Malcom Turnbull’s seizure of the prime ministership was despicable, not least because it was both his passive, self-serving mediocrity as a minister and active white-anting that helped create the climate for his coup. The new leader’s devious self-promotion has led many to postulate that Abbott’s departure from the top job signals the death of conservatism within the Liberal Party, but is this an accurate reading of the situation? Is his departure really a justification for conservative Liberals to leave the party?
What follows is not an apologia shortenfor Turnbull nor a further demolition of Abbott. It is an attempt to put events into perspective. Conservatives are justified in their excoriation of Turnbull and they are right to be concerned at how far to the left he might push the Liberal Party. But the fact of the matter is that, at least until the next election, we are stuck with Turnbull for better or worse. Abbott has called for unity within the party, in order that Labor should not prevail at the next election. That is the pragmatic approach, towards which I am inclined.
Many conservatives — including, I suspect, a good many Quadrant Online readers — may feel that even a Labor government might be preferable to a Coalition in which the senior party has abandoned conservative principles – the idea being, presumably, that eviction from office after only one term will return Liberals to both their core values and their senses. At the heart of this proposition is this key question: just how conservative were the Abbott government and its leader?
Abbott’s conservatism is most evident in two issues: his determined opposition to same-sex marriage, and his enthusiasm for the monarchy. Certainly, opposition to same-sex marriage can be seen as a conservative position, although I suspect Abbott’s resolve is driven as much by religious conviction as the conservative disinclination to fix things that aren’t broken.
The republican issue is touted by many as a left concern, but there are many conservatives, myself among them, who support the idea of an Australian Head of State along the lines proposed at the 1999 referendum, i.e. the minimalist model. But it is not a burning issue and is unlikely to go anywhere for some time. Even Turnbull recognises this. As an example of Abbott’s conservatism, this is neither here nor there. Again the thought occurs that Abbott’s opposition to the minimalist republic is driven more by his delight in the traditions and trappings of the monarchy (as evidenced by his restitution of knights and dames) than by any apprehension of any real damage that might occur as a result of its implementation.
One could also argue that Abbott’s successful asylum-seeker policies are quintessentially conservative, but it seems to me a sad day when protection of our national borders (not to mention preventing deaths at sea) is the sole preserve of conservatism. The fact that the other side of politics doesn’t recognise as much suggests its return to government should be prevented at any cost, even that of a second Turnbull term.
But what about other issues of concern to conservatives, the ones that really matter?
On the repeal of Section 18C, surely a conservative issue if ever there was one, Abbott was conspicuously missing in action. Indeed, after promising its repeal, he fell at the first hurdle.
On climate change, I accept that political reality dictated Abbott toe the warmist line to some extent, and he does deserve credit for scrapping the carbon tax, renegotiating the RET and telling the Climate Commission to find supporters other than taxpayers to underwrite its alarmist propaganda. But on the negative side, he failed to seize the opportunity to shift the narrative provided by the mounting evidence that the whole CAGW scam is just that. Scuttling the climate careerist’s boondoggle should be a stake in the ground for all true conservatives, yet how many in the Liberals’ party room have vigorously prosecuted the case? Nick Minchin comes to mind, but he is long gone from Canberra. As for the rest, while many are sceptics, none dare announce as much in public.
On the economic front, given the mixed messages, it is hard to know if Abbott is a conservative or one more exponent of the same old tax-and-spend paradigm. His paid parental leave scheme suggested the latter. Abbott also sidelined Cory Bernardi, presumably because he was embarrassed by the South Australian’s conservatism. Why should Bernardi feel any more disenfranchised under Turnbull than he was when exiled by Abbott?
And, of course, Abbott is front and centre on the need to recognise Aborigines in our Constitution. I am not a philosopher, much less a political scientist, but surely the essence of conservatism is that, while accepting some change is inevitable, those changes should be for the good or, at the very least, they should cause no harm. Abbott let the genie out of the bottle on this one. Regardless of whether a future referendum succeeds or fails, the animosities and resentments unleashed during the debate mean this exercise in constitutional tokenism can only end in tears.
So, what is the point of having a ‘conservative’ prime minister if he is unwilling or unable to act according to what supporters hoped were his convictions?
By all means, regret the fact and the manner of Abbott’s demise. By all means vote against Turnbull if you think that the need to punish him for his duplicity outweighs the national interest in preventing a Shorten-led government. But let’s not pretend that we have lost a great champion of conservatism.