‘Mean news’ into ‘Nice News’: The case of Tony Abbott


At The Philosophers’ Mail, we scour the world’s media to pick out stories that are mean and then endeavour to turn them into stories that are nice.

The point isn’t to be sentimental or naively cheerful. We’re being ‘nice’ with a purpose: to get to the truth. Meanness merely confirms prejudice. Niceness is a better scalpel.


Tony Abbott, the conservative Prime Minister of Australia since September 2013, was elected with a comfortable majority but since he has started in his job, he has been coming in for some vitriolic, in some cases apoplectic criticism of his abilities in the media.

At Davos, he declared that ‘profit is good’ and has reduced government support to the ailing car industry in Australia. He is sceptical about climate change. He has taken a hard line on border protection and he’s unenthusiastic about same sex-marriage.

This is what the critics have said:

The Guardian has judged him ‘politically incorrect to the point of dementia’. According to the New Statesman, Abbot represents ‘politics at it’s most crass, exploitative and disturbing.’ UK Labour MP Paul Flynn called him a ‘bigoted airhead’. The LA Times called itself ‘scandalised’ by his prejudices. The Sydney Morning Herald said Tony Abbott had plumbed ‘new lows in government decency’. Le Monde thinks he is sexist and vulgar. And for the Huffington Post, he is simply ‘an idiot’.

We suggest being nicer and consider where the man is coming from:

Tony Abbott may be foolish in a hundred ways, but he is sincerely and deeply devoted to the well being of Australia.

What marks him out as distinctive is the nature of his worries. First and foremost, he is worried
about his nation becoming weak in a competitive world. So he doesn’t like the idea of Australian businesses being subsidised by the government in any way. He’s afraid that they will only need more and more support as time goes on. In his eyes, profit is a sign that you are making efficiently things that people want to buy.

At the same time, Abbott is very cautious about social change. He takes the view that if things are working reasonably well, it might be best to simply let them continue, rather than to tinker with the machine and risk damaging it in unforeseen ways. When Abbott defends traditional marriage, its not because he explicitly wishes to make gay couples unhappy – even if that is the result.

Then he’s worried about the dissipation of his nation’s resources. He doesn’t warm to the idea that just anyone can come to the country, without first gaining permission. That’s not because he hates the people who wish to come to Australia. But he worries that if he welcomes a few, millions will be encouraged to follow. It’s the outlook of someone who is conscious that good intentions can lead to a problem getting out of hand.

The wisdom of Abbott’s political views are very easy to dispute. He is clearly wrong or blind in many areas. Being nice to him has nothing to do with agreeing with any of his policies. Actually, it is when we disagree with democratic leaders that we have most need to treat them with respect.

Abbott has clearly connected in a powerful way with large sections of the Australian electorate. Otherwise he could never have been elected Prime Minister. So any disagreement is not so much with him as an individual, but with the millions of people who think he is basically OK, makes some good points and roughly shares their values.

To call him an idiot, stupid, evil, selfish, arrogant or sexist is really to attack those who voted for him. It naturally makes those people defensive and upset. And therefore less likely to change their minds.

Being nasty thrills those who are already very annoyed. But it doesn’t persuade those on the other side, who are the people you need to reach if you want things to be different.

Niceness isn’t agreement. It is connected to persuasion. Being nice shows you can recognise (and sympathise) with where others are coming from. And only if you appreciate that can you understand
the road they might realistically take to where you think they should be.

Nastiness springs from the natural impulse to be angry with people who we think are in the wrong. It’s the cousin of physical aggression: if you don’t agree I’ll beat you up. That was the only option for much of human history. It’s a natural instinct. But today it is counter-productive. Those who dislike Tony Abbott the most have the most to gain from being, in a calculated and intelligently empathetic way, ‘nicer’ to him and the Australia that produced him.