The Tony I Don't Know
A public relations blitz is positioning the Federal Opposition Leader in a new light, one that queer folk shouldn’t dread. But as Sam Butler writes, past actions always speak louder than present words.
Confession: I don’t know Tony Abbott personally. I don’t enjoy an intimate friendship with the man in the same way Janet Albrechtsen and Christopher Pearson do – a friendship that has led both commentators, among others, to assure their readers that the “Tony they know” is neither homophobic nor transphobic.
In fact, Albrechtsen’s and Pearson’s contributions are only two in a series of features penned and broadcast over the past few years designed to quell any notion that Australia’s likely next PM is any way less than 100% enamoured of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and other rainbow folk. The most recent of these was Liz Hayes’ revisiting of Abbott for a 60 Minutes profile piece, three years after she elicited a confession from him that he felt “a bit threatened” by gays.
If we were to believe the later piece, Abbott is a changed man. Apparently he’s “in a better space” on this issue, particularly with regard to his lesbian sister Christine Forster.
Maybe if I got to know Abbott personally as Albrechtsen, Pearson and Forster do, I might be less inclined to assume he’s a homophobe – or, at least, that he’s deeply troubled by homosexuality – than I currently do. The thing is, though, I – like millions of Australians – will probably never meet Tony Abbott in person, let alone form a long-term, profound friendship with him. So like millions of Australians, all I have to go by when determining whether or not he’s homophobic is his public record.
And that’s where things get tricky.
We can probably dismiss Abbott’s opposition to the legalisation of homosexuality 30 years ago given the context and circumstances of the time. Let’s assume, as he insists, that his views and evolved and matured since.
But let’s return to the latest 60 Minutes piece. Much as he’d like to sweep the “threatened” comment under the rug now, there was an inconsistency in the interview that Hayes did not pick up on and which undermines the credibility of his mea culpa.
Forster claimed that, “When I told him about the situation I was in”, he was “completely unfazed – completely”. Yet this doesn’t gel with Abbott’s account. “What flashed through my mind,” he told Hayes, “as you were questioning me [in the 2010 interview], was what was going on in my own family at the time … They were very tough times for our family, hence my comment. Because the cohesion of our family was threatened at that time.”
In effect, then, Abbott blamed Forster for making him admit he felt threatened by gays. That’s hardly indicative of a man who was “completely unfazed” by the discovery of his sister’s homosexuality. What it is indicative of is a man who says different things to different people in different environments to cloud his true agenda – whatever it may be.
Beyond his personal situation, Abbott’s record as minister of a federal government is also cause for concern. The Howard government, of which he was a senior cabinet minister, was notoriously intransigent on law and policy reform that might in any way advance queer rights and/or benefit same-sex couples. The Rudd government’s removal of discrimination in 85 pieces of Commonwealth legislation rectified the Howard government’s decade of indolence, though to be fair, Abbott didn’t oppose those reforms in opposition.
Cori Bernardi did, though, and said so at the time. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that in 2009, the newly appointed opposition leader Abbott reinstated Bernardi as a shadow parliamentary secretary after Malcolm Turnbull had removed him from the shadow ministry. Later, of course, Abbott sacked Bernardi for his egregious pairing of marriage equality with bestiality, but he wouldn’t have been in a position to be sacked but for Abbott’s original reinstatement of him.
As for Abbott’s other failings in LGBTI rights, his defenders would no doubt argue they’re not unique to him. Our current PM officially opposes marriage equality, too, as do many in the ALP – most of whom, like Abbott, probably aren’t very comfortable with same-sex families either. Julia Gillard also apparently has no problem with religious schools that receive taxpayer funding turning away LGBTI teachers.
But Gillard has at least drawn a line in the sand. She withdrew from speaking at the Australian Christian Lobby’s national conference after its managing director Jim Wallace suggested homosexuality was unhealthier than smoking. At the time, Abbott was deafeningly silent on Wallace’s thoughts.
Gillard, despite her own personal opposition, also allowed a conscience vote on marriage and went to great lengths to point out how much she respected party members with whom she disagreed. Abbott, in one of the greatest affronts to the key Liberal Party tenet of individual freedom, refused to allow a conscience vote for his party – hardly the sign of a man who’s comfortable with opening debate and engaging with those who share a different perspective to him.
What Abbott and his many supporters don’t seem willing or able to understand is that the issue of LGBTI tolerance and progress is far bigger than his own personal journey. If he’s our next PM, he’ll need to act in the interests of all Australians, including queer ones. He’ll be doing the exact opposite of this whenever he seeks guidance and advice from his friend and mentor, Cardinal George Pell, on queer issues.
As certain as Pearson, Albrechtsen and Forster are that queer folk shouldn’t dread PM Abbott, I’m equally certain I’m not sure. The fact is too much of Abbott’s history on LGBTI issues is ambiguous or ambivalent at best, and antagonistic at worst.
It’s certainly going to take a lot more than a few PR exercises in “the Tony I know” anecdotes to convince thousands of GLBTI voters that PM Abbott isn’t someone about whom we should feel very concerned.