Australian politics, society & culture

Inside Tony Abbott's mind

This is serious

© John Woudstra / Fairfax Syndication

Waleed Aly

Medium length read4500 words
 

Tony Abbott was the man who could never be prime minister. “He’s just too right-wing,” a colleague told the Courier-Mail. “Too hardline,” said another to Abbott’s face. “He’s very much a mid-20th century sort of a bloke,” declared Labor strategist Bruce Hawker in early June, only to be trumped the following evening by Kevin Rudd, on the 7.30 program, who called him “one of the most extreme right-wing conservative leaders or politicians that the Liberal Party has thrown up”.

Abbott took the Liberal Party leadership from Malcolm Turnbull at a time when conventional wisdom considered support for an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) politically mandatory, then proceeded to campaign vociferously against exactly that. Within seven months he had seen off the once-invincible Rudd, and within two more almost defeated a first-term government at the ballot box, forcing it to minority status. Since then, his grip on Labor’s throat has only tightened.

Now he sits on the verge of victory. People will have their expectations – and especially their suspicions – but no one really knows how Abbott would act as prime minister. Even his colleagues are unsure. There are some very specific big-ticket items – such as his parental leave scheme and his determination to rescind the carbon tax – but the latter is something to be opposed, and the Liberal party room detests the former. His industrial relations policy is vague, and seems a cautious distance from WorkChoices and the reforms so many in his party and in business want to see. “Abbott looks set to become a do-nothing PM,” Peter van Onselen recently opined in the Australian. Van Onselen was voicing the concerns of more than a few of Abbott’s colleagues, who fear being handed power with no mandate and no agenda.

That’s certainly not the way his progressive critics see him. To them, Abbott is the hyper-Catholic, overly aggressive, climate change–denying, homophobic, sexist populist who wants to impose his idiosyncratic religious views on an unwilling public. Julia Gillard would never use quite those terms, but she came close with her recent prediction that an Abbott government would “banish women’s voices from our political life” and make abortion “the political plaything of men who think they know better”. This Abbott is the embodiment of everything the last five decades of social progress have strived to overcome. Thus he is cast as essentially regressive: a creature of the past, intending to take us all back there. His foes are maddened that the nation apparently cannot see what seems so obvious to them: Abbott is shallow, devious and so frighteningly backwards that no sane person would hand him power.

The trouble with this caricature is that it rests on contradictions. Abbott cannot be both a shameless populist and a man of unshakeable retrograde convictions. He can’t be driven to say anything to get elected, while also insistently inflicting his unpopular religious views on the electorate. This is the conundrum of Tony Abbott to many of his critics (and not a few of his supporters). Hence the frequent claims of hypocrisy.

Abbott is many things. Too many things, really. He’s the “conviction politician” who frequently and spectacularly changes his mind. He’s the conservative who cherishes our institutions and constitutional arrangements, but would like to alter them radically to enable a massive federal takeover of health and education. His two greatest and most frequently cited influences are Bob Santamaria and John Howard. Santamaria was a Democratic Labor Party Catholic archetype, the kind who utterly despised the moral depredations and social ravages of capitalism. Howard is the author of WorkChoices, perhaps the most pro-capitalist, antisocial legislation of the past decade. They represented opposing brands of politics.

Dig a little deeper, though, and there’s a consistency to Abbott. He is aware, for instance, that his centralist views sit oddly with both the conservative and liberal preferences for diversified power. He counters this with a reasoned argument of his own: where it is clear that the federal system is failing to deal with the contemporary demands of our health service, “the logic of the states’ rights position is that theory trumps practice” – which itself violates the tenets of conservative thought. At times he shows blind spots. Abbott has no place for longer, more irregular working hours as an explanation for why we’re seeing an increased incidence of relationship breakdowns, for instance. But his understanding of politics and society is not nearly as haphazard as it sometimes appears. The urge to dismiss him underestimates him completely, both as a politician and as a thinker: Tony Abbott is a serious person.

Behind the contrived fluoro-jacketed appearances at workplaces, behind the simplistic sloganeering, is someone with a far more considered view of the world than his critics suppose. Abbott is comprehensible, but only on his own terms. You don’t have to like those terms, but it is possible to grasp them, to get some sense of how Abbott thinks about politics, and why his critics are destined to maintain their visceral rage towards him.

The rage begins with his unscrupulous approach to Opposition. All politicians indulge in double standards, but few have done it so unashamedly as Abbott. Examples abound, such as his preparedness to attack Craig Thomson while the allegations against him are before the courts, but his refusal to comment on the Federal Court’s explosive findings against Mal Brough on the flimsy pretext that an appeal might be forthcoming. Similarly, Abbott’s attack on Gillard’s broken carbon-tax promise has made the sanctity of one’s word a litmus test for legitimacy, but he has no compunction about reneging on written agreements that no longer suit him. Most recently he did this over a deal on public funding for political parties. But recall also that in the aftermath of the 2010 election, when each of the major parties was negotiating with the crossbench in the hope of forming minority government, Abbott agreed to a pairing arrangement. This would ensure that whichever side of politics provided the speaker would not be disadvantaged in the House of Representatives by losing the vote of that member, because the other side would forgo a vote of its own. As soon as it became clear that Labor would form government and provide the speaker, Abbott’s Coalition backed out of the agreement.

We should not be surprised. Abbott has spent a lot of time thinking about precisely what an Opposition’s job is. He made his intentions abundantly clear immediately on assuming the Liberal Party leadership:

Oppositions are not there to get legislation through. Oppositions are there to hold the government to account. And unless we are confident that a piece of legislation is beyond reasonable doubt in the national interest, it is our duty as the Opposition to vote it down.

This is the Abbott doctrine. He would not acquiesce unless the only remaining objections were so slight as to be unreasonable. He would approve of nothing that was justified on balance. Abbott would treat the government as though it were the prosecutor in a criminal trial aiming to deprive someone of their liberty. It’s a standard designed to ensure no innocent people are convicted, even if the guilty go free by the hundred. In this way, Abbott was apparently happy to see countless good ideas perish for the sake of preventing a single bad one coming to fruition. Just as a defence lawyer does his opponent no favours, Abbott wouldn’t co-operate to make good legislation better. Here was the ultimate contrast with Turnbull, who had negotiated amendments to Rudd’s ETS. Abbott was emphatically rejecting that deal, and, when asked if he would be willing to negotiate new, more satisfactory amendments, he simply repeated his rejectionist doctrine, in quasi-legal terms:

Now, if we are absolutely confident that what the government is doing is beyond reasonable doubt in the national interest, sure, let’s go along with it. But if you’ve got the sort of doubts that we obviously have over this, well, we’re obliged to oppose it.

It’s tempting to see this as an extension of Abbott’s personality. Hereabouts we’d typically read of the punches Abbott is alleged to have thrown at his opponents during his university politics days, of his affinity for boxing and the rougher aspects of rugby. No doubt this kind of aggression comes easily to him, and has served him well in running myriad disruptive political campaigns since his undergraduate years, but there’s more thought to it than that. This is a studied approach to the art of opposition. Perhaps the most telling statement in Abbott’s first press conference as leader was his invocation of an old political foe in mounting his anti–ETS argument:

Now, I don’t want to spend the rest of my political life quoting Paul Keating, but remember what Paul Keating said in another context. He said, “If you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it, and if you do understand it, you’d never vote for it.”

With this line, Keating stole John Hewson’s unlosable 1993 election. Abbott spent that election working in Hewson’s office, mostly writing speeches Hewson didn’t use. Hewson was the quintessential constructive Opposition leader, the kind who would rather lose an election than go to one without an agenda, and there was no doubting his agenda in 1993. His Fightback! manifesto was a whopping 650-page tome, providing detailed proposals for radical economic change. Today we remember it for broaching the topic of a GST, but it was far grander than that. It proposed abolishing awards and remaking industrial relations, greatly reducing the availability of bulk billing in Medicare, abolishing payroll taxes, selling off state-owned enterprises, and giving generous tax cuts to middle and upper-middle income earners. In short, it was probably the most comprehensive neoliberal blueprint for Australia ever drawn up as policy. He released it more than a year ahead of the election. The backlash was considerable, leading Hewson to release a revised version a year later, which exempted food and childcare from the GST. As far as policy-making goes, it was a perfectly respectable process. Yet Hewson became the first Opposition leader since the ’60s to give an incumbent government an increased majority.

© John Woudstra / Fairfax Syndication

In 1994, Hewson was forced to declare Fightback! “dead and buried”. Abbott would later borrow the phrase (adding “cremated”) regarding Howard’s WorkChoices. The imprint of that experience remains. Abbott saw Hewson’s destruction up close. He knows better than most the effectiveness of Keating’s attack in those years, and the dangers of Hewson’s policy-heavy approach. Long before there was any likelihood of Abbott becoming Opposition leader, he had taken his lessons from this. He doesn’t doubt Hewson’s policy gravitas. In fact, he calls him “one of Australia’s most influential policy makers” because “the Keating and Howard governments proceeded to implement most of his agenda”, but also acknowledges that Hewson “failed as a political leader”. For Abbott, then, there is a clear difference between government and Opposition, a conviction forged in the fire of Hewson’s defeat. The two demand different modes of behaviour. As he writes in Battlelines, his recently republished book of 2009:

An Opposition party’s main day-to-day task is always to mount an effective critique of the government ... The next Liberal government won’t need to assume office with specific policies on all topics down to the last detail. Too much detail can easily give the government material for a scare campaign.

Abbott took over the Liberal leadership from Turnbull, a man who had spent months negotiating in good faith with Kevin Rudd to shape an ETS, and whose reward was seeing Rudd continue to bury him in the polls. Bearing all this in mind, Abbott was never going to be co-operative on an issue that was dividing his party. Abbott knew his task, and it certainly didn’t involve being an active participant in government. As he told The 7.30 Report the evening he became Opposition leader: “You know what I think happened today? We went from being a former government to being a fair dinkum Opposition.”

It seems inconceivable to those who see in Abbott only a man whose attitudes are out of step with society’s, but his political judgement is finely honed. His critique of Rudd’s prime ministership, with its fatal micro-management and sidelining of the cabinet – written when Rudd was soaring in the polls – proved exactly right. The year before it happened, he foresaw that Rudd would “soon find himself under pressure from his ambitious deputy” (though he could have never predicted the extraordinary manner of Rudd’s axing). He warned John Howard that the abolition of the no-disadvantage test under WorkChoices was foolhardy and “was always going to look as though we were exposing vulnerable people to danger”. This “catastrophic political blunder” would cost the Coalition its “blue-collar conservatives”, who mattered more than the “doctors’ wives” to its electoral prospects. When polls were showing that the electorate wanted action on climate change, Abbott saw that Australians nonetheless would be “unlikely to support policy changes that they think might make daily life harder or much more expensive”. He also noted that most wanted more information about the ETS they were supporting, and that about half opposed an ETS being introduced before the rest of the world declared its position at the Copenhagen conference. His gamble against the will of the electorate was anything but. What looked to be a rejection of public opinion was in fact a very subtle reading of it.

It’s easy to mock Abbott’s changing positions on climate change. It’s also easy to see the streak of denialism in him. Battlelines rehearses several classic denialist arguments: we’ve had radical changes in climate before industrialisation; future changes in climate are “unknown and perhaps even benign”; climate change used to be called “global warming” until particularly cold winters in Europe and North America demonstrated that the alarmists were wrong. He cites approvingly Bjorn Lomborg’s declaration that “a narrow focus on reducing carbon emissions could leave future generations lumbered with major costs, without major cuts in temperatures”. It’s a deceptive line. The point of carbon-emission reduction isn’t to reduce global temperatures: it’s to limit the inevitable temperature rise to a level that isn’t catastrophic.

The truth is that Abbott’s beliefs on climate-change science don’t govern his political actions. He supported an ETS under Howard, then opposed one in Battlelines. He supported one again under Turnbull’s leadership, then unseated his boss and took his job in order to defeat it. Now he rails against the carbon tax. Clearly, he opposes an ETS or a carbon tax as a matter of principle. Whether or not he supports one as a matter of policy is, at all times, a matter of political judgement. If he thinks it is inevitable, if he thinks the argument against it is ultimately lost, then he will acquiesce. That’s what led John Howard to adopt one just before his political demise. It’s what led Abbott to go along with Turnbull, who famously declared that the Coalition would be “wiped out” without one. But, in the end, Abbott was convinced that “the politics of this issue have changed dramatically”. He was right.

For all his reputation as a man of zeal, Abbott is very much a pragmatist. There are those moments when pragmatism meets conviction, and Abbott will pounce on them much like any politician, but he very rarely indulges in moral idealism. In David Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Abbott, he explains this as a contest between “Values Abbott” and “Politics Abbott”, a contest which Politics Abbott ultimately wins:

Win or lose, nothing will be done to roll back abortion rights because Politics Abbott knows that’s simply not possible. Values Abbott will work to cushion families from the realities of economic life. And if the Coalition parties allow him, Values Abbott will protect working men and women from the full force of the labour market. But he won’t put his career on the line for any of this. He won’t abandon his old DLP principles, but he won’t be a martyr to them either. The Abbott that matters is Politics Abbott.

The conclusion works, but this isn’t some fight between the two halves of Tony Abbott that only his worldly ambition resolves. Rather, this is a straightforward application of conservative political philosophy. Any serious conservative understands that there is a world of difference between private morality and public policy. It embraces axiomatically what Anthony Quinton dubbed “the politics of imperfection”: this idea that social norms should not be bent to the will of some overarching moralism. The great British conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called it a “mood of indifference”, which requires the conservative “to rein in one’s own beliefs and desires, to acknowledge the current shape of things, to feel the balance of things in one’s hand, to tolerate what is abominable, to distinguish between crime and sin”. The conservative’s private morality is, ultimately, beside the point. It’s entirely possible for a conservative (like Abbott’s friend, the late Christopher Pearson) to be gay, but to oppose same-sex marriage on the basis that it messes unduly with an ancient institution. Or, conversely, to believe that homosexuality is an abomination, but accept same-sex marriage on the basis that social attitudes make change inevitable and the institution of marriage might otherwise fall into disrepute. Oakeshott makes the point explicit: “It is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity.”

Abbott has read Oakeshott. Indeed he invokes Oakeshott as an authority for the idea that as far as conservatives are concerned, “few principles are dogmatically held and one person’s opinion is considered as likely as the next person’s to be right”. He accepts the idea that conservatives have no business trying to create a world that realises their own moral vision: “Unlike liberalism or socialism, conservatism does not start with an idea and construct a huge superstructure based on one insight or preference,” he writes, adding elsewhere that “ideologues want to impose their values on others. Pragmatists want to solve others’ problems as long as the cure is not worse than the disease.” He puts himself very much in the latter category.

That is not to say Abbott’s conservatism is unconcerned with moral values. He’s concerned with the breakdown of society’s moral fabric, and will resist what he sees as moral disintegration if it’s happening before him, but he’s not radically moralistic. He won’t try to re-create an idealised moral past. His conservatism means he submits to irretrievable moral developments in society. “As an ambitious politician, I had never had the slightest intention of becoming a morals campaigner,” he writes in Battlelines. For Abbott, conservatives “are better suited to defending barricades than to storming them”. Take, for instance, Abbott’s understanding of what he calls “the evolving family”, which is “often sole-parent or blended”:

The fact that the divorce rate has increased from about 10 per cent to about 40 per cent in the past two generations is not really so surprising. Nor is the fact that people frequently live together before making a formal commitment to each other. It reflects the social changes of the past century much more than it signifies a collapse of moral standards ... A hundred years ago, most people married their first love at about 20 and lived to be about 50. These days, people typically marry their third or fourth love at about 30 and live to be about 80. It’s not realistic to expect most young adults in this hyper-sexualised age to live chastely for many years outside marriage. Even if people’s expectations of their partners and spouses were much less high, longer lives would tend to mean more potential exposure to the rocks on which marriages often founder. People have not so much abandoned traditional mores as found that the old standards don’t so readily fit the circumstances of their lives.

He does not rail against these things as you might expect a conservative Catholic to do. Perhaps it’s because he himself failed to observe Catholic abstinence as a young man, but his account of these social developments is nuanced, undogmatic and certainly not doctrinal. Yet, he told Women’s Weekly that young couples should observe “the rules” prohibiting pre-marital sex. Asked about the advice he would give his daughters on sex, he volunteers the idea that their virginity is “the greatest gift you can give someone ... and don’t give it to someone lightly”. When asked by the Sunday Age to recount his best personal advice, he came up with “avoid the occasion of sin”. This is the stuff that scares his critics, who see in this a plan to control women’s sexuality.

“Australian women don’t want to be told what to do by Tony Abbott,” shot back Gillard, then deputy prime minister, after the Women’s Weekly interview. He wasn’t quite doing that. He was talking about the advice he would give, as a father, to his daughters. That distinction probably doesn’t matter to most casual observers, but it matters to Abbott. It’s when Abbott is being asked about his personal convictions that he says these things. When he is speaking at the level of society, his observations are much more accommodating of what we might call un-Catholic social norms. The distinction between what he tells his daughters and what his plans are for society is one I suspect Abbott understands instinctively as a conservative.

Tony Abbott with former prime minister John Howard, January 2013

© Tony Abbott

It might be true that Tony Abbott would, all things being equal, prefer a world where, say, abortion is illegal. It is certainly true that he thinks the frequency of abortion in Australia is “a national tragedy”, that it is (at least sometimes) “the easy way out” and that excessive “teenage promiscuity” is to blame. He is – or at least was – up for the ethical and cultural debate on abortion. That makes him unusual in our political culture. Few others would ask us to foster a “culture where people understand that actions have consequences and take responsibility seriously”, as though abortion were a matter entered into lightly. His personal moral position on this is deeply conservative and, to many, deeply offensive.

But when it comes to public policy, Abbott insists that “no one wants to bring back the backyard abortion clinic or to stigmatise the millions of Australians who have had abortions or encouraged others to do so”.

In Battlelines, he makes an explicit distinction between “deploring the frequency of abortion and trying to re-criminalise it”. From his time as Howard’s health minister, and from Battlelines, we know his approach will be to try to “nudge the abortion rate down without affecting women’s right to choose”, probably by tailoring support services accordingly. But he’ll also be extremely wary of taking any steps that will unleash a backlash. For Marr, this is because Politics Abbott won’t have the numbers and wouldn’t risk the political cost of doing anything more coercive. I suspect his reasons are more philosophically considered. His political conservatism means he understands the folly of trying to re-create the past. He knows that any attempt at regressive change would probably create a bigger problem than it is trying to solve.

 

Waleed Aly

Waleed Aly is an ABC Radio National broadcaster, former practising solicitor and a lecturer in politics at Monash University. He is the author of People Like Us and Quarterly Essay 37, 'What's Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia', published in 2010.
More by Waleed Aly