September 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Why the Tories want Tony Abbott to lose

By John McTernan

David Cameron, the UK’s Tory prime minister, is secretly afraid that Tony Abbott might be victorious here in Australia. Why is he worried? Because it would bolster his enemies, and, as the political adage goes, “your opponents sit opposite you; your enemies sit behind you, on your own benches”. An Abbott victory could cause problems for Cameron’s project of modernising his party.

What is it about Tony Abbott that so stirs the hearts of Tory backbenchers? It’s not his rhetoric, or his messaging. It’s his positions on same-sex marriage and climate change. Unreconstructed right-wing Tories have been told and cajoled to change in these policy areas, as an essential symbol of a party at ease with the 21st century. Yet, on the other side of the world, a “real” conservative leader looks like winning without making concessions to the liberal consensus.

This is important. Over the last decade there has been a determined move by right-wing parties to win power by shifting towards the political centre. This was a concerted reaction to the success of US Democrat president Bill Clinton and UK Labour PM Tony Blair, who each forged a popular centrist or centre-left politics that swept all before it in the 1990s. The right took a while to respond to this new electability of the centre-left, but eventually they found a formula. And the International Democrat Union, an association of right-wing and centre-right parties of which John Howard is chairman, was an important transfer mechanism for policy positions and campaign techniques.

In very different countries – Sweden, New Zealand, Britain – conservative parties have found success by following similar playbooks. First, they acknowledged that they had lost the trust of voters. Second, they abandoned key beliefs that threatened institutions that the public deeply supported – in the UK Cameron pledged himself to the National Health Service, and in similar fashion Abbott has ruled out a return to WorkChoices. Finally, they showed that they had changed by embracing key policies of the centre-left. Climate change was usually the emblem of this shift – while in opposition, Cameron went to the Arctic Circle to observe the melting of the icecap. In government, he has one of the highest effective carbon prices in the world.

This formula works, and it was precisely what Malcolm Turnbull was attempting to do when, as Opposition leader, he sought a consensus on climate change in 2009. He does actually believe that the science is in and that action is needed, but he also fully understood the symbolic power of this move. Where Australia differs from the rest of the world is that the most conservative members of the Liberal Party were able to roll Turnbull and install a leader who has made no secret of his climate scepticism. This is an experiment with an alternative playbook – right-wing populism backed by significant parts of the mainstream media.

Tony Blair once told me that the difference between his challenge when he became Labour leader and Cameron’s on gaining the Tory leadership in 2005 could be simply put. After repeated defeats, the left of the Labour Party had finally accepted that they could only win from the centre, but the Tory Party had had no such moment of acceptance, and many of its members still believed that they could win from the right. And this was after three smashing defeats in a row for the Conservatives, who for the previous hundred years had been the most electorally successful right-wing party in the world. Though Blair’s agenda was contested within Labour, it was accepted, and then vindicated by massive electoral majorities. Cameron has imposed change on his own party against their will, and all he has managed to deliver for them is minority government, which, as we know, takes a lot of paint off a prime minister.

No wonder the right wing of the British Tories looks longingly to Australia. In Britain the consensus belief in climate change is so strong that all the main political parties are committed to policies that will increase electricity prices by a third by 2020. It is futile for the right to revolt; there’s an overwhelming parliamentary majority for driving down carbon emissions by forcing up energy prices. The only outlet for anger is a quixotic tilt against windfarms.

Further, the social modernisation of the British Conservative Party has been symbolised by the legalisation of same-sex marriage this July. This was, as in other countries, a conscience vote, but the proposal was rejected utterly on Cameron’s backbenches in a spasm of opposition to his very leadership. I’ve seen the polling that Cameron considered when making the decision. It shows that six out of ten Brits in almost every demographic support same-sex marriage: young and old, black and white, Londoners and Northerners. The only exception was members of the Conservative Party, and their average age is 64. Imagine what they think of Tony Abbott – a Tory leader who doesn’t buy the climate change argument and won’t let his MPs vote for same-sex marriage?

Cameron is in the rocky middle stretch of his five-year term. He has so far failed to raise the Tory vote above its 2010 level, which only got him a hung parliament. A bill to gerrymander electorates to give his party a better chance has been killed. There is an insurgent party to his right, the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose saloon bar politics – a heady brew of anti-immigrant, anti–European Union and anti–speed camera policies – are the precise opposite of Cameron’s modernisation project. The last thing Cameron needs is an Abbott victory. It would form a basis for the “swivel-eyed loons” in his party to argue that the Tories, too, could win an election from the right, if only they could get rid of all the politically correct nonsense holding them back.


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