OPINION: by John StoneNews Weekly
Can Abbott rescue Liberals from 'Ruddbullism'?
, February 20, 2010
By putting forward a conservative alternative to the progressive elite consensus, the Liberals can win this year's election, insists John Stone.In the early 1950s British politics descended into "Butskellism", the philosophy broadly common to Rab Butler and his Conservative Central Office, on the one hand, and Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell on the other. For 25 years the Conservative Party, under successive effete leaders (Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home and the ineffable Ted Heath) deemed it politic to agree, broadly, with most things Labour stood for - ever-growing government, resulting high taxation levels, a nationalised health service, and so on. Only Margaret Thatcher's emergence in 1975 pulled it back from the precipice over which it was steadily sliding.
A year ago our own political scene was firmly in the grip of "Ruddbullism". Malcolm Turnbull welcomed, literally within hours of its appearance, the Rudd Government's Fair Work Australia Bill, conceding to Labor "a mandate" not merely to repeal John Howard's Work Choices legislation, but also to turn back the workplace relations clock by 25 years. He and his climate change spokesman, Greg Hunt, embraced with equal fervour Kevin Rudd's emissions trading scheme proposal, threatening to sacrifice Australia's economy on the altar of global warming religion.
It was already clear that the Coalition parties had little hope of regaining office in 2010 under Turnbull. As those two major issues illustrated, the fundamental problem was Turnbull's own values. These had much more to do with those of the Wentworth electorate elite than of average Australians - and even less of those "Howard battlers" whom the Coalition would have to win back to regain office. (This is not hindsight; I said it all to the H.R. Nicholls Society on 29 March last.)
By October, with Ruddbullism more and more entrenched, anyone with the Coalition's interests at heart knew that the Liberal Party leadership must change. It was now a case of Anybody But Malcolm. Yet although Tony Abbott was clearly the best candidate, the divide within the party, between people still retaining some grip on conservative principles on the one hand and the Turnbullites on the other, seemed so deep that some "compromise" alternative appeared inevitable. Fortunately, I and others who thought that were wrong.
In extenuation we might plead that our shortcomings were as nothing compared with those of the Canberra press gallery, who throughout 2009 had persistently demonstrated the truth of the adage that there are none so blind as those who will not see. Yet, unabashed, the gallery shows every sign of repeating that performance this year. The regrouping now in progress in its ranks is squarely aimed at bringing down the Coalition usurper, Tony Abbott.
It will have its work cut out because, all conventional punditry notwithstanding, the Coalition can win this year's election (which does not mean it will).
Abbott knows that John Howard's 1996 landslide was due to the disgust of the "Howard battlers" with Paul Keating. In 1998, having comprehensively lost their support, Howard came within an ace of being defeated. By 2001, after 9/11 and the Tampa incident in particular, he had regained their support and won again. In 2004 he won because of their dislike of Labor's leader, Mark Latham. And in 2007, apart from the traditional "It's time" refrain and the widely perceived disunity within his own party, he lost because the "Howard battlers" thought (partly because of Work Choices) he had once again forgotten them.
Abbott has already shown his determination to turn his back on Ruddbullism and take the fight to the enemy. In doing so, he seems refreshingly resolved not to allow his agenda to be set by the journalists.
One very welcome signal to that effect has been his shadow ministry appointments. Kevin Andrews - in some ways the best of Howard's three successive ministers for immigration, as well as being both a thoughtful and genuinely decent man - has been restored to the front bench. Philip Ruddock, one of the most experienced people in the Coalition - and one with good relationships on both sides of that party divide referred to earlier - is now secretary to the shadow cabinet: effectively, a shadow minister without portfolio whose advice and wisdom can now readily be called upon. Bronwyn Bishop, an effective and extremely hard-working politician with a strong empathy with the elderly, has been appointed shadow minister for seniors. All this in the face of the ignorant abuse of such people by journalists, including cartoonists, unfit to comment on them."Forgotten people"
Abbott is not without his weaknesses, among which an attraction to centrist policies, often involving big spending and hence further growth in already excessive government, figures prominently. His background, however, means that he is temperamentally drawn to the interests of today's "forgotten people": the host of small businessmen and women whose interests bear little relation to those of the overpaid corporate chieftains of the Business Council of Australia.
Abbott's great advantage is that, unlike Rudd, what you see is what you get. Voters are not the fools that too many politicians take them for, and over the months ahead they will increasingly distinguish the difference between a real man and a carefully crafted image behind which merely lurks a sententious phony.
Economic developments have so far been kind to the government. However, it is still running a budget deficit last officially estimated at $57.7 billion this financial year and $46.6 billion in 2010-11. Voters generally may not focus on sophisticated economic arguments about such things, but they share the view of that well-known handbag economist, Margaret Thatcher, who understood that borrowing now means a bill to be paid later.
As to the issue du jour
, global warming, events are clearly moving in Abbott's favour. All over the world, people are rapidly growing more sceptical of the nonsense involved. Rather than weakly proposing a policy that differs from the government's only in practice, not in principle, he has here an opportunity (and if he has the courage, the capacity) to seize the day and wound the government mortally.
Despite all the commentariat chatter about Labor being "the natural party of government", Australia is still, and always has been, a fundamentally conservative country. Its people are now beginning to worry about the recrudescence of trade union-inspired industrial thuggery under Labor. They are growing increasingly tired of their Prime Minister telling them to embrace the sovereignty-sapping nostrums of a corrupt United Nations. They reject the "right" of people to enter into criminal conspiracies to invade our country, or the importation more generally of culturally incompatible people under one dodgy Department of Immigration program or another.
The challenge to Tony Abbott is to tap into this basic conservatism. If he does, he can win.John Stone was secretary to the Treasury (1979-84) and a National Party senator (1987-90). This article first appeared in The Spectator Australia, January 23, 2010.