Tony Abbott: Keeping Reform Alive

The Hon. Tony Abbott, MHR for Warringah, delivered this speech to the Samuel Griffith Society’s 2016 Conference in Adelaide in August. He wrote a series of assessments of his government’s achievements and failures in the March, April and May issues this year.

abbott mugMy first task tonight is to congratulate the Samuel Griffith Society for its unflinching commitment to upholding our constitution and to safeguarding our legal traditions. You are, if I may say so, a thoroughly conservative body—not in any partisan sense but in your respect for what has shaped us and in your determination to build on the best features of the past.

Although Sir Samuel Griffith led a nineteenth-century Queensland version of the Liberal Party, there were occasions, he believed, when “the comfort of the individual must yield to the good of the public”. He had a strong social conscience but no sympathy for those “who endeavour to bring about reforms by crime and violence”. He opposed indentured labour, but was more inclined to phase it out than to ban it. And he was, of course, the principal author of the first draft of our Constitution; which has turned out to be a splendidly serviceable rule book for a practical people.

Although he once claimed no inconsistency whatsoever between any of his innumerable speeches on a huge range of topics, he was more pragmatist than ideologue. His was a pragmatism based on values: sympathy for the underdog, respect for institutions that have stood the test of time, and a preference for freedom.

My second task is to confront a regrettable truth: these are vexing times for conservatives—legal conservatives no less than political ones—and we need to ask “Why?” if better times are to come.

Take an issue that’s quite rightly exercised many here: section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that prohibits what might “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” on racial grounds. This is a troubling law. At its worst, it limits free speech merely to prevent hurt feelings. John Howard opposed it when Paul Keating introduced it, but didn’t repeal it in government.

After the successful prosecution of Andrew Bolt, I promised to “repeal it in its current form” but reneged after fierce criticism from Liberal premiers and a wall of opposition in the Senate. As well, I was seeking ways to limit jihadi hate preachers and worried about the appearance of double standards. Perhaps the cause of free speech would have fared better if my government’s initial bid had been merely to drop “offend” and “insult” while leaving prohibitions on the more serious harms.

Still, as things stand, there’s no real prospect of change—even though several young Queenslanders are now facing official persecution merely for questioning reverse discrimination on social media and the Race Discrimination Commissioner is now itching to prosecute our best-known cartoonist.

The decency and fair-mindedness of the Australian people will always be a better defence against hate speech than a law administered by ideological partisans—yet our parliament prefers to tolerate over-the-top prosecutions than to upset thin-skinned activists.

Take another issue dear to adherents of the Samuel Griffith Society: the restoration of a better-functioning federation—a federation that more faithfully reflects the letter and spirit of our Constitution—by allowing the different levels of government to be more sovereign in their own spheres.

In the 2014 budget, Joe Hockey and I implemented our election pledge to limit the Rudd–Gillard school and hospital cash splash to the 2013 forward estimates. We reduced Commonwealth support for the states from the unsustainable, beyond-the-out-years, pie-in-the-sky promises of the previous government, to CPI plus population growth in the fourth year of the budget projections.

Our idea was the constitutionally correct one: to have the states and territories take more responsibility for funding the public schools and public hospitals. The public would then know better whom to blame when things went wrong. Again led by Liberal premiers, the response was a fusillade of criticism along the lines of “cruel cuts” and “broken promises”.

Along with a modest Medicare co-payment for otherwise bulk-billed GP visits, reductions in stay-at-home-mum payments once the youngest child was at school, indexation for pensions based on the consumer price index rather than male total average weekly earnings, and insisting on learning-or-earning for school leavers rather than going straight on the dole, these reductions in the rate of increases to spending were sabotaged in the Senate.

So, as things stand, rather than reform a dysfunctional federation, the states would rather blame federal funding than address the shortcomings in their schools and hospitals; while the Commonwealth won’t risk a scare campaign by considering real change.

There’s much that my government achieved in two short years: abolishing taxes, stopping the boats, finalising free-trade agreements, boosting small business, starting big projects like Sydney’s second airport, keeping our country safe—and not shirking budget repair. Still, I have to take responsibility for our inability to reform section 18C and to deliver the beginnings of federation reform.

Free speech is worth the risk of giving offence. The Commonwealth can’t be the states’ ATM if our federation is to work. Government can’t continue to live beyond its means.

I did make these points but not often enough or persuasively enough to bring about the changes I sought; the changes, I suspect, that you wanted too. Hence the need for all of us to ponder how these good causes and other good causes might better prosper in the future.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I have been reflecting on my time as opposition leader, as well as prime minister. Interestingly, while less than 50 per cent of the current government’s legislation has passed the parliament, almost 90 per cent of the former Labor government’s legislation passed without a division.

I think the Abbott opposition was right not to oppose means-testing family tax benefits and means-testing the private health insurance rebate; because, although these measures hit the aspirational families the Coalition most wanted to help, they also helped to rein in an increasingly out-of-control budget deficit.

Unquestionably, we were right to oppose the carbon tax, which was not just a broken promise but the antithesis of the former government’s 2010 election commitment. We were right to oppose the mining tax which destroyed investment, cost jobs, and boosted red tape without raising serious revenue. We were right to oppose the over-priced school halls program, and the combustible roof batts program, and the live cattle ban that threatened Indonesia’s food security—because these were all bad policies incompetently implemented.

I wonder, though, about the former government’s people swap with Malaysia. The 800 boat people that could have been sent to Malaysia was less than a month’s intake, even then. I doubt it would have worked. Still, letting it stand would have been an acknowledgment of the government-of-the-day’s mandate to do the best it could, by its own lights, to meet our nation’s challenges. It would have been a step back from the hyper-partisanship that now poisons our public life.

In the last parliament, I could invariably count on Bill Shorten’s support on national security issues. On deploying the armed forces or strengthening anti-terror laws, there were cabinet ministers harder to persuade than the Leader of the Opposition!

The challenge for the new parliament will be to be as sensible about economic security as the old one was about national security; because we can’t keep pretending that economic growth on its own will take care of debt and deficit.

Of course, Labor’s instinct is for more tax and the Coalition’s preference is for less spending—but if Labor wants spending legacies such as the NDIS to survive, it should be prepared to work with the government in dealing with the spending overhang that it created.

After an election where the government all but lost its majority, yet the opposition recorded its third-worst vote in seventy years, the sensible centre needs to focus even more intently on what really matters to middle-of-the-road voters. All of us need to dwell less on what divides us and more on what unites us, and to have an open mind for good ideas—as the Howard opposition did with the economic reforms of the Hawke government.

We’re much more likely to rebuild trust by telling the truth than by running away from hard decisions. We have to keep reform alive because the reforms of today create the prosperity of tomorrow. Budget repair, federation reform, productivity reform and tax reform can’t stay in the too-hard basket for the whole term of this parliament.

Of course, all significant change has costs that need to be taken into account. And it’s easy to make a bad situation worse with ill-considered change. Yet often enough we must change merely to keep what we have.

We are free because we’re strong. We are fair because we can afford to be. But every day we must ask how we can be better, smarter, stronger—and adjust as circumstances require. This isn’t ideology; it’s common sense. It shouldn’t be a crisis that forces parliament to face facts: everything has to be paid for; every dollar government spends comes ultimately from taxpayers; and taxpayers are also voters with a vested interest in getting value for their money.

My job tonight, though, is less to address the challenges of government, than to address the challenges facing those who wish to build incrementally on our constitutional and legal heritage. The main problem is that fewer and fewer people actually know what that heritage is.

Some years ago, after John Howard had questioned the state of history teaching in our schools, I quizzed my teenage daughters about some of the big events in Australia’s past. “We haven’t been taught that,” one responded. Her history study had been ancient Egypt: “pharaohs and stuff”, she told me, “and the Rosetta Stone”.

If people don’t know the Bible and gospel stories; if they haven’t read Shakespeare or Dickens; if they haven’t heard about ancient Greece and Rome; if they haven’t studied the political evolution of England; if they know little of the Great War and the struggles against Nazism and communism—how can they fully appreciate the society they live in, or understand Australian democracy, let alone the subtleties of the relationships between the different branches and levels of government?

With less common knowledge, shared understandings become more difficult. Without moorings and without maps, inevitably, we are adrift and directionless. What’s deep and lasting becomes harder to distinguish from the ephemeral, and we end up taking sport more seriously than religion.

A few weeks back, I addressed my old school and spoke briefly about the debt that the modern world owed to Christianity: how democracy rested on an appreciation of the innate dignity of every person; and justice on the imperative to treat others as you’d have them treat you; or to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

The subsequent questions, I have to say, focused on the alleged cruelty of the Abbott government’s border protection policies, the inadequacy of its climate change policies, and the insensitivity of its approach to same-sex marriage! And why wouldn’t these be students’ concerns, given teachers’ preoccupations with multiculturalism, reconciliation and global warming? At least the Safe Schools program isn’t yet mandatory at Catholic schools in New South Wales.

But there’s hope; one Year Nine student I questioned the other day, from a different school, volunteered that our biggest national problem was the budget deficit. It turned out that during the election he’d been exposed to a heavy dose of Sky News!

There wouldn’t be a person in this room tonight—not one of you—who would say that our civilisation is more secure today than it was five, ten or twenty years ago. The new tribalism, the loss of civility, and reality-television politics are taking their toll across the Western world. Yet for all our present discontents, there’d hardly be anyone here unconvinced that Western civilisation, especially its English-speaking version, is mankind’s greatest achievement.

To be an Australian is to have won first prize in the lottery of life. A culture which welcomes diversity, which values women, which offers respect to everyone; with universal social security, with political and social and economic opportunity; which encourages people to look out for each other, which urges everyone to be his or her best self and which is always looking for ways to improve, deserves to be much better thought of. Yet what’s readily extended to other cultures is only grudgingly extended to our own: credit where it’s due. An appreciation of our society’s strengths, as well as its weaknesses, is missing from the public discourse, making consideration of so many issues so contentious.

I won’t try to persuade you that there’s never been a better time to be an Australian—for cultural conservatives there are too many frustrations for that—but surely the contention, even now, that there’s no better country to live in ought to be self-evident. Cultural self-confidence: that’s what’s missing; and that’s what’s required for more of our debates to tilt the right way.

You appreciate what more of us should: that our national story has far more to celebrate than apologise for. The challenge for all of us who seek a better Australia is rarely to throw things out and start again, but to build on the great strengths we have.

21 thoughts on “Tony Abbott: Keeping Reform Alive

  • Warty says:

    Having taught at a Sydney GPS school for twenty years, I am not at all surprised Tony was asked the questions he was at Riverview. Unfortunately it will get a lot worse, as Years II and 12 will be taught a revisionist form of Aboriginal studies; a Green version of climate change; and a feminist form of feminism. For the Baird Government to condone this Board of Studies social engineering is to acquiesce to several generations of Green government, unless a more conservative ‘silent majority’ finds a way of intervening . But they can’t leave it too late, because the change will be coming sooner than later.
    By the same token, I find the last two paragraphs of Tony’s speech just a little too complacent, and the irony is that ‘there’s never been a better time to be an Australian’, even though Tony won’t persuade us to believe an echo of Malcolm Turnbull’s election fizzer clarion call, it seems not a little disheartening that a former PM should look to the past to remind us we have ‘far more to celebrate than apologise for’, albeit it true.
    It is the future we older folk are particularly worried about, particularly when all too many politicians appear to be more concerned about burying their heads in the sand. It has because of a Coalition tendency towards Islamic appeasement and national complacency that a significant number of its voter base abandoned ship at the last election. My question is: what are they prepared to do to try and win them back?

    • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

      An excellent comment, Warty. The unavoidable answer to your concluding question is “nothing”. With only a very few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of our politicians of all persuasions are either too dumb or cowardly, probably both in many cases, to even attempt to remedy the fast deteriorating situation and they are enthusiastically supported in their inane fumblings by the MSM of a complementary quality. Each time Cory Bernardi speaks out, he is ridiculed by all and sundry while Waleed Aly is showered with accolades.

  • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

    Thank you for your article Tony, please stick around, because although you are in the wilderness now, there may/will come a time when you will be required to make some sort of ‘Churchillian’ style comeback [although hopefully not in such dire circumstances] and win a ‘war’. The war that you/we must fight [and win] however is not so much a military conflict but a ‘culture’ war. The new divide in politics/society is no longer that between ‘left’ and ‘right’, because those terms are now virtually meaningless because they have been altered in true ‘Orwellian’ fashion by the ‘leftist’ media. The new ‘war’ is now between the wealth producing sections of society who live in rural Australia and in some outer suburbs and that of the largely parasitic ‘Inner City elites’ epitomised by the wealth consuming/controlling bureaucrats dominating the media, judiciary and academia.
    Every country’s long term standard of living is determined ONLY by its wealth creating activities. No country has ever become prosperous by increasing taxation and bureaucracies. Taxation is the biggest disincentive to wealth creation. Governments cannot create wealth, they can only ever stop wealth creation by taxation and bureaucracy. Governments can best assist wealth creation by getting out of the economy as much as possible, i.e. make markets freer, not more regulated.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Well done Tony. It’s a sign of courage to be self critical. I know three or four PM’s who would envy your record.

  • mburke@pcug.org.au says:

    The old saying, when you’re catching flak you’re over the target, ought to be a comfort to Tony Abbott. The vicious ad hominem that he and Peta Credlin have received from shrieking harpies in the media tells us all we need to know about his critics and the horses they rode in on. Keep on keeping on, Tony, and thanks for your efforts. Nil carborundum.

  • Warty says:

    Why on earth is this being recycled?

  • Jody says:

    Pity Abbott didn’t keep “reform alive” by ditching 18C when he had the golden opportunity to do so. I expect he was busy going down his list for Knighthoods.

    • Philby says:

      The most exciting time to be alive was when Australians threw Labor out of office rejecting the green Marxist ideology rammed down their throats by Gillard and Rudd. Abbott received a huge mandate to correct the wrongs of the Labor/Greens, unfortunately for those who voted the Liberals into power the will to do the job was not there. A huge disappointment to many. Abbots government failed the people on many accounts despite dealing with a couple of big items. His misguided early support of Islamic values despite being warned of the dangers to Australian values showed how weak his government was. As Abetz is now saying the Liberals need to grow a set and basically disrupt the direction that Labor/Greens policies are still taking us. Pauline Hanson One Nation are showing the colours that the Liberals should be flying with strong senators that tell it as it is and denounce Green Marxist rubbish for what it is. Probably it is too late to grow a set Tony but you had it in the palm of your hand and. failed

  • ianl says:

    > ” … reneged after fierce criticism from Liberal premiers …”

    Such a depressing fact. Why are these LINO’s tolerated ? No, don’t tell me Labor is worse: the ALP is funded by the unions, the Libs by the developers. Apart from that, Tweedledum and Tweedledee in nauseating, perpetual disgrace.

    Now some idiot will tell me to “cheer up” – without offering the slightest empirical evidence to encourage this.

    Classical small-l liberalism, honest scientific methodology, Renaissance-aquired values … oh well.

    • Don A. Veitch says:

      Dont be so impatient, one step at a time.
      Sing the Halleluyah Chorus every morning because:
      the GOP is doomed, war mongering neo-cons are discredited, Obama has sacked General Allen, John Kerry has now done a deal with Putin, the uni-polar world is ended, Syria is saved from Isis/Daesh, and, and, wait … there’s more. A chastened Abbot just might make a comeback (he’s an old DLP boy so has good training?). The Liberal Party is a cretins party but get active, keep active – that is good therapy. Good luck and cuddle someone you love.

  • Salome says:

    Nice article from the man to whom I wrote in disappointment about the about-face on 18C, only to get the Attorney-General to reply.

  • brian.doak@bigpond.com says:

    How glad we were that at last Conservatives had their knight in shining armour to carry their colours into parliamentary battle. We would only have this one chance in decades. Unfortunately like a ‘wet’ moralistic Premier of tunnel vision, blind and deaf to supporter input, our one chance was lost. Now a growing number of conservatives turn to to the anti-intellectual but common sense One Nation for leadership.
    One Nation is holding no grudge for its 20 years of mistreatment and should certainly be given a preference deal with the failing party whose Don Quixote was most instrumental in having her incarcerated.

    • Warty says:

      Well put, Bran Dee.

    • Jody says:

      Peter van Onselon wrote well in yesterday’s “Weekend Australian” that the rump of the Liberal Party is now controlled by reactionary conservatives and that the ‘conservative middle’ is where most Australians reside. He said that once upon a time the people trusted the Coalition with the finances but that they are now no better than the ALP. I agree with that, and it’s a shocking indictment – but writ large is PVO’s view that the Liberals and ‘liberalism’ is the natural home for Australia; that if it doesn’t work that’s because there is something wrong with the party. I just couldn’t disagree.

      • Warty says:

        PVO’s article was little more than an anti conservative rant. The emotive use of language made it a rant. The name calling turned it into a rant and the mainstay of his argument was that a small ‘l’ Liberal Party should introduce SSM. Anyone who speaks glowingly of Malcolm Fraser and talks of ‘fringe-dwelling’ reactionaries (instead of ‘level-headed conservatives’) needs to be consigned to the waste paper basket of looney ideas. The following is part of a response to the wet:
        Now, ‘reactionary’ (don’t you love all the name calling)? What is it to be a reactionary? What is in a name that we call a rose? Perchance it is a chance to slander? Whatever it is, the reactionary knows to call a spade a spade, and knows that all things Safe Schools will rot you to the core. And that ‘identity politics will send your blood pressure up to no avail. That ‘entitlement’ will make the budget skip a heart beat and blow out of all proportion. That the Aboriginal industry, as Pauline knows, will do the same. That when Cultural Marxism drips from your eyes, your nose, your ears that you are eligible to become a paid up member of the ‘progressive’ movement, and enjoy the sort of ‘feel good’ boost to enable you to give yourself the sort of self-congratulatory pat on the back, commonly witnessed amongst the Green contingents.

  • brian.doak@bigpond.com says:

    Yes Jody, for once in a long time I have found something in that article by P Van O with which I agree. However PVO mostly speaks from a university mindset with a Labor/Green sympathetic line. For instance: ‘The same sex marriage debate sees religious conservatives joining forces with reactionary politicians to oppose a change that is essentially harmless’. ‘Essentially harmless’? Yes, like Mohammedanism!
    The ABC and SBS would soon be legally displaying the intimate ‘marriage activities’ of 1% of the population more than the other 99%.

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