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November 19th 2014 print

Daryl McCann

Abbott: Right Man, Right Time

If the polls are to be believed, the most troublesome deficit confronting the Prime Minister is his failure to inspire the electorate's enthusiasm. Yet, perversely, it is the enmity of his critics' flawed and partisan appraisals that confirm him as the best and most competent man to occupy The Lodge

abbott boxingThe Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, announced on August 5 that his government would no longer pursue changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Initially, at any rate, the reason he offered for reneging on a pre-election promise did not help at all: “We are also determined to engage in ever closer consultation with communities including the Australian Muslim community.” In the opinion of Abbott, confronting the ideology of the Islamic State—both here and in Mesopotamia—required everybody, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, thinking in terms of “Team Australia”. But as Andrew Bolt, conservative columnist and casualty of the Racial Discrimination Act, remarked: “Pardon? We must placate Muslim Australians by restricting our freedom to say something critical of their culture; for instance, extremists being so prone to jihad?” Had Tony Abbott taken a wrong turn? There were plenty of people, including Liberal Party supporters, who thought so. Events have moved quickly since then.

The last time those on the Centre-Right of politics were so conflicted was in 2009. Paul Kelly’s Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation (2014) vividly depicts the then Liberal parliamentary leader, Malcolm Turnbull, almost bringing the Party undone in late 2009 with his staunch backing for Labor’s proposed Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). At a time when 65 per cent of voters were in favour of an ETS and only 25 per cent against, the Liberals were between a rock and a hard place. While a significant minority of its members were wary about global warming, opposing Kevin Rudd’s ETS in the Senate seemed to invite political suicide. Tony Abbott said as much in an op-ed for the Australian in July 2009 and during a phone call to Paul Kelly: “Mate, you’re right, we have to give Rudd his policy because we have no hope in a double dissolution on climate change.”

Abbott, as we now know, replaced Turnbull as Opposition Leader on December 1, 2009, with the undertaking to defeat Rudd’s ETS—or Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS)—in the Senate. Something dramatic had occurred to Abbott’s thinking between July and December: “Abbott saw the tide running fast: support for Rudd’s ETS would betray the Coalition base, weaken the conservative side for years, hand Labor an immense propaganda victory and make Rudd into a political hero.” Better to keep faith with the Party’s old-time supporters, and lose the next election—reasoned Abbott—than pass into law what many Coalition voters despised and he, as a sometime sceptic, did not embrace.

There are two responses to Tony Abbott’s change of heart in the second half of 2009. The more cynical interpretation of his U-turn, and the one propounded by David Marr in Political Animal (2012), figures Abbott as an unscrupulous populist. In Political Animal, Marr differentiates between Values Abbott and Politics Abbott. According to Marr, Values Abbott is irksome enough, since his leadership of Australia ensures no prospect of “gay marriage, drug reform, euthanasia, a republic or a bill of rights”. But Values Abbott, with his social conservatism and supposedly Bob Santamaria-DLP sensibilities, is not without principles:

Values Abbott would work to cushion families from the realities of economic life. And if the Coalition parties allowed him, Values Abbott would protect working men and women from the full force of the labour market. Values Abbott is not there to help the nation’s rich get richer.

The problem, in the opinion of Marr, is that “the Abbott that matters is Politics Abbott”: a devious character with persuasive charm but no moral compass. According to Marr, in the latter half of 2009 Politics Abbott stumbled upon a formula for destroying the prime ministership of Kevin Rudd and the prime ministerial aspirations of Malcolm Turnbull by adopting a patently bogus anti-ETS position, conveniently putting himself on a trajectory to the top.

A more sympathetic account of Tony Abbott’s elevation emerges in Paul Kelly’s Triumph and Demise. The CPRS farrago played a definite role in Abbott’s unexpected rise to the leadership of the Liberal Party, but it was Prime Minister Rudd’s handling of the attendant legislation in 2009 that had the hallmarks of an unprincipled and opportunistic response to a complex issue. Labor negotiated with Opposition Leader Turnbull, who wanted the Coalition to support Labor’s CPRS bill—albeit in a slightly modified form—and yet Rudd appeared more interested in proving Turnbull’s “absolute failure of leadership” than in saving the planet. Not even Senator Wong, Labor’s Minister for Climate Change and Water, knew if her job was “to get the CPRS passed or discredit the Coalition by proving its refusal to accept climate change legislation”. Julia Gillard was of the same opinion: “We should have thrown our arms around Turnbull. And not sought to keep taking a chip out of him.” History tells us that Kevin Rudd won the battle to intensify discord within the ranks of the Liberal Party—and undercut Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership—only to lose the war and see his CPRS rejected in the Senate.

The record, as outlined in Triumph and Demise, suggests that Tony Abbott did not set out to exploit the Liberal Party’s mounting unease at Kevin Rudd’s divisive politics for personal advantage. This is not to say Abbott is without ambition and does not possess a competitive, even combative, streak. Abbott was an exuberant undergraduate anti-communist warrior, a plucky pugilist and a feisty rugby player, but to be aggressively competitive does not automatically consign him—as Marr does—to the category of “junkyard dog”. The truth, as delineated by Kelly, is that Abbott’s anti-ETS stance in the last quarter of 2009 was existential as much as political, and that safeguarding the unity of the Liberal Party rather than unseating Malcolm Turnbull was the priority. Abbott counselled Turnbull, from at least October onwards, against investing his remaining authority in the CPRS. He offered the same advice to Joe Hockey. Abbott went into the December 1 Liberal Party leadership ballot expecting Turnbull and Hockey supporters to form a united bloc and eliminate him after the first round of voting. Turnbull—due to pride or mulishness—threw his hat in the ring and ruined Hockey’s chances. Abbott could not have foreseen any of this.

A failing of Marr’s Political Animal is that Marr’s enmity towards the conservative side of politics blinds him to all of its subtleties. Thus, Marr attributes the following opinion to Tony Windsor, former independent member for New England, concerning his August-September 2010 negotiations with the then Opposition Leader: “Windsor thought Abbott would even have agreed to a carbon tax if that would have made him prime minister.” This is risible. Marr’s inclusion of such a line without further comment—as if it might actually be true—tells us more about Marr’s pre-existing hostility towards his subject than about Abbott. Abbott played a strategic hand in opposing the CPRS on economic rather than ecological grounds. This allowed sceptic and non-sceptic alike in the Liberal Party to reject Rudd’s ideologically-driven legislation and yet maintain, through its alternative Direct Action climate policy, some flexibility on global warming. The purpose of all of this was to avoid taxing or regulating carbon-dioxide emissions—exactly what had undone Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party and thwarted Hockey’s ambition. Windsor’s assertion makes no sense, but never mind.

The CPRS saga does not substantiate David Marr’s representation of Tony Abbott as an unprincipled opportunist any more than his stand on irregular maritime arrivals does. Abbott always believed in John Howard’s Pacific Solution, remained committed to it after the Coalition’s defeat in 2007, and on forming a government in September 2013 reconstituted an almost identical border protection system. Marr, in Political Animal, makes reference to the “toxic politics of the boats” but (as I argued in “How Boat People Brought Down Rudd and Gillard”, Quadrant, July-August 2014) it was PM Rudd, PM Gillard and then PM Rudd reprised who repeatedly changed their position in order to leverage maximum political advantage. Upwards of 1100 people lost their lives on the high seas while these two played off their incongruent progressive and traditionalist supporters. At the end of Political Animal, David Marr made the prediction that when irregular maritime arrivals “don’t stop arriving by sea”, Abbott would “find himself exposed to all the abuse he heaped on Rudd and Gillard”. Marr’s prophecy, like so much else he says about Abbott, turns out to be plain wrong.

Marr’s Politics Abbott/Values Abbott dichotomy is problematic on another count. Just as Politics Abbott amounts to a caricature of the man, Values Abbott also bears little resemblance to reality. In Political Animal, David Marr insists that Tony Abbott’s “years in the service” of Bob Santamaria—“this strange Catholic warrior”—go a long way to explaining our Prime Minister’s political philosophy (if not his political deeds): “From Santamaria he took values rather than policies, values and attitudes beyond the ordinary reach of politics in this country. His conservatism is coloured clerical purple.” Santamaria was a mentor to the young Abbott, but his longer-term impact is another matter. As Gerard Henderson, in Media Watch Dog 221, April 2014, explains: “Bob Santamaria’s influence has been over-estimated by his friends and enemies alike. However, neither group would claim that—from the grave—[Santamaria] influences the Prime Minister. That’s (yet another) David Marr fantasy.”

Moreover, Santamaria—contraire Marr—did not suggest, let alone instruct, Abbott to join the Liberal Party; in fact, the old DLP/NCC stalwart never made his peace with the Liberal Party and “refused to provide a reference for Abbott when he sought pre-selection for the Liberal Party seat of Warringah in 1993”.

Although the ALP and the leftist commentariat have been keen to depict the Abbott government’s economic strategy as ideologically driven—“neo-liberal” being a favoured pejorative—this is hardly the case. In December 2013, for instance, the Prime Minister announced in parliament the closure of South Australia’s General Motors Holden manufacturing plant in 2017 and the loss of 1600 jobs. Labor’s Bill Shorten asserted that “Holden was pushed” by a coldly calculatingly Abbott and that if Shorten were Prime Minister it would never have happened. This was news to the Holden management team, who cited a range of factors behind their decision—the high Australian dollar, the small domestic market, the high cost of production in Australia and the fragmented nature of the global car market—none of which suggested neo-liberal scheming on the part of the Abbott government to “sabotage” industries falling outside the parameters of economic Darwinian theory. No doubt Tony Abbott did consider Holden’s decision “a sad, bad day”, but nevertheless accepted that Australian taxpayers could not go on subsidising the manufacturing of vehicles to the tune of $2000 a unit indefinitely, especially when the same taxpayers favoured foreign-made models for their own personal use. The closure announcement at Holden, and later at Toyota, was not the victory of a callous ideology over the interests of Australian workers, but of common sense over Bill Shorten’s tribal politics.

Opposition Leader Shorten’s performance in December 2013 was a rehearsal for his May 2014 response to Joe Hockey’s first budget. Anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of our financial state of affairs knew the mining investment boom was over, long-term investment in productivity-boosting infrastructure negligible and the immense national debt racked up by six years of Rudd–Gillard largesse out of control. A burgeoning economic emergency was upon us. The Secretary to the Treasury, Martin Parkinson, spelt it out as simply as he could for the doubters. Bill Shorten was having none of this all-making-a-sacrifice and tightening-the-belt malarkey, as evidenced by his official response to the Coalition’s budget. While instructing Labor senators to pass Abbott’s tax hike on the 400,000 Australians earning more than $180,000, Bill Shorten spoke as if the Coalition had declared war on the poor:

Let’s call the Liberal Budget “emergency” what it is: An attempt to justify the Abbott government’s blueprint for a radically different, less fair Australia. From a government that sees the Australian people not as workers, parents, carers, patients or commuters but as units unentitled to respect.

Bill Shorten’s act was partisan politics at its worst. The journalist Paul Sheehan summed up the situation for many: “We have a politician who will sacrifice his career for the good of the country. We have an Opposition Leader who will sacrifice his country for his career.” David Marr wrote about the Coalition’s May 2014 budget as the final demise of Values Abbott. No mention of the new tax burden imposed on the middle class—that would spoil the narrative.

The main reason the evidence fails to confirm Political Animal’s central thesis is because David Marr is an ideologue (bohemian socialism) whereas his subject’s political philosophy is anti-ideology. Though Abbott’s disposition owes something to Edmund Burke, his modern-day conservatism is unencumbered by creed. Notwithstanding Marr’s outlandish assertion that Tony Abbott’s conservatism is “coloured clerical purple”, no dogma shapes the Prime Minister’s decision-making process. Instead, Tony Abbott’s political thinking is informed by a perpetual tension between notions of freedom, individualism and innovation on the one hand and morality, the community and tradition on the other, which means that even if he yearned to be an ideologue—his every decision informed by a codified belief system—it would be impossible. The only consequential dichotomy relevant to the Prime Minister’s character is not Values Abbott/Politics Abbott but circumspection versus decisiveness. Some will label that as opportunism; others might see it as judging each new issue on its merits within a framework of guiding principles. The only unyielding constant about Tony Abbott’s policies would appear to be a strong sense of loyalty to the Australian nation, past, present and future. We might call that patriotism. On August 5, Tony Abbott called it “Team Australia”.

The double announcement of August 5—the Section 18C backdown and the revelation of new security measures—will in all probability be judged as the determining moment in the Coalition’s first year in office. Both friend and foe in the media were quick to deride Tony Abbott for his self-described “leadership call” that day. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) were so furious they took out a half-page advertisement in the Australian to admonish the man who had proclaimed that freedom of speech was the basis of Western democracy: “We agree, Prime Minister. That’s why we will fight to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Even if you won’t.” I hope the IPA never gives up on Section 18C. If the Abbott administration had been as decisive as it was with Operation Sovereign Borders it could have introduced—shortly after winning the September 2013 election—a limited proposal that removed the words offend and insult from 18C. This might have failed to pass in the Senate but at least the intention would have been established. Instead, Labor was given time to wage a dishonest campaign against 18C reform in which the guarantee of freedom of speech was conflated with the abuse of freedom of speech. In any case, the IPA should always be acknowledged as the organisation at the forefront of raising public awareness about the Gillard government’s notorious 2013 media “reforms”: the ALP’s attempt to establish a government-appointed regulatory regime to ensure “fairness” in the media’s treatment of—the ALP.

A less purist response to Tony Abbott’s August 5 backpedal—a libertarian-conservative one, if you like—was more akin to disenchantment than unbridled anger. It seemed like a case of Circumspect Abbott winning out over Decisive Abbott, which in the longer term would not be to the advantage of his government. Time and again Coalition administrations have done the hard work of repairing Labor’s economic recklessness (the fiscal frenzy of the Whitlam years and Keating’s 1996 $96 billion debt spring to mind) only to find themselves caricatured as mean-spirited accountants and, after a suitable period of time, replaced by a new generation of oh-so-colourful Labor personalities.

Yes, Operation Sovereign Borders was a success, the NBN farrago was brought under control, Julia Gillard’s carbon-dioxide tax was rescinded, free trade agreements with Japan and South Korea were signed, relations with China were assured, relations with India were reborn, relations with Indonesia were sorted and so on, but the Left still commands the cultural heights. The ABC, for instance, is keen to promote its narrow leftist agenda and undercut the Coalition government at every turn. Circumspect Abbott takes all this on the chin, just as he did when Gillard demonised him with her misogynist slur in October 2012. Abbott might criticise the ABC on occasion—“I think it dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but our own … You shouldn’t leap to be critical of your own country”—but he has not tackled the ABC’s political partisanship, apart from axing its international satellite television service. While Coalition supporters, including the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party, have called for the ABC to be privatised or at least overhauled, the Prime Minister insists that because he’s a conservative he does not seek radical changes to the public broadcaster. Accordingly, the “open-minded” ABC will be campaigning against the “close-minded” Coalition right up until election night 2016, ever hopeful—as Kerry O’Brien might put it—of a swing to the ABC.

Few commentators delighted in Tony Abbott’s decision to take his proposed changes to 18C “off the table” more than David Marr. According to Marr’s article, “Freedom Riders” (Monthly, September 2014), here was proof positive that Politics Abbott—the ruthless, cynical and amoral populist—had never been serious about freedom of speech and that his alliance with the IPA libertarians was merely an election ploy. Alas, Marr’s Freedom Abbott is no less a straw-man fallacy than his Values Abbott contrivance. David Marr only states the obvious when he writes that the Prime Minister’s conservative sense of liberty and freedom diverges in places from a classical liberal position. The IPA invited Roger Scruton, the world’s leading conservative philosopher, to Australia earlier this year, which says a lot about the shared concerns of contemporary conservatism and liberalism, and yet not everybody was on the same page on every issue. For the most part, libertarians and conservatives alike affirm the sovereignty of both the individual and the nation-state, and recognise the interdependency of the two concepts, and yet the libertarian is more likely to emphasise the former and the conservative the latter. Nevertheless, libertarians and conservatives can (and do) agree on a whole range of things, including opposition to the attempt by Labor and the Greens in 2013 to regulate Australia’s news media in particular and a rejection of the divisiveness and tribalism of Identity Politics in general.

This last point is the fundamental connection between latter-day conservatives and libertarians and every hybrid incarnation of those two categories. We all abhor sectarianism. We have all embraced modernity. All of us feel comfortable, as Roger Scruton contends in The Uses of Pessimism: And the Dangers of False Hope (2010), with an evolving post-tribal paradigm. Unlike Islamic State, the Nazis, the communists and today’s proselytisers of Identity Politics, we do not subscribe to an ideology, because ideology demands submission rather than settlement. We are beyond that. The one thing that binds as together—to borrow again from Scruton—should be oikophilia, an enlightened form of patriotism that transcends tribalism and sectarianism. Without wishing to sound patronising, individual Muslims are capable of a cosmopolitan sensibility, as evidenced by the lives of millions of Muslims in America, Israel, Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, India, Indonesia, Australia and so on. This is what the anti-sectarian and intensely patriotic Tony Abbott understood on August 5 when he simultaneously announced plans to combat homegrown terrorism and, in the name of Team Australia, dropped his proposal for modifying 18C. David Marr, in his “Freedom Riders” polemic, insists that Abbott “used the Muslims to cover his retreat”. But then, this is the same anti-Catholic sectarian who wrote The High Price of Heaven (2000) and The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell (2012)—and believes Tony Abbott’s conservatism is “coloured clerical purple”.

The greatest threat to the world, not excluding Australia, is Islamic revivalism. If Islamist activists were honest with us, instead of engaging in taqiyyah (dissimulation), they would admit that the original nakba (catastrophe) was the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate and the partition of Ottoman Syria in the aftermath of the First World War, and not the foundation of the State of Israel. They would come clean about the real intentions of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the genuine connections between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, and the parallels between Hamas and Al Qaeda/Islamic State. They would tell us that “Palestinian nationalism” is a contemporaneous construct, a Trojan horse designed to eradicate Jews “from the river to the sea” and replace the State of Israel with a new Caliphate, its capital Jerusalem. They would acknowledge that a central impediment to their nascent Global Caliphate (or Islamic State) is the existence of the modern nation-state and the attendant patriotism associated with such a secular entity. Their list of enemies includes Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who is a Muslim), the Supreme Court of Israel’s Salim Joubran (who is a Muslim) and Syrian Kurdistan’s Salih Muslim Muhammed (who is a Muslim). Nor would the Islamists much like Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott (who is, as David Marr reminds us, a Roman Catholic).

Team Australia, or however one might like to label it, is the only game in town. Bill Shorten has been cordial enough to acknowledge that the violent, apocalyptic millennialism of Islamic State is a genuine emergency for the wider world and Australia as well: “When it comes to fighting terror, we are all in this together.” Admittedly, this new-found sense of common national purpose faltered somewhat when Shorten asserted that purchasing a fleet of Japanese-made submarines (at a saving of $20 billion) would reverse the results of the Pacific War: “This is a government with a short memory. In the Second World War, 366 merchant ships were sunk off Australia.” So much for the superiority of the ALP in dealing with our Asian neighbours. The spirit of national unity and cheery patriotism has not exactly been the hallmark of Labor since the halcyon days of Bob Hawke. Paul Keating’s “true believers” triumphalism on election night 1993 confused rusted-on ALP voters with the population at large, and that style of us-against-them mentality has persisted ever since. Shorten’s attempt to keep his cohort of Abbott-haters in line is no easy task. Melissa Parke is one of a number of ALP politicians who have not read the memo. In August she tweeted: “Govt losing on unfair budget so it just talks of terrorism.”

The tragedy for the ALP—and for Australia—is that Identity Politics has driven Labor for so long now that it may have rendered the Party ineffective in our current crisis. All the special pleading it encourages from the rainbow of discontents who place it first (or, at least, second after the Greens) in the ballot box, makes it tough for the ALP suddenly to start being a unifying force in our country. Keating’s anti-monarchy tilt was a divider, as was his anti-Anzac invective. We already know—from Labor insiders—that Rudd’s CPRS was meant to split the Liberal Party and marginalise the “Deniers”. The principle of divide-and-conquer illuminates Kevin Rudd’s improbable fervour for gay marriage before the 2013 election, while Identity Politics explains Gillard’s misogynist smear and why her government—against her wishes—became more pro-Palestinian. How can winning a handful of seats in western Sydney make selling your political soul an option? In August this year, while an apocalyptic death cult—Hamas—was firing rockets at Israeli civilians, Labor frontbencher Tony Burke expressed his admiration for the “bravery” of Palestinian fighters who put their life “on the line and at risk” and engaged in “politics in different ways”.

The ALP, in search of electoral viability, has taken the low road and found itself in a most exposed position. It stands, as ever, torn between its traditional patriotic supporters, who are repulsed by the Islamic State and any further acquiescence of Islamic supremacism in Australia, and progressives or bohemian socialists who know that the real danger afoot—as Labor Senator Sue Lines disclosed—is Tony Abbott’s “scaremongering”. The latter fear the dawn of Orwell’s Oceania more than they do dhimmitude and the Islamic State. However, they are very much a minority in that regard. Labor apologist Bob Ellis has wondered aloud on his Table Talk blog why “all the fuss” about a few beheadings performed by Islamic State: “Beheadings occur routinely in Game of Thrones. And no complaint has been laid.” The dismissive tone of David Marr in “Freedom Rider” concerning Tony Abbott’s August 5 announcements is only marginally less ridiculous: “It didn’t help that depraved clowns with Australian passports were cutting off heads for the Caliphate.” Let not the rape and murder of Mosul, the Yazidis and the Kurds get in the way of David Marr’s anti-bourgeois bohemian loathing for conservative politicians in Australia. Already, I am sure, the most sophisticated leftist political writer in Australia is working on a sequel to His Master’s Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate under Howard (2007). Pot calling the kettle black, I would have thought.

Annabel Crabb’s Quarterly Essay Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull (2007) proved more than a little prescient. Though it came out before Turnbull lost his position as Opposition Leader on December 1, 2009, Crabb writes of a man who is a sharp thinker, raconteur and astonishingly successful businessman, and yet in the final analysis more of a “hired gun” than a team leader. And then there is the equivocating Joe Hockey. According to Madonna King’s Hockey: Not Your Average Joe (2014), Hockey was “a bit relieved” that he lost, that Tuesday back in 2009. Despite being “filthy” at the time with Turnbull for his alleged double-cross, Hockey consoled himself with the idea that the downfall of Brendan Nelson and now Malcolm Turnbull brought the moment of his inevitable triumph closer:

I thought, we are going through all these people. We’re clearing the decks. Abbott won’t last long and at least that gives me a free run. I’m next, and if I’m next, I’m not going to have all these people undermining me.

Hockey did not anticipate Abbott turning out to be the right man at the right time for the Coalition. To that we might now, hopefully, add—right man at the right time for Australia.

Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au. He wrote an article on Hamas in the October issue