CANBERRA OBSERVED: Why the Labor Party really fears Abbott
by national correspondent
News Weekly, August 3, 2013
It is no coincidence that former Labor leader Paul Keating has been giving Kevin Rudd the benefit of his wisdom on ways the PM can defeat Tony Abbott.
The Gillard era was marked by an unwillingness to listen to advice from anyone outside a tiny circle of out-of-touch advisers, and it failed.
Rudd is back as leader, and Labor is competitive again.
But for people in the Labor Party with a long view, a seat-saving election is simply not enough. Abbott must be defeated.
Watching from the sidelines for three years, Rudd, the great imitator, has cherry-picked policies from the Coalition, much in the same way as he did with John Howard in the lead-up to the 2007 election.
But Keating and other old hands like him are afraid that allowing Tony Abbott a narrow victory will be a catastrophe.
They fear an Abbott victory for reasons they could not ever admit to — the possibility that, should he be successful at the coming poll, Abbott might end up being a good prime minister in the Hawke/Howard mould, leading the kind of government Labor should have been over the past five years.
Since his return to the prime ministership Kevin Rudd has repeatedly accused Abbott of being an “extreme” and reactionary politician. In fact, according to Mr Rudd, Abbott is “the most conservative politician to become Liberal leader in its history”.
It is an absurd claim.
Abbott is neither ultra-conservative nor an extremist and, as his socially conservative supporters would attest, some of his policies, such as generous paid maternity leave for professional working women at the expense of women who choose to stay at home to look after their children, have been a bitter disappointment.
But Abbott remains a lightning rod for outrageous criticism from the left-wing commentariat.
Waleed Aly, writing a profile, “Inside Tony Abbott’s Mind” (The Monthly, no. 91, July 2013), summed up the reasons for the visceral hatred coming from Abbott’s critics thus: “To them, Abbott is the hyper-Catholic, overly aggressive, climate change-denying, homophobic, sexist populist who wants to impose his idiosyncratic religious views on an unwilling public.”
Part of the reason for Abbott’s unpopularity can be attributed to his agile approach to the policy debate. He goes in for the kill if his political opponents contradict themselves, but is able to use contorted arguments to talk his way out of his own previous positions with impunity.
Abbott’s pragmatism combined with a lethal political instinct infuriates his opponents.
Elsewhere in his essay, Aly writes: “They (Abbott’s critics) find his moral commitments so dubious, his prejudices so rank, his style so aggressive, that they simply cannot believe him to be anything other than determinedly retrograde.”
In other words, Abbott’s supposed private worldview is so dangerous that, no matter what he says now, it will resurface in government, and he therefore must be stopped from becoming prime minister.
While there is little justification for this picture of Abbott, Julia Gillard, just before her downfall, did her best to reinforce those views by predicting that an Abbott government would “banish women’s voices from our political life” and make abortion “the plaything of men who think they know better”.
And therein lies the crux of another element of the hatred toward Abbott — his views on abortion.
Abbott is not alone as a national leader who is on the pro-life side of politics. Kim Beazley and Paul Keating himself held similar positions.
Abbott’s stated position is that there are far too many abortions in Australia, but that he has no intention of federally intervening in abortion laws, which are state responsibilities anyway.
In reality, Abbott’s views on abortion are so nuanced and muted that he would be lucky to qualify as a Republican candidate in many parts of the United States.
In Australia, however, Abbott’s views are enough to disqualify him for office, according to Gillard.
Other commentators from the left, such as David Marr in his piece, “Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott” (Quarterly Essay, no. 47, September 2012), described Abbott as an unreconstructed DLP man. “He won’t abandon his old DLP principles, but he won’t be a martyr to them either,” Marr patronisingly wrote in his essay.
After so many years in the Liberal Party and as a minister in the Howard Cabinet, Abbott’s politics bear no resemblance to the DLP.
Labor’s real reason for despising Abbott is that they fear what he would do to the party.
The fact is that Abbott understands the Labor Party’s flaws and vulnerabilities better than any Liberal leader before him.
There is the potential that Abbott will be an effective and successful leader in the style of “old Labor” — a prime minister with nationalist and even interventionist inclinations, who at the same time would be prepared to dismantle the radical elements of the union movement that underpin “new Labor’s” machinery.
Abbott’s alleged “conservatism” would be more likely to consist of an absence of grandiosity and short-termism that have characterised the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments.
A steady-as-she goes, sensible government would be Labor’s worst nightmare.