Home > News, Society > On the Frances Abbott Affair

On the Frances Abbott Affair

I thought I’d comment on a political story that had emerged recently here in Australia wherein Prime Minister Tony Abbott is being forced to answer embarrassing questions about whether or not he used his influence to expedite the accreditation of a school attended by his daughter Frances. The school in question, the Whitehouse Institute of Design, is a private vocational establishment in Surry Hills, a gentrified suburb of inner Sydney known for its fashion.

The main thrust of the story is that the owner and director of the school, a close friend of the Abbotts, awarded Frances a one-off scholarship worth $60,000. This scholarship is not advertised, not regularly awarded, not open to applicants and conferred only at the discretion of the managing director. Ms Abbott received it after a single one-on-one interview between herself and said managing director and no announcement of any kind was made about the award.

In Australia, politicians are expected to disclose all gifts and donations they and their families may receive as a result of their positions in order to provide transparency to the public. A politician may be invited to attend a movie premiere or gala and such a thing might be declared. However, if a benefit is earned, say a political scion is paid a bonus at work or wins a competition, it need not be declared. This is only fair. After all, the proceeds of their own hard work is their own business.

The scandal then in this case, all stems from Mr Abbott’s failure to declare the scholarship. When the story broke, the Prime Minister’s office held to the line that the scholarship was earned and thus did not need declaring. Opponents in turn say that it was given in the course of lobbying by Whitehouse and accuse Mr Abbott of having a conflict of interest, especially in light of proposed sweeping changes to the way higher learning institutions are funded.

It seems to me that such accusations and insinuations are overblown. The director of Whitehouse probably saw in young Ms Abbott an opportunity to greatly enhance the prestige of her school at minimal cost to her bottom line. Counting among your alumni a child of the most actively powerful man in Australian politics is no small thing. That it would ingratiate her to the Abbott family on a personal level was, I’m sure, just a valuable bonus.

Much of the story sounds like people doing favours for their friends, something that happens all the time. Far from being frowned upon in private life, it is positively encouraged by many as the primary way to get ahead in life. Among business owners, this can take the form of discounted or gratis services, preferential hiring/promoting and referrals to/contact with other prosperous or influential people.

This kind of favoritism (dare I say nepotism?), while understandable and commonplace, has the effect of accruing these unearned personal benefits at the top. The list of rich people’s friends tends not to include many people on the dole, after all. This is fine on an individual moral level, but bad for society as a whole if you believe that equal opportunity is a public good.

Which is why this behaviour, which is perfectly acceptable in the private sector, is abhorred by the public when exhibited by politicians. The Commonwealth exists for and belongs to all of us, not just those who were born into the right families, attended the right schools, live in the right postcode or have the right hobbies and priorities. Fitting the correct mould should not, by definition, be a prerequisite for fair treatment in a just society. People who presume to legislate and control the public purse strings are held to a higher standard for just this reason.

I’ll be honest, to me it doesn’t look as though there was intent on the part of Mr Abbott to grant Whitehouse any kind of preferential treatment and I don’t think any evidence of such actions will be found. That doesn’t mean that Mr Abbott hasn’t failed multiple times to live up to the standards expected of a public servant, let alone the office of Prime Minister.

I couldn’t tell you if this is a scandal fit to bring down a government. My gut says no, that it lacks substance and will blow over in a month or so, though not before causing untold embarrassment to the Abbott family and especially the young woman at the centre of this furor. The fact is however that it looks bad, and looking bad, from a political point of view, can be just as corrosive to public trust as being guilty.

What rankles me the most about this is the sheer hypocrisy. At a time when the government proposes to deregulate tuition fees, impose real interest to HECS/HELP loans (government-provided student loans hitherto interest free and linked to inflation alone) and gut the welfare schemes that allow many students to study in the first place, the child of the man presiding over these changes gets her degree for free and for no other reason than because the director of the school likes her. It’s appalling and flies in the face of the personal responsibility mantra the Abbott government preaches.

Liberal Party ideology sees the world split between the ordinary and the excellent. The excellent, as they see it, have an outsized role in driving the engine of society and it is only just, they believe, that they should get to accrue as much of society’s rewards as they can get their hands on. Similarly, the ordinary, making less of a contribution, are thus deserving of less. This is why high taxes are bad – they take money from the pockets of the excellent. This is also why welfare is bad – it puts money in the pockets of the undeserving.

That those who see the world this way and would count themselves among the excellent get such an unearned head start on the rest of society and do it so unapologetically puts a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who has had to work their way through university or carries an unpaid student debt into their 30s (and following fee deregulation, their 40s). Life isn’t fair, obviously, but public life should be about doing as much as possible to make it fairer.

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