Aly quotes David Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Abbott to resolve the apparent contradiction between Abbott the man of conviction and Abbott the political pragmatist. Marr explains this as a contest between “Values Abbott” and “Politics Abbott” in which the Politics Abbott wins. For example, Marr says:
Win or lose, nothing will be done to roll back abortion rights because Politics Abbott knows that’s simply not possible. Values Abbott will work to cushion families from the realities of economic life. And if the Coalition parties allow him, Values Abbott will protect working men and women from the full force of the labour market. But he won’t put his career on the line for any of this. He won’t abandon his old DLP principles, but he won’t be a martyr to them either. The Abbott that matters is Politics Abbott.
Aly suggests that the contradiction is resolved at a deeper level in Abbott’s political philosophy. says:
this isn’t some fight between the two halves of Tony Abbott that only his worldly ambition resolves. Rather, this is a straightforward application of conservative political philosophy. Any serious conservative understands that there is a world of difference between private morality and public policy.
It is a conservatism that recognises diversity within society, where multiple actors and groups may have values and norms which “should not be bent to the will of some overarching moralism.” Following Michael Oakeshott the conservative politician needs to “rein in one’s own beliefs and desires, to acknowledge the current shape of things, to feel the balance of things in one’s hand…” This is illustrated in Abbott’s view of the “evolving family”, which is “often sole-parent or blended”. Abbott believes in the traditional two-parent family and chastity before marriage, but recognises and accepts that substantial numbers of people may act differently.
accepts the idea that conservatives have no business trying to create a world that realises their own moral vision: “Unlike liberalism or socialism, conservatism does not start with an idea and construct a huge superstructure based on one insight or preference,” he writes, adding elsewhere that “ideologues want to impose their values on others. Pragmatists want to solve others’ problems as long as the cure is not worse than the disease.” He puts himself very much in the latter category.
Abbott is not, however, morally neutral:
He’s concerned with the breakdown of society’s moral fabric, and will resist what he sees as moral disintegration if it’s happening before him, but he’s not radically moralistic. He won’t try to re-create an idealised moral past. His conservatism means he submits to irretrievable moral developments in society. “As an ambitious politician, I had never had the slightest intention of becoming a morals campaigner,” he writes in Battlelines. For Abbott, conservatives “are better suited to defending barricades than to storming them”.
On abortion Abbott makes an explicit distinction between “deploring the frequency of abortion and trying to re-criminalise it” in Battlelines. Aly:
From his time as Howard’s health minister, and from Battlelines, we know his approach will be to try to “nudge the abortion rate down without affecting women’s right to choose”, probably by tailoring support services accordingly. But he’ll also be extremely wary of taking any steps that will unleash a backlash.
To Marr this is Abbott’s political pragmatism. To Aly it’s his political conservatism because he understands the folly of trying to re-create the past.
So what do you think? Can we be relaxed and comfortable with the prospect of an Abbott government? Wasn’t the subtle and not-so-subtle nudging what really concerned people on Anna Winter’s recent thread?
Roy Williams in his new book In God They Trust?, about the religious beliefs of Australia’s prime ministers from 1901-2013, says that religious belief is a key determinant of individual behaviour, with prime ministers not exempt. He included a chapter on Abbott and told Steve Austin on local ABC that Abbott in fact writes that our religious beliefs are part of everyone including politicians, they don’t leave them at the door when entering politics. An edited extract of Williams book at Online Opinion says:
The record shows that their decision-making was often affected by their faith, and not merely as regards matters patently “moral” or “spiritual”. It extended to the perennial issues of practical politics: the distribution of wealth, wars and national participation in them, and the recognition and enforcement of human rights.
In assessing a PM’s religious beliefs he has this to say:
Actions – church-going, Bible-reading, evangelism, charitable works, peace-making, humility, piety, kindness – speak louder than words. And words written or spoken in private are more likely to be reliable than those for public consumption.
That leaves me with a lot I don’t know and a fair bit to worry about.
We also need to consider that Abbott is not alone. Abbott’s cabinet contains a number who are likely to be ideologically active.
Andrew Robb who chairs the Coalition Policy Development Committee has been quite helpful in identifying the underlying principles informing the overt policies. Jennifer Hewett in the AFR lists these as
- government living within its means
- reversing the nanny state
- restoring the culture of personal responsibility, and
- backing Australia’s strengths.
All packaged under the slogan “Hope, Reward, Opportunity”.
This bespeaks an active unpicking of the ‘socialism’ of the Rudd and Gillard governments, austerity budgeting, small government, ‘pay as you go’ access to services and continuing the capitalist project of commercialising further aspects of human experience. Almost certainly there will be a thinning of the social safety net and greater inequality.
The detail in the policy document is often vague. Robert uncovered an intent to turn government schools into independent schools. In what Queensland is doing commercial involvement which we once tried to keep out of schools is actively sought. There is a line that is crossed where education becomes indoctrination by normalising the commercialisation of experience. Another line beckons where schools are run for profit.
Hewett tells us that Robb wants to involve super funds in financing infrastructure by:
suggesting a rebalancing of risk and reward to try to get them to back greenfields projects in Australia. He says this could involve packaging up various assets, including existing infrastructure, and using reliable income generated from the existing brownfields projects to fund new ones. This could start off as a package of smaller projects and then be extended to larger ones as confidence and new finance structures grow.
Infrastructure Australia will also be re-vamped to ensure the head of it is responsible to a commercial board rather than the minister.
Potentially this could mean selling the street in front of your house and charging you to drive along it.
Surely the political pragmatist in Abbott will curtail such ambitions, as he may have to curtail Scott Morrison from sending in the SAS to sort out asylum seekers. Nevertheless the ideological activism of Abbott’s cabinet is likely to be a significant feature if he comes to government.
I think we live in interesting times. Robb enunciated his principles back in 2011, saying that
it has been deeply annoying to hear anyone say there is no longer any serious philosophical difference between the two main sides of politics.
We’d best believe him.
BTW you’ll be pleased to know that according to The Australian Rudd has been studying Greek, the better to understand “the radical proposition of putting others first and yourself last” as portrayed in the Gospel of Luke. Williams assessment is that Abbott if elected will join Keating and Chifley as more-than-tribal Catholics.
Whether he will have the “moral courage” of those two to do what he considers right, and whether we would want him to, is part of the conundrum.