There are two things that need to be said about Tony Abbott’s alleged assault this week.
The first is that, if proven, the behaviour is totally unacceptable. No-one should be subjected to violence, or even the threat of violence. That’s why it’s against the law.
The second point is that even though Tony Abbott didn’t deserve to be assaulted – because no-one ever deserves violence – he is at least partially responsible for what happened.
That’s because Mr Abbott helped to create the hyper-partisan and aggressive political environment that we have today; an environment that encouraged his assailant to think it was okay to physically hurt the former prime minister of Australia.
Granted, the nation has experienced outbursts of political aggression before. We’ve had marches in the streets and riots on the steps of Parliament. We’ve even had a prime minister whose rhetorical attacks continue to be admired and celebrated today.
But those were pockets of antagonism and rage. These days, political aggression seems to have infiltrated our everyday lives. We see it too often in the hostile treatment of minorities on the street and on public transport, the hate-speech that is amplified through talkback radio and tabloid television, and the abuse that masquerades as comments on Twitter and Facebook.
How did we get to this point? Well, with a great deal of assistance from Mr Abbott.
From the time he became opposition leader in 2009, Mr Abbott ran the most sustained negative campaign ever seen in modern Australian political history. That campaign encouraged Liberal supporters to emulate their leader, particularly when it came to denigrating the prime minister at the time, Julia Gillard.
Instead of taking the moral high ground when those supporters went too far, Mr Abbott appeared to revel in their attacks, even standing in front of abusive anti-Gillard placards to address a carbon tax rally.
Mr Abbott also did little to rein in his tabloid radio supporters, even after Alan Jones said Ms Gillard should be tied in a chaff bag and dumped at sea. It was only after Mr Jones told a private Liberal Party function that the PM’s father had died of shame because of the lies his daughter had told that Mr Abbott was forced to join the public condemnation of his supporter’s remarks.
Of course, Mr Abbott’s aggressiveness – and implied encouragement of aggressive behaviour – did not dissipate once he became prime minister.
Not long after the abysmal 2014 budget, perhaps to demonstrate that he was prepared to give as good as he got from critical journalists, the PM regaled the media with an anecdote about his days playing rugby.
“Sometimes you’ve got to throw a punch to be the best and fairest”, was the apparent point of the story.
Mr Abbott also took an increasingly pugnacious stance on national security, all but blaming Australian Muslims for not doing enough about home-grown extremists, vowing to shirt-front Vladmir Putin over Russia’s involvement in the shooting down of MH17 (but then welching on the promise), and threatening Senate crossbenchers with a double dissolution if they would not cooperate on government legislation.
History may tell, however, that Mr Abbott did the most damage to the fabric of Australia’s society in defence of democracy and freedom of speech.
By creating the expectation that all Australians were entitled to decide whether members of the LGBTI community can have equal rights, and conflating that question with a bunch of ancillary triggers, Mr Abbott has unleashed a swarm of ugly thoughts that had previously lain dormant in the minds of everyday Australia.
By insisting that people should be free to articulate those thoughts, he has also given them voice. In the hyper-aggressive environment we live in today – the equivalent of being in a room full of people shouting “fight, fight, fight” – there’s going to be an increased risk that someone will throw a punch.
Pointing this out doesn’t absolve the alleged attacker, it just truthfully attributes the blame.
Mr Abbott should be thankful the environment he helped to create has so far only managed to produce a thug that couldn’t land an Irish kiss.
The potential for even greater harm to occur to much less famous people remains incredibly high.