Tony Abbott’s New Year’s manifesto for the future leadership of the Liberal Party is an interesting read.
For, while the stated purpose of his much-reported address to the annual conference of the Young Liberals is to critique the left of Australian politics, the primary purpose was to position himself as the "heir-apparent" for the leadership of the Right.
I have to confess that I’d always thought that Abbot would make a more challenging leader than Costello. With Tony, you’re getting a Conservative’s Conservative. A combination of Rudyard Kipling and the Boy’s Own Annual – but tempered with respectability that comes with an Oxbridge education. Someone who would have been
held close to Margaret Thatcher’s bosom, and a Queen’s man to boot!
Contrast that with Costello – the current "heir-apparent". Neither fish nor foul. Neither conservative, nor for that matter really liberal. A denizen of the shadowlands of the Right, but of no real fixed ideological abode. A "bonsai" republican who weighed into the debate so late and with a position so obscure
as to be totally useless when it came down to the real business of shifting votes for the referendum. On reconciliation, he was absent from the Sydney bridge walk. And on recent controversies on race, refugees and immigration – well, like our fearless Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, he was just plain missing in action when it
really counted in the debate within his own Party – assuming of course that there was a debate.
Tony Abbott’s latest polemic, however, causes me to start to re-think my judgement on all this. Because if your chosen vehicle for advancing your leadership credentials is a systemically philosophical critique of the Left, then the philosophical argument you’re running has actually got to stack up. And the problem for our Prime
Ministerial aspirant is that his doesn’t.
Tony Abbot often describes himself as a conservative in the philosophical tradition of Edmund Burke. Most conservatives, as opposed to Liberals, do. It’s a bit like wrapping yourself in the bible. The Burkean proposition is that the nation’s institutions are an inheritance the present generation should not abandon, since they
have been fashioned by the wisdom of the past, tested in adversity, and must be held in trust for those yet to be born.
Tony’s problem is that while Burke’s is a consistent Conservatism, his is not. While he champions Burke in his defence of the institution of the monarchy, what happens to the Burkean rigour in his defence of other institutions? Why is Abbot not equally defending the independence and financial standing of the ABC? Or is the ABC
not an institution? Where is the defence of the independence of the public service? Or is the public service not an institution? What about the longstanding and quintessentially Conservative convention of not making domestic political use of defence forces, as occurred during the last election campaign? Burke seems to have gone
walkabout on that one.
The list of institutions, conventions and traditions goes on: our 100 year-old independent industrial umpire, introduced not by the Labor Party but by Deakin’s Liberals; the continued viability of our universities; the continuation of Australia Post (which, as the Postmaster-General, has a history considerably longer than the
combined histories of both the Labor and the Liberal parties, of which the latter is now indicating it may privatise); the emasculation of Radio Australia, created sixty years ago not by Labor but by Menzies; the shattering of our bipartisan, half-century commitment to the United Nations. The meat-axe being taken to these institutions
does not represent principled, considered conservatism. It is conservatism at its highly selective and philosophically inconsistent worst.
This brings us to the second logical deficiency in Abbott’s piece. A key part of his critique of the Left is his attack on unelected "elites", committed to the social "re-engineering" of the nation. Tony’s answer, unstated of course, is to do some solid re-engineering of his own. Instead of imaginary leftie
elites, we’ll impose some real elites of our own, thank you very much. We’ll give you Don McDonald of the ABC, we’ll give you Max Moore-Wilton in charge of the Commonwealth public service, and we’ll give lots of money to that nice man who runs the King’s School. Of course, we don’t call them elites. They’re just
"our" sort of people. And are so much more pleasant!
The bottom line in all of this is an incremental but nonetheless radical redistribution of power in Australian society.
Tony Abbott calls his piece "Feeling Better About Australia", which, I presume, is designed to be nicely in step with John Howard’s Australia of five years ago, which was supposed to be "relaxed and comfortable". As a neat piece of leadership positioning, it is entirely commendable. But as a coherent critique
of our vision for the nation’s further, or as a positive philosophical framework for what an Abbott government may offer, it is a dead letter.