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2015 in review: Abbott's culture war


First published 29 October 2015

Just when the ringing of the words 'I stopped the boats' had finally subsided and you were getting used to the idea of business agility and economic innovation as the key battlegrounds for the next few years, who should pop back up but the former Prime Minister and Culture Warrior in Chief, Tony Abbott.

Abbott's Margaret Thatcher memorial speech — in which the words 'a hint of Thatcher about my government' were used with apparently no irony whatsoever — was a truly stunning example of revisionism, hubris, and utterly confused ideology.

If you haven't read about it yet, you'll no doubt be shocked to learn that the focus of the speech was on stopping the boats, how Abbott stopped the boats, how Europe should stop the boats (or like, buses, I guess), and why stopping the boats is a moral imperative.

And it's this question of moral imperative that is particularly interesting. Abbott suggested that 'the safety and prosperity that exists almost uniquely in Western countries' is not an 'accident of history' but rather the product of 'values painstakingly discerned and refined'.

It's pretty clear that Abbott is talking about so-called Christian values here, although he doesn't articulate it in so many words. This makes his next line all the more confusing: 'The imperative to "love your neighbour as you love yourself" is at the heart of every Western polity ... but — right now — this wholesome instinct is leading much of Europe into catastrophic error.'

It's clear for Abbott that moral imperatives, the 'Western' or Christian values that he loves so much, are entirely subsumed by the higher motivating purpose of protecting that Western culture from perceived attack by people who come from a marginally different cultural tradition. At the heart of his assumptions is the notion that Islam is fundamentally different or at war with his world view, which is rubbish.

This is textbook clash of civilisations stuff, and one gets the sense that Abbott, with his prioritisation of cultural protection over adherence to the value that culture espouses, would've been more at home in the Crusades than in modern global politics. It's also the sort of misguided junk sociology that saw us go to war with 'terrorism'.

Now, Australia rejected the Abbott experiment, and doesn't particularly care about a culture wars-based conceptualisation of global affairs. What Abbott apparently hasn't realised is that the electorate tired of him in part because of his arcane bleating about bombing baddies and protecting the superiority of Western civilisation, especially when they realise that he cared about those issues more than their local hospitals, schools and ability to get a job.

The struggle for conservatives in the Abbott mould is that they don't seem to have arrived at this realisation any more than Abbott has. There's a vanguard of very male, very conservative, and indeed very Catholic thought in places like the right of the New South Wales Liberal party that threatens insurrection every time a fellow Liberal takes a position that puts them on the 'left' of the culture wars or, say, opens diplomatic relations with a country that represents a key culture wars shibboleth.

But existing as a leader in the modern world requires a passing understanding of the fact that there are people who may not share exactly your values, or who may share values but express them differently. Hell, existing as a politician and as a representative of your electorate and community forces you to come to this understanding.

The Liberal Party can't afford to be a party that only governs for some (white, Christian) Australians, or that cares more about the teaching of European history in schools above whether kids in those schools will be able to get a job. And it's profoundly depressing to see Scott Morrison resort to jingoistic statements about the national anthem with regard to the Melbourne school that allowed students participating in a religious tradition that prohibits them from singing during their period of religious moruning to excuse themselves from the anthem portion of their school assembly.

Australia is a diverse and mostly tolerant country. Our politicians should take the view that any pockets of fear and intolerance should be educated and brought to a position of understanding and compassion. Unfortunately, Labor have proved by reflexively mirroring Abbott's every word that they don't currently possess the intellectual integrity and strength of conviction to shift out of the culture wars.

That leaves Turnbull with an enormous job to do in silencing the culture warriors in his own party, while protecting his position as leader. But a failure to do so will only result in us becoming bogged down in the same clash of civilisations discourses that empower the anti-mosque nutters and Geert Wilders fanboys in the community to continue spreading their crap.

For European leaders who are tempted to listen to Abbott's message and reverse their compassionate refugee policies, bear in mind that Abbott was tossed out of government two years into his term, and that for us, seeing him back on the world stage pushing the culture wars barrow is a bit like seeing that Japanese soldier still fighting the war 29 years after Japan surrendered — he just looks out of touch.

Instead, Europe should embrace its cultural diversity and leaders should feel proud that their country's adherence to basic values like the right to human dignity makes it an attractive destination for people who've worked hard to escape war and deprivation.

Sabine WolffSabine Wolff is a Melbourne-based writer and commentator. She blogs about politics and war at sabinedotwolff.com. She tweets @sabinewolff.

Topic tags: Sabine Wolff, Tony Abbott, asylum seekers, stop the boats, Margaret Thatcher



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Existing comments

The problem with Abbott is that he is still a European. He has never assimilated the Australian situation. He has never come to grips with the cultural diversity inherent in a settler community. He still identifies with 'ideal' of racial and religious homogeneity that is characteristic of most European nation states. Many of his parliamentary supporters are the same. Think Abetz, Bernardi, Andrews, Corman, Sukkar, etc. For a good article on 'Abbott's Army' see < http://insidestory.org.au/an-anatomy-of-abbotts-army >

Ginger Meggs | 11 January 2016  

While I agree, Sabine, that uncle Tony suffers from an utterly confused ideology, I suggest that he is not a conservative and certainly not a liberal. To me, the hallmark of a conservative is the maintenance of the existing order and institutions. Uncle Tony's presidential style coupled with Aunty Peter in a duumvirate flew in the face of traditional cabinet government. Confused and confusing uncle Tony suffered that ultimate indignity of defecating in his own nest.

Kim | 11 January 2016  

Thank you Sabine for expressing so clearly many of the reasons that many thinking Australian are well over Abbott's complete culture .It verges on laughable that his stalwart followers(deposed Ministers ) have called for the PM to reinstate him to a position of authority .One can be confident that Turnbull is aware that such action would totally erode the considerable support he currently enjoys from masses of non conservative voters in the broard community .Clearly our economy is going to become quite tough & he will require a lot of support to implement the tough decisions he will need to make .

john kersh | 11 January 2016  


Patricia | 11 January 2016  

Dear Ms Wolff, thank you for a most interesting article. I agree most thoroughly with your premise about the culture war and culture warriors. However, I feel that the Abbott regime, and the recently deposed Canadian regime, are the scattered remnants of the populist politics prevalent in the USA of the 1990's and 2000's, (There is not much original thought in either countries politicians).The Abbott regime forgot that governments very seldom get voted in, Abbott was there because Labor was voted out. The LNP policies were, in so many respects, obviously tied to the big end of town, and at the expense of the average person.

Deena Bennett | 11 January 2016  

Good article, Sabine. The comparison between Tony Abbott and a Japanese soldier, long-time lost in the jungle, was inciteful. The mass migration of people out of many countries of Africa and the Levant almost invites re-colonisation of that continent by the European powers in a bid to: stem the flow; provide some civil service to the communities; and minimise the opportunity for corruption.

Bob Groves | 11 January 2016  

Ginger Meggs, be fair, not all European leaders are like Abbott. Angela Merkel for one. Not even David Cameron is like Abbott. He was an international embarrassment to this country! Everyone knows that. He does not even know what The Reformation was all about! A Rhodes a Scholar! An Oxford graduate for goodness sake! How come! Please don't blame the English for the likes of Tony Abbott.

Louw | 11 January 2016  

Not an auspicious beginning to the New Year! A retrospective look at Tony Abbott. I prefer to treat him with ignore - a recessive gene that momentarily crept into the Australian body politic.

Uncle Pat | 11 January 2016  

I'm not blaming the English for Tony, Louw. What I'm suggesting is that many Europeans - not just the English - have a image of an ideal nation that is composed almost entirely of people with one ethic background, who have one common religion, and one common culture. In other words, PLUs ('people like us') They often pride themselves on their tolerance of 'minorities' but only so long as those minorities stay small in number and keep their place and don't seek to question the dominant culture. Some of these, when they emigrate, take with them this idealised conception of what societies should be like, frozen in time, and they never comprehend or accept the new, contemporary, society in their newly adopted multi-ethnic and multi-cultural land. Ironically, this fault in Abbott et al is precisely the fault that they project on to the non-familiar (to them) components of society in their adopted land. Abbott and the rest of his immigrant ministry were guilty of precisely what they accused Muslim Australians of. When he and they invoked the term 'Team Australia' what they really meant was 'Team white Christian preferably anglo right-wing socially-conservative Australia'?

Ginger Meggs | 16 January 2016  

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