Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Why Tony Abbott should be leader of the opposition

by Scott Stephens (An abridged version of this piece was published yesterday in Eureka Street)

Politics in Australia bears all the Darwinian traits of having been chastened by a cruel and unforgiving country. It tends toward the visceral and agonistic. Moments of genuine inspiration are fleeting, and it rarely reaches above the level of the soporific and outright banal. It is hardly surprising, then, that belief — not in the narrowly religious sense, but in the sense of a clear conception of principles, of something beyond one’s own ambitions, of the telos or ultimate purpose of one’s involvement in politics in the first place — has never been a conspicuous quality among its politicians. This is not, of course, peculiar to Australian politics. In his recent book, Political Hypocrisy, David Runciman argues that democratic politics is in a way defined by the bracketing off of personal belief:

‘Modern politics is grounded on a set of institutional arrangements that can generate security in a situation in which one can never be certain what anyone really believes, though one can be certain that some people will place undue weight on their personal beliefs. To over-personalise politics, to collapse the distinction between the mask and the person behind the mask, is either culpable hypocrisy, or self-delusion.’

But in Australia, this ambivalence toward belief has taken on a distinctly antipodean flavour. While it is true that Australians have a pathological aversion to sanctimony and cant, they are nonetheless suspicious when politicians present as a little too earnest or believe too deeply: they are branded fanatical, doctrinaire or, worst of all, ideological. Australia has thus become a kind of politico-moral wasteland, in which the public expects the cynical instrumentalization of the political process from their elected representatives, who in turn deliver cautious, small-target performances that barely conceal wanton ambition. Mutual cynicism, as Mark Latham bitterly observed, is ‘the gold standard of modern politics’.

But the ubiquity of cynicism in Australian politics, while making democracy possible, has simultaneously bastardized the political process. Just consider the erosion of the categories of Left and Right, celebrated by many as an advance on the brutal partisanship of last century: isn’t this merely the consequence of the subtraction of belief from politics? And so, when the cynicism that pervades Australian politics is combined with our compulsory voting system, elections are reduced to the pendular swinging of public whimsy (the ‘It’s Time’ factor emptied of any consequence), and principled opposition becomes craven opportunism.

It is difficult not to see Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull as the archetypal expressions of this corruption of politics. They are, as it were, political doppelgängers, each engaging in the political process — to paraphrase Clausewitz’s memorable definition of war — as an extension of egocentrism by other means. And their colossal personae and fortunes in the polls have come to occupy the place once held by a Party’s platform, what Edmund Burke described as that ‘particular principle in which they are all agreed’. What results is the anomalous existence of political parties without political properties, which is to say, without binding narratives or ‘ideologies’. This was abundantly clear during the recent ALP National Conference, at which Rudd’s rallying call to the ‘true believers’ was little more than: Labor is for being in power and against being in opposition. For his part, Turnbull can offer no counter-narrative apart from a self-serving reiteration of Menzies’ liberal creed of entrepreneurial individualism and self-reliance: ‘We believe in the individual, in his freedom, in his ambition, in his dignity’.

While the emptying-out of the political domain is currently to the advantage of the incumbent government — particularly one that has raised prevarication, spin and avoidance to an art form — it is disastrous for the Opposition. Turnbull’s stubborn determination to fight Rudd on ground that Labor has completely, if disingenuously, dominated is having no effect on the electorate, apart from confirming their implicit distrust of Turnbull himself. In fact, after just two years, we have already witnessed the return of Liberal Party to the dire situation that confronted them after their defeat at the 1993 election. In March of that same year, B. A. Santamaria lamented to Malcolm Fraser: ‘The country desperately needs a credible alternative to Labor. For years the fact that the Liberal Party has lost its way has been apparent. Today many conservatives believe it stands for nothing — a belief reinforced by the knowledge that towards the end of his life Sir Robert Menzies ceased to give the Party his automatic support.’

But, as the 1996 election demonstrated, night is always darkest before the dawn. Opposition presents the Liberal Party with a rare opportunity to recover its conservative soul and thereby abandon Labor’s vapid brand of politics which has so bewitched the electorate for a time. No politician has made this case more powerfully than Tony Abbott. His new book, Battlelines (Melbourne University Press, 2009), ought to be read as a kind of response to Santamaria’s challenge to Menzies. Indeed, one often gets the impression that Abbott is picking a fight not so much with Labor as with the libertarian and individualist tendencies within his own Party. Abbott’s determination to restore charity, belief and courage to their rightful place as the greatest of political virtues — which I’ve elsewhere described as ‘a leader’s willingness to wage war against the people’s baser instincts, to expand the public’s moral imagination rather than simply pander to avarice, to stare electoral oblivion in the face by defying popular opinion, to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a larger cause’ — distinguishes him as the antitype of both Rudd and Turnbull.

Replacing Turnbull with Abbott as Leader of the Opposition is the only way forward for the Liberal Party, and yet it is an act which would itself require a great deal of courage. I contend that the electorate’s low regard for Abbott — demonstrated in successive opinion polls which place his support consistently around 10% — ought to be dismissed as unenlightened electoral bigotry, as an ignorant throwback to the anti-Catholic prejudice that bedeviled J.F. Kennedy in 1960s.

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