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May 19th 2011 print

James Allan

Why Abbott scares them

It is this possibility that Abbott says what he means that makes him so popular with his base. It’s not something many right of centre voters around the western democratic world are used to.


Do do what you do (or said you’d do)


What’s the point of winning an election? I ask that because if all the evidence you had before you was the conduct of centre-right political parties around the developed English-speaking world over the last few decades you might wonder.

Centre left parties seem pretty clear that winning an election is just a prelude to trying to change the world along lines they prefer. So in New Zealand back in the 1990s when the Helen Clark Labour government won power its number two minister, Michael Cullen, made plain in parliament what his government’s attitude would be with the nifty little maxim, ‘We won, you lost, eat it’.

And President Obama in the US has surely not been shy in asserting ‘that elections have consequences’. Some of us might not like it when those consequences happen to be a massive expansion of government spending, massive even compared to the profligate ways of his predecessor, but you can’t deny the premise that elections are meant to have consequences. That, after all, is the point of having them.

Certainly the left-of-centre Liberal Party in Canada spent much of the twentieth century in power federally and trying its darnedest to remake Canadian society in the image it preferred. It even managed to revise the Constitution and add a potent entrenched bill of rights without ever holding a referendum or any election specifically on the issue.

By contrast political parties situated on the centre right seem so much more diffident, so much less willing to rub feathers the wrong way once elected. The John Key government in New Zealand won a massive victory only a few years ago and thus far it is hard to think of a single conservative or liberal thing it has done. Being popular and uncontroversial appears to be the guiding premise over there, however much the economic disparity with Australia continues to grow.

Now some of you may at this point object and point to Prime Minister David Cameron in the UK. Surely there’s a government that has gotten on and done things. And in part that’s correct. The Cameron government has taken steps to stop the flood of government spending it inherited from the Blair/Brown Labour government – or to be rather more accurate, it has lowered the rate of increase of government spending, which is not quite the same thing.

Yet in some ways that course of belt tightening was forced on them by the horror story they inherited. But on curtailing the democracy-enervating power of the EU over British affairs, Cameron has done absolutely nothing. His promise to repeal the statutory bill of rights? Jettisoned.

Standing up to the European Court of Human Rights over when incarcerated prisoners can vote? Don’t be silly. Those are the kind of things you hint at before elections, not things you do afterwards old chap. The same goes for sending more and more money to Brussels.

Even Canadian Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is sometimes painted as a hard core right of centre leader has done very little that would strike you as conservative in his two short terms of minority government. Given his very recent election win that delivered him his first ever majority government, and for a term that can last 5 years, we will see if he makes use of it to implement a few policies that reduce the size of government and undo some of the Liberal Party legacy.

But truth be told I’m not oozing with confidence on that front. It sometimes seems that there is a ratchet-up effect in the political affairs of western democracies. The left wing parties come in keen to remake everything they can. And they try. And then when the right wing parties get their turn they basically adhere to the then existing status quo; they toe the existing line. Rarely indeed do they try to wind anything back. Rarely indeed do you get the sense that they will actively legislate on the basis of core beliefs.

And that, at least in part, may be why so many of the ABC and Fairfax commentariat go ballistic at the thought of a Tony Abbott government. They fear he actually may legislate in the way he says he will. (And by the way, that’s also why John Howard was so disliked by the same people.) Sure, a Malcolm Fraser or a Malcolm Turnbull are fine to the progressive elites because at core they seem to be people with acceptable Labor Party views, or close enough. Well, not close enough to make these commentators actually vote for them. But close enough to deem them acceptable Liberal Party leaders. A nice safe pair of hands to hold the fort until the next time that Labor gets back in and can move us ‘forward’ on republicanism, a bill of rights, less policing of the borders, more one-size-fits-all diktats on labour relations or women in the boardroom or anything really.

An upside to this dislike of Mr. Abbott, of course, is that it leads his opponents to under-estimate him. As they would never vote for him themselves they can’t believe anyone else would either. But the days when the Labor caucus was filled with lower middle class people with a broad cross-section of working experiences and a good sense of the views of a wide chunk of the community, well those days are gone. What you have today are self-styled progressive lawyers, ex-union officials, teachers and social workers. And that is simply far too narrow a cross-section of experiences to help the Labor Party see Mr. Abbott’s appeal. (Of course I concede, straight up, that something similar can be said about the Liberal Party too along these lines, though not quite so damningly yet.)

Meantime, I suspect it is this possibility that Abbott says what he means that makes him so popular with his base. It’s not something many right of centre voters around the western democratic world are used to.