By MARK ROLFE
It was the bloodshot eyes that conveyed to one journalist the strain and weariness weighing upon prime minister Tony Abbott as he dealt with the MH17 tragedy. Australians learned of the office naps between the 20 or more calls to foreign leaders and the working dinners with the military chiefs. Abbott’s dogged aggressiveness in pressuring Russian president Vladimir Putin to do what was right for all who had perished was on show from day one.
As might be expected, sections of the Twitterverse cynically derided Abbott for using the tragedy to burnish his image as national leader after months of bad polls, much in the way then-prime minister John Howard purportedly exploited 9/11. Even given the state of the polls, it didn’t seem to be Abbott’s primary motivation.
In his response to MH17, Abbott acted according to some personal and cultural expectations of leadership.
The MH17 disaster has exposed a deep attachment to the idea that a “real” leader is one who leads the nation in war and/or national emergency, such as wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill. Reinforcing this is the yearning among politicians and the public alike for a position above partisan politics, much like a US president, to unify the nation at certain important moments.
Howard, for example, did this after the Port Arthur shootings and became mourner-in-chief. Later, Howard spoke of used what he called “the bully pulpit”, following an American idea of the leader as the nation’s orator.
This is where Abbott has positioned himself by inclination. As a boy, he was absorbed by books on heroes of history such as Julius Caesar, Francis Drake and Henry V, as we know from his book Battlelines. His mother bought the books, just as she told a group that young Tony would one day be pope or prime minister. This was one of many family affirmations that his destiny was to be a “future PM”.
After Abbott’s parents, Bob Santamaria “first encouraged [him] to try to exercise leadership”.
During the Cold War, Santamaria was the intellectual light of the Democratic Labor Party, the National Civic Council and those fierce conservative Catholics who saw a crusade to save Australia from the communists. They pursued a vanguard strategy modelled on the Leninists they hated, involving a few dedicated ideological warriors to battle for control of key organisations.
Abbott’s idea of leadership was further entrenched when he went to Oxford where he studied Leo Strauss, another intellectual who disdained political participation. Strauss was suspicious of democracy and the masses and, like Santamaria, he distrusted liberalism, modernity and multiculturalism. Consequently, Strauss believed in the need for the wise few to conceal their views from the many and to deploy deceptions and illusions for the common good.
To be clear, Abbott is not a clone of these two men. And he is not the same as former Labor prime minister Paul Keating, but both men share a heroic conception of leadership as can be judged by Keating’s comment that: