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February 10th 2015 print

James Allan

Finding the Good in Mr Abbott

Focus only on his betrayal of the promise to de-fang Section 18C and one would need a special fondness for invertebrates to see the better side of our current PM. Judge him against the man considered most likely to replace him and, well, he isn't half-bad

abbott turnbullLabels such as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ are notoriously vague as well as shifting over time.   They are vague because their boundaries are uncertain and disputable.  As a great legal philosopher put it, there is an inevitable penumbra of doubt at the margins as to whether a viewpoint does or does not fall within the ambit of some concept (or rule or term).  Vagueness allows us to call Malcolm Fraser a conservative, if I can take a deliberately provocative and marginal example.

On top of that, the meaning of terms, as generally used, can shift over time.  It can shift between different places too.  The American meaning of ‘liberal’ is nothing like our understanding.  And what counted as falling in behind the aegis of liberalism in the late nineteenth century is not what counts today, at least not for most people.

So let me here avoid labels such as ‘conservative’ and instead just say that, in political terms, I am someone who puts a very high value on free speech (though I am no absolutist and would stop the naming, for example, of our spies overseas or the publication of a recipe for some easy-to-make biological weapon).  I also stand on the side of smaller government, which means I want to limit more than a little where possible what governments spend.  And I am a Hobbesian in both wanting a strong military and thinking that national-sovereignty matters must trump supranational decision-making.  More bluntly, I like democracy and democratic decision-making, not outcomes flowing from judicial diktats and claims which are said to “follow” from international human-rights norms of various sorts.

Okay, I’ll make the safe assumption that you share my preferences.  Now let’s turn our attention to national politics.  What do we make of the Liberal Party and its bid to mount an attempt at regicide?

Some of you will be familiar with the American writer William F. Buckley’s rule on whom to support in politics.  ‘The wisest choice,” he advised, would be to back “the most viable candidate” amongst those whose opinions most closely mirror your own.

That seems like a pretty sensible approach to me.  Of course it glides over the fundamental issue of how many core preferences you will be prepared to trade before your candidate’s victory becomes hollow, perhaps meaningless.  There is also the long-term calculation to be considered: that it may, on occasion, be better for  the team you normally support to lose so that, hopefully, a more palatable option will emerge from defeat and be available in the future.

So let’s take those criteria and apply them to Mssrs Abbott and Turnbull.   Before the last election there was no doubt, to me, that Mr. Abbott better reflected my core preferences.  On free speech Abbott was far more reliable.  On border protection?  Yes.  On cutting big government boondoggles, such as a world’s highest carbon tax?  No comparison.  The Paid Parental Leave scheme, though, was a clear win for Mr. Turnbull.  Still, on balance, Abbott was the far better choice to lead the Liberals and become Prime Minister.

A year and a half later I still prefer Abbott, though the margin has clearly narrowed.  Why?  Let’s be blunt.  It’s because our Prime Minister has sold down the river some of the things that really matter to me.

Take free speech for starters.  Mr. Abbott had a clear and undeniable mandate to emasculate the speech-suppressing Section 18C.  Did he even really try?  Hardly. With the carbon tax he moved directly to put a bill before the Senate.  With 18C he opted for one of those consultation exercises that bring out every Get-Up and Labor-supporting interest group going.  And then he folded like a wet noodle.  As his justification for breaking this core promise he provided a pathetic, near-incoherent reference to pacifying Muslims (and others) so that they could be part of his notional Team Australia.

I pass over that justification in contemptuous silence.

However, let me stress that had Abbott put a Bill to the Senate to gut 18C, and had the Senate blocked it, I would not have held it against him.  He would have made Labor go on the record as the anti-free speech party they now are.  He could have pointed to their hypocrisy after the recent tragedy in Paris.  Instead, as a consequence of that promise’s betrayal, the Coalition looks almost as terrible on the free speech front as Labor.

Yet all that admitted, the sad truth is that Mr. Turnbull is even worse on the free-speech front.  I am saddened to say that I can’t really name a top Cabinet minister I now would trust on the free speech front.  Abbott has been hugely disappointing.  Turnbull would be worse.  In his heart I think he actually likes s.18C.  By contrast, Abbott doesn’t but lacks the intestinal fortitude to do anything about it.

What about national sovereignty? By that I refer to the leaky boats and standing up to the anti-democratic brigade, which spouts nostrums drawn from international law and the latest overseas bill-of-rights rulings?  Again, there is no contest.  Abbott is better than Turnbull.

I barely need to mention the carbon tax and some Big Government schemes to drive up electricity prices.  Abbott has not been perfect.  Yet no sane person in Australia doubts that Turnbull would be worse.

Thus far it’s 40/love to Mr. Abbott.  And that only leaves the economy and my preference for smaller government outcomes.  Before the election I would have called this a draw.  Now you would have to say that Turnbull is probably a shade better.  The Paid Parental Leave was so unpopular only the Greens were halfway supportive – and I would have thought the core rule of thumb for any right-of-centre politician is that, if the Greens agree with you, think again, and then again, and then again. And if it’s still just you and them, ditch the policy on principle.

Other than that, deregulating the university fees is a good idea.  If Turnbull doesn’t support that he should.  If he does that’s a toss-up.  Of course, it’s hard to fix the universities unless you first concede they have big problems, as they do (see any of my many pieces on universities).  If you pretend we have world-beating unis because of these misdirecting university ranking systems, which tell us nothing about undergraduate experiences or teaching,[1] you can’t easily go on to say our universities are administratively bloated (they are) and overpay the many-too-many VCs, DVCs, PVCs, and every letter you can think of before VCs.

What about the co-payment for GP visits?  Well, once you say most of this money will go to some medical research bureaucracy, as Abbott promised, you’ve lost me.  If it’s to rein in spending then put it toward the debt.  If I have to choose between people wanting to visit a doctor or underwriting the research bureaucracy in this country (as opposed to paying off debt to help our kids and grandkids), I’m going with free visits every single time.  I suspect Turnbull is preferable on this one.

Meanwhile, neither man will touch labour relations in the foreseeable future, so that’s a draw.

And that, as they say, is pretty much that.  By my reckoning, in any head-to-head contest, Mr. Abbott is still vastly preferable to Mr. Turnbull.  Indeed, by my reckoning, Mr. Turnbull is on the cusp of not being worth voting for at all.  I might even prefer to donkey vote in the hope the Liberal Party reforms and renews itself, so that I might someday have the luxury of being able to support a candidate who shares more of my preferences.

That’s not so say, though, that someone else for leader wouldn’t make ditching an unreformed Abbott attractive.  The problem is that, with one or two possible exceptions, this group of Coalition cabinet ministers seem an insipid lot.  It’s all a tad depressing.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland and the author of Democracy in Decline



[1]    The ARWU ranking of world universities measures the quantity of top research output, not least by asking for the number of faculty and alumni who have won Nobel Prizes and Field Medals, but does not weight most data by university size.  The QS world University Rankings rely heavily on global reputational surveys of academics and employers while checking faculty/student ratios and the number of international students.  And the Times Higher Education world university rankings use survey data to measure institutional prestige while looking at citations, research income and research output.  Let me be blunt.  These may, with a huge margin for error, say something about research produced in the sciences.  They say nothing about our universities for the vast preponderance who will do an undergraduate degree.  And compared to Canada and the UK, even New Zealand, our universities are in bad shape.  Unless you admit that you can’t convince the public of the need for change.

Comments [8]

  1. Patrick McCauley says:

    18c 18C 18c is the centre of what has invaded the Oz gut. We need to argue an insult each other ( as did Lawson and Patterson and White and Shaw Neilson and (even) Manning Clarke (treacherously) Without ‘offence’ the Australian language diminishes into boring agreement ( John Faine’s interviewing technique) – the mongrel of Australian thinking disappears, citizens not trained in law are silenced – only lawyers can mock or satirise – we can hardly speak and we bore each other into silence or committees through over breasted compassion. 18c has progeny running through universities and rural police stations which prevent one citizen from coming within ten meters of another citizen, to protect them from ‘offence’ – or drive mature aged students from subjects where alternative opinions are not allowed. Race police stalk the campus looking for offence. This in the land of Ned Kelly and Breaker Morant. In the land of Patrick White… in the land of Lawson and Slessor … what did Kate Grenville ever tell you about this sort of silencing? The Australian language cannot be spoken in fear of offence. It has diminished to a whisper behind a hand. Of all things, this is at the heart of our demise.

  2. Patrick McCauley says:

    18c 18C 18c is the centre of what has invaded the Oz mind. We need to argue an insult each other ( as did Lawson and Patterson and White and Shaw Neilson and (even) Manning Clarke (treacherously) Without ‘offence’ the Australian language diminishes into boring agreement ( John Faine’s interviewing technique) – the mongrel of Australian thinking disappears, citizens not trained in law are silenced – only lawyers can mock or satirise – we can hardly speak and we bore each other into silence or committees through over breasted compassion. 18c has progeny running through universities and rural police stations which prevent one citizen from coming within ten meters of another citizen, to protect them from ‘offence’ – or drive mature aged students from subjects where alternative opinions are not allowed. Race police stalk the campus looking for offence. This in the land of Ned Kelly and Breaker Morant. In the land of Patrick White… in the land of Lawson and Slessor … what did Kate Grenville ever tell you about this sort of silencing? The Australian language cannot be spoken in fear of offence. It has diminished to a whisper behind a hand. Of all things, this is at the heart of our demise.

  3. Geoffrey Luck says:

    So far so good as a comparative analysis of the political competition, developed and developing. But not far into this little essay, under Assumptions was listed Democracy and Democratic decision-making. I’d like James to discourse a little on that aspect of Australian life. It appears to me that for various reasons, democracy is threatened and that democratic decision making has been taken out of the hands of the ruling government. I’d cite two factors – populism and emotionalism. Both rule what passes for Australian “thought” today, and both have been magnified and amplified by the dreadful growth of public media – which now passes for “the popular view on everything which must be listened to”. I’d suggest it’s time to re-assess the foundation assumptions of compulsory voting and preferential voting. These legal shibboleths are at the bottom of the difficulty in discovering what the people really want when they “speak” at elections.

  4. Jody says:

    Absolutely agree, Geoffrey, about the compulsory voting!! It needs to go – now. And everyone is ‘speaking’ but nobody is saying anything; the noise is shrill, self-centred, narcissistic and downright vicious. I just want to cover my ears and eyes, and I’m tired of constant Tweets running across my TV screen when I’m trying to watch a program. They all need to just quieten down, find something meaningful to do with their lives and put their electronic graffiti where it would have the most relevance: I won’t identify that destination!!

    And I agree with Prof. Allan’s article 100%. I’ve read his book, “Democracy in Decline”, and support his views.

  5. pgang says:

    I think we should also recognise issues that have been sensibly removed from the agenda, such as gay marriage and, to some extent, climate change. Who would bring these issues back into the pubic domain? Clearly not Abbott. Having said that, IR reform is the bedrock structure that requires a rebuild before our economy can be properly repaired. Where are the champions for doing the hard work? iR reform could be sold in tandem with disabusing the entitlement system, which would kill two birds with one stone.

  6. Jody says:

    pgang, I think you are being somewhat utopian here!! Australians will never submit to IR reform, thinking it a birthright to have all the ‘conditions and entitlements’ of employment and not for a single minute understanding that our trading partners do not have these barriers to deal with. Time and again I’ve heard it said that Australians have certain values and expectations which are worth upholding in spite of our trading partners’ obvious ‘advantages’. This kind of head-in-the-sand thinking can only be addressed, as the GST was, with great leadership and (frankly) the kind of consensus Hawke was able to achieve.

  7. Jody says:

    And another argument we’ve head to dis-favour IR reform, “we’re a clever country and there are many things we can do better than anybody else” (never identified). So, hubris can be added to entitlement and cluelessness. My late father said 15 years ago, “the rest of the world is not going to continue to subsidize the Australian way of life”. There will be plenty of leftists and economists out there who will debunk that comment, very cleverly and somewhat self-defeatingly.

  8. denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

    Good article again James. I think it’s vital for civilisation to get rid of 18C, it only muzzles those who support freedom and emboldens the supporters of would be totalitarians – be they secular [like communists /Nazis] or theological [Islam being the obvious example]. I want the freedom to say I think that much of Islam is medieval misogynistic barbarity without being called racist or Islamophobic and getting hauled before some kangaroo court presided over by Gillian Triggs or Mordi Bromberg. How is it that it is ‘legal’ for some Islamic Jihadist to call for my beheading, but illegal for me to object to it?