BY James Murray


R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism demonstrates that opposition to laissez-faire markets was not confined to the Left but inspired opposition that had religious origins. The Papal, social-justice encyclicals, starting with Rerum Novarum (1891), were the basis of the Higgins Harvester Judgement, Charter of Fair Go Australia

IF YOU WONDER how we got to where we are on the shifting sands of political correctness (and who doesn’t) this book is for you. Gerard Charles Wilson, author of Prison Hulk to Redemption (2015) is the kind of biographer who is a more interesting than his hero Tony Abbott (see James Boswell, Laird of Auchinleck and Sam Johnson, Doctor of Bolt Court, off Fleet Street).

In a Stakhanovite feat of mining the archives of Sydney University’s student newspaper Honi Soit, Wilson has won the material for the road that took us to those shifting sands (Qattara Depression?).

The road is no Gun Barrel Highway; it meanders through 1973-80 in a style possibly less exciting to outsiders than to participants, not the least, Malcolm Turnbull, living his ancestral legend by turning the Marxist bull of left-wing Honi Soit mongers on themselves.

Indeed, it could be argued that Wilson is less than fair to Turnbull who acted before Tony Abbott made the scene. By invoking Abbott’s name, has Wilson hitched his wagon to a falling star? Not Pygmalion-likely. Abbott is fearless according to his friend Greg Sheridan, now Foreign Editor of The Australian.

Wilson cites many names, but it is fair to say that he exceeds their total in his references to Abbott and his book Battlelines (2009). Your reviewer edits all the quotations down to: ‘In the real world, good doesn’t always triumph and justice doesn’t always prevail. Even the best turn out to have their flaws. Despite that, ideals don’t cease to matter because they’re never perfectly achieved or because their adherents are compromised.’

On Abbott’s alleged, yet celebrated, 1977 Wall Punching episode involving a rival student-politician Barbara Ramjan, Wilson presents two takes. Admittedly, his second concerns crucial differences in reports about the alleged episode. However, he could, with benefit to his readers, have edited the takes together. For his part, your reviewer does not believe the reports that Abbott, a boxer, would, or could, have thrown, two, bare-fist punches at a brick wall. Fibre board, maybe; brick, no way.

The reports include those of the perfervid David Marr. In 2012, he broke the Wall Punching story in his Quarterly Essay, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott – that is, 35 years after the alleged episode, an interval that may qualify the story for the Grub Street category, ‘Old enough to be new.’

Certainly, compared to Richard Neville, super nova of Wilson’s revolutionary galaxy, Marr is a staid old boy of Shore – Sydney Church of England Grammar School – as is the cooler, more incisive Richard Ackland, both lawyer-journos.

Neville’s schtik, rather than agitprop, was Play Power, an amalgam of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll with additives: self-described intercourse with an underage girl and an ABC show where pederasts promoted their inclination. Neville had secured the tag Futurist when he died demented in 2016, mourned by many, among them, Geoffrey Robertson, Sergeant Buzfuz to Neville’s Artful Dodger in obscenity court proceedings.

Throughout his anti-bourgeois travails, here and elsewhere, Neville retained possession of an inherited haven in the Blue Mountains, an arrangement not uncommon for prosperous left-wingers: why not a cushy billet until the objective is won and everybody has such a billet?

Wilson’s work conjures scenes of high intensity where the main bone (jawbone?) of contention is whether a separate department of political economy (Marxist) should be established. This with other left-right alarums and excursions, petty and obscene, inspires recall of Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise; in it, Connolly argued that the feats of Eton made life’s later achievements minor. His is an argument that could be extended to cover all Australian university activities conducted in an antic spirit that continues to inspire perpetrators when they become State, Territory and Federal MPs.

Too much? Consider the recent casualty rate of Australian Prime Ministers, a bi-partisan phenomenon set to increase no matter the result of the imminent federal election.

Student politics seem destined to increase their sway over mainstream politics as graduates join State, Territory and Federal Parliaments, first as staffers to prepare for MP fast-tracking. As MPs they find themselves under the scrutiny of graduates who opted for journalism and are more keen to be players than the reporters who came by way of country newspapers or metro-cadetships.

In the context of preferential voting, this not a factor for respect or balance though it may produce mutually beneficial leaks. Specifically, two casualties Abbott (who fast tracked) and Turnbull (who reportedly begged for a Labor seat) exemplify the wastage. Amid classic Menzies-style, Liberal-Conservative social politics, they could have been Roland and Oliver (Wilson’s chivalric taste is catching).

Instead as incumbent PMs they distrusted each other, forgetful of the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu’s sage dictum, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’

In Media Matters, your reviewer urged Abbott to put Turnbull in charge of a banking-industry task force. Had he done so, reform might have come sooner. The dreadnought Hayne Royal Commission has made its recommendations. Bankers and others appear to be reacting like octopuses: retreating behind a cloud of ink or soppy TV advertisements where you expect to see a benign bank manager in a moth-eaten cardigan.

Similarly, if Turnbull, after reflection, had appointed Abbott Minister for Indigenous Welfare with Cabinet rank, Turnbull might still be PM. Too late? Not when a party of the centre that will hold is an absolute necessity. Impossible?

Former enemies but fellow Catholics, Konrad Adenauer and Charles De Gaulle knelt together in 1962 at a Mass for peace in Reims Cathedral. With another Mass at Cologne Cathedral, this helped to stabilise Europe for the long campaign that ended Soviet hegemony over its satellites, Poland, Hungary, the Baltic States and East Germany, an ending symbolised in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Papal statements and documents inspired the Adenauer-De Gaulle entente, not least Pope Pius Xl’s Divina Redemptoris: On Atheistic Communism (1937), judiciously quoted by Wilson.

For Abbott and Turnbull, the precedent is clear: both are Catholics, both have shown Labor leanings (in Abbott’s case, a datum that Wilson, himself a graduate of Sydney University, reveals). Again, there is a clear precedent: the Democratic Labor Party, on the right side of Cold War history, perhaps because it attracted what Kim Beazley (Senior) called ‘the cream of the working class’ as distinct from ‘the scum of the middle class’.

Wilson’s major over-emphasis is that Capitalism is totally congruent with Western Civilisation, a dubious proposition. In a master’s display, he evokes Edmund Burke’s political philosophy and summarises Karl Marx’s economics. He implies that Abbott may be the last of Australia’s Burkean MPs, but does not refer to Marx’s charge that the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries provided the base means (pun intended) for English capitalism.

R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism demonstrates that opposition to laissez-faire markets was not confined to the Left but inspired opposition that had religious origins. The papal, social-justice encyclicals, starting with Rerum Novarum (1891), were the basis of the Higgins Harvester Judgement Charter of Fair Go Australia.

The work is without an index, an odd omission for an author with considerable experience of publishing, and one whose work contains a shower of droppable names: Susan Mitchell, Michael Duffy, Germaine Greer, Bob Gould, Bruce Williams, David Patch.

The misprint quota? Your reviewer, fearful of the infliction, is hesitant to mention it; despite Spellchecker misprints are seemingly inseparable from digital setting. Wilson’s work may not necessarily commend itself to left-wing Honi Soitistes, but it should be on the library shelves of all Catholic universities and senior schools for its corrective attitude to the student politics of the last century and this one.

It is an attitude that must prevail as the quasi-religion of Chinese Marxism uses capitalism’s tool to subvert Western civilisation while Islamists attempt a similar enterprise using a mix of democratic slogans – and terror, political correctness, itself an ersatz religion, being an aid to both.

And always worth remembering the wisdom of the ancients: ‘Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.’

JAMES MURRAY is a Sydney-based writer whose career includes ten years in Fleet Street, and contributions to Australia’s major publications. He writes Annals film reviews and is the author of our ever-popular Media Matters.

Writer … and still in the fifties