Labels 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, 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
 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.