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September 19th 2015 print

David Archibald

Mourn Conservatism, not Abbott

The assassin's backers seem not to have considered that they were replacing a lacklustre leader with one actively detested by many in their party's base. The Liberal Party is a divided, make no mistake, and yet that rift presents an opportunity for reform, renewal and renaissance

mournersBack at the start of Tony Abbott’s truncated term the prediction was that it would end it tears.  And so it has. It is apposite, like Mark Antony’s oration at Caesar’s funeral, to make some remarks on his political life and passing.

Let’s start at the beginning. Tony Abbott was active in student politics at the University of Sydney in the 1970s in a pro-Santamaria group. He trashed around a bit finding himself, thus those three years in St Patricks Seminary in Manly. Abbott entered the seminary in 1984 at the age of 26 and left in 1987.  Then came journalism, marriage and one year in the real world as manager of a concrete batching plant. Like someone else we know, he developed friendships with senior members of the NSW Labor Party and considered joining them. This was followed, in 1990, by a staffer’s job with John Hewson.

Abbott entered parliament four years later and was promoted to cabinet in 2000. As Minister for Health he was a centralist, wanting ever greater control by Canberra. His proclivity for simple-minded enthusiasms quickly became evident.  But the first sign that Abbott would ultimately prove to be a disappointment came soon after the 2007 election.  He complained publicly that he couldn’t adjust to living on a backbencher’s salary after having been a minister.  That was the first sign that the present Liberal government wouldn’t have the intestinal fortitude to balance the budget, pay off debt or exercise any other type of financial probity.

In public the Howard government went along with the global warming fad, but in private considered it to be a great nonsense.  Notwithstanding this, Howard pressed on with global warming legislation, to his cabinet’s great wonderment.  The ‘why’ was that Howard wanted to force the Australian public to eventually accept nuclear power and he knew they wouldn’t do it if coal-fired power was cheaper.  The last dark deed of the Howard government was an act called the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act of October, 2007.  Howard’s plan was to bed down the auditing system and then start taxing.  Liberal shadow ministers continued spouting anti-carbon nonsense after the election including the glib and inane: “We have decided to give the planet the benefit of the doubt.”

This view was at odds with the Liberal rank and file who had no-one in the leadership to embody amplify their voices and embody hopes.  That changed on the night of September 30, 2009, in the Western Districts town of Beaufort, where Abbott was addressing a meeting of the local Liberal faithful.  He was exhausted from a day of travel and let let it slip that the science of climate change was “crap”.  Suddenly the rank and file had a champion, albeit an accidental one.

People have forgotten the real reason that Malcolm Turnbull lost the leadership in the party room ballot in 2009.  It was because, after a previous party room meeting, Turnbull had gone out and told the press that the party room had voted for a position when it hadn’t.  Shadow ministers started resigning and the spill was on.  Abbott was happy to defer to Hockey for the leadership but ended up with it himself.

Then came the 2010 election.  Labor and Liberal were 70 each and the balance of power was in the hands of a number of independents, including two lapsed conservatives in Windsor and Oakeshott. Abbott thought the prime ministership was rightfully his and did not pay sufficient homage to the lapsed ones.  He could have, and should have, jumped in a car and very publicly driven to both their electorates.  But he did nothing and — Surprise! Surprise! — Gillard won them to her camp.  Thus the country endured another three years of Labor misery.  For anyone who complains that Windsor and Oakeshott were slimy lefties, well that just speaks volumes about the quality of screening in the pre-selection process for conservative candidates.

Then came Abbott’s signature policy, the paid parental leave scheme. I have it on good authority that Abbott dreamed this up himself – it wasn’t forced on him by the sisterhood. Abbott had been painted as a woman-hater by the media and he was simple-minded enough to think he had to prove them wrong. He chose to announce it on International Women’s Day, this commitment to spend $5 billion a year done without consulting anyone. Surprised that his clever scheme was universally derided, he clung tenaciously to it for several years.

It is an eternal verity that oppositions don’t win elections on their merits; governments lose them on theirs, As Labor’s arome became ever riper through the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd (RGR) burlesque, a Liberal landslide in 2013 was inevitable. Yet Abbott still panicked, making rash, last-minute pledges that he would neither touch nor de-fund lefty nesting sites. The ABC, for one, went untouched, its defiance of balance and its chartered obligatoions even more outrageous.

Abbott took weeks to take over the reins of government after the election. There was not much fire-in-the-belly to right the wrongs perpetrated by Labor. Instead, while prosecuting with success the repeal of the carbon tax and other RGR-era inanities,  the new government settled into comfortable torpor. Issues the Liberal base cared about and had a reasonable expectation to see addressed went begging.  Solemn undertakings were jettisoned very casually. That Section 18C remains on the books testifies to that. To his discredit, Abbott dismissed the flap as “an unnecessary distraction”.

Could things have different? Yes indeed – upon his government’s election, Abbott might have said that, now he had inspected the nation’s books, he had come to recognise a full-blown emergency was at hand. It would have been true, plus conferring the additional bonus of an opportunity to renege on that promise not to touch the ABC and others. If you are going to break a pledge, why not to the detriment of your enemies? Instead, rather than note how much Kerry O’Brien is paid for a minute’s palaver at the start of 4 Corners, he told the servicemen and women that their pay increases were going to be less than the rate of inflation.

Enough of Mr Abbott, the wasted years of his government are now behind us.  We still have an enormous amount of legislation on the books that needs repealing, including that National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act, and we need a Federal Liberal MP who will do it.

What can be said in predicting Turnbull’s tenure? This website provides man themes for speculation, not least that it has been put together by someone, presumably a conservative of some strain or stripe, who detests his party’s leader.

Turnbull apparently acquired an abiding  abhorrence of conservatives with his mother’s milk.  We conservatives are now like the children in Peter Pan. If we close our eyes and believe strongly enough, Turnbull will prove to be a conservative worthy of his blue tie.

Turnbull realises that his reign will be troubled and will likely try to include all potential contenders within the tent of ministerial positions. So, I recommend that any MP, who has the fire-in-the-belly to want to right all the wrongs that are still on our law books, follow the example of Paul Keating when he set about displacing Bob Hawke. Decline a ministry if offered and develop policy instead.

Martin Luther had 95 theses ready for nailing to the church door.  The person who emerges to save the Liberal Party will have at least that many ideas for reform.

David Archibald’s next book is Australia’s Defence 2016 and Beyond (Connor Court).

 

Comments [9]

  1. Jody says:

    I disagree with this article. The community votes for the centre and centre/right in this country – not for the Right or Left. If they think Turnbull has gone too far to the Left the punters won’t wear it; Labor will opportunistically move back to the centre for the vote and the Liberals will be in opposition.

    There will be huge culture wars going forward. Scoring an own goal by having people on our own side doing the damage is stupidity writ large. Let Turnbull fall on his sword if he veers to the Left. Morrison or Bishop – from the centre right – will take the leadership, spend one term in opposition firming a centre/right position and then swoop in and take office to, once again, clean up debt left by Labor. The political merry-go-round will continue, but the Australian people MUST look at themselves in all of this.

    Read what Paul Kelly says in today’s “Australian”. He is right on the money.

  2. pgang says:

    Jody that seems like a very naïve position regarding Labor. They are unlikely to move to the centre now. Check global trends. And no, the Australian people will not look at themselves.

    The IPA already has 100 theses. That work is already done.

    • Jody says:

      Labor has already moved to the centre; backed the government on people smugglers and away from the Left. Remember what Kevvy said, ‘we are not going to lurch to the right on this”. Well, they ‘lurched’ back to the centre/right. It’s been done before and with the power of sheer political expedience will be done again. Not on all policies, for sure, but on immigration they’re in lockstep with the Coalition. The Aussie will turf them out if they change from that.

  3. Peter says:

    David, you say: “Enough of Mr Abbott, the wasted years of his government are now behind us.” I don’t agree with those sentiments at all. The almost-two years were not wasted. Protecting our borders and our national security were signature achievements; and close was getting rid of the carbon and mining taxes. Three free trade agreements can’t be sneezed at. Putting the NBN on a more practicable basis despite its continuing problems was worthwhile. Particular measures in the budgets were the problem no doubt of that and the broken promises they entailed. Hockey was hopeless in my view and Abbott let it happen. But 18C is a complete side issue, which wasn’t worth the political capital it would have taken to pursue it to the death. If 18C is so egregious why didn’t Howard get rid of it. It was only the Bolt trial that brought it to the fore and it seems clear that he would have won on appeal. In the best of worlds we wouldn’t have 18C but conservatives without responsibility should understand that powerful political forces can be brought to bear to resist any change to 18C. It’s always one thing to object to bringing something in; it is quite another to get rid of it, once it is in. Peter

  4. Jody says:

    Agree with this, Peter, on 18C. We have decided we want to protect minority groups from embarrassment and offense and, having imported them in large swathes, they now constitute a substantial voting bloc who were always going to be opposed to watering down any Act which would have seen them portrayed as anything but victims. (That’s my fear for Europe now, incidentally, and Merkel should be hanged for this).

    Stopping the boats WAS a substantial achievement, but mainly because of the toughness of Scott Morrison who had and still has a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to the Left and people like Gillian Triggs. He stared her down in the Senate, remember!!

  5. Bran Dee says:

    How good is this analysis by David Achibald!
    The comments on Tony Abbott find support in the Weekend Australian today where Judith Sloane writes:’Forget his lack of interest in economics; this guy looked as though he didn’t understand arithmetic. The idea that you could repair the budget without any cuts ———-was completely loopy’.

    • Peter says:

      It’s not rocket science. You repair the budget by setting parameters in the first instance by specifying that no-one below a particular level will be hit. Cuts yes, not unimaginative senseless cuts destined to lose votes. That’s not loopy. It is common sense. Nothing to do with arithmetic. Very limited people advising Abbott.

  6. Jody says:

    Peter, isn’t that a little like the bad carpenter who blamed his tools? In this case the tools were human.

  7. Jody says:

    If it’s any consolation: Today’s rooster, tomorrow’s feather duster!!