Europe doesn't need Abbott's culture war rubbish


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 She tweets @sabinewolff.

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



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Existing comments

One very real aspect of life in western society today is that it is an arena of contesting world-views, including radical differences on what constitutes civilisation and human rights themselves. How do vague and romantically naive appeals to "cultural diversity" contribute meaningfully or practically to the resolution of these differences? The systematic deconstruction of the "grand narrative" of western culture - one of the ideals and at least partial attainments of which is a synthesis of plurality and unity, together with religious toleration - is yet to yield a viable alternative.

John | 29 October 2015  

A worldview that has dominated for so long is that "white" and "male" are the norm and all else is different, that is "female", "black", "Muslim" or "Middle Eastern". Etcetera. It's not necessarily that Mr Abbott doesn't value diversity but that he believes there is some sort of order. Otherwise, he would be more compassionate and less defensive. I think his faith is genuine. And I'm reluctant to point a finger in that direction. Except to remind him that God is inclusive, loving and hates hypocrisy.

Pam | 29 October 2015 Nothing new under the moon?

AO | 29 October 2015  

On the one hand Abbott refers to the drawcard for migrants and asylum seekers of affluent countries, but then the need for strict border control, turn-backs and detention. To me there seem to be quite a few inconsistencies in this argument. The less affluent countries in eastern Europe have been criticised for their harsh approaches - building fences, detaining people, and responding with force, and yet the approach of Greece and Italy seem to have been punching above their weight and financial capacity by allowing asylum seekers to pass through. There is an understanding that asylum seekers simply can't stop in countries like Greece and Croatia and Turkey and problem solved. That's the simplistic argument Abbott presented, and it must have been glaringly obvious to the EU leaders at the Thatcher oration that Europe is not Australia, and European countries are interdependent members of an economic community. It seems Abbott's speech hints more at protecting the UK from the "hoards" than the EU.

AURELIUS | 29 October 2015  

Just when the tide had gone out and the words 'I stopped the boats' had finally been beached and the new PM with eloquent fluency drew in the sands of time the new catchphrase of "business agility and economic innovation" up pops the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Len Heggarty | 30 October 2015  

A great article. Australia is a successful multicultural society precisely because through good policy and planning, our waves of migration especially since WW2 have joined our strong democracy. This is sadly threatened by the kinds of divisions proposed by the 'so called leadership' of Howard and then Abbott. Begone culture warriors!

Roz Lambert | 30 October 2015  

The "refugee problem" was accelerated by the Iraq war. This illegal war, supported by the Howard government, has led to the deaths & displacement of over a million people. The UK documentary "We Are Many" details the failure of global leadership - in politics and the media - against the weight of public opinion (70% of Australians) who opposed that war. Amnesty international is now calling for a Royal Commission into how Australian officials resorted to criminal behaviour to stop the boats. Above all, our elected leaders must respect national and international laws.

Amanda | 30 October 2015  

I must admit that I found this article entirely unconvincing. That doesn't mean I remotely approve or support what Abbott said in London. But it does mean that there is a question lurking here that is deeper than either Abbott or Sabine suggest. John put his finger on it when he spoke of 'the deconstruction of the "grand narrative" of Western culture'. That's the essential problem that Europe faces: its cultural narrative, which, historically, is fundamentally Christian, has been seriously weakened by a kind of secular 'forgetfulness' and an historical ignorance that denies what is blatantly obvious to even the most superficial visitor to Europe, its Christian roots. In contrast, Islam at present is driven by a strong, assertive religious narrative. The problem in the West generally and Europe specifically is that some secularists tend to trivialise the power of these religious narratives. It is at this deeper level that we need to struggle to find reconciliation. While Christianity and Islam may have common roots, they are profoundly different understandings of the meaning of existence and it is at this deeper theological level that believers need to take the lead in exploring reconciliation between faiths.

Paul Collins | 30 October 2015  

Thank you ES.

AO | 30 October 2015  

Abbott was a most appropriate person to deliver a memorial address honouring Thatcher, another Anglophilic egotist with a narrow tunnel vision and a war-mongering delusional dedication to nationalism. Both of them were embarrassments to their countries.

john frawley | 30 October 2015  

You do realize that Geert Wilders' Party in Holland is twice as popular now as any opposing party? Perhaps there's more to the clash of cultures than you suppose? By the way, the "electorate" didn't reject Tony Abbott, or his boat policies. Unless I've seriously overslept, we haven't had a federal election since 2013.

HH | 30 October 2015  

If I were a visitor from Mars and had only the ABC and Eureka Street as information sources I would come to the conclusion that Australia was a community struggling with the tension of being principally Muslim but at the same time being majority homosexual. It we're not there yet we soon will be. Ambrose

Brian Berge | 30 October 2015  

Sabine Wolff is to be congratulated; Paul Collins even more so. He goes beyond Ms Wolff piercingly to the very nub of the matter, but each highlights the question of bridging the gap - how do we achieve a reconciliation between the two faiths. Abbott and his co-warriors widened and fortified the gap - as a friend who wrote to the ex-PM said to him "speaking of catastrophic error, thank God you are no longer Australia's."

Brian Davies | 30 October 2015  

So, what's the answer to Europe's immigration issue - permit entry to anyone who wants to come? Is there a biblical answer? On the one occasion that Jesus needed money to pay the temple tax, his very rich Father subsidised him by means of a coin hidden inside a fish. He told the Samaritan woman at the well that she was living in sin and by the end of that story we don't know whether, in those pre-social security times, she had to return to her de facto (ie. fornicatory or adulterous) position in order to continue to be able to eat. The advantages to having a kingdom not of this world is to escape a lot of messy practical problems. If the Pope still had his papal states, and hitchhiking asylum seekers crowded to them, what would the Pope do? Isn't he lucky he doesn't have those papal states anymore? From the point of view of a secular ruler, it might seem that the Bible renders fealty to God and problems to Caesar because the messy kingdom problems seem to accrue to kingdoms of the world. What Would Jesus Do if Jesus were Tony Abbott?

Roy Chen Yee | 30 October 2015  

Abbott presented like a real Statesman. Free of the media trained political facade he was required to embrace as PM, and continual interruptions from aggressive left wing journos, he was able to present and articulate a sincere logical message,and justify his expression of compassion. .An open minded high profile audience was attentive and receptive. A touch of admiration seemed present in the final standing acclamation. How about stop playing the man, calling him names (Culture Warrior in Chief) and be open to listen to a sincere, good and intelligent man who comes from his heart. Compassion which leads to chaos is misguided and counter productive.

Anthony | 30 October 2015  

Europe has experienced the blow torch of the Enlightenment with its hermeneutics of suspicion with purified its Judeo-Christian traditions and belief systems but, as Paul Collins points out, has amnesia. Europe needs an urgent wake up and reminder. Islam and Tony Abbott have never been had been through a comparative Enlightenment and been exposed to or freely submitted to a rigorous process of narrative criticism from the outside. This kind of testing identifies the essential core from the outer crust. Islam has a valuable centre of core belief. Abbott probably had one but forgot it at Manly. Now he has slogans.

David Timbs | 30 October 2015  

Reconciliation between faiths is a catastrophic fiction from the Catholic point of view. Jesus commanded "Go teach all nations." He didn't add "... except those that will style themselves as 'Islamic'." Apart from that, Paul Collins' comments are entirely a propos.

HH | 30 October 2015  

I just wish Abbott would return to the country of his birth where he could sing Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia to his heart's content. He has failed miserably to understand that Australia is an immigrant country, a home to people with many different cultural and religious backgrounds who have learned to live together in peace. And as for the 'grand narrative of western culture', with its systemic disdain of all others and its history of conquest, occupation, and exploitation, well, perhaps it's about time it was 'deconstructed'.

Ginger Meggs | 30 October 2015  

"Headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated" - these words were used bi ICI in rejecting Margaret Roberts (later Thatcher) when she applied for a job in earlier days. How well they apply to her acolyte Tony Abbott and the similarities don't stop there. Both were self-appointed warriors on behalf of priviledge, both were proudly divisive, combative and seemed eager to create enemies if some political advantage could be wrought from doing so. I wonder if Abbott ever reflects on the supreme irony, that the late Lady Baroness and he were each thrown out by their own party and, in the end, for the same reason, refusing to 'turn' from a path that so few of their former followers were willing to follow.

Brian | 30 October 2015  

Who will rid us all of this turbulent half-priest? Go away Abbott - and don't drag the rest of us into your malevolent view of the world. Our country's reputation is in decline because we ( NOT I) voted you in.

Joe Logan | 30 October 2015  

It''s interesting that HH has finally acknowledged a link between Christianity and the historical person of Jesus - expect in his instance he got the timeline a bit wrong because Jesus obviously couldn't have mentioned Islam which began in the 5th century.

AURELIUS | 30 October 2015  

'Anti-Mosque Nutters' eat your hearts out, 'Catholic Church Nutters' rejoice! On a recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land which included visiting Egypt, our priest WAS allowed to offer Mass, but NOT in any public space within the hotels. Offering Mass was only permitted in the secrecy of private rooms.

Claude Rigney | 30 October 2015  

I am not a Liberal supporter but in the next election I'll be voting for Mr Turnbull!

Myrtle Moodley | 30 October 2015  

Thanks, Paul Collins, Brian and Joe Logan. For me, Tony Abbott's utterances have an uncanny likeness to an errant uncle at Christmas dinner who, fuelled by alcohol, makes as much sense as Sir Les Patterson. To engage in serious debate concerning his expressed views makes as much sense as arguing with a two year old it is time for bed at 9 pm. If you insist in punching fairy floss or nailing bubbles to the wall; go right ahead. I suggest there are better thing to do with your time.

Veritatis splendor | 30 October 2015  

Perhaps HH needs a dictionary too. Last time I looked, 'reconciliation' meant restoring friendly relations. Why would that be 'catastrophic'?

Ginger Meggs | 31 October 2015  

ON 28th October I attended a Bible Study group. Before the meeting began one member raised the subject of Tony Abbott's Margaret Thatcher speech. Eight Christian men of good intent expressed socio-political ideas that ranged from Conservative to t Democratic Socialist. Eight men! All condemned Abbott's comments regarding the Christian guideline 'Love thy neighbour' as irrelevant to the refugee crisis in Europe. But the conversation degenerated into a 'For the want of a nail a shoe was lost ...' argument. Soon we were discussing Islam and the life of Muhammad. One person, I, knew he was born c 570 CE in Mecca. Some knew he got his start as a trader by marrying a wealthy widow, Khadijah, who provided him with capital. Some assessed this as opportunistic and reflected poorly on the founder of a Great Religion. But they didn't know that his preaching in Mecca about the one true God, Allah, was unwelcome in a society attached to polytheism. To make matters worse for himself he advocated an ethic that did not sit well with the money-making methods of the richest merchants. Lack of knowledge of Islam is no bar to political leaders & commentators pontificating on it.

Uncle Pat | 31 October 2015  

Thank you Sabine for an astute reflection on Abbott and his Liberal ilk's, while you don't name it as such, racism; ie the subsuming of Christian values for cultural elitism and of course, the realpolitik of trade. The 'grand narrative' rooted in Christian values, for which Collins is nostalgic, in our modern times has been undermined and rewritten by western 'Christian' church going' warmongers who have decimated Muslim countries, families and culture - remember god told Bush to invade Iraq and Blair 'talked to God over Iraq'. Sick. Now we have Abbott overturning God's greatest commandment- love, equality and compassion for the Broken Other into a "catastrophic error". Sick. By Broken Other I refer to Muslim asylum seekers fleeing the chaos caused by 'Christian' military interference and lest we forget, the youth and long unemployed, single mothers, etc Broken Others at home targeted by the Abbott government.

Vacy Vlazna | 31 October 2015  

Because Christianity is a religion, GM, and so too is Islam. Each aims to convert everyone in the world, for their own good. There is nothing in the Gospels, or traditional Catholicism about "reconciling faiths", as that entails the task of reconciling mutually exclusive propositions, and Christianity, which cherishes reason, know that's just a barmy idea. On the contrary, Christ obliges us out of love and mercy to convert the unbeliever, not just be nice and neigbourly to them, leaving them to their benighted ignorance as to the most important truths. I daresay Muslims have the same attitude, and that is perfectly understandable. I'd much rather have an earnest Muslim try to reason with me as to why his was the one true faith, than a "Post Vatican II" type Muslim rave on about how we're really all the same religion under the different outward expressions. I doubt whether many of the latter exist, except in academia, but I'd tell him to take a hike if I met one. Aurelius, note carefully the word "will" in my post, which invalidates your critique.

HH | 31 October 2015  

Today, the English aren't as zany as Tony Abbott is assuming they are. As in NTNON Conservatives, have ‘heard it’ all before.

AO | 31 October 2015  

Is that, Claude, a bit like refusing gay couples the use of public space for celebrating their marriage?

Ginger Meggs | 31 October 2015  

@Ginger Meggs. Your post is as fine an example of moral equivalence as I have seen. Very few in the West, if any, want to deny gays their choice to live as couples. The dispute is over whether such a union should be understood to be the same in essence as 'traditional' marriage. This is hardly the same as banning a religious ceremony from a public space. When it comes to many Muslim countries, their treatment of gays leaves little for the West to be ashamed of. This attitude has also, unfortunately, manifested itself amongst the throng of migrants pouring into Europe. There have been several homosexuals who have had to be removed from migrant shelters for their own safety. Perhaps Sabine Wolff may like to check if the new Europeans will be as ready to embrace cultural diversity as she wants the old Europeans to be.

Gerald Lanigan | 01 November 2015  

" I'd much rather have an earnest Muslim try to reason with me as to why his was the one true faith, than a..Muslim rave on about how we're really all the same religion under the different outward expressions. I doubt whether many of the latter exist". HH before I take a hike, can I just assure you that plenty of the latter very much exist outside academia, and whilst they might not consider the monotheistic faiths to be 'exactly the same', they do consider the one God to be common to us all. And such a belief is a central doctrine of our faith. "Surely, the Believers, and the Jews, and the Christians and the Sabians — whichever party from among these truly believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good deeds — shall have their reward with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve."(Quran 2:63) "...cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated."(22:41). "And We have revealed unto thee the Book comprising the truth and fulfilling that which was revealed before it in the Book..For each of you We prescribed a clear spiritual Law and a manifest way in secular matters. And if Allah had enforced His will, He would have made you all one people, but He wishes to try you by that which He has given you. Vie, then, with one another in good works. To Allah shall you all return; then will He inform you of that wherein you differed" (5:49) Etc. etc.

Rashid.M | 01 November 2015  

Come on Gerald, Claudes comment and my response has nothing to do with the way that gays are treated in Muslim countries or about the validity of SSM. It has all to do with the way that some so-called Christians want to deny gays the opportunity to celebrate in otherwise public places and I was simply drawing a parallel with Claude's experience of being denied the opportunity to celebrate in otherwise public spaces. Claude was offended and hurt by being denied what he considered to be his right to assemble and celebrate. Now he knows how gays feel when they are denied their right to act in a similar way.

Ginger Meggs | 01 November 2015  

You put the phrase 'reconciling faiths' in quotes HH, but I have been unable to find and previous use of that phrase. The term that has been used before, including by you, is 'reconciliation', for which I gave you a definition that you have not challenged. Nobody, except you, has used the word 'reconciling' which I take that mean in the sense of 'eliminating differences'. And in any case, for most of us, other than the die hard Christianists and Islamists, we are not talking about the reconciliation of religions but rather the reconciliation of cultures.

Ginger Meggs | 01 November 2015  

Thanks Rashid, but I guess my point as a traditional Catholic is this: whatever there is in common between Catholicism and Islam does not to any degree qualify the command of Our Lord to convert everyone (voluntarily, of course: not by force, since a forced conversion is no conversion) to the Catholic religion. "Reconciling faiths", if it makes any sense at all to the authentic Catholic, can only mean bringing every one into the One True Faith, the one flock under the One Shepherd. In comparing articles of faith, the motive for the Catholic in this exercise is never to affirm the other in their religion as such, but to show - in all charity - how the truths of the religion founded by Christ involve and at the same time vastly transcend those truths discovered by other religions, and thereby to attract the other to conversion. A model here is St Francis of Assisi, who at grave risk to his life, preached the Faith to the Sultan of Egypt and according to some sources, may even have effected his secret conversion. I have had the impression that the average fervent devotee of Islam has an analogous outlook on things. I could be wrong on that - Muslims may be perfectly happy for others to remain unconverted to what they regard as the true faith. That would be odd - if one loves something, one instinctively want others to participate in it. But my mistake here would not, nevertheless, affect my central point. Prayers (for your conversion, of course) and thanks again.

HH | 02 November 2015  

You're correct, GM, to pull me up on a verbal issue. But Dr Collins, I understand, was referring to theological reconciliation between faiths, which I take to mean, not theologians of different faiths sitting around having friendly relations over a cup of coffee, but coming to some sort of substantive propositional compromise. And it's the latter I regard as impossible between Catholicism and any other religion. And if a culture stems from a religious viewpoint, appealing to reconciliation between cultures rather than religions is just kicking the can down the road. In any case, I certainly don't WANT Christendom to have "friendly relations" with a culture which espouses such views as that adulterers should be stoned to death, and practicing homosexuals hung from cranes or dropped from high towers - much as authentic Christianity condemns as evil all violations of the ten commandments, including adultery and unnatural sexual acts and believes they should not be supported legally in any way. Just as Christianity suppressed the monstrous practice of suttee under the British Raj, I want Christianity to vigorously oppose the vicious cultures that prevail under sharia, whether cultural, or religious or both, and see that they are eliminated as soon as possible. To the extent that you have friendly relations with a vicious culture, you have very unfriendly relations with the victims of that vicious culture.

HH | 04 November 2015  

Notwithstanding that Tony Abbott is a joke and an embarrassment to Australia, racial and religious bigotry is alive and well in both Europe and Australia. The treatment of refugees is a disgrace and uncharitable. The cause of the civil unrest in the Middle East is the imperialist and colonial polices of England, America and France. Unfortunately, most of the western world do not have leaders like the German Angela Merkel who are interested in human rights and social justice.

Mark Doyle | 06 November 2015  

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