Abbott-Watch: macho moments more important than basic consideration

Paraphrasing a comment I just made at LP: The “shit happens” comment is revealing despite being a media “gotcha” beatup, and what it reveals isn’t pretty.

Mr Abbott has a pattern of metaphorical chest-beating, of being seen to be “one of the boys”. It has led him to several missteps in the public eye over the years, where he seems to value, repeatedly, the momentary gratification of machismo solidarity gestures above other considerations one would expect a political leader to place more to the front of his concerns.

Surely such anxiety to gain the approval of manly men is an obvious weakness when it provokes him to place faux-stoic posturing in front of men he will probably never meet again before the dignified compassion expected of a potential national leader. For a start, which attitude do you think the military men in question would actually respect more, let alone the particular soldier’s family?

There’s now interviews with family friends saying that Abbott was properly compassionate at the funeral, so this bit of dialogue with the soldiers isn’t important.

But this is precisely my point: of course he was appropriately compassionate at the funeral, with all those ritual expectations. But at the moment when he should have had a proper empathic human reaction, when first learning of1 discussing the death of another human being, he thought it was more important to minimise it in order to look emotionally tough, and he thought this was the most appropriate response to display to men who could imagine themselves dying in exactly the same way.

That’s absolutely fundamentally obtuse insensitivity, and he does it over and over and over again.

1. Correction: the soldier’s death was already known, and the discussion with the commander was about the events surrounding it, and whywhether expected support had been in place or not – Abbott and other opposition politicians were at the time running a line that Australian soldiers were inadequately resourced/supported. (edited for clarity 2011-02-13)

Categories: language, media, parties and factions

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16 replies

  1. Good point, tigtog.

  2. Thanks, Laura: I can’t help but remember the quadbike adventure as another example of macho posturing.
    Note to all: I’ve changed the original “tone-deaf” to “obtuse” in final sentence of the post, because (a) I was uncomfortable with the potential for able-ism, and (b) I think it’s more accurate anyway, because actual tone-deafness is not something anybody can help, whereas it’s common for people to be wilfully obtuse, which is, IMO, more likely to be the case with Abbott.

  3. Jeremy Sear at Pure Poison sees it a bit differently:

    But the way the remarks themselves have been reported is extremely dodgy. Abbott was not saying that he didn’t care if the soldier died – he was saying it wasn’t the fault of other soldiers, that they didn’t fail to provide support, that the death was just one of those incredibly tragic things that happen in war. He was talking to adults who know perfectly well that war is dangerous, and adults who have in fact bravely accepted the real risk of death or serious injury – not children who think war’s a matter of popping overseas, pressing some buttons and then coming home unscathed. He was supporting them. The context is obviously completely different from how it’s being portrayed by the hacks – as you can tell from the reaction of the soldiers around Abbott when he speaks.
    Yet it is this, not Tony and his party’s actual dodgy policies, that our commentators speculate is going to damage Abbott’s leadership the most. This expression of understanding of the soldiers’ plight is more newsworthy and more damaging than a national leader campaigning against wealthy Australians paying a flood levy to help their fellow country men and women rebuild their communities.

    I suspect there is something to this interpretation, that Abbott could have been attempting to be sympathetic and supportive rather then just doing the macho thing. It still strikes me as a ham-fistedly insensitive way to word it – what might work as shorthand amongst comrades in arms sounds odd, very odd, coming from one of the suits who sends them into danger.

  4. Having watched both videos I think I agree with Jeremy, Abbott was trying to be supportive and just did it very badly. I think what he meant was that despite all the gear and all the soldiers being there that day, as the General had just said, this soldier tragically died and sometimes there is nothing that could have changed the outcome. But ‘shit happens’ is for when you are telling an anecdote at a BBQ not for public appearances with cameras.
    The video of him being interviewed by Mark Riley is unsettling. Apparently the ABC footage, which I saw on their website, edited the silence and shaking down to 24 seconds when it went on for over a minute. I’m not sure whether Abbott is angry that someone dared ask him or whether he just wants to lash out. Either way he looks to be a very angry man. I find myself in the strange position of feeling sorry for him because I don’t think, at this time, that he is going to end up where he wants to be [presumably] in the PM’s seat. If this is what we are seeing in front of the cameras, what are his party seeing behind closed doors? I think he is under a lot of stress, the media is starting to turn on him because there is a hint of blood in the water – why now there’s been ample opportunity before? And I think he is having trouble coping with the unwanted attention. Gillard has been dealing with this rubbish for a long time and still is, but it seems that when the tables turn Abbott isn’t prepared and at the moment struggling to cope.
    I think now is the wrong moment for Turnbull to step in, I think he needs to let Joe Hockey try and fail first before coming to the rescue.

    • One Trevor, commenting on LP, has another take again:

      The ch 7 reporter who conducted the interview has rebutted the “ambush” claim. He says that he briefed TA’s minders 2.5 hours before the interview on what would be presented, gave them transcripts of what had been recorded and specifically told them he would be asking about the “shit happens” quote.
      It appears his spinners gave TA the defence of claiming it was “out of context”. Tony probably thought that would do and he could then scarper. When challenged about how it was out of context as the allegation was not about being uncaring it was about dismissing so easily the claim that American support was not available when it should have been. Tony was flummoxed, didn’t have a pre prepared answer. The wheels were grinding slowly & his reflex was to punch the guy out, but he knew that would not be a good look.

      Challenging Abbott on “dismissing so easily the claim that American support was not available when it should have been” is a more than fair line of attack, given the record of Australian politicians (both sides of the aisle) cravenly kowtowing to the Yanks. It’s an obvious fact that our elected representatives have no stomach, ever, for questioning the USA line on military matters. No wonder he couldn’t come up with anything to say.

      I think now is the wrong moment for Turnbull to step in, I think he needs to let Joe Hockey try and fail first before coming to the rescue.

      Am now seeing Turnbull and Hockey as Chip and Dale: “After you.” “No! After you.”

  5. But at the moment when he should have had a proper empathic human reaction, when first learning of the death of another human being, he thought it was more important to minimise it in order to look emotionally tough,

    Thats not the context he said those remarks in though. It has sort of been portrayed in the media that way – eg he found out a soldier died and then said “shit happens”. But instead the comment came well after the soldier’s death and the solider he had been talking to explained what had happened, even admitting that mistakes (which are inevitably going to happen in war) had been made.

    • Thanks, Chris – I’ve come to realise that as I’ve read a bit more. Will amend the post.
      I still think it was an insensitive choice, to use soldier’s language as if he was one of them in this situation, and I still think it stems from some anxious masculinity issues. But I no longer think it was quite so superficial as the sentence you quote suggests.

  6. tigtog – I think his comment can be seen from at least a couple of viewpoints
    – referring to the solider’s death in which case it could be seen as trivialising it, even if not intended to be interpreted in that way
    – referring to the mistakes that were made and an attempt to reassure/empathise with the people he was talking to. eg yea mistakes were made, but thats understandable, no one’s perfect you shouldn’t feel bad about it, etc…
    And although it may be language soldiers use, its the sort of thing Abbott says all the time, even in public. Eg. re Costello criticising the then PM Howard he said:

    ”Not to put too fine a point on it – shit happens … we just have to cope,” he told ABC Television last night.

    Its perhaps not the sort of language we expect from an opposition leader/potential PM. But it is Abbott.

  7. Pompous as it sounds I think we need a PM with a sense of appropriateness for the occassion. Keating had it and remember (those of you old enough) the stir when he called the Malaysian PM ‘recalcitrant’? Howard had it, even if he did come across as a bit stiff and buttoned up, Rudd had it, Julia has it but I’m not sure Abbott does. Could you imagine the scandal if he said “shit happens” to the leader of another country? I can imagine him doing it too.

  8. Mindy – I agree with you though I think we’d have much bigger problems if Abbott were PM. And can however imagine Hawke saying something like that 🙂

  9. Fascinating topic tigtog, thanks for bringing it to the blog.

  10. I completely agree with what Jeremy says — the problem is with flippant policy not flippant remarks.
    For me, I don’t like TA’s macho demeanour, but that registers more on the ‘I don’t want to hang out with him’ scale, which is not really relevant to the consideration of how I want the country to be run. Just for example, I don’t like his ‘direct action’ policy on climate change, which smacks of pure head-in-the-sand denial of reality. I find that directly relevant to how I want the country run.

  11. This is spot on. I wish I were so eloquent and good at making such a nuanced argument!

  12. @Mindy, I’m sure you didn’t mean to do this, but you just referred to all the male PMs by their last names and the feamle PM by her first name…
    @tigtog, I think your correction is a little confusing – the comment was actually made inthe context of their being * no * suggestion that there was inadequte support in place, as the Age article made clear “Part of this conversation between Abbott and the military was broadcast on Tuesday night by the Seven Network. The vision showed Abbott having to climb down from an implication that insufficient resources played a role in the death of a soldier. ” (sorry, can’t post link as am working off ipad and could only copy one thing at once – it comes up in top results when I google tony abbott shit happens comment)

  13. @ Rebekka- Oh noes! I think I just failed Feminism 101.

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