Mr Abbott launched a book the other day, and the speech, which you can read here, instantly led to what I now think has been a media beat-up. His short address has become a further indication, for some in the media, and of course for the Labor Party, of the growing destabilising of the Government and the fragility of the Prime Minister.
In fact, I think that Mr Abbott’s speech and its content deserve much closer reading. I should probably qualify what follows by saying that I do not agree with some of what Mr Abbott says, but he is absolutely right in reminding us that these issues are important, and that he is certainly qualified to talk about them. The ABC’s political editor seemed more interested in the imagined purpose of the speech than in its content:
The speech he [Abbott] gave at the Making Australia Right book launch reeked of a man itching to pull the trigger on a Prime Minister he sees as spineless and lacking a moral core. His hatred is profound, his anger is deepening and his impatience is growing. His disdain for Mr Turnbull leached through every word. It was a dress rehearsal for a showdown where he will define victory as both men walking away losers.
I wasn’t there, and perhaps there was such body language. But Mr Abbott didn’t mention Mr Turnbull at all. What did he actually say? First, the book, Making Australia Right, is a group of essays about where the writers think the Liberal Party and the Coalition Government should go. They are people who don’t think the Government knows what to do, people who think that Labor is moving to the green left and that the Coalition has become Labor lite. In some of what I’ve seen and read, that remark has been attributed to Mr Abbott as his view. It may be, but in his address he plainly says it is the view of the authors.
Mr Abbott again:
A sense of disappointment and disillusionment pervades these essays: disappointment with the Abbott government and perhaps even despair about the Turnbull government; but what saves it from being a curmudgeon’s lament is the palpable sense, in every contribution, that our party and our country can be better.
And he goes on: At last year’s election, 24 per cent voted for minor parties and independents, 5 per cent spoiled their ballot papers and 9 per cent didn’t even turn up to vote. That’s nearly 40 per cent of the electorate that couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either of the two parties that have governed us for 100 years. And it’s worse now. In Queensland, polls have the Coalition vote 8 percentage points down since the election and One Nation 12 percentage points up.
Much of what follows after that is unexceptional, it seems to me. He goes into what might be done to improve things. There is a dilemma, he says, and it is perhaps best articulated by Gary Johns, who was a Labor minister back in the days of Bob Hawke.
The Right believes in less taxation and less government interference in people’s lives: in short, liberty. But in a world where more Australians vote for their money than work for it, and the constituency beholden to government for benefits and jobs is expanding, the constituency for winning votes with tax cuts and deregulation is diminishing. “Selling stringency and insecurity” says Johns, “is not going to win elections”. Rather, he says, “the Right have to advance a cultural debate in conjunction with the economic one”.
I agree with Johns. But what would that debate be about? I’m not sure Gary Johns has nailed it:
The Right have to promote a discussion that has, at worst, no cost to the budget and builds a constituency. It is not a case of ‘bread and circuses’, of creating diversions, but of the necessity to build a constituency that trusts government to be less intrusive. It is a necessity to overcome the shameless bribery that all politicians indulge in, but especially the left.
OK, but what would this discussion be about? Now here is Abbott, quoting Johns and adding a thought or two himself:
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