him, mainly because he’s a Liberal, and I’ve been voting for Labor and the US Democrats for decades. I don’t normally declare my political preferences, but in my more than forty years in journalism, I’ve never let who I vote for get in the way of how I cover or write or produce a story or a program. I was also thinking how little I expected of Lyndon Johnson fifty years ago after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (pictured above), but more of that later.
I first came across Tony Abbott at The Australian newspaper in the late seventies, when he dropped in to see Tim Hewat, the features editor, to talk about student politics. I was on the back bench of the Oz, and Tony had a reputation of being a tough guy – from his days as a student boxer. I remember reading some of his articles in The Bulletin in the mid-eighties, and he penned a nice tribute to the Australian classic magazine when it was axed in 2008. (
When he got into politics in the nineties, you couldn’t help noticing him if you were a producer in Australian television. Tony Abbott became an aggressive minister in the Howard Government, first in the employment and work relations portfolio, then in health and ageing. He was always good talent, and occasionally made gaffes, which kept producers happy and the prime minister on his toes. But he and John Howard struck up a friendship, which continues to this day.
I wasn’t impressed with Tony Abbott’s politics, but I did like his empathy with workers. Even as a minister and shadow minister, he insisted on driving to the studios, first at Channel Nine in Willoughby, then to Sky News in Macquarie Park, for Sunday morning interviews because he didn’t think it was fair for Commonwealth drivers to have to work on Sundays. In the nineties and early 2000s, he drove a 76 Valiant, and in the late 2000s, a 1993 Merc. The only thing you had to worry about was whether the car would make it to the studio in time. We had a couple of close calls at Sky News when he was the main guest on Sunday Agenda. If I called and he didn’t answer his mobile, at least I knew that he was on his way.
But after he became the Opposition Leader in December 2009, Tony Abbott was forced to use a Commonwealth driver, and I know he wasn’t happy with that. But I never heard of him treating a driver or a staffer badly, as was the case with Kevin Rudd, who was never in the running for Employer of the Year. Tony’s worst behaviour occurred in 2007 when just before the election, he had a go at asbestos campaigner and terminal mesothelioma sufferer, Bernie Banton, saying: “”just because a person is sick doesn’t mean that he is necessarily pure of heart in all things”, for which he later apologised. Bernie Banton died three days after the election. In 2011, I was the supervising producer of Meet the Press at Channel Ten, and we weren’t able to get Abbott on the program. But he did a couple of two-way interviews with The Bolt Report in Melbourne from the Ten building in Pyrmont, and I had to take him to makeup and the tiny studio where he was interviewed by Andrew Bolt.
Tony Abbott intimated he would appear on Meet the Press that year, but never made it, which surprised me, given that he had come on Sunday Agenda a few times at the last minute. Again, he was friendly and charming to the Ten staff, and the café workers next door where we would get coffee after the interview – and he would tell his media adviser to set up a time for us as he was getting into the car. The interview didn’t happen until 2012 when I was no longer with the program.
I knew we would never have a chance to get the Opposition Leader-Soon-To-Be-PM on The Observer Effect on SBS this year, but we did ask every couple of weeks. This time, it was the calendar which was our enemy. “We just can’t find a date for you” was the response of one of his friendly (honest!) media advisers. Malcolm Turnbull, who lost by one vote to Abbott in the Liberal leadership ballot in 2009, did accept our invitation (and did very well, I have to say).
Okay, you say, Tony Abbott is a nice bloke, so what does that have to do with his ability to be a good Prime Minister? Well, you don’t have to be charming to be an effective PM, but it helps. What really worries me is his lack of statesmanship. An example of that occurred in his interview with the Washington Post this week, when he told Lally Weymouth (the daughter of legendary Post publisher Katharine Graham) what he thought of Labor’s NBN: “Welcome to the wonderful, wacko world of the former government.” He added that it “was the most incompetent and untrustworthy government in modern Australian history.” Clearly, Labor under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard was not the best of governments, but to paint it as the worst is not going to help our relations with the United States and Barack Obama, who got along fairly well with both prime ministers. Former diplomat and respected senior public servant John Menadue told the Sydney Morning Herald the jury was still out as to whether Tony Abbott could “make the transition from a critic in opposition and an attack dog to a responsible and constructive prime minister.” (
Constructive prime ministers (Julia Gillard above tried her best to be one) also have to be forward thinkers, and respected political commentator Laurie Oakes (declaration: he’s a mate and former colleague) says Tony Abbott is not yet a visionary. In discussing his new book, Remarkable Times: Australian Politics 2010-2013 What Really Happened, with ABC Radio National Breakfast host, Fran Kelly, Oakes had this to say of the Prime Minister: “I think Tony Abbott has very cleverly repositioned himself, but he still doesn’t come across as a visionary. Tony Abbott only a few years ago said you really can’t expect a politician to be interested in anything beyond his own period in parliament. Well, that’s really a very limiting view for a politician to have. If Tony Abbott really believes that, he’ll be useless as Prime Minister. Prime ministers have to be forward thinkers, but if Tony Abbott wants to be a good prime minister, he’s going to have to think a lot further ahead than his own period in parliament, so we’ll see. Tony Abbott is nothing, if not adaptable. He changes his mind when he needs to. He tells his own party he puts pragmatism ahead of principles. Maybe he will be able to lift his gaze and develop some long-term vision.”
I hope he can, too. I remember having a chat with Tony Abbott when he was the Shadow Aboriginal Minister just before he was about to travel to Cape York to teach Indigenous children on a parliamentary break in 2008. He had come in to Sky News to talk to host Helen Dalley on Sunday Agenda. I told him I had taught for three years in the black community of Harlem in New York City in the late sixties. It was difficult, and somewhat trauma-inducing, and, to be honest, my main reason for teaching in a disadvantaged area was to avoid being drafted. But I have always replied to anyone who asked that I would rather teach black children in Harlem than kill Vietnamese kids in Vietnam. And I told Tony: “You’re going to go up there and spend two weeks teaching and helping Aboriginal children in Cape York. But the real heroes are those teachers who stay. I often think about the staff who stayed in Harlem. Remember those who you leave behind in Cape York.”
Warren Mundine, the former National President of the Labor Party, and now head of the Indigenous Advisory Council, told Ellen Fanning on The Observer Effect that when he first met Tony Abbott he didn’t like him. But they agreed to meet in a Redfern coffee shop, and Tony said to him: “Well, why don’t we continue these conversations because I really want to know about Aboriginal people and Aboriginal affairs.” Mundine replied: “Yeah, sure.” Those conversations led to the pair becoming mates, and Warren Mundine is now a big fan of Tony Abbott: “He won the confidence of the Australian people and got the job as Prime Minister. He grew in Indigenous affairs. To me, we just totally disagreed on it, but now we’re very much one on one on it.”
But there is one more thing to like about Tony Abbott. He is a dedicated volunteer in the Davidson Rural Fire Brigade on Sydney’s North Shore. There were many weekends when he couldn’t appear on the Sunday Program or Sunday Agenda because he was fighting fires or preventing them. Perhaps he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be photographed with other volunteers in Bilpin during the recent fires in Sydney, but he is a politician and he was probably doing it as much for them as for himself. And his colleagues said he put in a full day’s work. Critics say a prime minister should not be risking his life fighting fires. But a PM shouldn’t be afraid to get his hands dirty, as long as it has nothing to do with corruption!
Well, that’s why I’ve been thinking about Tony Abbott. He could be a good Prime Minister, in spite of the Coalition he heads, whose policies are mean-spirited, designed to help the rich, cruel and uncaring, especially on immigration, and anti-union and anti-climate change, to name just a few. His sister, Liberal Sydney councillor, Christine Forster, who’s engaged to her long-term partner, Virginia Edwards, believes Tony Abbott will eventually come around on gay marriage, and will certainly attend their wedding, if the law (and a Coalition conscience vote) permits.
Back to the future: fifty years ago this month, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States after John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. In his early years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, LBJ had voted against bills aimed at helping black Americans. In his superb profile of Barack Obama, The Bridge, David Remnick cites the acclaimed Robert Caro biography of Johnson to make this point: “LBJ had been profoundly affected by his experience as a young man in Cotulla, Texas, teaching poor Mexican-American children, but it was only in the mid-fifties – when, as Caro writes, his ‘ambition and compassion were finally pointing in the same direction’ – that he allowed himself to start working on behalf of civil rights.”
The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Let’s hope the experiences of Tony Abbott in Cape York and his expressed desire to be Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs will really close the gap between white and black Australians and lead to a treaty, giving Aborigines a greater role in governing this country. It might even help make him a good PM.
Over to you, Tony.

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