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'Battlelines' - what’s Tony Abbott really about?

By Tristan Ewins - posted Tuesday, 23 March 2010

For those interested in understanding the political thinking behind the politically-resurgent Tony Abbott, they could do worse than to read about the “Abbott agenda” as proclaimed by the man himself in his manifesto, Battlelines.

Abbott begins by proclaiming himself “the pragmatist”. “Ideology”, after all, has become something of a dirty word in western democracies - associated with such “evils” as socialism: compared with which neo-liberal practice is “objectively” sound economic management (please note the irony).

By contrast Abbott portrays his “pragmatism” as a fluidity of policy responses to political and economic contingency: but for which conservative values remain fixed. And in this context - Abbott sees conservatism in the sense of respect for Western traditions and institutions as both wise and practical.


For Abbott “Ideologues want to impose their values on others” while “pragmatists want to solve … problems as long as the cure is not worse than the disease” (p.xi).

While this is a clever piece of rhetorical posturing, critical minds might point to the dominance of neo-liberal ideology in Australia and world-wide without care for the real world consequences.

Interestingly, Abbott raises the opposition between compassionate conservatism and the kind of ruthless neo-liberalism that cares nothing for the social consequences of austerity (pp.xii-xiii). Here the author juxtaposes the “[single-minded] cutting [of] public expenditure … striving to deliver smaller government” to “compassionate conservatism, stressing solidarity with those who are doing it tough” (pp.xii-xiii). By this reckoning the “social fabric … has to be respected and preserved”, while individuals should enjoy such circumstances that they are “empowered, as far as reasonably possible, to live the life that he or she thinks best” (p.xii).

Abbott’s proclaimed support for those doing it tough might be traced to the influence of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) early on in his life. While the DLP helped shut Labor out of government for decades, and to this day retains a socially-illiberal outlook, its Catholic origins were such that there remained a measure of compassion for workers, and for the poor (p.10).

Regardless of whether this stance is a political ploy, or whether it echoes Abbott’s true sentiment, Abbott is captive to the Liberal political machine. The Opposition has tried to undermine the stimulus without regard that this would compromise the recovery from the global financial crisis. They have fear-mongered about tax and trade unions. Ruthless neo-liberalism remains the dominant current within the parties of the Australian Right - and should the Coalition be elected later this year, it is very likely that this would be reflected in policy.

This opposition between “compassionate conservatism” and what I call “ruthless neo-liberalism” is one that Abbott attempts to dispel later on, but for those of us interested in interrogating the contradictions of the Australian Right, the issue demands greater attention.


We will return to this theme later.

Abbott attempts to mould an image of conservative and liberal impulses as interlocked and complementary. He emphasises this again and again.

But there are other conflicts at work also. Even within the broad gamut of liberalism, there is division between social liberalism (concerned with social justice) and economic neo-liberalism (utterly indifferent to it).

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Battlelines by Tony Abbott, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2009.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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