Tuesday 25 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.


Anonymous said...

I agree. Tony Abbott offers substance, instead of the 'same old, same old...'. I think he would be a noble PM. Cheers.

Geoff W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

What a load of crap. I always suspected Scott Stephens was a conservative.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the other anonymous.

The Black Adder got it right on this topic: utter crap.

In my opinion the quality of the OZ body politic was "profoundly" degraded during the Howard years. Parliament was reduced to a growling pit of punk adolescents strutting their stuff, and their benighted ignorance. Abbott was a key player in this systematic debasement.

Did Abbott ever once offer a dissenting public voice to even a smidgen of the Howard agenda?

Plus in my opinion much or most of what is now called "conservative", is a form of psychosis. This is also the case with right-wing religiosity too.

donbruce54@hotmail.com said...

I agree with the premise of his argument but I am not a Tony Abbott fan.

Michael Canaris said...

Tony Abbott has long been one of my favourite modern statesmen. Still, I suspect school spirit might have assisted that article's publication in the other place.

Michael Canaris said...

It's also worth noting that those successive opinion polls were skewed by Peter Costello's inclusion in them (against Costello's express wishes.)

Anonymous said...

Just to clear things up, Abbott's vision Abbott’s political vision includes thousands of pregnant teenage mothers and starving unemployed.

First, when Abbott was health minister he made his job synonymous with trying to curtail abortion, fighting a rear-guard action against the so-called abortion pill, euthanasia, stem-cell research or therapeutic cloning, as well as awarding millions of taxpayer money to Roman Catholic family counselling organisations. To encourage elements of the Roman Catholic Church to be involved in abortion counselling is as about as intelligent as encouraging Osama bin Laden to organise scenic flights over Sydney.

Second, in a speeach on unemployment and the work-for-the-dole programme, Abbott said: ‘Disincentives to work have been recognised at least since the time of St Paul (who said that those who did not work should not eat)’ (Abbott 1999). It takes little imagination to see what an employment programm that followed such a principle would look like.

Michael Canaris said...

Contrary to anonymous insinuations herein, Mr Abbott broadly supports our Welfare State. Indeed, I'd venture so far as to say that in comparison to other MPs on my side of the spectrum, he is rather well-attuned to myriad challenges facing recipients of social expenditure.

Anonymous said...

Insinuations? Ah no, they come from the mad monk's mouth.

Michael Canaris said...

Precise source and context? 'Abbott 1999' doesn't quite cut it, I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

"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"

the worst post I have ever seen on this blog; fairy land dribble of those most simplistic idealogical variety yet.

Ben Myers said...

Honestly, I can't imagine why this post should be described as "ideological".

I know Scott Stephens very well, and I doubt that he's ever voted for the Liberal Party in his life. Nor is he trying to tell anyone how to vote; nor is he crying "Tony Abbott for PM". He's giving reasons why he thinks Abbott would be a good leader of opposition, and why he thinks Abbott would bring something distinctive to our (let's face it) increasingly bland and monochrome political scene.

I just don't see what's "ideological" about any of this, or why (even if you disagree) it should seem so morally offensive.

Anonymous said...

For dear Mr Canaris, you'll find the Tony Abbott quotation in 'Notes for Australia Unlimited Conference - Bridging the Incentive Gap, 4 May 1999'. It is the text of a lecture he gave.

Joanna Cruickshank said...

Nothing like a political debate to bring out the anonymous post-ers. Honestly, if you don't believe strongly enough in your convictions to put your name to them, I struggle to take them seriously.

With regards to Tony Abbott, I agree that he is one of the few obviously principled high-profile conservatives in Australian politics and for that reason would make a more interesting and convincing opposition leader than Turnbull and co. In the Eureka Street debate, Scott talked about his 'Burkean conservatism' - and this is something I can respect, if not agree with. However to my mind Abbott's unalloyed enthusiasm for Howard shows that he is fatally unable to distinguish between principled conservatism and shallow populism - why would he be any different as opposition leader? I think he'd be vulnerable to the worst kind of dog-whistle politicians in his party.

myleswerntz said...

What Joanna said: if you don't think enough of your argument to put your name on it, don't waste everyone's time.

Jesse said...

Thanks Scott, interesting post.

The same vacuum of meaning persists in the Canadian political world. Meaningful debate on important issues is precluded by rhetorics of hysteria before they begin. People of courage and substance get vetted pretty quickly...or learn to keep their mouths shut and ACT as though they had no principles - which is what has happened to both our PM (Harper)and the Leader of the opposition (Ignatieff).

Anthony Paul Smith said...


I think the anon thing was just an accident. Roland posted the same thing under his name at his blog.

I have to say, all this obsessional yearning for "meaningful" or "principled debate" strikes me as all too liberal. At least all too liberal if you consider that the author hopes to get outside of liberalism proper. I'm not interested in debate at all, I'm interested in winning the political war. So, in the American context, that means completely and utterly decimating the conservative ideology of the Republicans first and then turning to the right-wing aspects of the Democrats. In the UK that means destroying the Tories first before turning to the neo-liberal wing of the Labour party. I have no interest what so ever in there being intelligent conservatives who, despite being intelligent, are still conservative thereby giving rise to the myth that the overriding conservative ideology has some kernel of goodness that, in itself, means they deserve a shot at power.

Anonymous said...

As a non-partisan-aligned person with sympathies with progressive radical democracy (whatever the heck that is), I think the a reason we might be full of perverse enjoyment and excitement by all this kerfuffle is that - disagree as we may with the Liberal Party - this is a whiff of the dynamism, uncertainty and indeed excitement of democracy as it should be. When I was in the shower today (the site of much thinking for me), I started seeing possibilities for the 'renewal' of Australian democracy in all of this controversy over a what is essentially a lame-duck Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

This is by no means a plea for Abbott (no way). Rather, it is a plea for the return of 'disruptive politics' that is actually interesting.

I fantasise a scenario for Aust. politics here: http://remylow.blogspot.com/2009/12/abbot-drinks-poisoned-chalice-how-this.html

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