The Very Model Of A Modern Conservative?


There is no shortage of quirky autobiographical titbits in Tony Abbott’s new book Battlelines. Consider this gem:

"On my first visit to the United States after becoming an MP, I was described as ‘a strong Liberal’ and ‘very anti-republican’. Most of my hosts thought I was a virtual communist!"

They only think that way in America. Any Australian, supporter or detractor, watching his performance over the 11 years of the Howard government is unlikely to think of Tony Abbott as a screaming Leftie.

So how did Abbott reach the stage of being one of Australia’s most conservative federal MPs and its most lucid conservative? And just how genuinely "conservative" is he?

Abbott gives plenty of fascinating detail on the first of these two questions but many of his readers will disagree with Abbott’s own assessment of his conservative credentials.

Tony Abbott wasn’t exactly born into the Liberal establishment. His political mentor was the late Bob Santamaria, a conservative Catholic who founded the National Civic Council and who was more concerned with ridding trade unions of communism than supporting what he saw as Menzies’s "party of capital". Abbott describes "Santa" as having a "prejudice that serious Catholics couldn’t advance in the Liberal Party".

Santamaria’s followers formed their own breakaway party which became the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). For years the DLP contributed little to the Labor movement other than keeping the ALP out of power. On campus, the DLP established active "Democratic clubs" and its members also infiltrated other political and social clubs to drum up support for DLP candidates in student elections. One such infiltrator of the Sydney University Liberal Club in 1977 was Tony Abbott. Among his DLP contemporaries was Greg Sheridan, now foreign editor of a foreign-owned broadsheet we know of as The Australian.

In 1979, Abbott was elected president of the Student Representative Council in a popular vote. Abbot was part of a coalition of Liberal, Labor-Right, Zionist and DLP students opposing the Australian Union of Students (AUS) whose policies were characterised by Abbott as "sea rights for gay whales". The Australian Liberal Students’ Federation (ALSF) at the time had been dominated by Michael Yabsley, Michael Kroger and Eric Abetz. (It’s interesting to note that the anti-AUS push for Labor-Right in Melbourne was led by law student Peter Costello. It’s amazing how people’s political affiliations change over time.)

But politics wasn’t everything for the young Abbott. During a stint at Oxford after receiving a Rhodes scholarship, he was influenced by a tough young Jesuit who also served as a recruiting agent for a local boxing competition. Even prior to this encounter, Abbott did not associate the Church with dogmatism and docility. The priests Abbott knew "were nearly all natural leaders. Most of them would have excelled in any field. They tended to be sceptical about dogma and ambivalent about its leaders, without being cynical of the church."

After returning from Oxford, Abbott entered St Patricks Seminary. However, he soon found he didn’t quite fit in, and was on the verge of being asked to leave when he was offered the chance of serving as a parish assistant in Emu Plains on the western edge of Sydney. He eventually realised he didn’t have the patience required to be a priest and that the "living Jesus" was "only a second hand presence" in his life.

It’s all interesting stuff. But although the book’s greatest strength is the candour and honesty of its autobiographical material, Battlelines is no mere memoir. Using conversational style and accessible language, Abbott deciphers political processes and ideas that are frequently mentioned by political pundits but rarely explained to or understood by ordinary punters. Abbott’s explanation of the fine balancing act faced by new oppositions in dealing with the government’s legislative proposals is especially useful: Do you obstruct? Do you negotiate? How will your response be perceived by voters? Abbott provides not just an honest window into the disarray faced by the current federal Opposition but into the strategic problems faced by any opposition.

Abbott also provides a fairly coherent systematic guide to the different strands of modern conservative political thinking. Some will think he severely limits the usefulness of his explanation by arguing that conservatism, unlike liberalism and socialism, "is not a systematic philosophy", but is instead a natural aversion to revolutionary change and a respect for the status quo. Yet which political philosophy can claim to be perfectly systemic? You cannot exercise power by merely following flowcharts.

If those are its strengths, the books biggest weakness is Abbott’s continued dogmatic and sycophantic defence of the Howard government. This becomes particularly evident when it discusses Howard’s approach to foreign policy which Abbott summarises as "a kind of neighbourhood watch scheme in support of Western values". And what are these values? Well, there is support for democracy and the rule of law. But how then does Abbott explain the Howard government’s support for a so-called "war on terror" that involved such flagrant violations of international law and precedent?

Abbott takes a particularly naive, almost childish, view of the United States as a force with inherently altruistic motives. Abbott’s America and its allies "collectively agonise over how to make the world a better place". He doesn’t really deal with the fact that so few of these same US allies joined the disastrous Iraq expedition which Abbott continues to defend. And the word "torture" appears nowhere in Abbott’s discussion.

Speaking of Iraq, I almost fell off my chair when reading what Abbott has to say about the Coalition of the Killing’s wish to see the "creation of a more-or-less functioning pluralist democracy" in Iraq that "will come to resemble Jordan or Egypt rather than Iran or Somalia". I’m not sure what kind of pluralistic Egyptian democracy it was that engaged in the torture of Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib. And I’m also not sure how an elected government dominated by pro-Iranian Shi’ite theocrats makes Iraq much different to Iran.

Indeed, one cannot help but wonder whether a future Prime Minister Abbott would be even more willing to allow another cowboy president in Washington to dictate his battlelines, even if it means compromising his conservative philosophy or the values he learned at St Patricks Seminary.

Still, you don’t have to agree with Abbott to appreciate his book. It’s rare for a sitting MP to be so honest about his political influences, his embarrassing moments and his perspectives on controversial policy issues. The ALP might be seen as the sexier side of major party politics (or at least the less un-sexy side) but Abbott has restored to the conservative side some much-needed flair.

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