Tony Abbott is perhaps the best known Conservative in Australia. Yet as his new book makes evident, not even he is clear what exactly this means. In ‘Battlelines’ ($34.99, published by Melbourne University Press) Abbott is constantly stretched between the Liberal desire for open markets, and the Conservative demand for secure social order, without ever admitting the tension. Combined with a surprising reticence about advocating his vision, this book is both welcome but ultimately unsatisfying.
Abbott merges political biography, policy discussion and even a welcome venture into political philosophy in a book that represents something between a policy manifesto, paean to the Howard Government, and job application for future leadership of the Liberal Party. Abbott is clearly willing to wait and watch Turnbull go down, but his ambition for leadership burns brightly through the book. The very fact he has written the book demonstrates he recognises the challenges faced by the party, but if anything this book is likely to exacerbate the differences within it. Try as he might to define the problem out of existence, Abbott cant decide over 200 pages what his priorities are, and ends up regularly contradicting himself. That said, in concrete policy terms there is much to like about the book, along with some sensible observations about the Australian populace (including a welcome peace offering on multiculturalism) demonstrating that Abbott has always been much closer to the mainstream than the media image of the ‘mad monk’ which he has worn for so many years.
Abbott concentrates his policy advice in three areas, mirroring his own ministerial portfolio’s, Welfare, Federalism and Healthcare. (Foreign Policy makes a brief and superficial inclusion, a tacked on treat for the right) In welfare, the difference between his conservative and liberal instincts is most 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. Indeed Abbott’s ideal seems closer to the universal free education of the Whitlam Government, more than the private responsibility motif of most of his party. Yet each new spending idea is followed by regular short attacks on the Rudd Government for its ‘borrow and spend’ ways.
Indeed Abbott whilst normally a cheerful operator, seems absolutely contemptuous of Kevin Rudd and his government, attacking their policies even when identical (or surpassing) his own. Take the issue of paid maternity leave, where Abbott strongly endorses the idea, arguing the Baby Bonus was an useful substitute, providing the equivalent of 12 weeks fulltime minimum wage to new mothers. Immediately after this however he argues that Rudd’s policy fails because it only provides 18 weeks which ‘at the level of the minimum award wage it’s inadequate’. Having already called for billions in new welfare spending, and defending the Baby Bonus, Family Tax Benefit, and adding dental to Medicare, Abbott suddenly turns around to argue that maternity leave should be paid for by businesses not the government. Only not small businesses, because the liberal in him recognises the cost and so he wants to have government cover for it with pay-offs or tax cuts.
One of the starkest changes the Howard government represented with the past was its abandonment of States Rights as a conservative platform. Here Abbott is indeed the strongest advocate for a real shake up of Federalism, including his own constitutional reform bill as an appendix to the book. Abbott makes a strong case that federalism is broken, that the conservative position out 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. Whatever its merits, it seems mistakenly based on the premise that something half-way between two places is a compromise. Just as losing half an arm is no real advantage over losing all your arm, the states will not be any more inclined to support such a referendum which removes their power by this measure. If change is seriously needed, then giving clear authority to the government will be both simpler and more easy to advocate, whilst facing similar levels of resistance from the states.
Yet, having made his case for Federal Control, and offered a mechanism for the change, (and at a time when the political wind is clearly at his back with Prime Minister Rudd currently contemplating a commonwealth takeover of the entire health sector) Abbott suddenly seems to get cold feet and backs down concluding that:
‘What matters is not so much which level of government is responsible for public hospitals but how that level of government chooses to run them…because it funds specific services or individual patients the Commonwealths approach to health is fundamentally different from that of the states’ (p139)
This reflects a pattern seen throughout the book, as Abbott offers conclusions that are somewhat unrelated to his prior concerns. A full chapter arguing the level of government service delivery is wrong, is sidestepped with the conclusion that type of service delivery is the real change needed (and offering a rather shaky history of federation and the founders views on the states along the way). Later he agrees the environmental activists are right on climate change, but shouldn’t be taken seriously because they don’t support nuclear power. And in a phraseing sure to keep the already jittery Malcolm Turnbull awake at night asserts that the book is not a job application because he ‘expect[s] the existing team will lead the party to the next election (p181)’.
There are a number of interesting and useful policy suggestions scattered throughout the book, most notably local boards to run hospitals and schools and bringing dental under Medicare. And he demonstrates a keen political ear for the rhetorical challenges facing the Liberal Party, regularly trying to re-frame issues. This might be salable in the case of welfare when he argues that ‘A family wage…is quite different from welfare. It is a recognition of responsibilities, not need’ (p93) but becomes farcical when declaring that backing Taiwan’s independence ‘would not be choosing America over China but democracy over dictatorship(p160)’. I doubt the Chinese would see it that way, nor would such wordplay protect our national interests.
Throughout the book Abbott seeks to blend Conservative support for the social order (he doesn’t mention gay marriage if you are wondering, and offers his support for abortion), with Liberal rhetoric in favor of free markets and low taxes. Where these principles clash, such as over welfare he simply ignores the tension, arguing for higher spending whilst damning his opponents for their ‘socialism’. Most of the time however he manages to offer some new ideas whilst staying consistent to his main criteria for conservatism: support for mainstream values. If they ever pick it up, the public will probably find a lot to like in this, and make them re-evaluate Abbott, but for those who are more finely attuned to the challenges such as in the media or his colleagues it ends up reading more an engaging claim for future leadership rather than a coherent solution to the policy problems of his party.
Elsewhere: Sam Roggeveen on The Interpreter applauds Abbott’s change of heart on Multiculturalism, and Ross Fitzgerald welcomes Abbott’s ‘disarming frankness’ and commitment to politics as a vocation. Meanwhile Andrew Norton sees it as a call for Big Government Conservatism. Whilst the left will reject most of this book (if they read it at all), the reaction of Classical Liberals and Professionals who support economic liberalisation will be critical to the book and Abbott’s overall standing. We’ve already seen the Conservative wing of the Liberal Party destabilize Turnbull; having read this will the Liberal/Economic wing of the party turn on Abbott should he become leader?