By 1 vote in the party room Tony Abbott has defeated Malcolm Turnbull to lead the Liberal Party. So what can we expect from his time as opposition leader?
Federalism: In his book Abbott makes a strong case that federalism is broken, that the conservative position ought to be to do something, and that the incompetence and irrelevance of the states leaves no choice but to place health and education (amongst others) under Commonwealth control. Whilst stepping back from his earlier call to get rid of the states, Abbott suggests that if a Government can pass a bill in both houses twice, separated by 6 months, then it should be able to override the states, in the way it can with the territories currently. This move would be tough to sell for a referendum, but if proposed Labor would be fools not to jump at the chance. Equally, an Abbott opposition offers by far the best chance for a Rudd/Gillard Government to really deliver an era of ‘New Federalism’. And by that I mean Centralisation.
Health: Abbott as the former health minister is deeply tied to the Howard governments approach. While his support for private schools may limit his support for centralisation in Education, under Howard Abbott regularly argued for a federal government take over of the system, and was the key proponent by the last-minute takeover of the Mercy Community hospital in Tasmania. Abbott also supports the idea of a paid maternity leave (though seems to prefer a Baby Bonus style one off handout). Roxon got the better of Abbott on health in 2007 so if her re-design of the system is strong, this should be a issue Labor would love to talk about, without it being a major vote changer.
Abbott may try to tie such discussions to the issue of Indigenous health & living standards in general, an issue he shows genuine concern for. His policy prescriptions are likely to be of the paternalistic variety (with a dash of Pearson entrepreneurialism thrown in), however it could demonstrate to voters a more emotive side to him than previously recognised. Not necessarily huge vote winner, but could soften up some voters to him.
Abortion: While Abbott has a rather extreme image to much of the public, he would be able to gain immediate credit and re-newed attention simply by making clear his actual views of abortion. While he disagree’s with the principle, he see’s draws a clear line between efforts to reduce australias 75’000+ abortions a year and efforts to re-criminalise it. Equally, he seems to recognize that his own past (a child out of wedlock, reputation as a ladies man), mean that he doesn’t have a good basis for being a moraliser. His views are most clearly set out in his 2004 speech “The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician”. This is still an issue that has great potential to get Abbott in trouble, but he isn’t the extremist he is often made out to be. He’s more like a Bill Clinton, who thinks abortion should be ‘Safe, Legal, and rare’. A pretty hard statement to disagree with. The rhetoric may frighten some on the left, but that over-reaction could if anything help Abbott with the mainstream.
Welfare: In welfare, the difference between Abbott’s conservative and liberal instincts is clearly apparent. As a Conservative, Abbott recognises the cost of raising families and the benefit of stable incomes, proposing to add significant extra levels of support (such as a guaranteed minimum income) and removal of almost all means tests due to the hideous marginal tax rates that apply as incomes rise and welfare is taken away. Yet as a Liberal Abbott also worries that welfare distorts peoples principles, and for the poor drives them towards poor moral choices such as a life of ease on unemployment benefits. As such he seemingly endorses universal welfare for all but the poor, with untold and uncalculated costs accumulated to the federal government to provide for all this. If Rudd went hard on cutting middle class welfare he could trip up the contradiction between Abbott’s complaints about debt and his desire for expanded welfare. Likely instead he would race him to offer even bigger handouts.
Foreign Policy: The great unknown. Abbott touches on the issue very briefly in his book, but it’s the usual boilerplate stuff of supporting the US, taking the fight to the terrorists, and supporting the Howard Government’s great leap into East Timor. He’ll probably go along with the foreign policy direction of the Govt, take a few opportunistic pot-shots where possible, but otherwise leave it to his foreign minister. If he starts getting hit on the issue by the commentariat, expect him to retreat to nationalism and supporting increased defence funding to prove his strength in the area. If Abbott started getting closer in the polls to Rudd, expect a strong retaliation on the issue of who is better at handling international issues (and going with the consensus on climate change is relevant here). Abbott will have to hit the books to be taken seriously, and needs to hire a good foreign policy advisor as one of his first acts.
Climate Change: The only reason we are discussing the rise of an Abbott leadership is because he is the most recognisable face of the anti-CPRS movement inside the Liberals. Obviously his position is dependent on those outright deniers such as Minchin (Abbott seems to have taken just about every position on this issue), so he will seek a lengthy delay and more generous handouts for the CPRS. More important will be his ability to control the pro-ets senators such as Troeth, Humphries, Trood etc. Despite winning due to support from climate deniers, Abbott surely knows the electoral risk of the CPRS, so he may propose some alternate form (A carbon tax could be appealing) to placate the supporters and appear to be serious about the issue for the public. But have no doubt, he is willing to fight, and hard against Rudd’s CPRS. He already road tested a number of lines against it, so expect to hear the words “giant new tax on everything” consistently for the next 9 months.
Rhetoric and Strategy: While Abbott came to the leadership because of his opposition to the CPRS, he has a moderate view of the role of oppositions, writing in his book: “An oppositions job is to clarify its own thinking rather than actually to govern the country… What is the point of opposing legislation when it is likely to pass anyway….There’s much to be said for adopting the view that the government is generally entitled to get its legislation through, because thats what the people voted for” (Battlelines 2009 p53). Recognising the harm Beazley’s constant oppositionism did to him, and the harm Workchoices did to the Howard Government, i’d expect a Abbott opposition to voice constant complain, whilst generally stuttering that they will give the government the noose to hang itself.
Abbott’s not a bad speaker, he doesn’t mince words and uses plain language. It could appeal strongly compared to Rudd’s detailed linguistic specificity. He does have a slight stutter as he thinks about what to say, and I’ve yet to hear him give a really impressive or inspiring speech. He is best at press conferences, which is handy as that is where most of our political discussion comes from. He will make the occasional inarticulate gaffe, and say a lot of things that will drive segments of the left crazy, but his policies are likely to be pretty conventional. It’s not a bad act, similar to what Howard pulled. (Interesting the left rarely seems to do this, showing the rights rhetorical domination in recent decades). On that issue, as his first press conference as leader showed, a great rhetorical challenge for Abbott will be to claim the credit for what the Howard government did well, without being too tied to it, or looking like he is just advocating its return, as Labor will charge (it already is with its first -online- add “Dont Go Back”)
It will be easy to over-estimate the radicalness of Abbott as leader, but he will end up earning brownie points from the public for being more moderate than they were lead to believe. I doubt he can win, but he will be a tough leader to beat. Despite his years in the ministry, I have a feeling Australia doesn’t really know Abbott, or will at least give him a honest second look. So expect some volatility and change compared to this weeks polls. (When done here, you should follow that link to check Possum’s excellent breakdown of the post-split polls)
Abbott is a very committed, hard working and decent bloke. He spends a lot of his time helping charity/volunteer groups, he keeps himself fit and healthy, and he is passionate about public life and improving the country. Rudd in comparison could come off badly as a nerdy spin machine. That shouldn’t happen given the governments domination, but if Abbott can survive to face a second election he will be a real threat. I’m certainly look forward to this election. For all my political disagreements with Abbott, I rather like the guy. He’ll infuriate, he’ll make the Liberal Party a much more conservative beast, but he will be offering a clear and strongly believed alternative.