Tony Abbott has written what, on the face of it, is an extraordinary article. In today’s Australian (October 29), he argues a number of positions. First, the Liberal Party’s internal divisions are not that great. Second, the past five years have been about “personalities”, not policy or philosophy. Third, there could be nothing worse (for a Liberal) than the election of Bill Shorten. Fourth, despite lack of action to date by Scott Morrison on climate change, energy and immigration, Morrison is a “tribal Liberal” and should be supported by all in the Party.
The context, of course, is the Liberals’ loss of Wentworth, ongoing sniping by the family Turnbull, dreadful polls presaging an electoral wipe-out of gigantic proportions, continued head-scratching by conservatives within and outside the Liberal Party at the lack of narrative and clear direction under the latest leader, unrepentant Black Hand powerbrokers centred in New South Wales, and unresolved — and probably unresolvable — philosophical differences.
Abbott clearly perceives a need to add to the Wentworth fallout In this exercise, he is (still) playing deputy sheriff to John Winston Howard, who has also implored capital-L Liberals of all persuasions to continue to support what he probably regards as his greatest legacy, “the broad church”.
What is Abbott up to? There are three possibilities. One is that he genuinely fears annihilation at the polls for the Liberal Party, and as a still (strangely) loyal Party man cannot abide this prospect. He knows he still commands much respect and affection from conservatives and is spending some of that political capital on a bid to at least save some of the furniture, as they say.
A second possibility is that he is (still) playing the long career game, knows that the Libs are toast in the short term, knows he is the best opposition leader Australia has ever had (just shading Malcolm Fraser for that title), and this is his subtle job application for the role after the coming apocalypse. In this light, he must be seen to be the ultimate team player.
The third possibility is that he is spouting unutterable rubbish for reasons known only to himself.
We know Tony Abbott is a nice guy, though simultaneously much hated for his traditionalist and very, very sane views by “the woke”, the Greens and the social justice warriors. We also know that Abbott is no fool. So why would he seek to prop up a party that has used him mercilessly (to win elections), has smashed his career to a pulp through unjustified coups (one unsuccessful, one successful in 2015), has humiliated him through non-selection for Cabinet positions (despite his widely perceived desire to serve again at senior level), and has attempted to see him booted out of politics altogether through Photios-inspired branch stackings and assorted pre-selection shenanigans.
The Liberal Party has treated Abbott like dirt. Yet Abbott’s supporters seem to be much angrier at the Liberal Party than is the man himself!
Back to the core propositions of Abbott’s argument. He claims the Liberal Party’s internal differences are not great, mere personality squabbles. This statement is patently absurd. It serves the “broad church” position, but few believe it anymore. Yes, there are all sorts in the Liberal Party: old wets, climate wets, the gay mafia, friends of the ABC, libertarians and free speech warriors, big spenders, small government types, Big Australia types and small immigration champions, and social conservatives. And then there are the seat warmers and ministerial leather lovers. And yes, so it has always been. And yes, there have always been factions too. And yes, Howard was a monarchist and Costello a republican, and the party survived this in the greater interest of good government and the nation’s welfare. Abbott’s view is that the broad church model works so long as a “tribal Liberal” is in charge.
This noble effort to square the circle won’t wash. There is considerable evidence, for example, that the factions are no longer interested in co-existence and shared spoils; rather, the now is about annihilating the other (internal) side. Or at best, in having removed from the parliament those who most seriously oppose their positions. The factions now play for keeps. How a conservative can stay in a party where classical conservative positions on energy, climate, globalism, migration and life issues, are not merely opposed but, rather, the people who hold these positions are excoriated with deadly purpose and attempts are made to have them expelled. Attempting to reform the Party too is inevitably met with deadly force if this remotely threatens the factionally powerful. Ask Ross Cameron or John Ruddick.
But the internal warfare is not just about power and influence. It is philosophical to the core. And the divides are getting worse, not narrowing. This is occurring in the same way that make modern attempts at fusionism in the American conservative movement doomed absolutely to fail. The arguments are now about core business, not mere trifles like the size of government or deficits or trade. They are conflicts over ultimate values, over life issues, over the meaning of marriage, over freedom of conscience, over the rights of the religious in the public square, over the dictatorship of relativism.
Cultural conservatives understand what is going on and oppose it, actually hate it, to the core. We manifest Trump envy “because he fights”, not just because “he says what we are thinking”. We see political correctness and its pernicious influence on every aspect of policy as the fight of our lives. Then we see Liberals cheering on and linking hands with our so-called “progressive” enemies. And we really don’t like that.
Progressives play for keeps. Ask Brett Kavanaugh. They see politics as life, and life as a war. They use all weapons at their disposal, like social media and big data, and enlist the enemies of conservatism like GetUp to achieve their objectives. They destroy careers and lives routinely in support of their objectives. They are ideologues, even when, like Turnbull, they are also political wastes of space. Conservatives are not ideologues themselves, being rather a “movement” and having “dispositions”. This makes conservatives very prone to fight ideology — and liberalism, especially in its modern, progressivist incarnation, is decidedly an ideology. Not the place for polite hand holding by members of a “broad church”.
Progressives outside the Liberal Party, who would never in a million years vote Liberal, see it as their core business to have conservative positions and players removed from the Liberal Party. Tony Abbott is himself one of these targets. His own colleagues are actively joining in the attempt to have his core values and beliefs expunged from the main vehicle Australia currently has to have these values protected and enacted in policy. The Liberal Party is another of the institutions through which there has been a highly effective long march. Speaking personally, it doesn’t make me happy as a conservative to hear Tony’s rousing cheer of ‘long live the party!’ and ‘stick with us”. Stick with what, exactly?
Next is Abbott’s claim that the last five years have just been about personalities. This is nonsense. If so, if he genuinely believes that, he appears to be admitting that all his efforts to highlight the direction the party should be taking have amounted to no more petty spite intended to embarrass Turnbull, not to articulate the positions that win elections and do right by Australians. Was it a matter of “personality” when, in 2017, he launched the book of essays edited by Quadrant contributor James Allan, Making Australia Right? On that occasion, in an auditorium on Sydney’s North Shore, he quite specifically laid out the three positions to revive Liberal fortunes: lower power prices, lower immigration and reform of the Senate. Those planks of a Liberal revival are about keeping theparty honest in a policy and philosophy while crafting a workable and appealing Liberal narrative that would get stuff done and please Joe Average at the same time. To say, and I paraphrase here, that the intramural discord of recent years amounts to no more than ‘me and Malcolm not getting on’ insults readers’ intelligence and the commitment of long-suffering conservative party members. People like his very self, in other words.
Abbott’s third claim is that old Liberal Party chestnut, the ever usable standby, that Labor and Shorten present the greatest threat to Australia that is possible to imagine. So stick with us, even though you know and we know and we know that you know that we are rubbish. This is actually the line being offered in Victoria as its election day approaches. Did I mention that one of the party’s greatest deficits is the poor quality of its strategists and operatives?
The recent abominable decision by the Queensland Government to allow abortion right up until the moment of birth is sufficient to remind conservatives that voting for the other mob is decidedly not cost-free. And the thought of Bill Shorten PM should give all who believe in fundamental decency in life and politics true pause for reflection. Shorten has enough mud attached to him from his past life to sink many, though not him. He is a flip-flopper, an opportunist, a politically correct creature whose murine instincts long ago made loyalty and truth alien concepts.
No conservative would welcome this result, not with Rudd and Gillard still fresh in our memories. And yet, what have conservatives seen Liberal governments doing and saying? We certainly have not heard that Turnbull had to go because he was a cuckoo in the conservative nest, plus a tin-eared disaster as a politician? Indeed, only the other day, his replacement avowed that it wasn’t him who set the ouster ball in motion, then he sent off to a Bali climate conference the man who, or so one gathers, didn’t need to be replaced.
Beyond the Turnbull stain, Liberals are toying with transgenderist rubbish in Tasmania. They have attacked the sacred seal of the Catholic confessional in two states. They have embedded institutional corruption as a way of life in the oldest state, doing their best to destroy the capital city along the way. In Queensland, an ex-leader and two former ministerial colleagues chose to align themselves with abortion-up-to-birth. No conservative should abide this. Liberal administrations routinely ratchet up the reach and size of government. They find ever new ways of spending our money even though they have run out of it. They do not defend our freedoms – of speech, of conscience, of religion. They are actively destroying Australia’s cost competitiveness in energy, and in so doing are impoverishing many who cannot afford to be poorer still.
This is worse than Labor-lite. This is capitulation to the enemy, with SloMo no better than the predecessor against whom he will utter not an ill word. I therefore simply do not countenance the argument that the Liberal Party is any sort of worthwhile bulwark against inevitable Labor disaster.
Abbott’s fourth claim is that Morrison is a “tribal” Liberal, one of us, not remotely like Turnbull, and therefore should be supported by conservatives. I wonder if Abbott actually believes. Morrison is not a tribal Liberal. He is a former apparatchik, a party functionary. Like Shorten, he flips and he flops. He was Turnbull’s preferred candidate and it was the votes of the Photios crew in Canberra — Zimmerman, Falinski and the like — that gave him the edge on Peter Dutton and installed him in The Lodge..
Morrison has so far failed all three tests that all conservatives would have given him – to appoint conservatives broadly to senior positions in his government, to correct past policy errors and reverse course in key areas, and to at least show some intent to reform party structures and to take on factionalism in his own backyard. On this last point there is something to be gleaned from Labor: it was only after Gough Whitlam descended on the Victorian branch of his party and bludgeoned reform into the the thick heads of its ruling cliques that his victory in 1972 became possible.
No, Tony, being a good and loyal party man is worse than not enough. It aids, abetts and comforts the enemy — the enemy no longer at the gates but comfortably ensconced in the keep. The Liberal Party must set its goals more than somewhat higher than occupying, temporarily and ineffectively, the territory already conquered by the progressive enemy.