Sunday, May 02, 2010

Manning the barricades along Abbott's Battlelines

It is unlikely, as Treasurer Wayne Swan said, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will be cracking open the champagne on hearing Malcolm Turnbull’s change of mind to stay in federal politics. Yet Turnbull’s decision is not without its gains for Abbott. For starters there is the obvious benefit of shoring up the seat of Wentworth, which was looking difficult to hold without Turnbull’s massive personal vote. Abbott would become a Liberal hero if he pulled off an unlikely victory or even staved off the monumental defeat that looked likely during most of the Brendon Nelson and Turnbull tenures as leader. With the gratitude of the party behind him, Abbott would be secure as leader and the best Turnbull could hope for is the Treasury, a position he would be admirably suited for.

This is a long odds prospect based on current opinion polls but as recent actions by the Government suggest, it is a prospect that worries Kevin Rudd. How else to explain the Government closing off debates and moving closer to Abbott positions on matters such as the ETS, migrant detention and about-turns on kindergarten centres, hospital takeovers and the insulation debacle? As Abbott said in the introductory sentence to his new book, “political parties have to treat defeat as an opportunity as well as a disaster”. As leader in the 2010 election no-one expects him to win, Abbott can afford to treat it as an opportunity to inflict maximum damage. Peter Hartcher observed Abbott’s team is crafted in his own image - populist, angry and spoiling for a fight.

A clue to why Abbott might do this can be found in the title of the book I quoted from. The title “Battlelines” is not accidental. Here is the former pugilist choosing to fight on several fronts. Abbott is a Christian warrior who admits he lacks the humility to be fearful about the size of the task. His Jesuit education makes him want to live life to the full. “For me,” Abbott wrote, “the message was God preferred big-hearted people who might sometimes make mistakes rather than robotic role-worshippers.”

The notion of God remains an important presence in Abbott’s life, as it does the Prime Minister. But whereas Rudd has succeeded in keeping his beliefs at arm’s length from policymaking, Abbott is fundamentally defined by his. Abbott’s approach to ethics is based on Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance. His best answer to most ethical dilemmas is “what if the boot was on the other foot?” which he said was closest to human instinct. This willingness to put himself in other people’s shoes has its limits. The Catholic thinking of B.A. Santamaria may have helped him become a “man for others” but his native conservatism made him feel threatened by some of life’s less conventional mores.

Abbott also admits he was threatened by multiculturalism in the 1980s. It wasn’t that he didn't want an Australia where many languages might be spoken, many religions worshipped, or many cultures practiced. It was because he was “too defensive about Western values that have turned out to have near-universal appeal.” Abbott has a somewhat narrow view of the European Enlightenment. He cherishes British values above all. He loves Britain, the source of the language and the law, as a “fountain of democracy”. He rejects the notion the monarchy is foreign though the “Australian Crown” to him means governor-generals and state governors as much as the Queen and the royal family.

Less intractable are Abbott’s economic opinions. He said he was joking when he said economics was boring and now insists “no serious person can be uninterested in economics.” Yet he has not drawn any economics battlelines and the book does not include economics in the index. His opposition to the GFC stimulus is for opposing sake rather than for a strategic economic masterplan - Abbott is no disciple of Hayek. This may be where Turnbull comes back in. While he has no intention of staying on as Abbott’s offsider, it may yet be his best bet if Abbott gets lucky over the next few months.

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