Abbott was ousted because he was low in the polls, an insufficient rationale to persuade those Liberals with grave doubts about his successor’s ambition, ego and, indeed, his political competence. The gathering clouds of a conservative civil war should come as no surprise
Two years ago around this time Australians were agitated about the crisis of Prince Philip’s knighthood. Whether or not it was prompted by a hint from the Queen, it seemed an innocent enough gesture: granting an Australian honour to someone who had served Australia well for more than sixty years and who plainly enjoys being in the country. But it evoked one of those curious fits of public indignation that erupt from time to time and in Australia take the form of complaints about the “cultural cringe” (and which are probably the only examples of it still remaining).
I thought at the time that it would blow over quickly. And as far as it concerned Prince Philip, it did. In retrospect, however, though the episode was not terribly significant in itself, it triggered a long-running political unravelling that still continues and that may even now be re-arranging the Australian party structure. For it was seized upon by the then Prime Minister’s political opponents, more in the media and his own party than from the Opposition, to make the case that he was out of touch with modern Australia and a liability to the government.
That view of Tony Abbott was, of course, what the media, Australia’s cultural establishment, middle-class intellectuals, especially in the public sector, and “progressive” figures in his own party had thought of him all along. When he won the Liberal leadership by the narrowest majority, he was seen by these influential groups as an “impossible” person to be prime minister—a throwback to the 1950s, the beneficiary of a temporary nostalgia, too moralistically Christian for a diverse Australia, and so on.
The fact that he went on to win the 2013 election by a landslide did not materially change this view. Abbott was perhaps the first victim of the disease of “illegitimacy” that is currently spreading through the West in which aggrieved social groups declare that, for a variety of reasons, an election-winner does not deserve to be the nation’s leader and that they’ll make sure he isn’t for long.
Now, Abbott undoubtedly made some blunders on his own behalf—including alienating some natural supporters with decisions such as keeping Section 18C—but most of them now look very venial, especially by comparison with his government’s successes such as several major trade deals and “stopping the boats”. But the blunders were exaggerated by an endless campaign from the ABC, the Fairfax media, and (more damagingly) the Australian, and augmented by white-anting leaks from his internal opponents in the Cabinet and party machine. So Abbott struggled less to run the government (which continued governing quite well) than to stabilise its image and standing in the polls.
Tom Switzer interviewed me about the threat to Abbott’s leadership in the run-up to his first “near death experience”. My response was to point out that when leaders are defenestrated by their own party, especially without a very strong justification, it can create long-lasting turmoil. Mrs Thatcher’s defenestration had proved the entry point to a quarter-century of internal blood-letting in the Tory party. That has ended only now with a popular Brexit decision that—against all the odds—has united the Tories around a new agenda that (pace Paul Kelly) is Thatcherite in spirit even if not always in policy details.
This essay appears in thejust-realeased March edition of Quadrant.
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Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party ignored my advice, however, and ejected Abbott—which set off a slow avalanche of conflicts and disappointments for the new Turnbull government and the party: a gradual decline in the polls, a disappointingly narrow election result, the rise of a new populism in the form of One Nation led by a more experienced Pauline Hanson, continued obstruction in the Senate, and more recently the decision of Cory Bernardi to leave the party and to establish his own conservative one.
None of this should have surprised the media, or anyone else, if they had looked at the leadership struggle without vision distorted by the idea of Abbott’s illegitimacy. Consider the following:
Abbott was ousted because he was low in the polls—not the kind of justification that ordinary party members would recognise as fair. Turnbull was and is a socially progressive leader of an (angry) party that is socially conservative outside its corporate wing. He led a divided party from day one. Because he is undoubtedly shrewd, he realised that until an election was held, he would have to soothe the Liberal grass-roots by sticking to the agenda of the Abbott government. But that stance disappointed those, including the media, who had supported him as a progressive, and it didn’t seem to pacify the conservatives.
Accordingly, the polls under Turnbull improved only briefly, and the election result, when it came, retrospectively removed his justification for ousting Abbott and created conditions in which Turnbull had to maintain a broadly conservative stance in order to hold his party together and to work with conservatives outside it. This strategy has costs, among them losing what little progressive support he has left, and it hasn’t been robust enough to keep the conservatives on board, as Bernardi’s defection shows. And now he faces a Labor Party that revived in spirit during and after the election under Bill Shorten’s more confident leadership. The Prime Minister gave Shorten a thoroughly Thatcherite “hand-bagging”, in both spirit and anti-socialist rhetoric, at the despatch box just recently. But he has a difficult road ahead.
Go back to when Turnbull replaced Abbott, however. That day the world’s media had a high old time mocking Australia for its instability, Italian-style. At that moment, despite crises like the euro and Ukraine, the world’s establishments felt that they more or less had things under control or at least stable enough. Though they would never have put it so bluntly, the adults were in charge—and when some childish populists managed to clamber into power, they were held sensibly in check by independent bureaucracies, treaty obligations, judicial review, and global bodies from the Kyoto process to the European Central Bank.
As I have argued here and elsewhere, Western systems of government were mutating from majoritarian democracy into what John Fonte calls “post-democracy” in which power is increasingly transferred from bodies accountable to the voters like parliament to the bodies mentioned above which are accountable either to themselves or to similar bureaucracies and largely progressive in their instincts. “Populism” is the result when these bodies either govern so badly or ignore the electorate so noticeably that the voters rebel. Populism hadn’t really surged two years ago. Indeed, the establishments were feeling sufficiently complacent that one occasionally read accounts of how conservative parties were gradually, one by one, adjusting to the modern world and acclimatising to its progressive atmosphere. The take-over of the UK Tories by David Cameron and his modernisers was one example; another was Turnbull’s ousting of Abbott.
A few months later, however, the world’s media were having a more worried time agonising about Trump, Brexit, and the rise of populism in Europe (and indeed in Queensland). If populism is the response of the voters to the undemocratic consensus of the elites to pursue some policies and to block others by keeping them out of politics, then a further and obvious point must be made: the more responsive a political system is to voter discontent, the more populist insurgencies can be defused within its politics.
Theresa May and Brexit give us a classic example. May was a Remainer, albeit a reluctant and moderate one, but once she became Prime Minister, she accepted the verdict of the referendum and committed her government to implementing it. That placed the debate on Brexit firmly inside the political system. When an appeal was made to the courts, ostensibly intended to give parliament greater control of Brexit but really meant to delay and prevent it, she mustered the resources of government to take it through the Commons and, as seems now almost inevitably, to the Statute Book and the invoking of Article 50. By doing so she has taken the steam out of UKIP’s populism, taken Brexit away from the control of “post-democracy”, and revived real parliamentary politics.
Australia, like Britain, has a more responsive political system than Europe’s. As a result the errors of the Liberal Party have ensured that the rise of populism has taken place in a parliamentary system where it can be accommodated, absorbed and rendered relatively painless, even acting as a tonic to the other parties. John Howard managed exactly that on the last occasion that One Nation arose from the vasty deep. But that can happen only if the Liberal Party is strong, stable and conservative enough both to bargain with the populist politicians and to win over their voters.
Largely despite himself Malcolm Turnbull has chosen such a course. But he struggles to make it convincing or to look permanent. Two obvious steps could help him do both. The first is to reform or, ideally, to abolish Section 18C which, as David Furse-Roberts demonstrates in this issue, would be completely in line with both the conservative and liberal traditions of his party. The second is to unify his party unmistakably by inviting Tony Abbott into his Cabinet in either the defence or foreign affairs portfolio — a prospect now so remote as to be unthinkable.
Both decisions would be painful. But Paris is worth a Mass.