If John Howard stays on until after the
next election and Peter Costello decides
there's more to life than waiting around
for a prime minister to quit, then Howard
might choose to hand the top job to his
ideological soul mate, Tony Abbott.
An Abbott-led Liberal Party would kill
the liberal wing of the party that is
already fighting for its life under Howard.
Costello, by contrast, has been prepared
to accommodate the liberals in the party
with a progressive stance on the republic,
reconciliation and Asia.
Abbott is a take-no-prisoners type of
politician and a cultural warrior who
abhors the liberal wing of his party.
He is a Catholic and his politics reflect
that fact. For Abbott there is good and
bad, the deserving and the undeserving.
He is the closest thing to a Thatcherite
in the Howard government. Like Margaret
Thatcher's blunt minister Norman Tebbitt
- who once told the unemployed to get
on their bikes because there was plenty
of work out there if they wanted it -
Abbott thinks there are "job snobs"
who refuse to take decent employment because
they think it's beneath them.
Abbott readily identifies with Howard's
strategy that seeks to divide lower-income
earners into those who are deserving (they
have jobs) versus those who are not (they
don't have jobs).
In January, Abbott told the Young Liberals'
annual conference that Labor was about
"making life more comfortable on
social security" and that "this
fuels the blue-collar sense that modern
Labor represents the welfare class ahead
of the working class. Howard, by contrast,
strikes a chord with traditional working
people because he understands that battlers
want a hand-up, not a handout".
Abbott is also a hit with the think tanks
that most overtly support the right-wing
of the Liberal Party - Melbourne's Institute
of Public Affairs and Sydney's Centre
for Independent Studies. Both these
organisations champion the free market,
distrust government and support the concept
of "mutual obligation" in welfare
Abbott is their champion. He delivered
the IPA's prestigious C. D. Kemp Lecture
in 2001, saying proudly that the Howard
government's Work for the Dole program
had ended passive welfare in Australia.
He delivered the CIS's Bert Kelly Lecture
in 2000, and again his target was welfare
policy. Abbott cited Pope John Paul II,
a noted conservative, to support the Howard
government's devolvement of responsibility
for job seekers through the Work for the
Dole program - which relies heavily on
community organisations - and the privatisation
of the Commonwealth Employment Service.
At the Conservative Breakfast Club in
Brisbane in September 2001, he told his
audience Work for the Dole was about all
Australians pulling their weight - making
no mention of the fact that the capacity
of some people to pull their weight is
severely limited by economic, social,
mental or physical handicap.
The Brisbane speech demonstrated Abbott's
preparedness to abuse the term "liberal"
for his own political and ideological
purpose. In it, Abbott was at pains to
point out that the Liberal Party under
Howard was conservative and liberal. But,
when it comes to the latter, conservatives
such as Abbott allow themselves the privilege
of carving "good" liberalism
from the "bad".
In Abbott's view there "are good
'liberal' arguments, for instance, for
giving parents more choice about their
children's schooling and mothers more
choice about whether they go back to work".
But he is not keen on freedom of choice
when it comes to euthanasia or abortion.
"The liberal argument for over-turning
the Northern Territory's euthanasia law
was that human beings should never be
treated as disposable commodities. But
for many, the chief problem was the Territory's
cavalier disregard of our culture's most
powerful moral and ethical commitment,
to the sanctity of life," he commented.
Tony Abbott is not committed to liberalism
- he is a capital "C" conservative
like John Howard and if he were to become
leader of the Liberal Party its already
emasculated liberal wing would face extinction.
The transformation of the Liberal Party
into the Conservative Party of Australia,
begun under John Howard, would be completed
under Tony Abbott.
Let's hope Peter Costello's famous patience
lasts a little longer.