November 3, 2007
The Canberra Times

Searching for a heart Tony? Follow the yellow brick road

It’s not the fact that he said ”bullshit” that bothers me. It’s how he said it. And it’s what followed. The contemptuous sledging wasn’t just meant to offend Nicola Roxon, it was intended to shove her in her place. Tony Abbott (That dumb cunt) may as well have called her a slag. Or a ”skanky ho” – to borrow from another hateful handshaker and his brother in bully boy tactics, Loser Latham.

This week’s behaviour by the Health Minister has not only been less than exemplary, it has been breathtakingly extraordinary. For a man who chastises others for not being ”pure of heart”, the Mad Monk appears to have some mucky bile running through his arteries.

The words Abbott and Roxon exchanged at the conclusion of Wednesday’s televised health debate have been repeated many times in print. And while print can be an almighty communicator, it nevertheless doesn’t do justice to the mood of the moment. You really needed to be there to feel the love.

Within a day of the Minister’s ”Sorry Wednesday”, a new Facebook site dedicated to ”Tony Abbott’s Bullshit” was sharing the video, the transcript, the commentary – the lot. You can see what television viewers didn’t get to see once the National Press Club debate concluded.

Given the broadcast had already been delayed by the minister’s unexplained absence, it eventually had to begin without him. Shadow minster Nicola Roxon made constructive use of the air time by spruiking Labor’s health policy and taking questions from journalists.

When Abbott arrived, half an hour late, he made a limp apology to the ”viewing audience” with some vague reference to ”the speed of planes and so on”. He made no apology to Roxon. Abbott didn’t acknowledge her. He barely even looked at her.

Once the truncated debate was over and off-air, both the minister and his opponent were asked to provide the obligatory hand-shake shot for the cameras. Abbott moved in for a rigorous bit of elbow pumping. But unlike his rival in the bully boy handshake stakes, Mark Latham, Abbott didn’t eyeball his opponent. Quite the opposite. He looked away, grinning at the gaggle of media instead.

As Roxon spoke to him, chiding him for being late ”You can control these things mate, so I’m sure had you wanted to you could [have been on time]” – the minister continued to avoid looking at her, smiling for the cameras and muttered ”that’s bullshit”.

When asked by a cameraman to shake a second time, there was an avuncular ”yeah sure” from the minister. More elbow pumping, but this time he did look down at her saying, ”You’re being deliberately unpleasant, I suppose you can’t help yourself can you”.

To read those words in print, it doesn’t sound like much of a sledging. To witness it, or view it in playback, it does. And it was meant to be. The minister’s words were sharp- edged, nasty and delivered with bilious contempt. So why such hate? Why such seething disrespect for his political opponent? And why do men like Tony Abbott think they can get away with such overt displays of patronising arrogance when dealing with female colleagues?

This isn’t just about politics and opposing political ideology. This is about a seething fury that smart, determined women are getting in the way. Some men just can’t stand that. And Tony Abbott is proving to be one of those men. Which is a shame.

A grinning loud-mouth, with energy to burn and a quick wit, the Health Minister has always worn his heart on his sleeve. While it’s got him in trouble, it’s also perhaps been one of his most endearing qualities. His handling of the extraordinary media revelations about his newly discovered ”love child” and the subsequent mistaken identity, was dignified and elegant. His honesty at that time was admirable and he survived enormous personal scrutiny with his integrity well intact.

I’ve also know Tony Abbott to put politics aside and extend a gracious gesture of support when he has sensed someone else’s pain. So what happened? At what point did he become chief arbiter of who is ”pure of heart”?

We all know Bernie Banton is dying. And we know there is enormous sympathy out there for this courageous victim of asbestos- related disease. The fact that he got out of his sick bed this week to deliver thousands of petitions to the Health Minister is not going to give Bernie any extra days of life. In fact it may well rob him of a few. But Banton did it to draw attention to the fact that if Abbott would approve the drug Alimta for listing on the PBS, some mesothelioma sufferers might have their life extended a little. Yes, it was a stunt, but one worth pulling.

Yet in what reeked of a major compassion deficit, the best Abbott could come up with was a suggestion that Banton’s motivation was not ”pure of heart”, and that as a sick man he was seizing ”the moral high ground”.

As Abbott says about life in politics, ”shit happens”. But is this week’s nasty behaviour and appalling lack of judgment a sign of burn-out? Or is this a sign of the real Tony Abbott?

Maybe the minister just needs a break – a trip to Kansas City in a tin suit, where he could follow the yellow brick road, in search of a heart. Mind you, if he finds one, it won’t run on purity. It’ll need plenty of grease.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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