It's Back To The Future for An Anachronistic Abbott Agenda


It all began harmlessly enough. In March this year, to the surprise of almost everyone, including his own party room, Tony Abbott announced the re-introduction of the imperial honours system.

It was a bizarre move by the Prime Minister, after the Hawke Government ended the practice in the 1980s.

Even staunch monarchist John Howard responded that it was “inappropriate” and “anachronistic”.

As we groaned at the pettiness of the move or took the opportunity to knight ourselves, our Prime Minister was only warming up into an agenda that drew more from a 1960s playbook than something suited to 21st century Australia.

Abbott organised his Cabinet accordingly. For the first time in over a decade, the senior ministry is home to just one female member. After years of increasing female participation in government, our parliament and its inner sanctum now look strikingly similar to the boys clubs of yesteryear. 

As infuriated commentators drafted tirades on the representation of women in government, the Prime Minister, for reasons that might never be understood, nominated himself as the Minister for Women.

Somehow neither his wife’s explanation that he was really just a “softie”, nor the fact that he was generous enough to nominate a woman as the Assistant Minister seemed to assuage the frustration.

For the first time in almost four decades, a man was at the helm of women’s affairs and once again, Australians sat wondering what year the government thought it was.

The Abbott textbook, almost certainly predates the advanced understanding of the last decade or more of environmental leadership and climate science, outlined his next attempt to delist 74,000 hectares of World Heritage listed forest in Tasmania.

However it seems that no-one told the Government that you can’t just decide to open up large swathes of old-growth forest for business, so after an embarrassingly short deliberation, the World Heritage Committee knocked back the proposal. 

In June, Abbott signalled that he was considering reinstating the crown-based Victoria Cross medal system. The awards were nationalised in the 1960s as Australia tried to stamp some sort of independence from its Commonwealth ties and establish its own form of national wartime honours.

Canada and New Zealand, like Australia, have since amended their own national honours awards.

Abbott’s nostalgia for the Empire has reshaped our foreign affairs philosophy. In his biography, Battlelines, Abbott – albeit briefly – lays out a future for foreign affairs that would draw Australia closer to the Anglosphere, a notion that seems increasingly dated in the so called Asian Century.

It is little surprise then that within a few months of assuming office, the Abbott government had left painstakingly constructed relationships with China and Indonesia in tatters.  

More recently, Kevin Donnelly, appointed to head an education review – who has previously argued that LGBT sexual education was not appropriate in schools – suggested that corporal punishment was “very effective” and could have a place in our schools again.

Christopher Pyne quickly moved to defuse the situation and deny the return of the cane to the classroom, however the overarching pattern is damning.

The government and its chief advisors seem to rue a past where Australia sat snugly by the Monarchy, where there weren’t such pesky things like environmental responsibility or women’s representation and where teachers taught with cane in hand.

But it was last month, with the repeal of the carbon tax that the Government’s anachronistic agenda most tangibly impacted on our future development.

The Abbott Government became the first in the world to scale back action on climate change. As sea levels rise and the world suffers from related impacts, it is likely this reversion that will come to haunt our future more than any other.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact era that Mr Abbott is attempting to resurrect. But the trend is apparent. This is a government that is obsessed with rewriting or resurrecting the past rather than looking ahead.

It does not bode well for progressive, popular policies like action on climate change or marriage equality.

Moreover, Mr Abbott has signalled that no previous legislation or standard, however established or guarded by international courts or constitutional law, is safe from his or his advisor’s reconsideration.

It’s just a matter of where they decide to strike next, cane in hand. 

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