Best of 2009: The case for Abbott as Opposition leader


Cover image: Tony Abbott BattlelinesFirst published August 2009

Politics in Australia bears all the Darwinian traits of having been chastened by a cruel and unforgiving country. It tends toward the visceral and agonistic. Moments of genuine inspiration are fleeting, and it rarely reaches above the level of the soporific and outright banal.

It is hardly surprising, then, that belief — not in the narrowly religious sense, but in the sense of a clear conception of principles, of something beyond one's own ambitions, of the ultimate purpose of one's involvement in politics in the first place — has never been a conspicuous quality among its politicians.

This ambivalence toward belief is not peculiar to Australia, but in Australia it has taken on a distinctly antipodean flavour. Australians have a pathological aversion to sanctimony and cant, yet are suspicious when politicians present as a little too earnest or believing too deeply. They brand them as fanatical or, worse, ideological.

Australia has thus become a kind of politico-moral wasteland, in which the public expects the cynical instrumentalisation of the political process from their elected representatives, who in turn deliver cautious, small-target performances that barely conceal wanton ambition. Mutual cynicism, as Mark Latham bitterly observed, is'the gold standard of modern politics'.

But the ubiquity of cynicism in Australian politics, while making democracy possible, has simultaneously bastardised the political process. Just consider the erosion of the categories of Left and Right, celebrated by many as an advance on the brutal partisanship of last century. Isn't this merely the consequence of the subtraction of belief from politics?

And so, when the cynicism that pervades Australian politics is combined with our compulsory voting system, elections are reduced to the pendular swinging of public whimsy (the'It's Time' factor emptied of any consequence). Principled opposition becomes craven opportunism.

Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull are archetypal expressions of this corruption of politics. They are, as it were, political doppelgängers. Their colossal personae and fortunes in the polls have come to occupy the place once held by a Party's platform. What results is the anomalous existence of political parties without political properties, which is to say, without binding narratives or 'ideologies'.

While the emptying-out of the political domain is currently to the advantage of the incumbent government — particularly one that has raised prevarication, spin and avoidance to an art form — it is disastrous for the Opposition. After just two years, we have witnessed the return of the Liberal Party to the dire situation that confronted them after their defeat at the 1993 election.

In March of that same year, B. A. Santamaria lamented to Malcolm Fraser: 'The country desperately needs a credible alternative to Labor. For years the fact that the Liberal Party has lost its way has been apparent. Today many conservatives believe it stands for nothing.'

But, as the 1996 election demonstrated, night is always darkest before the dawn. Opposition presents the Liberal Party with a rare opportunity to recover its conservative soul and thereby abandon Labor's vapid brand of politics which has so bewitched the electorate for a time.

No politician has made this case more powerfully than Tony Abbott. His new book, Battlelines, ought to be read as a kind of response to Santamaria's challenge. Indeed, one often gets the impression that Abbott is picking a fight not so much with Labor as with the libertarian and individualist tendencies within his own Party.

Abbott's determination to restore charity, belief and courage to their rightful place as the greatest of political virtues distinguishes him as the antitype of both Rudd and Turnbull.

I've elsewhere described this determination as 'a leader's willingness to wage war against the people's baser instincts, to expand the public's moral imagination rather than simply pander to avarice, to stare electoral oblivion in the face by defying popular opinion, to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a larger cause'. 

Replacing Turnbull with Abbott as Leader of the Opposition is the only way forward for the Liberal Party, and yet it is an act which would itself require a great deal of courage.

I contend that the electorate's low regard for Abbott — demonstrated in successive opinion polls which place his support consistently around 10 per cent — ought to be dismissed as unenlightened electoral bigotry, as a throwback to the anti-Catholic prejudice that bedevilled J. F. Kennedy in 1960s

Scott StephensScott Stephens is the minister at Forest Lake Uniting Church in Brisbane and lecturer in theological ethics at Trinity Theological College.

Topic tags: scott stephens, malcolm turnbull, kevin rudd, tony abbott, lead of the opposition, liberal party, bob sant



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Existing comments

"Darkest before the dawn", as in 1996.

By 1998, it appeared a false dawn for the nation.

By 2001, night had returned; the manner in which head of state Bill Deane was side-lined at the 2000 Olympic opening makes that clear. Participation in the neo-conmen's taxpayer-funded grab at Iraqi oil assets confirmed it, as did the craven and irresponsible acquiescence to the blandishments of the climate change deniers.

If Abbott can work with Greg Hunt and Bill Heffernan to meld economic liberalism with ecological sustainability and morally principled progress in societal development, then we have a fair dinkum alternative to the value-free management professionals managers who have taken over the ALP.
David Arthur | 12 January 2010

Thanks Scott, this is an insightful and timely article. Definitely, in the 'best of 2009' I agree with your opinion about the emptying out of 'belief', which is reflected in how similar Labor and Liberal are on, for example, fiscal policy.

When will Labor address the housing affordability crisis? When will Liberals realise absolute free trade is actually bad for us... And who will amend that disastrous Family Law divorce....Abbott?

Luke McCormack | 12 January 2010

The Liberal Party will not stay with Abbott. It will replace him with Joe Hockey before the next election. Noone in their right mind would vote for Abbott as Prime Minister.Send the Oceanic Viking down to watch the whalers. OK, what then?
John Morgan | 12 January 2010

Why bring bigotry and prejudice into it? As a protestant with friends in Catholic seminaries, I'd rank Abbott high on my list of theologians who can't see the topic through their ego.
endee | 12 January 2010

I don't think Abbott is a good leader for the Libs. He is engaging in scatter-fire unthought through flip-flop public comments which appear just to be anti-government. He rarely produces any evidence re his claims or proposes creative alternative ways to manage the issues he comments on. I think he is losing credibility fast. His party colleagues too are engaging in reactionary undisciplined comments verging on the ridiculous. Altogether the Libs are demonstrating Opposition in disarray.
Tom Green | 13 January 2010

I questioned the argument in this article when it first appeared. The Opposition, or rather a bare majority of the Opposition has since shown its 'great deal of courage' and chosen Abbott. But nothing that Abbott has said or done since has changed my mind about his total unsuitability for the role of Prime Minister. And I suspect that the electorate's 'low regard' for Abbott has nothing to do with 'anti-Catholic prejudice' but everything to do with his own bigoted approach to social matters and his desire to force his own personal 'morality' on everyone else
Ginger Meggs | 26 January 2010


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