BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
BATTLELINES, by Tony Abbott
, August 22, 2009
Willing to take a stand
by Tony Abbott
(Melbourne University Press)
Paperback: 224 pages
ISBN: 9780522857740 (2nd edition)
Rec. price: $34.95
Reviewed by John Ballantyne
Most politicians, early in their careers, discover that it is unwise to be too open about their beliefs. That is why their utterances tend to be so anodyne and uninspiring.
Liberal frontbencher Tony Abbott is not a politician in this mould. He has never concealed his unfashionable Catholic, conservative and monarchist views, nor has he ever delegated the task of policy-formulation to spin-doctors.
His new book Battlelines is a delight to read. A former journalist and one of the Liberal Party's few intellectuals, Abbott is incapable of writing a dull line. His book is partly a warts-and-all memoir of his personal life and public career, and partly a broad political manifesto for the direction in which he'd like to take the Liberal Party.
Abbott is endearingly frank about an occasion many years ago when he thought he had made his then girlfriend pregnant. Thanks to both the couple's Catholic pro-life convictions, the baby (who subsequently turned out to be another man's son) was not aborted but offered up for adoption.
Abbott, who once trained for the priesthood (until he realised his true vocation lay in politics), still champions conservative Christian values, but admits: "A somewhat chequered past meant that I could never be sanctimonious about personal behaviour. How could I be judgmental about others, given my own failures to live up to ideals of good conduct?" (p.180).
At Sydney University, Abbott became active in student politics through the campus's Democratic Club (broadly aligned with the National Civic Council and the Democratic Labor Party). He fell under the spell of NCC founder B.A. (Bob) Santamaria.
Abbott later won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. While there, he met another important mentor, Paul Mankowski, a brilliant Jesuit from Chicago, who introduced him to boxing and recruited him for the university team.
Back in Australia, Abbott threw in his lot with the Liberal Party. He took a leading role in writing Dr John Hewson's radical free-market blueprint Fightback!, and later was himself elected to federal parliament. However, he never disavowed his intellectual debt to Bob Santamaria.
On Santamaria's death in 1998, Abbott cheekily wrote in an obituary that the "DLP is alive and well and living inside the Howard Government" (p.11).
That might be partly true as far as the Howard Government's financial assistance to stay-at-home mothers was concerned, but certainly not true of the Liberals' deregulationist economic agenda, which Santamaria abhorred.
Abbott is adept at discerning many of the unspoken assumptions which lie behind the educated classes' hostility to family values. He says: "Perhaps for the first time in human history, large families are seen not as a sign of faith in the future or even as provision against its perils but as a kind of trespass on the environment" (p.97).
He devotes a large section of his book to promoting better financial assistance for families with dependent children. Instead of our current tangle of child and childcare payments and rebates, some of which are means-tested and some are not, Abbott proposes a simple, universal, non-means-tested payment to each mother per child.
About marriage Abbott comes up with a novel proposal. He says that, as legal recognition is being extended to more and more relationships, from de facto to same-sex couples, the government should offer a man and a woman the option of a marriage contract that would apply more rigid rules than does our current permissive Family Law Act. "Covenant" marriage, as this restrictive, traditional marriage model is called, is available in some states of the US.
Abbott is at his most controversial when he advocates a continuing expansion of Canberra's powers at the expense of state governments. As Health Minister, he was continually frustrated by state government bureaucrats cheerfully accepting Commonwealth largesse but then failing to meet the most basic performance targets.
His alternative (so far as health is concerned) is for the Commonwealth to run each hospital through a specially-appointed local board, which, he argues, would be more accountable to the local community than a state government department would be.
That of course sounds all very well in theory. But if Canberra acquires all these powers, what safeguards does Abbott propose to ensure that politicians in the future can't abuse them by overriding the wishes of local communities?
Abbott eloquently defends the Howard Government's economic record of growth in wages and full-time employment combined with low inflation. Although he believes the Coalition's workplace reforms greatly contributed to these outcomes, he concedes that Work Choices "went too far" and "was a political mistake" (pp.82, 87).
When he was in his early 20s, Abbott learned first hand about the importance of establishing trust between management and workers, when a concrete-batching plant he was managing was almost closed down by industrial action. Chastened by the experience, he recalls: "I'd learned an important lesson, though: that you have to engage people before you can give them orders" (p.18).
How appealing it would be if the Liberals could include, in their future workplace relations policies, measures to promote workplace democracy that would turn companies into productive and mutually beneficial partnerships between owners and their workers.
If Tony Abbott could carry off something like that, then well could we say that the spirit of the DLP was alive and well in the Liberal Party.