Sir Robert Menzies once said that men of great talent who achieve posts of leadership and responsibility ‘will frequently be over-praised by their friends and over-attacked by their opponents.’
Over the course of his 25-year Parliamentary career, Tony Abbott has certainly been over-attacked by his opponents and perhaps, like Menzies, insufficiently praised by his friends.
The launch of a book of Tony Abbott’s prime ministerial speeches provides an opportunity to even the ledger. The book only covers two years of a vast and as yet unfinished public career which says something about how substantial Abbott’s contribution to Australian public life has been, from his early days as a student leader and trainee priest to his time as cabinet minister, prime minister and elder statesman.
In each role he used his gifts with language to fashion public debate and thinking about important topics underpinned by a depth of reading and a life spent engaging with the culture. In fact, the only phase of his career he has not written a substantial speech on is his role in the Davidson Rural Fire Brigade or in the Queenscliff Surf club, but he is still active in both organisations and so there is still time.
I have many reasons to be grateful to Tony Abbott. He gave me my start in federal politics; he encouraged me to produce a report for the late Paul Ramsay, the fruit of which is the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation on whose board we both serve; he inspired me to get involved in indigenous affairs; and he has been a constant source of encouragement and advice.
I first met Tony Abbott in 1993 when as a 17-year-old I attended the mass rally that, as Executive Director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), he had organised at the Sydney Town Hall.
ACM had been launched in the small vestibule of the Town Hall the year before but to fill the Town Hall for an ‘unfashionable’ cause was audacious.
It is a tribute to Tony’s skills as an organiser and advocate that he put together a stirring rally and gave so many of us who believed in the cause a sense of pride and a sense that we were not alone in our beliefs.
This has been the hallmark of Tony’s leadership – to take difficult or unfashionable positions, advocate for them, organise for them and give others the courage to join him on the journey.
In 2001 Tony asked me to come and work for him.
For a year I was his advisor on small business with responsibilities for helping prepare him for Question Time.
I observed two remarkable things about Tony Abbott.
First that Oxford, the priesthood and a curious mind had uniquely equipped him to be a great parliamentarian. Tony had thought deeply about where he stood on the big questions confronting Australia and the West.
Second, the discipline of writing weekly papers at Oxford and turning out daily newspaper columns meant that Tony made the writing look easy and his messages always had cut through.
Tony’s thoughts and writing found expression in his speeches.
In those days, to prepare a major speech, Tony completed a first draft and sent it around the office and to trusted friends for comment.
A substantially different draft would emerge, although I would rarely recognise any of my own suggested phrases in the speech.
This is because while Tony likes ideas, jousting and debate, he was always his own best wordsmith.
Tony is inspired by that other great writer-statesman Winston Churchill, a man who it was said ‘sent the English Language into battle’ and saved Western civilisation.
Like Churchill, Tony Abbott is a writer with a deep knowledge of history and an extraordinary imagination.
Like Tony Abbott, Churchill laboured for hours over his speeches, sucking the words in his mouth so that the combination of words in a sentence would not only carry the correct image but have an arresting impact on the listener’s ear.
How difficult must it have been for Abbott to reach the prime ministership and realise that there was simply never the time to write all his speeches himself?
Tony Abbott was a parliamentarian for almost twenty years before he had a speechwriter.
But in Paul Ritchie he made an excellent choice.
Ritchie understood how important words are to Tony Abbott as Ritchie writes:
[Tony Abbott] saw the essence of public life as shaping the debate because if you shape the debate you shape the direction of the country.
The words in the book belong to Abbott. Ritchie’s contribution is as a storyteller, providing a framework for a grand narrative and finding an important image or anecdote that inspires or crystallises the point a prime minister is trying to get across.
The book reveals various aspects of Tony Abbott’s character and achievements.
Abbott is a writer of cut-through phrases, simple language and constant contrasts, never forgetting the need to remind the listener that politics is about choices. Even when he is speaking about programs the speeches are not programmatic, they remain exercises in persuasion not laundry lists of achievements.
Abbott the philosopher — a man who brought to government a firm moral underpinning which underscored why he was serving and what he saw Australia as being. He led a government which broadened Liberal tradition, to include not just the liberal and conservative traditions but a patriotic tradition as well.
It chronicles many of the achievements of the Abbott government in areas such as economics, security, migration, industrial relations and international affairs.
Finally, it reveals Tony Abbott as a man who has made and continues to make a significant mark on Australia.
What Tony Abbott said of one of his predecessors could be equally said of him:
Whether you were for him or against him it was his vision that drove our politics then and which still echoes through our public life. …. His [is] a life full of purpose. Proof, if proof were needed, that individuals do matter and can make a lasting difference to the country they love.
Julian Leeser is the Federal Member for Berowra