Most successful politicians can usually point to an inspirational figure or mentor from the past who has helped shape his or her political and social outlook during their formative years. For former PM Paul Keating it was the old Labor warrior Jack Lang; for Bob Hawke it was Lang's contemporary, wartime prime minister, John Curtin. John Howard too derived great inspiration from his own hero, Sir Robert Menzies, Australia's longest serving prime minister who led the nation twice for a total of 19 years.
In the case of Australia's new prime minister, Tony Abbott, his first and most influential mentor was B. A. (Bob) Santamaria, a political activist who had a profound impact on the Catholic vote in the 1950s and 60s. In time Abbott and the others would go on to follow their own paths to success as their views broadened and matured with the times, but their mentors' core principles stayed with them, influencing future directions and decisions, not unlike the way in which a parent influences an offspring. Of the four prime ministers mentioned above it is Abbott who most resembles his mentor in terms of personal philosophy and motivating principles.
Not withstanding the above, however, it would be a mistake to label Tony Abbott as being Santamaria incarnate. For one thing the zietgeists of the 1950s and the 21st century are poles apart - Bob Santamaria was a hot gospelling firebrand of the Cold War era whose deeply conservative position on a range of issues was largely relevant to his own times and does not translate well in the 21st century. A few cases in point: his uncompromising views on socialism (Reds under the bed), feminism and homosexuality (sodomisers) could not possibly be advanced in the same way today, even by Tony Abbott. Thus in order to understand the connection between the two men, one must look to core ideological principles as derived from their Roman Catholic traditionalist faith.
A politician's fundamental convictions always come from a deep place and are held as sacrosanct - this is no less true of Santamaria and Tony Abbott. Theirs were forged in the furnace of traditional Catholicism and the cloistered heirarchical structure of the church, its anti-intellectual bias and aversion to secularism. It instilled in both men a loathing of centralised government and a fervent belief that there is a natural social order in the world of human affairs for which traditional family values is the poster boy and fundamental building block of a stable society. From such a set of beliefs springs the conviction that a simpler world must be a better world.
What Santamaria imparted in the young Abbott psyche was the notion that the world is going down the wrong path; that Australia (and the West) is under threat from rampant social engineering in defiance of the natural order of things. More specifically there exists an aggressive leftist cultural agenda - the product of the intellectual elite - which is sweeping aside all those time tested values cherished by Christian conservatism. It is the underlying ethic of living by traditional ideals that Tony Abbott found inspiring in his mentor's thinking. All things considered, therefore, it is not unreasonable to say that Bob Santamaria was a political missionary for 'right living', and now Tony Abbott as Prime Minister wants to be one too. As such he believes this higher calling forgives his political trespasses - the end justifies the means so to speak.
An example of this ethic, put into words, can be found in one of Santamaria's Point of View tv programs, aired in 1985 late in his career. By this time his antiquated opinions and flaming rhetoric had turned him into a figure of amusement on the rapidly changing Australian cultural landscape. Nevertheless it's not difficult to see the fundamental ideology behind the rant, one that Tony Abbott shares today. The following is an extract from that program.
By definition the ABC is a public statutory corporation which is financed exclusively by the taxpayer to the extent of nearly $A400 million dollars a year ($A1.18 billion in 2013)... Since it is financed exclusively by public money the ABC therefore ought not to belong to any political party; to any intellectual current whether the left or right, feminist, homosexual, lesbian or traditionalist. It should not serve as the propaganda voice for any school of opinion, but in fact it does. It didn't require the ABC's fatuous decision to publicly finance the transfer of not only the de facto wives of its employees but of their homosexual partners as well - 'subsidies for sodomy' as 200 employees of the ABC's Tasmanian branch called it - to show the true nature of the intellectual and moral bias of this organisation under the control which operates today. With few exceptions the public affairs programs of the ABC today emerge as extreme left-wing in politics and protagonists of abhorrent sexual practices... The ABC almost universally favours radical feminism and pro homosexual viewpoints.
Since Abbott's success at the ballot box on September 7 there is a growing consensus that he has been seriously underestimated by the Labor Party and the media alike; that he is a far more complicated thinker than at first thought. And it would seem there is some evidence to validate the new appraisal - Abbott the so called misogynist who lives in a family of all women; a hardline free marketeer who introduces a company tax to fund an extremely generous paid parental leave scheme; a brutal 'whatever it takes' parliamentary attack dog who in private is said to be a kind and considerate gentleman. Underestimated is one word, but perhaps a better word is Misunderstood.
On close examination, Abbott does not impress as a lateral thinker - that requires dexterity of thought. He is not quick on the uptake and lacks imagination and wit. Rather, he is a deep linear thinker and a masterful strategist who plans ahead meticulously but who takes time to adjust should anything go wrong with his plans. His modus operandi is to zero in on weaknesses in his opponent then attach catchy slogans to them, ones that imply inevitable failure. He then repeats the slogans ad infinitum. He used this tactic back in 1999 to help derail the Republic referendum by labelling the minimalist model as "fundamentally flawed ... fundamentally flawed...". Fundamentally Flawed could be interchanged with any number of his subsequent slogans: "illegal immigrants ...fundamentally flawed ... budget emergency ... fundamentally flawed ... stop the boats ... fundamentally flawed ...". It's an old strategy that works most times if the opponent is vulnerable. Adolf Hitler showed he understood its value when he observed that 'the greater the lie the more people will believe it'.
Abbott's slogans will continue in the service of his agenda, but in future they will be used to project a positive message about his government. Most important to him is the perception that his government is 'measured, methodical and adult'. This serves two purposes: it plays on the perception that the Labor party is chaotic, and it allows him time to implement his plans for the nation gradually, thoroughly, leaving no stone unturned. To paraphrase Paul Keating he wants to 'do the Left slowly'. But not only the Labor opposition, Abbott plans to marginalise progressive thinking as an alternative.
And his agenda? It is not so much the Thatcherisation of the economy although that will have some part to play. His main agenda is a sweeping makeover of the national conversation. Tony Abbott plans to reintroduce the culture wars, the history wars, to dismantle progressive issues like feminism, same sex marriage and climate change; to turn the population away from "wrong living" and guide it towards a new dawn of "right living" as he sees it. His aim is to repeal all the social advances the Left have made which he deems to be corrupting influences. He will in fact be a cultural warrior. Initially he will succeed only because the public will find it comforting, like putting on an old sweater. But it is doomed to fail in the long run. And then it will be left to Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese in six years time or maybe sooner to pick up the pieces and move the nation forward again.
During the swearing in ceremony with Govenor-General Quentin Bryce it was obvious that Liberal Party moderate, Malcom Turnbull, was less than overjoyed. Perhaps it was because he realised that his chances of becoming leader were finally gone. But one suspects that he was downcast at the thought of what was about to happen to the nation under Tony Abbott - political missionary. Soon we may all be wearing the same forlorn expression as Mr Turnbull.