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Tony needs to step up

By Dilan Thampapillai - posted Monday, 28 February 2011

Telling people that you voted for Tony Abbott is not the best way to make friends. At least, not if you are an academic. So far I have managed to escape any serious harm. A few people have even conceded that they can see some logic in my decision to ditch Labor after having been a long-time supporter of the party.

I voted for Tony for three reasons. First, I did not like the way Rudd was removed. But I have written on this issue before so I will not elaborate on this point. Second, Julia went cold on multiculturalism last year and Tony, for all his faults, has a much better record on this issue. Third, Tony can manage money. In contrast, Julia Gillard seems to be waging a one-woman war on public finances. Moreover, she seems to be winning.

At the outset, let me just say that I cannot fathom Tony’s desire to mess with the reproductive rights of women. His decision as Health Minister to nix RU486 was baffling at best. It might be explicable by reference to his ardent Catholic faith. But, in a modern secular liberal democracy the right to control your own reproductive system seems pretty fundamental. That part of Tony’s agenda I cannot support. However, I am confident that if he ever got elected as Prime Minister that the Senate would reign him in on this issue.


What is crucial for me is that even when Pauline Hanson was at her zenith, and when John Howard was dog-whistling his heart out, Tony Abbot was resolute on being non-racist. This is crucial stuff, because what is at stake in all these racially charged debates on multiculturalism, asylum seekers and the like is the right of non-Anglo Australians to think and feel themselves to be truly Australian. Abbott understood that there was no point in alienating his fellow Australians just to get a few votes. Abbott was one of the few Liberals who spoke out on the matter and he meant what he said. He backed it up in his book Battlelines. To further annoy pretty much everybody I know, I’ll disclose that I actually have an autographed copy of the book.

The result in the 2010 election was so close that Tony must have smelled victory, right before it was taken away by the independents. He must know that he is close enough to win an election should one be held in the next year or two. But rather than giving him and his colleagues a sense of assurance, it must be fueling a sense of desperation.

What else explains the back-flip to dog-whistling politics after Scott Morrison’s ill-chosen remarks? Abbott cannot leave it to Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Judi Moylan and Joe Hockey to rescue the Liberal Party’s reputation. Further, having the outspoken Cory Bernardi at such close quarters does little to assuage the concerns of genuine small "l" liberal voters.

Tony needs to reach out and to make himself heard on issues that matter to moderate voters. His strategy at the moment appears to be to play to the right on climate change and asylum seekers and to wait for Gillard to make mistakes. The Gillard strategy is working. The news that she effectively cost Australia $60 billion over the Resources Super Profits Tax by caving to the mining industry does not help her credibility on financial management.

For the record, Gillard’s moves on foreign students cost Australian universities a significant amount of revenue. Which begs the question of why a university employee would vote for somebody who is wreaking havoc in their sector. But I digress.

At any rate, the issue for Tony is that there are a lot of moderate voters with reasoned positions on climate change, asylum seekers and multiculturalism, who want to at least be heard by his side of politics.


Playing identity politics, which is pretty much what the debate on asylum seekers and multiculturalism boils down to, is cheap politics. The One Nation Party plays identity politics because it is the only thing that they are qualified to do.

Think about it this way; how could you sensibly debate economics, public finances, climate change or even foreign policy without having qualifications in one or more of law, economics, accounting or the sciences. Before you say it I’ll jump in and say that Paul Keating was the exception that proved the rule. But realistically, to play any effective role in public policy in Australia these days you need a basic tertiary education in certain key areas. Now think about Pauline Hanson’s educational background. It is much like the current batch of ONP geniuses. Can you see the knowledge gap? The only thing that it leaves is race and identity politics. It’s a loser’s card but Pauline and the ONP play it well.

The Liberal Party can do so much better. They really can.

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About the Author

Dilan Thampapillai is a lecturer with the College of Law at the Australian National University. These are his personal views.

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