Tony Abbott is back – this time with power and conviction. On February 23, Tony Abbott launched the book Making Australia Right, published by Connor Court and edited by the distinguished James Allan. The book is a collection of essays from Australia’s right-of-centre luminaries. The speech Abbott gave on the occasion was the best of his political career and may turn out to be the turning point in his political fortunes. This was his policy punchline:
“In short, why not say to the people of Australia: we’ll cut the RET, to help with your power bills; we’ll cut immigration, to make housing more affordable; we’ll scrap the human Rights Commission, to stop official bullying; we’ll stop all new spending, to end ripping off your grandkids; and we will reform the Senate to have government, not gridlock.”
It’s a great program. If any political leader took it up with conviction, breathed its message with persuasion and sought to accomplish it with prudence, he (or she) would surely make a long-serving and well-remembered Prime Minister.
Our present Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, unless struck down like Saul en route to Damascus, does not have what it takes to carry the weight of such a project. In saying this I do not want to dump on Turnbull. Unlike many Australians, I am drawn to his urbane style, his fluent speech and his reservations about playing politics like a rugby forward. He breathes reasonableness and balance and I like that. The problem is a want of indicators that, behind the urbane manners, lie deep convictions. They may well be there, but they don’t come readily to the surface.
Such convictions as he has acknowledged are the commonplaces of Australia’s richest postcodes: multiculturalism, naturally; climate change, but of course; same-sex marriage, whatever. Of these, one by itself rules him out as a candidate man-of-destiny called to reforge the shattered liberal-conservative elements of the Menzian political vision. Hoping against hope that Turnbull might answer the summons to such a mission, The Australian’s Paul Kelly wrote on February 25 a desperate peroration to an article describing the crisis within the “conservative” side of Australian politics:
“The Liberal Party waits on Turnbull. Its philosophical history is rich enough to meet the challenge of the Trumpian age. Under assault from the different brands of Bill Shorten’s populism and Pauline Hanson’s populism, Turnbull cannot keep delaying. He needs to articulate his inner core, expose his heart, address the dilemmas facing his party, offer his own version of liberalism and a credible reason why conservatives should remain within the tent.”
It won’t happen; it can’t happen.
Earlier in the same article Kelly pointed to the reason why such a hope is misconceived. One of pillars of the Menzies synthesis was “homes material, homes human, homes spiritual”. This is truth perennial. Menzies understood it. If our our leaders in public life, letters, academe and the arts do not get this, they are either creatures of folly or servants of destruction.
As Paul Keating once put it, in a flash of brilliance, “Two blokes and a cocker spaniel don’t make a family.” Malcolm Turnbull allows that they might, indeed, be so. On this ground alone, he can never propose a vision of Australian society that would call back to the Liberal Party those who are deserting it for One Nation and others. Like the foot soldiers who hand out how-to-vote dodgers for the Liberals, those trekking to One Nation — however tolerant they might be in practice of the sexual revolution in their families and wider social networks – are, on the vital point of family life, closer to the old unburnished Keating than to the up-to-date socially polished Turnbull.
Wiser for scars
Abbott, however, really does have the potential to give new expression to the genius behind Menzies’ idea of the Liberal Party. Whatever else he is, whatever failings he might have, he is not a child of the zeitgeist. He carries wounds, to be sure. But precisely because Abbott has been scarred by events — especially by his preoccupation in office with accommodating the socially liberal aspirations of colleagues who, in the end, betrayed him — he has acquired the kind of experience necessary for renewing the Liberal Party’s fraying political fabric.
His address at the launch of Making Australia Right was line-by-line true to the point of obvious, telling to the point of painful and precise to the point of surgical. And it was devastating. For instance, on subsidizing renewables:
“The government is now talking about using the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to subsidise a new coal-fired power station; creating, if you like, a base-load target to supplement the renewable target.
“We subsidise wind to make coal uneconomic so now we are proposing to subsidise coal to keep the lights on. Go figure. Wouldn’t it be better to abolish subsidies for new renewable generation and let ordinary market forces do the rest?”
If I can speak as one who, in the past, has dallied with the idea of an RET, the power crisis in South Australia has blacked out all its sometime allure once and for all. Let power be sourced by the market and new technologies develop unsubsidized: this is the way to go and Abbott got it right. He also reduced it to a politically marketable formula.
Above all, Abbott served the highest interests of his party and its supporters by declaring that, on it’s present course, the Turnbull government is doomed.
“Self indulgent.” “Unhelpful.” Not the genuine “team player.” Such were the cries that went up in response, even from some of his closest supporters in the final showdown with Turnbull.
In one sense it is “unhelpful” (even boorish) to repeat what everyone knows: that the Turnbull experiment has been a political failure. And to rub it in, the latest Newspoll, published after Abbott’s “Making Australia Right” speech, shows the Coalition now five points lower than it was in the weeks leading up Turnbull’s overthrow of Abbott.
Two things to consider here.
Politician or statesman?
The first is that the critics are right, but only if their (and our) expectation is that Abbott should be a “politician” in the low sense the term has acquired in common usage.
A statesman, however, is one among practitioners of the political craft who cleaves to what is true, at least as he sees and judges it. He understands the deeper treachery of bogus loyalties: like not warning of hidden shoals known to lie ahead on present bearings. Whether Abbott has reached “statesman” status remains to be seen. He will never make it, however, or serve those who elected him, if he refrains from self-indulgence, contrives to be helpful or buries his judgement in team play.
In the final analysis, the statesman is a rule-breaker. He defies conventions and disciplines. He is a disruptive influence. For which reasons he has known the wilderness. But those in public office unprepared to go there, cannot hope to accomplish great things.
Secondly, Abbott is not merely repeating uncomfortable, widely broadcast measures of the decline in the Coalition’s electoral credit. What he is talking about is the policy reasons for it. This is quite a different and deeper matter and one to which every MP has been called, especially in times of emergency, by right of election to Parliament. Doing his duty, however, is not something that impresses the embarrassed colleagues who ran Turnbull against him or who climbed on board the Turnbull bandwagon after Abbott was dispatched.
Sure, Abbott is deeply unpopular right now among his parliamentary confreres, but among the rank-and-file of the Liberal Party he speaks for a great many. His proposal, for instance, to cut back our immigration in-take – to confront the mantra of “big is better” – comes like welcome rain after a long drought of respect for the native accomplishments and aspirations of our ‘non-cosmo’ “forgotten people”.
Although the idea of curtailing Australia’s immigration program is not new — Bob Carr, for example, has been a prominent, politically centrist advocate — it certainly represents a watershed that a mainstream political figure should make it a central feature of a new political program. If implemented it would signal a remarkable change in Australian political culture and a threat to the elite monopoly over who gets to define and shape the make-up of our national population.
Abbott has taken the risky but high road to the wilderness from which he might never re-emerge. Without taking it, however, he will not be Prime Minister a second time.
Forlorn hope, the insiders say. I am not so sure. this year, 2017 is going to be the Year of Disruption. Great dangers lie ahead for incumbents. If Turnbull should fall under the press of events, Abbott’s present chorus of critics will have few options other than to recall him from the desert.