Last night former prime minister Tony Abbott succumbed to a perfect political storm: a climate zealot candidate dressed up as a faux Liberal, the sole target of a concerted, lavishly financed campaign of the chattering Left and GetUp!, and nasty, vindictive and vicious personal attacks.
In defeat, Abbott showed the resilience, grace and strength of character that anyone who has the privilege to get close to him loves and admires. His off-the-cuff concession speech was a reflection of its speaker. His statement “I’d rather be a loser than a quitter” sums him up perfectly.
It used to be said that the closer you got to Kevin Rudd, the more you got to dislike him. Abbott was the opposite: the closer you get to him, the more you like him. It’s part of the tragedy of his political demise that too many Australians bought the caricature of budgie-smugglered Abbott and did not get to see him as his friends and close colleagues did.
His daggy ability to laugh uproariously at his own jokes. His not only tolerating differences of opinion, but his enjoyment of debating them. The sheer breadth and depth of his learning and reading, especially on history and politics. His consideration of others and his willingness to take people on his merits without regard to sex, ethnicity and religion.
Not to mention his loyalty to his friends and staff, often beyond the point of his best interests. I for one benefited from his patience, understanding and kindness.
Others will appraise the political career and prime ministership of Tony Abbott, and no doubt The Abbott Memoirs will in the next year or two be coming to a bookshop near you. But take it from me: the man Zali Steggall and her activist supporters went out of their way to denigrate and disparage is a man who gave, and will continue to give, far more to public life than he will ever take from it.
His political assassins may revel in their victory, but I for one am terrifically saddened that someone of Tony’s political and parliamentary skills, and his love of the institution of Parliament itself, are being lost to us.
In many ways, Abbott was born 150 years too late, and made his parliamentary career in the wrong country. Abbott, and his love of language and ideas, would have been far more at home in the mid-nineteenth century House of Commons rubbing shoulders and debating high policy with the likes of Disraeli, Gladstone and Palmerston rather than in a House of Representatives swapping platitudes and crude insults with the pedestrian likes of Rudd, Gillard and Shorten, let alone many of his own anodyne colleagues.
Tony Abbott is fond of quoting Sir Isaac Newton’s observation that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
As Abbott departs his beloved parliamentary stage even as the government he led to office in 2013 was returned in the hour of his fall, it is we who have seen further by standing on his shoulders.
Terry Barnes was Tony Abbott’s senior policy adviser from 2003 to 2007
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