May 2010


On your bike, Tony Abbott

By Robert Manne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
In 2010, Manne hoped Abbott would exit early

Since the defeat of the Howard Government, the Liberal Party has tried three leaders. The first, Brendan Nelson, had no identifiable strategic vision for the future. His successor, Malcolm Turnbull, did.

Turnbull sought to return the Liberal Party to the progressivist non-Labor tradition that began with Alfred Deakin and ended with Malcolm Fraser. He was not tempted by the kind of populist conservatism that had flourished in the party since Howard had gazumped One Nation over border control and won the 2001 election. Turnbull regarded the apology to the Stolen Generations as simple decency. He was “relaxed and comfortable” about the consequences of the cultural revolution of the 1960s – feminism, gay liberation, multiculturalism – which the right wing of his party regarded as the politically correct excesses of self-hating, anti-Western elites. Turnbull sought to unsettle the government over economics, especially after Rudd’s assault on ideological neo-liberalism, by characterising the prime minister as a Whitlamite big-spender and a born-again Keynesian. More deeply, however, he sought to distance the Opposition from the do-nothing climate-change denialism that had dominated the Liberal Party under Howard, at least until its eleventh hour. For Turnbull, no less than for Rudd, climate change was the greatest challenge of the age. Rudd under-stood that without the support of the Opposition he could not secure the passage of his emissions trading scheme. Turnbull believed that if the Liberal Party opposed the scheme the Coalition would be crushed at the forthcoming election and, even more importantly, no longer worthy of respect. In late November last year, these different political judgements provided the basis for an admittedly extremely timorous deal.

The right wing of the Liberal Party was never reconciled either in general to Turnbull’s brand of liberal progressivism, which the arch-reactionary John Stone had labelled the philosophy of Wentworth Man, or in particular to his support for action over climate change. Yet if Malcolm Turnbull had been a cannier politician he might, none-the-less, have prevailed. By mis-characterising the balance of the numbers in a heated party-room debate, Turnbull triggered a rebellion led by Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott. In the face of this rebellion, Turnbull staked his leadership on his refusal to accept the compromise offered by his enemies – to delay the passage of the emissions trading legislation until after Copenhagen – and openly described the Minchinites as the right-wing wreckers of the Liberal Party. If Joe Hockey had accepted the Minchin compromise he would today be leader of the Liberal Party. Unfortunately, he was either too principled or too foolish to agree. By advocating a nonsensical conscience vote on the most important political issue of the day, Hockey was the first candidate to be eliminated in a three-cornered leadership contest. The contenders now represented the most progressive and the most conservative interpretations of contemporary Liberalism – Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. Abbott became leader of the Liberal Party by a single vote. He had finally to be taken seriously.

Tony Abbott has told us he became genuinely interested in politics in 1976, at the age of 18, when he accepted an invitation to attend a conference of the National Civic Council, the Catholic political organisation run by BA Santamaria. The Santamaria movement that Abbott joined was characterised by belief in Catholic rural settlements and social justice for the ordinary working class; by militant domestic anti-communism and unflinching military support for the US in the Cold War; by a staunchly conservative version of Catholicism, which had responded with alarm to the liberalising tendencies that had blown up since Vatican II; by a profound faith in the sanctity of family and traditional male and female roles; by an equally profound hostility to the new social movements – feminism, gay liberationism, environmentalism – and to the forces of  “nihilism” and “relativism” that had supposedly taken root among the intellectual class.

In the early days the Santamaria movement focused on the daily struggle against the communist leadership of the trade unions. By the time Abbott joined, the focus had shifted to the struggle against the left-wing university students thought to be providing the new social basis for violent revolution. Santamaria now believed that a new Dark Age was approaching, like at the time of the fall of Rome. “We are living,” he told a National Civic Council audience in 1978, “in the moment of the waning of Western Christian civilisation.” Despite the apparent hopelessness of the task, the role of young Catholics like Tony Abbott was to devote their lives to the grand battle to save civilisation and turn back the cultural tide.

It would be ridiculous to claim that Abbott has not qualified, or even abandoned, aspects of the apocalyptic and exhilarating Santamaria world view he breathed in as a young man. But it is entirely accurate to insist that he has been fundamentally influenced from then until now by the first political thinker who got to him. On one occasion, Abbott described Santamaria as “the greatest living Australian”. On another, he described him as “the ultimate true believer”. In 2007 he confessed that he had spent his life under Santamaria’s “spell”. Even though there is evidence that Santamaria despised John Howard, it remains very psychologically important for Abbott that one of the last visitors to the Santamaria deathbed was the prime minister Abbott had by then come to idolise. Throughout his life, Abbott has wrestled with the Santamaria legacy. He has only moved out from Santamaria’s shadow slowly and even then incompletely. When he drops his guard and informs an inter-viewer that he feels threatened by homosexuality or that he would advise his daughters to treasure their virginity, it is the continuing influence of Santamaria that we see. No one, in my opinion, can understand Abbott if they do not understand this.

After Abbott’s election as Liberal Party leader, an interesting debate began about the role his Catholic faith was likely to play if he ever became prime minister. According to the left-wing version, as seen for example on Liz Jackson’s Four Corners, Abbott is an unreconstructed and old-fashioned Catholic, who does not believe in the separation of Church and State, who has already used whatever opportunity has presented itself to impose his religious views, and who is almost certain to continue to do so in the future. According to the viewpoint of commentators more sympathetic to Abbott’s Catholicism, such as Paul Kelly, this is a straightforward case of left-wing double standards. Abbott is clear about the need to separate Church and State. He is no more likely to impose his personal religious views than his no less religious rival, Kevin Rudd, who launched his bid for the leadership of the Labor Party in this magazine with an article called ‘Faith in Politics’.

In my view, while there is some truth on both sides of this debate, the Left’s interpretation is more accurate. As a young man, Tony Abbott was influenced by the most radical version of the relationship between Church and State, and of the conception of the role Catholicism – not merely Christianity – ought to play in shaping politics that this country has ever witnessed. Shortly after defeating the communists in the trade unions, Santamaria wrote to Archbishop Mannix. He told Mannix that his followers would soon “be able to implement a Christian social program in both the state and federal spheres. This is the first time that such a work has become possible in Australia and, as far as I can see, in the Anglo-Saxon world since the advent of Protestantism.” With Santamaria and his followers, the desire to redeem the realm of politics with a Catholic social program was never entirely absent.

Abbott is neither a deep nor a systematic thinker. But there is no question that has preoccupied him more than the relationship of religion and politics and what he calls “the ethical responsibilities of the Christian politician”. He is troubled both by the rise of “secular humanism” in the West and the “secular humanist takeover of the Labor Party”. He clearly believes it a good thing that Christians do enter politics. But what, on entry, should they do? On the one hand, Abbott argues, it is wrong to deny the separation of Church and State or for religious believers to seek to impose their religious views on their fellow citizens. On the other, he argues, it is wrong and unrealistic to demand of the Christians who enter politics that they should abandon their core beliefs. Luckily, for Abbott, this apparent dilemma can be readily resolved. In every case, as it happens, the moral teachings of the Catholic Church coincide perfectly with the findings of the “natural law”. So long as Catholics in politics argue for their positions by reference not to dogma but to this natural law, they are free to try to advance their religion’s moral code.

Like many contemporary Christians, Abbott is preoccupied by the question of abortion. Although he claims he does not wish to cause women unnecessary pain, this has not prevented him from claiming, on one occasion, that abortion is a “black-and-white” moral issue and, on another, that 100,000 abortion deaths have created for Australia “a legacy of unutterable shame”. As a realist, Abbott recognises that in the short-term this legacy cannot be reversed. But he remains proud of the role he has played in calling the ethics of abortion into public question and of “nudging” the nation in a new direction. Abbott is also proud that on many occasions the Howard government was able to advance what he sees as an explicitly Christian social program. “This government’s decisions to overturn the Northern Territory’s euthanasia law, ban gay marriage, stop the ACT heroin trial, provide additional financial support for one-income families and try to reduce abortion numbers through pregnancy support counselling, show the tide of secular humanism was not as irreversible as [Santamaria] thought.” With eight conservative Catholics in the Howard government, Abbott frequently joked that Santamaria’s party, the Democratic Labor Party, was alive and well.

Abbott believes there are two versions of Christianity in politics. Rudd’s version, “the social gospel”, assimilates Christianity to a left-wing program of support for refugees, Indigenous reconciliation, workers’ rights and serious action over climate change. His own, advancing a conservative religiously inspired ethical agenda and social program, is the one that he believes genuine Christians should embrace. From the point of view of the left-wing secular humanist, the danger with Rudd is that he will turn out to be a hypocrite and with Abbott that he will prove true to his word.

After the Howard government lost office, Abbott tells us, he fell into a funk. It was only by writing his political manifesto, Battlelines, that his appetite for the life of politics returned.

John Howard is without doubt the hero of Battlelines. Abbott argues that Howard was one of Australia’s greatest prime ministers; that he was a brilliant manager of colleagues with “the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon”; that he was a courageous “border breaker” in policy areas like gun control, the GST, the war on the wharves, East Timor, border protection and the Northern Territory intervention; that he had impressed the electorate deeply because “he believed in something”; that the something he believed in was the fundamental goodness of Australia; and that his political genius could be summarised in a single phrase – “inspired pragmatism”. What, then, finally went wrong? The only mistake Abbott believes Howard made was WorkChoices, where he lost faith with his “battlers”. Even that, however, was more a political than a policy mistake. In reality Howard lost power simply because the people decided that it was time for change.

Beyond this hallelujah chorus in praise of his former leader, if truth be told, Battlelines is a hodgepodge of half-baked thoughts and determinedly unresolved contradictions.

Abbott believes that the Liberal Party has been formed from the marriage between liberalism and conservatism. Yet it is only the conservative partner of the marriage that truly interests him. Apart from conventional piety about the magic of the market, Abbott has little interest in freedom. He is, for example, so untroubled by state interference in private lives that he hopes to extend the income management of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous intervention on a non-racial basis nationwide. Yet even his discussion of conservatism is incoherent. Abbott is clearly impressed by the claim that the essence of conservatism is an absence of “the spirit of improvement” and by Michael Oakeshott’s contempt for “the modern mindset … in love with change”. Yet when it comes to discussing his conservative heroes, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and John Howard, it is their “activism” and their radical transformative political agendas that he most admires. Or, take another example. Abbott claims to be a constitutional conservative. Yet the most significant reform proposal in Battlelines is a referendum that would effectively destroy the Federation. Despite his constitutional conservatism, Abbott is uninterested in unintended consequences and dismissive of legal niceties. This is not the way a true conservative normally thinks.

This is not his only contradiction. On a rhetorical level Abbott writes in praise of small government and low taxes. On a programmatic level he advocates a profligate list that includes the elimination of means tests for Family Allowance, the Baby Bonus and private health insurance; high salary increases for elite teachers; a major new road-building program; the most fiscally generous parental leave system in the world, where parents will receive 100% of their salaries capped at $150,000; and, eventually, the extraordinarily expensive extension of Medicare to a system of universal dental treatment. Since writing his manifesto, Abbott has added, as his alternative to the Rudd government’s emissions trading “big new tax”, a voluntary emissions reduction scheme funded in its entirety from the budget; a vague promise outlined in his debate with Rudd of 3000 or 4000 new hospital beds, an obvious contradiction to the claim in Battlelines that no “gargantuan” new spending on health was needed; and a “temporary” “levy” of 1.7% on all big business to pay for his parental leave scheme, which had higher-tax social democrats such as Bob Brown (and yours truly) cheering. Even at the level of rhetoric, Abbott is almost comically inconsistent. At one moment in Battlelines he solemnly promises a fiscal conservatism as rigorous as Peter Costello’s in the budget of 1996. At another, he tells his readers that governments must learn how to “spend” and not merely to “hoard”.

Coherence is not the only quality missing from Battlelines. So is the capacity for even elementary self-reflection. Abbott argues that the Howard government was an entirely pragmatic and non-ideological government uninfluenced by the currents of neo-conservatism coming from the US. He also argues that the prime minister fought a number of brilliant campaigns in his conduct of the “culture wars”; that, in the course of these campaigns, Howard was tackling the “political correctness” of the elites on behalf of the common sense of ordinary people; and that the campaigns he fought over Indigenous reconciliation or multiculturalism were in defence of the very “legitimacy” of Australia. Does Abbott really not understand that the ideas about “culture wars”, “political correctness” and the undermining of national legitimacy by left-wing elites are clichés straight from the operational handbook of contemporary American neo-conservatism? Likewise, in defending the Howard government’s Iraq record, Abbott argues that “it was to liberate other people, to advance everyone’s interest and to uphold universal values that ‘the coalition of the willing’ went to war.” Does he not understand that he has just given us a kindergarten version of neo-conservative strategic doctrine, albeit one from which the explicit ambition for undisputed American global hegemony has been conveniently excised?

Abbott’s discussion of the Howard government’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq points to something in his political personality altogether disconcerting. As a con-sequence of Iraq, certainly tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people have died. Abbott was a member of the government that took Australia to war on the basis of a false intelligence trail. There is, however, no trace of anguish or even defensiveness in his discussion. A similar moral imperturbability is found when he discusses the Howard government’s treatment of asylum seekers or the question of Indigenous reconciliation. Despite the fact that the prolonged detention of asylum seekers inflicts grievous suffering and serious mental illness on very many innocent people, Abbott is apparently untouched. The rights of the asylum seekers, he tells us, have to be balanced against the rights of Australians to protect their borders. No more needs to be said. Abbott has reluctantly come to accept the apology to the Stolen Generations. His grudging tardiness is explained by the fact that, as he makes clear in Battlelines, he regards the dispossession and destruction of the Aboriginal people as merely a failure “to extend to Aboriginal people the kind of sympathetic understanding that was readily extended, say, to the Irish and their predicament” and the decades-long forced removal of Aboriginal children as “a mild enough form of racism”. No less disconcerting are his unbelievably superficial discussions of the Global Financial Crisis and the impending catastrophe of climate change. Although the ideological folly and the material greed of the most respectable brokers and bankers of Wall Street were responsible for the most devastating global economic collapse since the Great Depression, Battlelines shows Abbott’s naive faith in the beneficence of market capitalism altogether untouched. Even more seriously, Abbott must know that if the climate scientists are right, there is a chance that the very future of the Earth is in peril. Yet, because the issue has been thoroughly politicised and because his fellow conservatives in Australia and abroad have opted for do-nothing climate change denialism, Abbott is content to thoughtlessly follow their lead.

Given that, from everything I know, Abbott is a personally very decent human being, the moral insouciance he displays over the gravest questions of public life is some-thing I find difficult to fathom or forgive.

Last month a meeting was convened at Stonington Mansion in Malvern, Victoria, to discuss the decline of Western civilisation. Participants included John Howard, Cardinal Pell, Hugh Morgan and Geoffrey Blainey, with Andrew Bolt as master of ceremonies. Although Tony Abbott was not in attendance, he is, of course, precisely the kind of prime minister for whom the Stonington group must yearn. Abbott is the only leading Coalition politician who is willing and able to entrench and even radicalise the neo-conservative and neo-liberal populist reconstruction of the Liberal Party that took shape under John Howard. His victory in this year’s election would galvanise the most hardline and backward-looking elements of contemporary Australian conservatism.

By their heroes shall ye know them. For Tony Abbott the greatest world leaders of recent times are Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; the greatest contemporary theologian, Pope Benedict; the greatest Australian churchman, Cardinal Pell; the greatest Australian prime ministers, Robert Menzies and John Howard. Abbott looks to Kevin Donnelly for matters educational, to Christopher Pearson for matters cultural, to Keith Windschuttle for his interpretation of Aboriginal history and to Ian Plimer as his source of understanding in the area of climate change. When thick-as-bricks Sarah Palin won the vice-presidential nomination for the Republican Party, Abbott claimed with a perfectly straight face that she was an outstanding politician with greater experience than Barack Obama or John McCain and that she had just “the right stuff for high office”. Tony Abbott last month floated the idea of taking the dole from anyone under 30 who wouldn’t go to live in an area of labour shortage such as Western Australia. This echoed a notorious suggestion of Margaret Thatcher’s first employment secretary, Norman Tebbit, who was reputed to have told the unemployed to get on their bikes.

I have nothing whatever personal against Abbott. But I fervently hope, for the sake of the country and also for the sake of the Liberal Party, that later this year he leads the Coalition to a crushing election defeat. And that the nation can then say, in a single voice: “Tony Abbott, on your bike!”

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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