POLITICS: by Hon. Tony Abbott MPNews Weekly
Key principles of democratic statesmanship
, December 20, 2008
Federal shadow minister the Hon. Tony Abbott MP spoke at the annual News Weekly Dinner in Melbourne on December 8, 2008. He recalled his early involvement, during his student days, with the National Civic Council (the Movement), and described the pitfalls that all principled statesmen must face when trying to realise their ideals in public office.
All of us are shaped by many things, but certainly the Movement has been one of the more significant influences in my life. There was something about social conservatism, traditional values, respect for the working man, and the desire to give the battler a better life, which struck a chord in me in my student days, and strikes a chord in me to this day.
In my final year of school, a number of colleagues and I were invited - somewhat mysteriously, I seem to recollect - to attend a conference in the holidays between year 12 and university. No one quite knew who was organising this conference or what it was about; we were just told that is was going to be about university life, and the issues that might befall you at university.
I have to say that, after listening to Professor Warren Hogan, journalist Peter Samuel and trade union official Joe de Bruyn, I was very interested indeed, and found myself swiftly signing up to the Sydney University Democratic Club in the wake of that conference.
One of the bizarre features of the modern world - I suspect a unique feature of the contemporary world - is the widespread contempt that its intellectuals have for that which has shaped them. The Movement has stood heroically against this self-loathing, for the best part of 70 years now, certainly since the late 1930s. It hasn't been easy, obviously.
I recall, as a university student, reading, rapt, B.A. Santamaria's memoirs, Against the Tide
(1981). In it he described the early struggles against Communism, and what he saw as the defeat of the Industrial Groups. He also wrote about the early struggles against the debauching of Catholicism in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and at that point he thought that he'd been defeated there as well. In a phrase which has stuck with me all these years, he said: "In the midst of all these great historical events, we were nothing more than tiny minnows swimming in great and turbulent seas. But even the minnow must do what he can."
It was Churchill who said, in reply to those who believed at the outset of World War II that England would have her neck wrung like a chicken: "Some chicken! Some neck!" Well, I always say of B.A. Santamaria: "Some minnow!"
Thanks to Pope John Paul II, and then Pope Benedict XVI, Catholicism has recovered its confidence. And who would have thought, back in the '70s, or even in the early '80s, that communism - certainly Soviet communism - would be a historical artefact?
So, in so many ways, for all of the disappointments and the setbacks which the Movement has encountered over the years, much good has been achieved.Making a difference
I've been asked to talk about the key principles of democratic statesmanship, and let me say, in a nutshell, that the key task of statesmanship is to make a difference, to leave the world a little better than you found it, to act in the public sphere in such a way that the country and, to the extent that you can influence it, the wider world, is different and better for your presence.
And of course, in a democracy, the only way to make a difference is to win elections.
Now, oppositions can have an influence - there's no doubt about that. But in the end, oppositions propose; governments dispose. And the only way a democratic politician can make a difference is by winning elections. That's not to say that there aren't many people who aren't a force for good, without being in politics as such, or without being members of governments.
But in the end, governments make a difference; oppositions make a noise. You can have the most marvellous ideas, you can have the most beguiling rhetoric, you can have the most engaging arguments; but unless you're in a position to make executive decisions, it is - dare I say it? - but sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.
To make a difference, you've got to have strong ideas; you've got to have forthright views; you've got to have deep convictions. But sometimes those same qualities that enable you to make a difference, stop
you from winning elections.
Let's take probably the greatest democratic statesman of the last century, Winston Churchill, and ask ourselves this question: where would Churchill have been but for the outbreak of the World War II? He would have been an obscure historical footnote, celebrated perhaps at the same level as Lord Birkenhead (F.E. Smith) - that is to say, he would be remembered for a few bon mots
, and not much else. Because, not only could Churchill not win an election but for the war, he couldn't even become leader of his own political party. Even in 1940, the Conservatives only embraced Churchill because the Labour Party refused to serve under Lord Halifax, who would otherwise have been their preferred choice.
So, I say this with great reluctance as it were, and I say this, I suppose, with all due acknowledgement to Providence, which can sometimes do that which is normally impossible, or can bring about that which is normally impossible; but generally speaking, a democratic statesman cannot be in a position to do the good work that he or she would like without the ability to win elections.
So the art of effective democratic statesmanship is of presenting your principles, presenting your convictions, in ways which sufficiently impress the public such that you are seen as a man or woman of principle, but which don't so worry the public that they think you would be a risk if you found yourself in a position of power.
And, to a group such as this, I suspect that what I am saying is disappointing, because you don't read News Weekly
for as long as most of you here have without wanting to do the right, without burning with ardour for a better world, and without, quite frankly, a certain disdain - even contempt - for those weak politicians who are constantly trimming before the prevailing political breeze. And yet a certain amount of this, I dare say, is inevitable.Two Liberal leaders
I want to give you a little story, if I may. In 1990, having been a journalist for a few years, I was appointed to the staff of the former leader of the federal Opposition, Dr John Hewson.
I can remember, after my history of worshipping the water that B.A. Santamaria walked on, being very impressed in one of my first meetings with John Hewson. He had called his advisors together, and we were talking about the coming couple of years leading up to the 1993 election, and John said something like this: losing an election would not be the end of the world, but going to an election without a policy, or a set of policies, that I really believed in - that
would be the real failure.
Now I was thrilled to hear this, and I thought to myself, in the tradition of B.A. Santamaria, this is a man
, not a political weathervane. Whether you like him or dislike him, whether you support his policies or not, this is a man
So I worked with
John and for
John for the next two-and-a-half years or so, and as you probably all remember, we lost the 1993 election. Then, after that defeat, Dr Hewson ran again for the leadership of the Liberal Party and, in doing so, said that, of course, the Coalition's Fightback!
policy manifesto was dead.
I then wrote him a memo, saying: "How can you sacrifice your principles to save your job, when you would not sacrifice your principles to save the election?", which I thought was rather more important.
So what I'm trying to say is that, yes, it's very important to have those principles. If you don't have them, what is the point of a life in politics?
But if you have them so strongly, and so dogmatically, that they cause the public to shrink from you in fear, there is a problem. And I'm not saying that you necessarily surrender your principles; but I am saying that you have got to be conscious of the fact that no matter how right your principles are, if they don't resonate with the general public, and you are living in a democratic polity, you've got a problem.
That was John Hewson's problem in the run-up to the 1993 election. But I don't want to say that it is difficult, verging on the impossible, to be a principled politician, because, notwithstanding that he lost the 2007 election, John Howard was almost the archetype, or the exemplar, of a principled politician.
If you look at John Howard's career, like a golden thread running through it, from the mid-'70s until 2007, was respect for Australia's traditional institutions, affection for the ordinary people of our country, support for small business, and belief in freedom under the law.
These are marvellous principles. They often brought him into enormous conflict with his colleagues. Even more did they bring him into enormous conflict with the commentariat, which, as I said at the beginning, is generally contemptuous of that which has shaped our society.
Notwithstanding all of that, John Howard became the most successful Australian politician since Bob Menzies, and arguably the greatest
Australian politician, given that the political climate is more arduous today than it ever was in those marvellous days when the prime minister of the country could catch a boat to England to watch the cricket for the summer.Health
To illustrate the point, may I turn to an example when I was federal Minister for Health and my far less
successful attempt to succeed in this arena. I want to just dwell, if I may, for a moment, on an issue which I expect resonates with most News Weekly
readers, namely abortion.
I was never expecting to be the Minister for Health. But I did, in October of 2003, get that job, and a month or so later I was invited to talk to the Australian Christian Lobby's conference in Canberra. It was, as you'd expect, a sympathetic and appreciative audience.
I told this group that the Howard Government was about as good and godly a government as we were ever likely to get in a secular society such as Australia. I think my message was quite warmly received, but at the very end a gentleman put his hand up and said, "Look, Tony, you're a practising Catholic. You're now the Minister for Health. What do you think about Medicare funding 70,000 abortions a year?"
I gave a very unsatisfactory answer, and I thought to myself, this is going to come up again and again as long as I am the Health Minister, and I need a better response. So I actually scripted a speech, which I delivered as the James McAuley Lecture at Adelaide University the following year, and the title was "The ethical responsibilities of a Christian politician" (see News Weekly
, April 10, 2004).
In it I said that it wasn't the mandated duty of a Christian politician to change every law that he or she was unhappy with; but it was his or her duty to try to stand up for better values, and to nudge our society in the direction of those better values and better standards.
Then, after the 2004 election, re-appointed Minister for Health, I made a further speech in which I said that we really should do something to bring down the numbers of abortions. I didn't say that we should re-criminalise abortion. I didn't say that we should withdraw Medicare funding for abortion. I just said that we should try to bring the numbers down.
That was when the Femintern struck: a number of female senators - a cross-party group of senators - got together and decided that they would promote private member's legislation to strip from the then Health Minister the longstanding veto that the Health Minister had over the importation of abortion drugs.
Now this veto had been all right in the era of Michael Wooldridge, when he was Health Minister. This veto had been all right in the era of Kay Patterson when she was Health Minister. But because I had been audacious enough to suggest that 100,000 abortions a year, more or less, was a national tragedy, that there was an abortion pandemic gripping Australia, I wasn't to be trusted with this power.
And, you know, it's funny how many of the people who would turn up at parliamentary Christian fellowship breakfasts, voted to strip the Catholic Health Minister of that power, because they didn't think that a Catholic Health Minister could be trusted to handle the matter professionally.
I even recollect - and I do this in no spirit of partisanship - a prominent Labor politician, who regards Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer as his great inspiration, voting to strip the Health Minister of this particular power.
So the point I want to make is that if you don't pursue these principles intelligently and sensitively - it doesn't matter how good they are - sometimes you can make a bad situation worse.
Let me speak frankly to you. When, after the 2007 election I consulted with my colleagues on the then vacant leadership of our party, the message came back to me loud and clear: I'd had a bad campaign, and, sure, being a bit too robust about Bernie Banton was a bad thing - I shouldn't have done it.
Being too close to John Howard at that point in time wasn't a political advantage. But this constant message that I got was: "You're too hard-line - you turn people off."
So, lest anyone think that the art of success in democratic politics is to have principles and to proclaim them very loudly; lest anyone think that in the words of Scripture we should "set ye up a standard in the land" and "blow the trumpet amongst the nations" (Jeremiah 51:27), we need to know that, if that is done, the result is just as likely to be defeat and failure, as triumphant success.
It's very easy, in the kind of democracy that we've got, to get noticed
by being outspoken. It's much, much harder to win elections - to succeed - if you are outspoken. And yet if you are not
outspoken, almost certainly you will have made so many compromises, you will have sacrificed so much by the time you get there - if you do get there - that nothing much will happen.
You will find you are like the dog who catches the car. What do you do when you finally get that great office for which you have striven all these years?
So, principles are important. They are absolutely vital. But they are no guarantee of political success.- The Hon. Tony Abbott MP, a former Rhodes Scholar, was elected from NSW to federal parliament in 1994. He held a number of ministries in the Howard Coalition Government, including Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, and Health and Ageing. He is currently shadow minister for families, housing, community services and indigenous affairs.