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Mr Abbott as class bad boy

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 3 March 2017


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.

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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”.

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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: 

Johns says — and as a former Labor minister he should know what the left is up to — that “the pathway to a liberal society will be … to win constituencies without bribing them”. Yet, he says, “to achieve a … society … that is more liberal and governed by contract rather than by ideology will take a cultural revolution”.

In the long run, we do indeed need a conservative version of the left’s “long march through the institutions”. We do need to make it respectable again to be liberal on economic questions and conservative on social ones. In the short run, though, we have to win the next election. That means finding policy that’s philosophically acceptable, economically responsible and politically saleable.

What would that be? Well, Mr Abbott thinks that the first priority is to pound the renewable energy target. He says that he’s:

in favour of renewables, provided they’re economic and provided they don’t jeopardise security of supply; but, at the moment, we have a policy-driven disaster because you just can’t rely on renewable power.

I think there is an logical contradiction in that statement. And I think he means he is not in favour of renewable energy at all, unless there are no subsidies, but he doesn’t want to say so.

[I]t’s not Labor’s even more disastrous 50 per cent renewable target that’s caused the problem — it’s the existing renewable target which the government has no plans to change. Indeed, under the government’s plans, wind generation is supposed to double in the next three years at a capital cost to you the consumer of $10 billion. 

There’s a bit more about the present Government’s desire to build clean coal power stations through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. He doesn’t like that. There follows a section on the impossibility of good governing with the present Senate system. He suggests that there be a referendum on a proposal that two rejections by the Senate could mean the bill to goes to a joint sitting of both Houses without the need for a double dissolution. Take that proposal to the next election he says. Make the issue ‘government versus gridlock’. Maybe. I’m not persuaded, and would need much more than an idea spelled out so baldly to agree.

Then come a few specific proposals. Scale back immigration, which would help with the housing problem (it would, though it would lead to pressure on wages, I think). Freeze the renewable Energy Target. Avoid new spending and cut out frivolous spending. Stop funding the Human Right Commission.

He finishes like this: 

In or out of government, political parties need a purpose. Our politics can’t be just a contest of toxic egos or someone’s vanity project. What is worth striving for; how can we make a difference; and what must change if Australians individually and collectively are to come closer to our best selves? That’s the challenge that our side of politics needs to ponder. There’s much work to be done but the authors of this book, quite rightly, are demanding that we come to grips with it — fast.

I still don’t know what the issues for the ‘culture debate’ are. And I don’t know what conservatives will do in order to have a long march through the institutions, unless it is to wait until all those of the other persuasion finally die. But there is nothing in this address which is a vicious attack on anyone. Should he have agreed to launch the book at all? Why not? Should he have said other things? I don’t know what they would have been. But there is  some perception and sense in what he has put forward, at least from my perspective.

The Government could say, and have said, that most of what he has said is under consideration by the Government, and indeed it has itself pounded the renewable energy issue. What I do see, in this short-lived fracas, is the media picking on someone they love to hate. I’m not one of his great admirers, but he is intelligent and thoughtful. He ought to be allowed to say what he thinks without his automatically attracting the ‘naughty boy’ label by doing so.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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