Prime Minister Tony Abbott: Scholar or Sciolist?


To many of us, Tony Abbott presents as a simple-minded man, one easily satirised as a budgie-smuggling buffoon, safer to all on a bicycle seat than the seat of power.

Yet he is a Rhodes Scholar. His political behaviour may deserve a harsh critique, depending on your viewpoint. But what about his intellect?

The most curious question is this: Why does Tony Abbott, the successful Oxford graduate, appear so intellectually limited?

I read Abbott’s 2009 book Battlelines to see if I could make some sense of him. Much of it reinforced my disagreements with him politically. However, looking beyond the content of his views, what stood out to me was how he had developed them.

I learned a lot about his intellect, most particularly his approach to logical argument, decision-making, reasoning and science. My conclusion is that Tony Abbott’s intellectual development is better than many give him credit for, but fundamentally and deeply flawed.

To my surprise, Battlelines is an eloquently written thesis that is accessible to the reader. The fluent prose and deceptively smooth reasoning suggest an intelligence not on show publicly. So much so that his former colleague, Tony Staley, described it as “the essential manifesto for the thinking Liberal”.

I now recognise Abbott’s intellect as well enough developed to advance a seemingly reasoned argument that will convince like-minded people.

Unfortunately, Abbott’s persuasiveness has developed alongside a gaping hole. Using the evidence of his own words it is time to call out the intellectual imbalance.

Despite his fluid reasoning, honed by an Oxford education, Tony Abbott lacks the grounding of rational, evidence-based thought.

By way of evidence, I submit the following quote from Battlelines, a statement that, when I read it (through the eyes of a trained (social) scientist), simply took my breath away.

“To a conservative, intuition is as important as reasoning; instinct as important as intellect.”

Once I recovered from the shock I realised that, despite his years at Oxford, Abbott betrays an anti-intellectual bent, specifically a fundamental lack of understanding of the difference between research-based fact and opinion. I see this as the heart of his intellectual limits.

Opinion and intuition will always be part of anyone’s decision-making. But leaders decide on behalf of others. There must be room not only for clear reasoning, but for a strong basis for understanding the facts beyond one’s own experience. The greatest tool in this regard is science.

Despite his ability to effectively link words into reasoned arguments, Abbott fails to found his assertions on a scientific footing. Instead, he imposes an extremely personalised ‘instinctive’ view of everything, in my view to the detriment of us all.

In the first chapter of Battlelines, Abbott provides biographical detail in an open and laudable attempt to inform readers of his development. He describes a three-pillared conservative platform that he cherishes: the traditional family, the church, and all things English (labelling himself “an incorrigible Anglophile”).

He then states: “There is much about Australia I would like to change, but not its fundamentals. How could I, given the extent to which it has made me what I am?”

He then goes on to posit the conservative view that nothing should change if it has “stood the test of time”.

Later, in typical black and white fashion, Abbott asserts that anti-conservative forces are driven by “a fascination with what is new”, while disparagingly describing his university experiences battling “the ‘land rights for gay whales’ type of activist”.

Clearly his views are based on a highly personal experience of what works, fed by associated prejudices, rather than an openness to broader understandings.

Had Abbott been born in a different era, the same instinctive/intuitive processes could have been used to defend pre-Copernican understandings of the universe, slavery or denial of women’s suffrage.

Another strong instinct expressed by Abbott is his belief in his own leadership credentials, encouraged by his Jesuit school teachers who taught he was “born for higher things”.

It defined a narrow focus later on: “At Oxford I had again been asking myself how I could best exercise leadership”.

I could have accepted this as an outcome of other learning, and hence a broader motivation to lead, had he not, in the same chapter, admitted that he had no wider interests: “legal philosophy courses were the only ones, I’m now sorry to say, that I didn’t approach in the intellectually corrosive spirit of ‘tell us what we need to know to pass the exam’”.

Sorry? Aren’t we all!

My main sorrow is that, although he goes into great detail about his influences, the word ‘science’ is not mentioned at all. Instead, Abbott writes glowingly of teachers who “insisted on receiving their students’ own views in essays, not regurgitated quotes from the reading list”.

Without any exposure to research methods, Tony Abbott, the Oxford graduate, retains the common, but flawed undergraduate view that essays are based on opinion alone.

So now we have a Prime Minister, educated at one of the most esteemed universities in the world, who consciously bases his political decisions on “intuition” and “instinct” and the associated influences of his own peculiar upbringing and the people he admires.

Any attempt at critical reasoning is hamstrung by inflexible, dogmatic views that are never open to question.

In Battlelines, there are many unsubstantiated assertions. Where “evidence” is provided it is via like-minded opinions or low-rigour studies from cherry-picked sources.

Abbott’s subsequent reasoning trail is sound, making it easy for those who agree with his beliefs to overlook the shakiness of his unquestioned starting point.

The most well-known public example of Abbott’s unsupported statements is his famous comment that climate change is “crap”. In Battlelines, he claims to have shifted his view to acceptance, but he fails to convince. Nowhere does he give any indication that he is capable of understanding such an issue. And so the traction he gave to deniers remains.

Scientific thinking is about rigour. It has to be objectively learned and it accepts that all conclusions are both evidence-based and open to question.

By contrast, “instinct” and “intuition” develop as personal habits with inherent biases based on unsubstantiated assertions.

I accept Tony Abbott has a right to his opinions, no matter how often I disagree. I also applaud his decision to put them in writing before his rise to power. I wish more politicians would do so.

What I cannot accept are the blinkered, simplistic views that have been derived by ignorance of the research process, and the artificial ‘battlelines’ that have arisen as a result.

As fun as it might be to label Abbott the ‘Mad Monk’ or laugh at cartoons of him in ‘budgie-smugglers’, I’d prefer to take his intellect seriously.

He is not plain stupid, but he is intellectually incomplete. As such I judge him as wrong for the role of Prime Minister. I’d rather a real scholar in charge.

* Ralph Cullen is a psychologist. He lives in rural NSW.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.