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The Rise and Rise of Tony Abbott


PRESENTER: Though he's now into his sixth year as Prime Minister, John Howard gets very testy when reminded of his political mortality. The last person who raised the matter got a dressing down, even though that person was Howard's protege, Tony Abbott. Of course, that's unlikely to stop Tony Abbott from manoeuvring himself into a position to challenge for a leadership role when the time comes for Howard to hand over the baton.

The Workplace Relations Minister is no stranger to political hardball and he's not afraid to tell the voters exactly where he stands. After once calling some unemployed, job snobs, this week he partly blamed the poor for their own poverty. But, there's much more to Tony Abbott than brash aggression and ambition as Sunday's John Lyons reports in our cover story.


TONY ABBOTT: I was very, very nervous, as you can imagine. It was my first formal bout. The Blues boxing match was locked 4-4 with the heavyweight to decide it. The Oxford Town Hall was absolutely packed to the rafters with very excited people who, I'm afraid, had been in many cases drinking rather heavily for quite some time. So I got into the ring, determined to hit my opponent harder and more often than he could possibly hit me. I went out like a whirling dervish, kept hitting him again and again and again with just a left, right, succession. And then I got him this magnificent left upper cut and he seemed to go up in the air, across the ring and almost through the ropes. As I said, I could hardly believe it then and I can still hardly believe it. But it certainly made for a spectacular end to the Blue's boxing match that year.

JOHN LYONS: He's been a Rugby front rower, a boxer, Rhodes scholar, a trainee Catholic priest and a journalist. Now after a dramatic rise through the political ranks, Tony Abbott is in John Howard's cabinet. He wants to avoid the subject, but it's clear he'd like to go right to the top. How much would you like to be PM of Australia, if the opportunity came up?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, the, the real point is if the opportunity came up...

JOHN LYONS: How much would you like to be PM?

TONY ABBOTT: ..and I doubt very much whether the opportunity ever will come up. Look, I am not thinking about that kind of thing and I shouldn't think about that kind of thing and I'm determined not to think about that kind of thing.

JOHN LYONS: Are you saying you've never thought or spoken to others about being PM?

TONY ABBOTT: Ah, I am not aware of ever speaking to anyone on that subject and look, I just think it's not something that would do me or my party or my government any good for me to dwell on any of those things.

JUSTIN RICKARD, FAMILY FRIEND: I don't actually recall ever meeting Tony because he's a little bit older than me, just a little bit, but I do recall dating his younger sister at university and even in those days Tony was spoken very highly of in his family, with great awe and respect, and the phrase "future PM" was often whispered or should I say yelled around the family table.

JOHN LYONS: Tony Abbott is fast rising to the top in one area of politics, with Pauline Hanson side-lined and Peter Reith out of the picture, Abbott has become the most controversial politician in Canberra.

CHERYL KERNOT, SHADOW EMPLOYMENT MINISTER: We all find that his answers contain, in my view, the highest level of personal abuse of anybody in the parliament. He's made it into an art form.

TONY ABBOTT: Come on! Show a bit of ticker for once!

MALE MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: The PM should be ashamed of himself for supporting this scumbag.

JOHN LYONS: Abbott's aggressive style riles the Opposition. His use of phrases like "job snobs" and "ruinism", his views on working poor and his day-to-day performance in the House are making him a big target.

TONY ABBOTT: I have done exactly what I promised.

SPEAKER: Leader of the Opposition, Leader of the Opposition!

TONY ABBOTT: You are a sanctimonious windbag!

SPEAKER: The Minister will resume his seat.

CHERYL KERNOT, SHADOW EMPLOYMENT MINISTER: This government's not interested in debating ideas in Question Time or in the parliament. It uses it is for abuse and I actually think that under this government and with people like Tony Abbott having a high profile role in the head kicking and the bovver boy approach to Question Time, I think we've reached a new low.

TONY ABBOTT: We can't abolish poverty because poverty in part is a function of individual behaviour.

JOHN LYONS: Abbott's pronouncements on the causes of poverty in Australia on 'Four Corners' this week, again set the hares running. Cheryl Kernot has had several clashes with Tony Abbott who she shadows on employment issues.

CHERYL KERNOT, SHADOW EMPLOYMENT MINISTER: I think he does it deliberately. I think he does love the publicity. I think he does see himself as a serious public intellectual.

JOHN LYONS: Tony Abbott has been a political animal since he was a schoolboy. He's very much a product of the Jesuits at the famous St Ignatius Riverview College on Sydney's North Shore. It was there he met his lifelong friend and mentor, Father Emmet Costello.

FATHER EMMET COSTELLO, ABBOTT'S FORMER TEACHER: I first met him in 1974 and he was then in year 11 at Riverview and from the moment I met him he was different. He walked into my room - I was a chaplain for the boys - and he projected an image immediately of high intelligence, ambition, drive and leadership and I thought this guy is worth following.

TONY ABBOTT: He constantly said that we had to focus on Christ as our brother and friend. Now, it's an ideal I've always aspired towards even if I've very imperfectly achieved.

FATHER EMMET COSTELLO, ABBOTT'S FORMER TEACHER: He had a very deep faith, a very manly faith devoid of all pious accretions full stop. It was a deep, manly faith and we had an optional midday mass there at school and so often he took it out of his lunchtime, he popped in for a quick 15-minute mass and he says he's never forgotten that experience.

TONY ABBOTT: The Jesuit ideal of trying to be a man for others is something which has always been important to me.

JOHN LYONS: Abbott went on to Sydney University where he quickly gravitated to politics. He joined other conservatives in the battle to wrest control of the Australian Union of Students from the Left. Amid the bitter scenes on Australian campuses, an early alliance formed between Tony Abbott and the current Federal Treasurer Peter Costello.

TONY ABBOTT: The Sydney University SRC seceded from the then Australian Union of Students and that at the time was quite a big issue. In fact, the secession of Sydney along with a number of other major campuses virtually destroyed the then AUS and that was an important victory for decent Australian values, given that the AUS in those days was an absolute hot bed of extreme left wing radicalism and it needed to be cleaned up and as a result of part of the work that I did and people like Peter Costello and Eric Abetts and Michael Yabsley and others did.

JOHN LYONS: It was in those frantic days of campus politics that Tony Abbott faced a defining moment in his life. He was 19 when his girlfriend of the time became pregnant.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, it happened in the usual way, John. I was a very high-spirited youth and did the sorts of things that high-spirited young people do and I think you know how these things happen.

JOHN LYONS: Was it for you as a Catholic, a strong Catholic, what sort of dilemmas did it pose?

TONY ABBOTT: And she was a very strong Catholic as well and to her enormous credit there was never any question that she would have the child and...

JOHN LYONS: So abortion was never an issue in your mind?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, um more to the point, it was never an issue in her mind.

JOHN LYONS: What about in your mind?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, it wasn't an issue for me either. There's just no question whatsoever that in that situation you just had to live with the consequences of what you'd done. The baby was born and within a few days adopted out.

JOHN LYONS: And did you consider marrying the woman at the time?

TONY ABBOTT: Yep, yep, we both thought about it and for about six weeks intended to go ahead, but we were both very young and it wouldn't have worked out...

JOHN LYONS: To this day, Abbott has never seen his son, who is now 24-years-old.

TONY ABBOTT: If you're in a situation like this, there is always the possibility that one day you might get a knock on the door from a stranger who says "g'day dad." And it would be a pretty - it would be quite an interesting thing to have happen. It would certainly be, yeah, a very powerful and emotionally wrought moment.

JOHN LYONS: And what would you say if you, if there was the knock on the door you referred to, what would you do or say? How do you think you'd feel?

TONY ABBOTT: I suspect the first thing I would do is dissolve into unmanly tears.

JOHN LYONS: Mmm. Are you somebody who does cry?

TONY ABBOTT: Not I hope when anyone can see.

JOHN LYONS: From Sydney University, Abbott went to Oxford after winning a Rhodes scholarship. Away from his studies he found time to play Rugby and win two Blues for boxing. Could you tell us about your Oxford days?

TONY ABBOTT: They were extraordinarily rich and golden beyond belief. Someone once said that Oxford left you magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life, and at Oxford you are amongst the best young men and women of your generation in the English-speaking world and that's a tremendous privilege.

OHN LYONS: After completing his Oxford studies, Abbott felt drawn to the spiritual life. He entered St Patrick's Catholic Seminary at Manly to study for the priesthood.

TONY ABBOTT: I'd always wanted to do the right thing by my maker. I'd always wanted to do whatever I reasonably could to build a better world and I thought then that the best thing I could do was to become a priest.

JOHN LYONS: One of Abbott's roles at the Seminary was running the infirmary, but even there, he had little patience in dealing with those he thought were rorting the system. Your view was that some of the people who were sick with flu, struck down with flu, were malingerers, and you advocated that they go and get their own...

TONY ABBOTT: Self-service.

JOHN LYONS: Self-service.


JOHN LYONS: You're a pretty hard man, aren't you?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I am sure that is one of my faults. I am sure that is a fault of mine. Certainly at the time I couldn't understand why so many young blokes were so sick so often.

JOHN LYONS: While at the Seminary, Abbott made an impression on one of the rising powers in the Catholic church, George Pell, now Archbishop of Sydney.

GEORGE PELL, ARCHBISHOP OF SYDNEY: I first heard of him when he was still a seminarian and he wrote an article in the 'Bulletin'. I think it was fairly heavily critical of the hierarchy at that stage and I thought "Well here we have an interesting fellow". I thought it was a little unwise for him as a seminarian, one who was aspiring to the priesthood, to be so frank in such an important public magazine, whatever his views, but he's continued to be outspoken and interesting right through his career.

JOHN LYONS: After two years as a seminarian, Abbott realised his strong personal ambitions were not consistent with the priesthood.

TONY ABBOTT: I doubted my motivation in some ways. I was ambitious in a way which was unworthy of a priest, I think.

JOHN LYONS: But there was another more basic reason why 'Father Tony Abbott' was not to be.

TONY ABBOTT: I just couldn't see myself being celibate for the rest of my life and a non-celibate priest is a very serious betrayal of the greatest cause on earth.

JOHN LYONS: Abbott took up journalism, writing for both the 'Bulletin' and the 'Australian', but already he had come to the attention of both sides of politics.

BOB CARR, NSW PREMIER: Well I think he was a very good advocate. I knew he'd battled the extreme Left on the university campuses and I admired that and I knew people who were part of his generation who did the same thing and who were in the Labor Party and I've always tried to recruit people, talented people, from my side of politics, so I put it to him. But I can't pretend that I found in Tony Abbott someone who was a Labor supporter. But I did put it to him, I had no evidence he was a Liberal supporter either, so I tried to recruit him.

JOHN LYONS: Bob Carr seems surprised that Abbott has risen so far.

BOB CARR, NSW PREMIER: I think there's an element of fluking. I mean to end up, to be a staffer for John Hewson, to end up running the case for the constitutional monarchy and then to spring into a Liberal Party pre-selection, I think there's been an element of good luck in his career.

TONY ABBOTT: My view is that if you like Australia the way it is, you'll vote no.

JOHN LYONS: What really propelled Abbott into prominence was his leading of the case to keep Australia a constitutional monarchy. Some found that an odd fit with his age and apparent rugged individualism.

TONY ABBOTT: I have always supported the monarchy and unless circumstances change dramatically, I always will support the monarchy. It's been a part of Australia for as long as we've existed. It's grown with us, it's changed with us, it's adapted with us. It's a very adaptable institution and it will continue to grow and adapt with us into the indefinite future as far as I'm concerned.

JOHN LYONS: Through his many career changes, Tony Abbott has found time to raise three daughters with his wife Margaret.

MARGARET ABBOTT: We've taken over. I think we've had six cabins this year amongst all the friends. That's great.

JOHN LYONS: The family's annual trek with friends to the NSW South Coast is a chance to escape the pressures of federal politics.

MALE FRIEND: You're still very quick, Chris, for a man of your size.

CHRIS STILL, FRIEND: On weekends like this he's probably reluctant to talk politics to be honest and he's a great reader and you know, he's more wanted to talk about the books he's reading ah, rather than anything to do with current day politics.

JOHN MCGEE, FRIEND: There's healthy views around these tables and Tony listens to all. I thought the other day when he stood on the floor of - was it - the Bradmill company, I thought, showed a lot of guts.

JOHN LYONS: The Abbott star reached new heights this year when PM John Howard passed the Industrial Relations portfolio to Abbott from the retiring Peter Reith.

TONY ABBOTT: I don't come here with any magic wands. I don't come here with any easy answers because...

JOHN LYONS: Wearing that mantle, Abbott marched into the Lion's den of angry workers at the Bradmill clothing factory in Melbourne as it went into receivership.

TONY ABBOTT: If these questions were put to Steve Bracks and he was to answer you...

MAN: You're here from the Federal Government not the State Government! Don't worry about what Steve Bracks does! Worry about what the Federal Government's going to do for us to keep our jobs!

JOHN LYONS: This meeting helps illustrate why Abbott polarises people. While some see his approach as candid and therefore refreshing, others see it as brutal and heartless. Abbott the ex-boxer seems to enjoy the rough-and-tumble of these occasions. But he's not so keen on his portrayal as the Coalition's bovver boy. There was a letter in the paper the other day describing you as "the Coalition's self-appointed bully boy".

TONY ABBOTT: I think it's again, it's one of the simple truths of politics that your opponents will try to tag you in ways which undermine your effectiveness and to say that someone isn't just a good advocate but a verbal thug, is a way of doing that. How can you keep the so-and-so's honest when you're taking their money?

JOHN LYONS: Last year, Tony Abbott became the first minister ejected from the House since 1961. In the five years since he's entered Parliament, he's become a well-renowned bomb-thrower in Question Time. He's even incited a walkout by the Opposition who were infuriated by his behaviour.

CHERYL KERNOT, SHADOW EMPLOYMENT MINISTER: I wish I could sit here and say that beneath that parliamentary bovver boy facade I suspected there was a really kind and caring person and he was only doing it because he thought that's what parliament required. I could say that of some others... in Howard's team. I could not say that of Tony Abbott.

TONY ABBOTT: Here are Labor members of parliament standing up day-after-day and not just criticising Government policies but impugning the motivation of Government members and there's a ferocity and ah, an edge to it, which I think does the country some damage.

JOHN LYONS: But you seem to be one of the most ferocious of all.

TONY ABBOTT: I think if the words are looked at, I can't understand why the reputation is as you suggest John. I mean what have I done? I've called Beazley a "sanctimonious windbag" well, I mean in the great scheme of things that's hardly savage criticism. I think I talked about the Labor Party being more inbred than the House of Lords, Uh, I don't think these are particularly ferocious things to say.

SCHOOL CHILDREN: Good afternoon Mr Abbott. Peace be with you.

TONY ABBOTT: And peace be with you too children and peace be with your teachers and your parents and in your homes.

JOHN LYONS: Tony Abbott's days in the seminary may be long passed, but he still makes frequent references to religion. One of the reasons his political opponents refer to him as 'the Mad Monk'.

TONY ABBOTT: In the words of the old prayer, blessed art thou amongst women. That's how I feel.

JOHN LYONS: It's a habit his opponents view with some cynicism, especially those who find themselves in his sights in parliament.

CHERYL KERNOT, SHADOW EMPLOYMENT MINISTER: I think the thing I find most objectionable is that he parades his Christian values as some kind of label, like "this is the man I am. I'm a truly tolerant Christian". But there's such a gap between what he says and how he acts.

DAVID OLDFIELD, NSW MLC: Anyone who has a very strong religious background, regardless of what denomination, you know, tends to have a very conservative outlook. He in some respects is probably more conservative than I am...

JOHN LYONS: David Oldfield was a key staff member in Tony Abbott's electoral office. Oldfield went on to join Pauline Hanson's One Nation but he left with a glowing reference from Tony Abbott.

DAVID OLDFIELD, NSW MLC: "He was in short an absolutely outstanding staffer, "the kind of lieutenant every politician needs and hopes for "and perhaps only properly values when he's about to go".

JOHN LYONS: You described him as a great friend and excellent colleague.

TONY ABBOTT: I made a mistake.

JOHN LYONS: Why do you think you made that mistake?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, it's possible to make mistakes. Look at the good Lord himself. He made a mistake and I made a mistake in my judgment.

JOHN LYONS: Would Tony Abbott's views be at home in One Nation?

DAVID OLDFIELD, NSW MLC: Oh largely, yes, but that would also be said of many people in Labor and the National Party and to a great degree even some of the doctrines of the Greens and the Democrats.

JOHN LYONS: Another thing he said to us was that "your views in general would largely be at home inside One Nation".

TONY ABBOTT: Well, um, I would like to be judged on the evidence. I wouldn't like to be judged on the assertions of unreliable witnesses.

JOHN LYONS: He said on immigration "Abbott's concerns were the same as mine". Is that true?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I think that it is easy to verbal people and I think I'm being verballed.

JOHN LYONS: Abbott made another mistake in judging the character of this man, Manly identity Ian McDonald - Abbott's former campaign manager. He was recently jailed for 5.5 years for obtaining benefit by deception to the tune of $5 million.

TONY ABBOTT: Maccer was probably the leading citizen of Manly when I became the Liberal candidate and I was honoured to have him as my campaign director and it's a tragedy for him and a tragedy for the whole community what's happened to him.

JOHN LYONS: But you had a crook as your campaign manager?

TONY ABBOTT: I had someone who was criminally mal-administering his trust fund, that's right.

JOHN LYONS: I suppose I'm asking with Oldfield and Ian McDonald is your judgment on people perhaps questionable?

TONY ABBOTT: Obviously I'm capable of making mistakes, but you should remember, John, that both of them were extremely prominent members of the local Liberal Party.

JOHN LYONS: Oldfield now says that Abbott's office ran a smear campaign against him after he left, falsely claiming he was a prolific user of 0055 phone sex lines.

DAVID OLDFIELD, NSW MLC: If you're not like Ian McDonald and you haven't rorted your trust fund and embezzled millions of dollars and if you haven't been a bankrupt or gone bad in business or have some background as a thief or something similar, the only thing left is allegations of a sexual kind. At different times I was accused of being every conceivable form of deviate that you can imagine and it's a very, very, very clear and constant assault made usually by people in very right-wing politics.

TONY JOHANSSON: For me while I was painting it, it was more the slightly distanced politician turned out, well presented and then as you zoom in closer you start to see more and more of the passion and the intensity.

JOHN LYONS: You know you've almost made it when someone wants to paint your portrait for the Archibald Prize, but Tony Johansson's depiction of Abbott failed to make it to this year's final selection.

FEMALE PERFORMANCE ARTIST: Here you see one of the most important parts about this piece is the tie.


FEMALE PERFORMANCE ARTIST: What does this tie tell you? Don't trust this man.

MALE PERFORMANCE ARTIST: Oh yes. Yes, you can tell you see.

TONY ABBOTT: That's certainly what the general public would probably say.

JOHN LYONS: It's a long way from the Rugby field to the Archibald salon de refuse, but Tony Abbott would probably rather pack down in a Rugby scrum than risk the taunts of this lot.

TONY ABBOTT: Is that you is it? Well done. Congratulations.

MALE ARTIST: Your government crucified. That's what your government did. You crucified that man.
TONY ABBOTT: OK and why did we crucify him?

MALE ARTIST: Because he was just a working class man, he tries to do the best he can. He's a working class man.

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, yeah.

JOHN LYONS: Three years ago, Tony Abbott and Peter Costello were thrown together in a high profile case against writer Bob Ellis who made claims found to be defamatory of their early sex lives. Abbott, Costello and their wives were awarded $277,000.

DAVID MARR, WRITER: Mrs Costello's situation is not a joke, but the sight of those two blokes, those two men, who define the aggressive modern spirit of the Liberal Party, going out into it a court with their hands out asking for cash because Bob Ellis, of all people, a person of no real authority, Bob Ellis, has said they were once in the Labor Party and they changed over to the Liberal Party because a woman seduced them, claiming that their careers had been really damaged by that, is a joke.

JOHN LYONS: The men came together to defend themselves, but behind the scenes the reality was not one of unity. Relations were deteriorating due to differences over the Republic and the clash of two powerful ambitions. This week's speculation about a tilt of the deputy leadership by Abbott was seen as too eager too soon.

JULIE FLYNN, FORMER POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I wouldn't have thought that it was helpful at this stage and I saw the PM's remark which was when asked about the leadership, or deputy leadership, he said "I wasn't aware there was a vacancy". You don't have to know John Howard too well to know that he was not a happy man.

JOHN LYONS: Into the Liberal Party's dangerous climate of power and ambition also went the famous memo by Liberal Party President Shane Stone which blamed the Howard Government's unpopularity primarily on Peter Costello. It was obviously leaked by someone close to Howard who had access to it who sees Peter Costello as a leadership competitor, presumably, and who knows how to play life tough and hard. Do you know anyone who would fit that or those descriptions?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, that's - it's a closed chapter, John. I mean, it happened. It shouldn't have happened. It was dealt with. We've all moved on.

JOHN LYONS: Just for the record, can I ask you did you leak it?

TONY ABBOTT: That's an absurd question.

JOHN LYONS: What's the answer?

TONY ABBOTT: I still haven't even seen the thing.

MAN: Here's to the election. May you be disappointed.

TONY ABBOTT: I'll try.

JOHN LYONS: As to the coming election, Abbott says there is an understandable resentment towards the Government in the community.

TONY ABBOTT: People who in many cases know in their heart that we've done the right thing, at the same time wanting to punish us because in so doing we have inflicted what they perceive to be pain on them.

JOHN LYONS: He also makes this admission.

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I think we've been much better at policy than politics. I mean I think this is a government which is focused on getting the policy right and sometimes the politics haven't come as smoothly as we'd like.

JOHN LYONS: In a marked escalation of hostility, Cheryl Kernot now launches her own deeply personal attack on Tony Abbott.

CHERYL KERNOT, SHADOW EMPLOYMENT MINISTER: I think it's unchristian to vilify a vulnerable unemployed person whose details you've been given in confidence. I think it's unchristian to blame the unemployed for being unemployed as if the Government has no role in either job generation or in their attitude to the unemployed. I think that is unchristian.

PRIEST: Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, for your goodness we have this wine to offer.

JOHN LYONS: But Abbott's religious positions have won him some powerful supporters. What sort of PM do you think Tony Abbott would make?

GEORGE PELL, ARCHBISHOP OF SYDNEY: If he ever got to that position, I think he'd make a very fine PM.

JOHN LYONS: Even his friends caution Abbott about his rhetoric.

FATHER EMMET COSTELLO, ABBOTT'S FORMER TEACHER: When I last had dinner with him a few months ago I said to him "Tony, I humbly suggest that you don't see issues "always as black and white "but to see rather in all issues huge areas of grey". And I think that's very important for a politician.

JOHN LYONS: There's no doubt Tony Abbott has the grit and stamina needed for the marathon of politics, but in an era when people are jaded by politicians what is in doubt is whether his frankness and ability to create a headline almost every time he speaks, will be an asset or a liability.

TONY ABBOTT: If there's one thing that I would like to see happen in Australia it is a better understanding of our strengths. It is to realise what we truly are and we are a better country than we know.


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