As Tony Abbott’s move to the Lodge began to seem frighteningly inevitable, we started to see some serious assessments of him – not in the mainstream print or TV media of course, but in quality publications and online blogs. Thus we have David Marr’s Quarterly Essay ‘Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott’ and Waleed Aly’s ‘Inside Tony Abbott’s Mind: This is Serious’ in The Monthly, and recent blogs by Tim Dunlop on The Drum and by Brian on Larvatus Prodeo. I think Dunlop comes the closest: Abbott is a neoliberal from the right wing of the Liberal Party. The fact that the inevitability of his victory has receded doesn’t make him any less scary.
Marr suggests that Abbott wears a mask. ‘What has been abandoned?’ he asks. ‘What is merely hidden on the road to power? What makes people so uneasy about Abbott is the sense that he is biding his time, that there is a very hard operator somewhere behind that mask, waiting for power.’ But he concludes that there is ‘Values Abbott’ and ‘Politics Abbott’ in which the Politics Abbott – that is political expediency – always wins. Aly argues that Abbott is a consistent conservative in the tradition of the British theorist of conservatism, Michael Oakeshott, meaning that he favours veneration of the established institutions of society, incremental change, and respect for the diversity of views and opinions. He argues that Abbott can separate his private Catholic principles from his public policy, and further, that ‘The urge to dismiss him underestimates him completely, both as a politician and as a thinker: Tony Abbott is a serious person.’ Brian argues that religious principles are not that easily discarded. Tim Dunlop is even more forthright: ‘With few exceptions, Mr Abbott’s approach to policy shows that he is in thrall to the voices of wealth and privilege and that, for all his claims of conservatism, he is actually leading a party that does not believe in community.’They can’t all be right.
Abbott’s Roman Catholic convictions are well known, as is his friendship with Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, himself a right wing climate change denier. Abbott has shown his allegiance to the church line by his defence of Father John Gerard Nestor, a Catholic priest convicted of child abuse. It’s also been said that one of Abbott’s heroes is the staunchly anti-communist B. A. Santamaria, the guiding light, though apparently never a member, of the Democratic Labor Party. This made me wonder if Abbot has inherited any policy positions associated with the DLP. They were at least in theory supporters of distributism, the idea arising from Catholic social theory that both big business and big unions were to be avoided in favour of small business and small farming. It is said that Santamaria was intensely unhappy with the close association of the DLP with the Liberal Party, which he rightly saw as the political representatives of the big end of town. But it would be a stretch to see Abbott’s courting of small business – the fluoro vests, pies etc. and the talk of reducing regulation – as anything other than electoral expediency. In so far as small business has different interests to big business, there is nothing concrete in LNP policy that supports small business, whereas most of what Abbott has been doing for the last three years – like opposing plain cigarette packaging, a price on carbon and the mining tax – has been very much in the interests of big business. Of course he is against the unions, but so are all Liberals; it’s hardly his Catholic perspective. My sense is that if he thinks he can get away with pushing back on abortion rights and divorce – as in the crazy idea outlined in Battlelines that fault-based divorce could be reintroduced for those who wanted it – he would do so, but that Marr and Ali are right, though for different reasons, that he wouldn’t go to the wall for such issues of identity politics.
Ali suggests that the lesson Abbott learnt when he worked for John Hewson in 1993 was to avoid ideological statements like the Fightback! manifesto which Paul Keating so successfully demolished. I think this could actually be read as ‘don’t release your policies a year out from an election,’ rather than a repudiation of what the policies were. As Ali points out, ‘it was probably the most comprehensive neoliberal blueprint for Australia ever drawn up as policy’, including abolishing awards, ‘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.‘ The selling off of state-owned businesses has largely been done already, but there isn’t anything in the rest of the agenda that wouldn’t sit well with Abbott.
Conservatives are supposed to defend the established institutions of society. Neoliberals, on the other hand, are happy to see such institutions fall beneath the steamroller of the free market. The family, which is an institution Abbott as a Catholic is presumably committed to defending, is one which as a neoliberal, he is prepared to abandon. Ali notes that Abbott opposed the removal of the ‘no disadvantage’ test by Howard’s Workchoices legislation, which might have slightly mitigated the effect of labour market deregulation on workers’ family lives, but he was perfectly prepared to go along with the general thrust of the policy, which was blithely uninterested in the damage it was doing to the stability of family life.
What has perhaps been overlooked by some of these commentators is the degree to which Abbott appears to be influenced by not only the tactics, but also the ideology of the American Tea Party. Ali is happy with Abbott’s approach to Opposition, saying ‘Abbott has spent a lot of time thinking about precisely what an Opposition’s job is’, and quoting approvingly his statement that ‘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 actually more crazy talk, because an Opposition can’t by definition vote something down. But leaving that aside, this doesn’t begin to cover the relentless negativity of Abbott’s tactics, which have operated outside parliament as much as within it – the stunts, the rallies, the abuse, the three word slogans.
These slogans are also part of the Tea Party legacy. (Don’t forget the time Cory Bernardi spent in the US learning the Tea Party model – see his Conservative Leadership Foundation.) Stop the boats, end the waste, repay the debt. These are the same issues that motivate the right wing of the Republican party – though it’s Mexicans there, not boat people. Where else did he get the (erroneous) idea of attacking the debt ceiling? There is no reasoned debate, let alone alternative proposals. This sort of unthinking market fundamentalism is a hallmark of the Tea Party; nothing that they might learn about the reality of a situation causes them to waver from their narrow ideological path. Anti-intellectualism is an article of faith. That’s exactly the approach to public policy that Abbott demonstrates.
So what does this add up to? Abbott is not a conservative. His Catholicism is relatively unimportant in his politics. He is a neoliberal above all else. He is a calculating one, who will put electoral advantage first, but this doesn’t mean he has a particularly nuanced position. His latest effort on an emissions trading scheme – ‘it’s a market, a so-called market, in the non-delivery of an invisible substance, to no one’ – suggests that his grasp of the theory of the market economy is indeed weak – it seems he got this attempted sound bite from the Daily Telegraph, in London – but that doesn’t lessen his reliance on it. Just read Tim Dunlop’s excellent article for the details of the policies announced so far. Think of him, as Marr says, ‘waiting for power.’ Still saying Abbott is ‘a serious person’, Ali? Certainly the idea of him as Prime Minister is serious. Seriously scary.