The Politics    Friday, January 29, 2016

Tony Abbott’s empty arguments

By Sean Kelly

“Because it’s old” isn’t a reason

My attention was recently directed towards a Washington Post article from 2010. It asked the question “What will future generations condemn us for?” Looking at things that had once been generally accepted but were not any longer – domestic violence and slavery, for example - it posited three signs a practice would one day be seen as reprehensible, whatever our current complacency.

The first is that people have heard the moral arguments against it for some time; in other words, it will not be news to anyone that some people have ethical qualms about the issue.

The third is that supporters tend simply to engage in strategic ignorance, avoiding the hard facts that should force them to question their own certainty: “Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn't think about what made those goods possible.”

The second, though, was what pulled my mind back to the article today: “Defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, ‘We've always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?’)”

This argument is made so often – that something has been the way it is for ages, and so why should we change it – that I suspect many of us have stopped actually hearing it, the same way we tune out anything we hear all the time (traffic noise, Tom Waterhouse).

But we should pay attention, because it’s an alarm bell.

It was Tony Abbott that reminded me of all this, with his decision to speak to the Alliance Defending Freedom about family. There were reports today of what he was actually planning to say. Have a read and ask yourself, does this sound familiar?

We shouldn’t try to change something without understanding it, without grasping why it is that one man and one woman open to children until just a very few years ago has always and everywhere been considered the essence of marriage and the heart of family.

Of course, we can’t shirk our responsibilities to the future; but let’s also respect and appreciate values and institutions that have stood the test of time and pass them on, undamaged, when that’s best.

The only argument Abbott puts in those two paragraphs is that marriage is an old institution.

Elsewhere, he uses different words to make precisely the same point: “[Gay activists] are seeking what has never been and expecting others to surrender what always has.”

Now I am well aware that the definition of conservatism is a disposition towards valuing established practices. But I don’t believe a conservative elected representative should be able to get away with the simplicity of “Because it’s old” anymore than a progressive MP should be able to get away with “Because it’s new”. If you are going to argue policy – especially a policy that many, many people have significant concerns about – then there is an onus on you to make an argument on merits.

(This is not, by the way, the same as saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s more like saying “It hasn’t been fixed in a long time therefore it isn’t broken.”)

Similarly, elsewhere in the speech, Abbott quotes John Howard as having “pointed out that the traditional family was the best social welfare system that mankind had ever devised”. First, Howard in fact said “strong, united, properly functioning families”, though he probably meant what Abbott said. Second, and more important, again, this is not an argument. There may be an argument to be made around social welfare, but Abbott did not even try to make it, leaving us wondering why on earth this might be true of heterosexual couples and not homosexual couples.

Abbott made one other argument, about the small number of countries in which same-sex marriage was allowed, but immediately conceded that “numbers aren’t the only test”. So I suppose he didn’t really make that argument, either.

Unfortunately, Tony Abbott wasn’t the only recent prime minister vacating the field of argument on an important issue today. Credit to Neil Mitchell (one of Australia’s best interviewers) for asking Malcolm Turnbull this morning whether he could see Australia Day ever being moved from the 26th of January. The PM, to my immense disappointment, said “I think that’s very unlikely.” I wish he’d then been asked “Why?”, though I suspect I already know the answer: because it’s been that way for a long time.

Hear those alarm bells?


Today’s links

Malcolm Turnbull says don’t expect a campaign with lavish spending promises from the Coalition. Turnbull also attacked Clive Palmer, defended the new Australian of the Year, said it was unlikely Australia Day would ever move to another date, and confirmed the election would likely be in the third quarter of this year.

The treasury secretary has disagreed with the treasurer, suggesting we have both a spending and a revenue problem.

Dennis Shanahan on Abbott’s current form of leadership.

The Turnbull government will shortly begin discussions with states and territories to establish a redress scheme for victims of child sexual abuse.

The complete list of Donald Trump’s Twitter insults. And today’s Republican debate, the last before the Iowa vote.

The NSW branch of the National Union of Workers is leaving the Labor Party.

David Uren suggests Labor is spending too much money and not saving enough

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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