Skin Deep – The Evolution of Tony Abbott

photo: Notions Capital

A lot can happen in 60 minutes. But not this time.

Last night I steeled myself to watch the latest Liz Hayes interview with Tony Abbott. Rumours – quickly denied – had been flying around, suggesting that he was about to announce his support for same sex marriage. Or at least, support a conscience vote for the Liberal Party.

But by the end, it seemed that the only major concession he had made to a less macho stance has been the adoption of a daily moisturising routine.


Almost nothing (we’ll get to the detail later) about marriage equality was broadcast, although speculation continues to swirl that he did say something which was subsequently cut. The Australian reports (emphasis is mine):

Mr Abbott was not asked during the aired part of the interview to clarify his position on gay marriage — which he has always opposed — even though his lesbian sister, Christine Forster, also appeared on the program.

Did Abbott’s minders take fright at something he said? Did the rumours spook the party grandees? I guess we’ll have to wait till someone leaks the edited portions.

I interviewed the Liberal leader three years ago, right after that first 60 Minutes chat with Liz Hayes. Judge for yourself if you think he has ‘evolved’  (as a staunch Catholic, Abbott prefers to say ‘grown’) since then.

DOUG POLLARD:  . . .  I guess there’s no point in asking you if you would support equal marriage across the country because I know what the answer’s going to be, but would you . .  would you support a federal relationships recognition act which covered the whole country, which gave us the equivalent of marriage?

TONY ABBOTT: In principle, yes. I am in favour of stable, enduring relationships. I’m in favour of people keeping their commitments to people. Now, I would be very sympathetic to some institutional arrangement which encouraged that across the board rather than in just what might be described as the more common or more traditional contexts. . . .

I would like to see a way for gay relationships to be celebrated, acknowledged and recognised but. . . .  I think that marriage is, dare I say it, between a man and a woman, hopefully for life and there are all sorts of other relationships which should be appreciated and acknowledged and recognised, but I don’t know that they can be recognised as marriage.

DOUG POLLARD: Well . . . Institute of Public Affairs has proposed a solution to this  . .  whereby the government would recognise a certain base sort of standard for a marriage contract which it would administer but religious institutions and so on and so forth would be free to create their own additional conditions on top of that and administer those marriages themselves.  . . .  that’s in line with good Liberal free market principles isn’t it?

TONY ABBOTT: Look it is and  . . .  I am open to these possibilities, but at the same time I’m also keen to defend traditional marriage as well. Now, I don’t see why the two are incompatible because, as I said, what I would like to see is a society where stable enduring relationships are encouraged, where people keep their commitments to other people. That’s what I’d like to see.

DOUG POLLARD: But you don’t really know how to go about it at this point? Other than marriage?

TONY ABBOTT: I know that in other countries there are civil unions legislation, there is domestic partnership legislation and so on. I am very happy to look at that Doug, although obviously it would have to be widely discussed in the community and it would have to be discussed within the Liberal Party and the Coalition before it could become our formal policy. . . .  the point I make is that it is a very conservative position to want to encourage stable, enduring relationships. 


Last night’s interview was silent on same-sex adoption, surrogacy and child-rearing. Three years ago he seemed to suggest that adoption was OK only if there were no ‘better’ alternatives available.

DOUG POLLARD:  . . I want to talk just briefly about adoption and surrogacy and gay couples adopting children. What’s your position on those issues?

TONY ABBOTT: I’d be cautious on this one Doug. I accept that it happens but nevertheless…

DOUG POLLARD: But you’re not enthusiastic by the sounds of things?

TONY ABBOTT: I’m not for the simple reason that I think that ideally a child should have a mother and a father. Now, if for whatever reason a mother and a father aren’t available, fine. I think it’s important that the child has people who love him or her and who are committed and are going to do the right thing by the child.

DOUG POLLARD: Which gay couples are perfectly capable of doing.

TONY ABBOTT: Absolutely right.

DOUG POLLARD: Sexuality has nothing to do with parenting ability.

TONY ABBOTT: Absolutely right.

DOUG POLLARD: There are many, many straight couples who have children by accident and treat them appallingly.

TONY ABBOTT: Exactly right. I completely agree with you. But, nevertheless in principle or ideally, I think it’s good that there be a mother and a father involved. But, I completely take your point that there is no reason why a gay couple can’t provide just as much love and affection and support as a child as any other couple.


Last night Liz Hayes revisited his infamous comment about feeling threatened by homosexuality. He now says:

LIZ HAYES: You said to me during that interview…

TONY ABBOTT: That famous interview.

LIZ HAYES: That you were a bit threatened.


LIZ HAYES: She said she was disappointed you said that.

TONY ABBOTT: Sure. When I reviewed the thing was a bit disappointed as well. What flashed through my mind, as you were questioning me, was what was going on in my own family at the time, Liz.

Now I couldn’t talk about that then because it was deeply personal and deeply private. But certainly, they were very tough times for our family, hence my comment, because the cohesion of our family was threatened at that time. But I’m pleased to say that we’re all in a better space now than we were then.

Three years ago when I interviewed him on Joy 94.9 he had a different explanation (click on the link for a full transcript). Interview with Doug Pollard, Joy 94.9

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah look it was a poor choice of words. Look, I think blokes of my generation and upbringing do sometimes find these things a bit confronting. Anything that’s different can be a bit challenging, but the truth is that as we get older we mellow, we appreciate that homosexuality is a fact of life. People close to me are gay and I’d like to think that it hasn’t made me love them any the less or treat them differently. . . . . .

DOUG POLLARD: Well, one of the things that has been brought up again and again by listeners  . . . who’d like to know if you’re feeling threatened by any other subcultures? Would you have felt free to say the same kind of thing, for example, about Muslims or Jews or blacks or whatever?

TONY ABBOTT: Don’t forget, Doug, that, you know, I’m a 52 year-old bloke from a fairly traditional background. I imbibed orthodox Catholic  . . . . . teaching in my youth and it takes time to I suppose come to a more balanced and nuanced understanding of these things, but, look, as I said, I have a number of gay people who are very close to me and without wanting to pretend that I am perfect, or that I will never again be guilty of sensitivity crimes, I do think Doug that I am pretty good at taking people as I find them however surprised I might sometimes be by different aspects of their life.

DOUG POLLARD: You see the problem with using the word ‘threatened’ is that you’re quite right, a lot of men of your generation do express a feeling of threat in the presence of homosexuality; the trouble is they tend to act on that feeling of threat with violence and in a sense what you said could be seen as legitimising that reaction.

TONY ABBOTT: No, absolutely not. I mean, however surprised or even dismayed we might be about things that are not things we’re familiar with, it is an absolute obligation on all of us to treat people with fairness, with decency, with acceptance, and ultimately the point that I make is that I do have a number of people who are very close to me who are gay and I’d be…

DOUG POLLARD: Tony, this is the old you know ‘some of my best friends are gay’ defence, isn’t it?

TONY ABBOTT: …and it sounds like a terrible cliché and the last thing I want to do is name them on the programme  . . . and look Michael Kirby has been a friend and at times a bit of a mentor to me. Christopher Pearson has been a very, very close friend of mine for a long, long time now and then there are others of course who would probably prefer not to be named but the truth is that don’t hang me, please, Doug for an ill-chosen word…

Later in the same interview he said:

TONY ABBOTT:  . . .  don’t assume I don’t know gay people.…and don’t assume that there is caricature in my mind that is entirely represented by some of the floats on the Mardi Gras. I mean, that’s not my position.


Another issue that hasn’t gone away in the last three years: how far his Catholicism will dictate his policy if he becomes PM. Reviewing his past statements, he certainly gives the impression that what Rome says Monday, Tony does Tuesday. Liz Hayes raised this in the context of abortion.

LIZ HAYES: I think it’s because you’ve been so outspoken in some of the sensitive areas that makes women distrust whether or not you will invoke your own religious beliefs when it comes to policy-making. Can you guarantee us that that won’t happen?

TONY ABBOTT: Yes, I can, Liz. Faith is important to me. It’s important to millions of Australians. It helps to shape who I am. It helps to shape my values. But it must never, never dictate my politics. Judge me by what the considered view today is, not by throwaway lines and offhand comments 35 years ago.

Here’s what he had to say three years ago: this time he and I were discussing his faith in the context of his attitudes to homosexuality. Knowing what we know now, I’m guessing he might not want to be judged today on the basis of his “offhand comments” about Cardinal George Pell.

DOUG POLLARD: The other thing that makes people perhaps in our community a little bit nervous of you is your religion, your close association in particular with Cardinal Pell and the kind of things that come out of people like Cardinal Pell and Pope Benedict about gays and lesbians and about the gay and lesbian community. We’ve been called intrinsically disordered, evil, various other things and you make no secret of the fact that you take counsel from people like Cardinal Pell in the course of your everyday life.

TONY ABBOTT: Doug, look could I make two points. The first is that George Pell is a vastly more compassionate man than is normally the stereotype. He is a very pastoral priest and I can personally say that I have taken issues to him in my own life and had a very compassionate and considered response that isn’t just a throw the catechism at it kind of response.

Now, sure, as the Archbishop, he’s got to reiterate the Catholic teaching but I don’t think anyone should think that they would get anything other than a warm, human response from George Pell the man . . . .

. . . . the other point, Doug, I should make is of course the traditional teaching of the church is often expressed in ways which people find alienating and I don’t like that any more than you do. . . . . I don’t think the church is out there to judge and condemn, or it shouldn’t be out there to judge and condemn, it should be out there to help and to liberate and that I think is the proper conception of Christianity.


But to return to his ‘evolution’ on equal marriage. The only thing that was broadcast last night was this, talking about arguments with his lesbian sister, Christine Forster.

”We’ve had quite a few discussions about [same-sex marriage], obviously. And I’m pleased to say that they’ve been good-humoured and respectful. She vigorously disagrees with me and she hopes that at some future point in time the Coalition party room might take a different position.”

Abbott apologists were quick to grab onto this as indicating that he might support a conscience vote, but it’s thin stuff.

On the basis of last night’s effort, I’d have to say the ‘evolution’ of Tony Abbott seems to run little deeper than the hair product and facial moisturiser he now admits to using.

So, was Abbott convincing on 60 Minutes? A poll taken during the show indicated that most people couldn’t spot much change in this leopard’s coat. Judge for yourself:

The Joy 94.9 Interview: listen here

The 60 Minutes interview 

Chrys Stevenson’s earlier analysis of Abbott.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)