“Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the “very sad” images of a Syrian boy lying lifeless on a Turkish beach demonstrate the need for countries to adopt tough policies to stop asylum seekers arriving by boat.” – Matthew Knott, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 September
“Tony Abbott talks tough on terror” – AFR, 3 June
“Australian PM talks tough on vaccination” – BBC, 12 June
“Tony Abbott talks tough on terror laws.” – The Age, 16 February
“Tony Abbott warns that more people will die unless tougher action on people-smugglers is taken.” – The Australian, 18 May
Tony Abbott talks tough. A lot. He acts tough too. He shows up at a bar and skulls a beer. He tells a group of soldiers, when one of their number is shot by Taliban insurgents, that “shit happens”. He threatens to “shirt front” Vladmir Putin. He eats a raw onion.
On top of all this, Tony is an Ironman. He can call himself that because he completed an Ironman competition (3.8km of swimming, 180km of cycling and 42.2km of running) in under 17 hours. It’s considered one of the toughest sporting contests around, the pinnacle of endurance sport.
It’s not that tough. I can say that because I’m also an Ironman, having completed the course in 14 hours, the same time as Abbott. Yes, it takes a lot of training and physical conditioning, a high degree of determination and, at least in my case (and I suspect the PM’s), it helps to have an innate stubbornness. But I wouldn’t say it takes toughness.
When I think of toughness, I think of Dave Scott. Scott ushered in the era of the modern Ironman at Kona in 1980 when he stunned everyone by finishing in 9:25 – a full two hours faster than the course record. Anticipation was high for his appearance in 1981, but Scott was a no show. Instead of training, he had spent the six weeks in the lead-up on his couch. Scott struggled for much of his life with a crippling depression. In his late teens, he discovered that the more he exercised, the better he was able to manage his symptoms. So he ran, cycled and swam huge distances until (almost by accident) he discovered a sport that rewarded him for it. He got better at managing his depression. He went on to win Kona six times and, along with Mark Allen, transformed the sport from an endurance hobby to a professional, international competition. Huge achievements, but not why I think he’s tough. He’s tough because he came back to competition from a debilitating mental illness and had the toughness to talk about it.
Lance “Buddy” Franklin showed toughness this week when he went public with a mental illness that has him sidelined from the AFL finals. Previous generations of sportsmen would have seen this as a sign of weakness, and I’ve written previously about how this conception of masculinity damages men. Buddy has been rightly applauded for his candour and I’d like to think it will make it easier for men to say when they are suffering, without being told to grow a pair. Lance Franklin’s toughness is in his honesty.
Like Dave Scott, I discovered some years ago that a regular dose of endorphins helped me manage the anxiety, and at times depression, I’ve experienced since my 20s. That got me into cycling, then triathlon. I have since learned through experience that meditation and sobriety also helps. Plus cognitive behavioural therapy and the daily SSRIs that I take. Plus good sleep hygiene, and a level of emotional maturity that comes with age and life experience. It’s a complicated regimen, and not 100% effective, but it means I’m better at managing my symptoms than I’ve ever been. Most days it feels great to be alive.*
So when a senior manager at a recent work function handed me a beer instead of the ginger ale I’d asked for and told me to try drinking “a man’s drink,” it was pretty easy to brush it off as just so much macho bullshit, the kind Tough Tony might engage in. It’s not helpful, but whatever. I’m better than that.
Today is R U OK day. It’s a day when we’re asked to stop and ask the people we know and love that important question. Are you ok? It’s important not just because it makes us aware of the signs of untreated mental illness in others, but also because it forces us to stop and recognise the signs of pain in another. It calls on us to show empathy.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but attacking asylum seekers, among the most vulnerable people in the world, is not toughness. Taking benefits away from the unemployed is not toughness. Making it hard for the sick and disabled to access health care is not toughness. In fact, it is the opposite of tough. It is gutless.
In accepting an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees over and above our current humanitarian intake, the Prime Minister said “we need to act with our heads as well as our hearts.” I unreservedly congratulate him for this act of empathy. It’s refreshing to hear the PM talk about the need to show compassion, to listen to our hearts. In staring down the extremists in his own party, he has shown leadership. Just as John Howard showed toughness in the post-Port Arthur gun buy-back, this is Tony Abbott’s moment to rise above narrow political self-interest. We should praise him for this, because it might encourage him to do it more often.
I often think feminism has done as much for men as women. It has freed many of us – a privileged group, certainly, but still significant – from the strictures of stifling notions of masculinity, while giving us the vocabulary and the permission to say when we’re not ok.
Tony Abbott doesn’t have much time for feminism. But the thing is, whenever Tony acts “tough” it appears just that: an act. He seems awkward, uncomfortable, like he’s not being his authentic self. I don’t wish to psychoanalyse him from afar, but to this observer he doesn’t seem tough. That rictus grin, the awkward stance, the stilted small talk; he seems uncomfortable in his own skin. It makes me want to give him a hug. It makes me want to ask him, “Tony, are you OK?”
Dan Empfield’s Iron War, about Dave Scott, Mark Allen and the greatest Ironman ever raced, is one of the best sporting books I’ve read.
*It is very important to point out that while I’m proud of my own efforts, I’m mindful that I’m a straight, non-Indigenous, well-educated, employed male with secure housing. Change one of these parameters, and the risk factors increase – change more than one, and they multiply, while at the same time resources become harder to access. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest my own experience can be universalised, even to people who look like me, demographically speaking.