On the final day of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Studio One of the Sydney Dance Company became the venue of a superb Sunday afternoon biff between the Shadow Minister for Family, Indigenous and Voluntary Stuff (and Minister for making Malcolm Turnbull Liberal Leader) Tony Abbott and politics professor – and darling of the so-called left elite – Robert Manne.
The session was moderated by John Howard’s co-biographer Peter van Onselen, who is now editing a book on the future of the Liberal Party. Also on the panel was Phillip Senior, who is contributing a chapter to van Onselen’s book. For some reason, Senior wasn’t on the official Festival program, and he was strategically seated between Abbott and Manne. Senior and van Onselen have themselves co-authored a book on the demise of the Howard government.
Soon-to-be-Dr Senior spoke of how and why the Coalition lost the 2007 Federal election. Unlike Manne, he didn’t believe the Libs had necessarily lost the plot, arguing that even at the time of his lowest electoral fortunes, Howard remained one of Australia’s most popular PMs. Still, the Party could have done much better in the campaign, and spent too much time rabbiting on about past successes in economic management and too little presenting a vision for the future.
But the real battle was always going to be between Abbott and Manne. Like all good academics, the Professor came with a prepared speech. He provided a lucid account of how Howard had turned the Liberal Party into the Australian neo-Conservative Party, and how he transformed the Party into one that could no longer claim to be a Party for all Australians.
Manne pointed out that, as Opposition leader, Howard had resisted the racial and ethnic transformation of Australia. After being elected in 1996, Howard watched carefully the rise of Hansonism and wondered how he could capitalise on the Pauline Hanson factor – which proved powerful enough for One Nation to at one stage capture around 25 per cent of the vote in a Queensland State election. Howard seemed to encourage Hansonite thinking with his attacks on political correctness as espoused by the so-called elites.
Manne argued that Howard’s war on asylum-seekers was used to bring One Nation voters back to the Coalition fold, as well as splitting the ALP’s base between the working class battlers and the inner-city elites.
The events of 9/11 enabled Howard to take this to new lows of political incorrectness. Manne reminded us that Howard was deeply affected by 9/11, having been in the US at the time. Howard then dragged Australia along into every single US foreign policy blunder including the Iraq War, a war which Manne argued was a bigger disaster than Vietnam.
Manne said the Party had lost all credibility in foreign policy, and only honest self-criticism could save it from … er … losing even more credibility. As Howard told the American Enterprise Institute recently, ideas really did matter. The Howard government just had no ideas (or at least the wrong ones).
Joe Hockey probably agrees with Manne about the need for a major re-think, but Tony Abbott certainly didn’t show much agreement on the day. He claimed practical thinking of cabinet ministers had little to do with what he labeled Manne’s "arcane idea of neo-Conservatism". Abbott suggested the best phrase to describe the Howard government was "pragmatism with conservative values". You know the kind. Values like the family, institutions all that other equally arcane stuff.
I’ve praised Abbott in the past for resisting the urge toward political erectness and for being consistent in his conservatism. But Abbott showed little of that during his performance at the Writers’ Festival.
Many audience members were visibly confused when Abbott contradicted Manne’s view that most Australian political pundits had underestimated the power of ideas, presuming that politicians were driven more by pragmatism than ideology. After all, Manne was only repeating what Howard himself had recently told the American Enterprise Institute. Abbott was in effect defending the Howard government by contradicting Howard’s explanation for his government’s success.
Abbott also appealed to populism, claiming that Howard couldn’t have been too indecent if a majority of voters kept voting him in. This proved popular with many in the audience, who nodded in agreement. He said that Manne’s critique of the Liberal Party is as useful as Abbott attempting a critique of the ALP. I just wish he’d told us that back in December 2006 when he penned this piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.
I’m pretty sure I heard Abbott correctly when he admitted that most Liberal MPs don’t have the ability to attract Aussie voters. Certainly many of his ideological opponents in the audience applauded at this remark. They were less enthusiastic about his claim that Brendan Nelson could attract voters because he had sufficient compassion. Yep, just ask the Exclusive Brethren.
Most explosive of all was Abbott’s call for a constitutional change to extend Commonwealth legislative powers. He might be right, but I somehow think we’ll have to become a republic first. States-rights conservatives beware.
Abbott tried to paint himself as the underdog, recognising Tom Switzer, Christopher Pearson and Peter Coleman as the only conservatives in the audience. I’m not sure if many in the audience even recognised these names. This certainly didn’t stop them from agreeing with Abbott’s declaration that Kevin Rudd positioning himself as an economic conservative meant that we were now all conservatives.
Sadly, Abbott lost many of these sympathetic punters when he compared Nelson to "Australia’s most successful conservative leader" – apprarently Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Robert Manne didn’t have it all his own way either. When an audience member asked Abbott and Manne whether they were aware of the concept of peak oil, Abbott may have looked silly for admitting he didn’t know the precise meaning of the term, but at least he was honest. Manne attempted a vague explanation, which lead to a wave of frowns through the audience.
Someone asked Abbott how he thought Australia would look in 2020. Abbott fumbled this one badly by suggesting Australia would look much like it did now. In cricket terms, Abbott delivered a slow full-toss which Manne should have dispatched for six. Instead, it was let through to the keeper.
This was a crucial debate concerning not just the future of the Liberal Party but of Australia as a whole. The fact that there were no clear winners showed to me that even in a feel-good politically correct crowd (such as you’d expect at a Writers’ Festival), conservative politics isn’t completely written off.
Perhaps there is a bit of both Robert Manne and Tony Abbott in all of us.
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