Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

A Servant of Two Masters

It’s always interesting watching politicians advocate for those who they don’t agree with or in some cases even like. It’s a necessary evil in politics, but still revealing. As a budding student journalist I twice interviewed Bob McMullan, once as Shadow Treasurer under Crean, where he pushed that Crean was a good centrist leader, and once when he was a backbencher with Mark Latham his boss, where again I was told that Latham was a good centrist leader. The Latham Diaries later revealed that by this point Latham had fallen out with most of his colleagues, especially McMullan.

It’s interesting therefore to read George Brandis’ excellent piece on Tony Abbott in todays Oz. Brandis was one of the last supporters of Turnbull, and advocated last year for the Liberal Party to go in a very different direction to Abbott’s ideal, but he puts up a good defence of his new boss (Much like in 2003 when Brandis was about the only Liberal I heard mount a decent argument in parliament in defence of the soon to be ex-Governor General Peter Hollingsworth).

In each case, the core values of the Liberal Party remained constant, but were refracted through the preferences of the leader of the time who, in his turn, built on and moulded the Liberal tradition accordingly.
And Abbott? As is clear from Battlelines, he is no free-market fundamentalist. Rudd’s attacks on neoliberalism will get nowhere against him. To a greater extent than most Liberal leaders have been, Abbott is a communitarian. … He believes in a settled, rooted society of families and citizens living in stable communities bound together by the gossamer threads of voluntary association. It is no accident that Abbott throughout his adult life has spent a great deal of his spare time as a participant in community activity..

His attitude to the role of the state is that shared by liberals and conservatives alike: it lies at the point where the liberalism of Isaiah Berlin encounters the conservatism of Michael Oakeshott. Its core insight is that no bureaucrat or central planner will ever be better placed to decide what is good for individuals and families than are those individuals and families.

In his pragmatic willingness to selectively slaughter the Liberal sacred cow of states rights for the sake of bettering the lives of individuals and communities, Abbott has shown himself to be about as far from Labor’s caricature of him as a right-wing ideologue as it is possible to be.

This seems to me a pretty good reading of Abbott, one that many have missed, as does Louis Nowra in his cover story in the latest edition of The Monthly (Nowra’s piece also suffers from a distinct lack of empathy for his subject, preventing real insight). Abbott is not motivated by idealistic free market ideals, nor theocratic demands, instead he is a DLP style conservative who hates the left, but espouses some pretty similar ideals. In 1995 in chapter for a book on Australian relations with Asia (joining coauthors including a yet-to-be-elected Kevin Rudd) Abbott argued against much of the Hawke/Keating governments economic reforms:

“His [Keating’s] Asian crusade is simply the second phase of a long battle – hithero fought around Australia’s economic structures to extirpate the legacy of Menzies. The first phase meant changing Australias economic structures and breaking down the old business establishment….Asia played little part in his drive to ‘reform’ economic institutions – after all, most Asian governments pursue pragmatic interventionist economic policies similar to those of pre-Keating Australia” (Abbott in Sheridan Living with Dragons 1995:200).

You can almost smell the derision he feels for the economic liberalisation of the 1980’s, not to mention his view that it’s greatest crime was hurting the very comfortable, conservative old business establishment. Abbott does not come from old world money, but he likes the idea of it. He is not a capitalist in the way Turnbull, Keating or Howard were (Though the latter thought competition a dirty word). He accepts it as an engine of prosperity, not a fundamental pattern for society. So Brandis is very right to argue that Labor can’t credibly pin a free-marketeer logo on his back (though Abbott is almost helping them make the cause in undisciplined musing about re-introducing Workchoices like IR changes). Which is why, facing a combination of a communitarian conservative in Abbott and an agrarian socialist in Joyce, Labor should switch gears, make a few real or symbolic tariff/middle class welfare cuts and claim the mantle of supporters of the market for themselves (esp in light of their climate change policy being a market based solution compared to the interventionist policy of the Coalition). But Labor and Rudd don’t seem interested in winning over anyone who didn’t vote for them last time, nor the economic liberals who supported Hawke/Keating and then switched to Howard.

Given Abbott’s communitarian philosophy it’s also interesting that he seems to have rejected out of hand focusing on the issue of Homelessness in Australia. This is precisely the kind of issue Abbott could use to steal a march on Rudd (who was focused on this issue his first few days but seems to have forgotten it) and to demonstrate that beneath the bowser boy is a Christian community orientated volunteer (all true) who wants a fairer as well as a more prosperous society. Such an approach would not only confound Labor, invite many, especially female voters, to re-assess Abbott, but give him a justification for later on introducing changes to workplace relations laws (all regulations reduce unemployment, but if there is good protection for the temporarily disadvantaged then people worry less about it being easy to be sacked).

Instead, because Abbott, whatever his own views, won thanks to economic cons like Nick Minchin, he knows he has to placate the financial industry in policy and rhetoric. With Joyce making dumb comments that are scaring or amusing them, he will have to double his rhetoric about claiming to hold a free market vision for society, which he doesn’t really. Abbott is like Brandis below him, is a servant of two masters, drawn between his own ideology, and the demands of his powerful backers. The true Abbott is actually pretty close to Rudd in many respects and could probably steal several seats off him, but given even John Howard couldn’t defend a free market society vision against Rudd, Abbott doesn’t stand a chance.