The case for Abbott as Opposition leader


Cover image: Tony Abbott BattlelinesPolitics 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

Interesting article from an unexpected source. But how, Scott, do you reconcile Abbott's 'willingness to wage war against the people's baser instincts' with his adoration of Howard who was surely a master at pandering to those basic instincts?
Tom Jones | 25 August 2009

At least we can live without being ashamed of Labor's 'vapid' policies - even though they need to get up and do something about aboriginal situations. Tony Abbott's past ways of acting don't hold out much hope for me.
Mary Cresp | 25 August 2009

Abbott can only appeal to the most uneducated brainwashed people. These are created in large numbers in our society so there will always be room for politicians like Abbott.
cronos | 25 August 2009

Mr Stephens gives himself away here; comments such as 'a leader's willingness to wage war against the people's baser instincts' seems to me reminiscent of fascist ideology and his claim that the electorate's low regard for Abbott ...'ought to be dismissed as unenlightened electoral bigotry, as a throwback to the anti-Catholic prejudice that bedevilled J. F. Kennedy in 1960s' is so sweeping that without any supporting evidence at all it should be dismissed as a fantasy, in fact in my experience it is my Catholic friends who like Mr Abbott the least - familiarity perhaps.

Mr Stevens appears to be presenting a 'Christian' political perspective more in keeping with Opus Dei than the liberal Christianity usually associated with the modern Uniting Church. As Eureka Street is an opportunity for the expression of opinion I have no problem with Mr Stephens expressing his; but in my opinion this article presents an abhorrent and dangerous ideology that deserves to be resisted and opposed. In tone and content it reminds me very much of Bob Santamaria and brings to mind his opinion piece 'Point of View' which was broadcast on the TV in the sixties and that's about where this thinking belongs.
chris gow | 25 August 2009

The 'anti-Catholic prejudice' of the 1960's to which Scott Stephens refers, has increased exponentially since the 1989 collapse of the USSR and the consequent passing of the threat of Communist world domination. The diabolically-inspired 'unenlightened electoral' bigots, as Father Stephens describes them, now feel free to embrace their true aim of attempting to denigrate and destroy the Catholic Church and its most inspired members, of which Tony Abbott is one.
Claude Rigney | 25 August 2009

Friends who are Catholic are not ipso facto representative of that Gospel-oriented body
Ray O'Donoghue | 25 August 2009

It is more than 60 years since I joined the Labour Party....That is a declaration of Interest. Do not be surprised, therefore, that I fully support the sentiments in the article by Rev Scott Stephens.

To bury the legacy of the Howard years and heal the wounds left by the years of unbridled laissez Faire Managerial Economism we in the ALP need three terms in office. Tony Abbott as Liberal leader will guarantee that. No doubt in the best of good conscience Tony Abbott is further to the extreme Right than even Howard was.
jim macken | 25 August 2009

Firstly, thank you Chris for the comparison with Santamaria's 'Point of View' columns. That is most flattering of you.

Tom, I think you've hit the nail on the head. Abbott's adoration for Howard is, of course, well known. He remains the most tenacious and unashamed of all the Howard loyalists. In a previous article in Eureka Street (, I have written at length about Howard's noxious brand of politics and his shameless populism.

There are, however, a couple of things to be noted about Abbott's 'Howard'. First, his admiration for Howard is primarily refracted through his Conservative penchant for effective policy, for actually getting things done. It is difficult not to marvel at Howard's well-nigh self-destructive reforming zeal, particularly in his first term.

Second, Abbott also views Howard through the lens of Burkean Conservatism, and a very high-minded version at that. In Battlelines, Abbott is giving the Howard legacy a deeply philosophical, even Catholic, twist.

Thirdly, Abbott's outrageous courage in his defense of the morality of Howard's legacy (not necessarily Howard himself), his stance on abortion and divorce, and his advocacy for revived Federalism represent a kind of stark antithesis to Howard's pandering populism. (And then there is his long-time collaboration with Noel Pearson on Indigenous policy ... Howard was a latecomer to that issue.)

I'm not a one-eyed Abbott supporter. There are portions of Battlelines which are vapid and almost entirely without intellectual or policy content (such as his dreadful chapter on multiculturalism). Nevertheless, he is, as Annabel Crabb calls him, an 'interesting politician' with an almost pathological compulsion toward candor.

In a culture such as ours, in which 'interesting politicians' are punished and flattened out, and candor is ridiculed as a 'gaffe', Abbott is a rare species indeed.

Oh, and Chris - more 'Opus Dei' than 'the liberal Christianity usually associated with the Uniting Church' ... again, I'll take that as a compliment. Most generous of you!
Scott Stephens | 25 August 2009

To Ray O'Donoghue; I agree that 'friends who are Catholic' is not a representative sample - my point being it is still a better sample than Scott Stephens has provided for the remarkable assertion that the community's low regard for Tony Abbott is some sort of anti-tyke prejudice.

I defy him to produce a skerrick of evidence to support a claim that essentially accuses the present Australian electorate of bigotry against Catholics. If Tony Abbott was a Muslim or a Mormon or even an atheist it might be an arguable point, but a Catholic? In 2009? In Australia? To the degree that it would affect an electoral outcome?

The only other person who might believe it is Tony Abbott himself, because I suspect in his mind there is no other explanation possible for his non-elevation to the top spot.
chris gow | 25 August 2009

You cannot be serious!!!!!!
John Morgan | 25 August 2009

Abbott: charity... and courage? He never spoke out against the invasion of Iraq or the cruel treatment of asylum seekers. With Turnbull and Greech, he offered the misleading gloss that in a small town like Canberra, pollies and public servants are always bumping into each other. But altogether a strange notion.

Why should pollies be interesting? They can be as boring as they like if they can solve any of the problems that beset us.
Barry Rosenberg | 25 August 2009

Chris, evidence of anti-Catholic bigotry toward Abbott?

How about the furor that surrounded his 16 March 2004 paper on 'The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician', in which he dared publicly address the prevalence of abortion in Australia?

How about the press's unforgivable coverage of his principled opposition to the lifting of the ban on RU486 (see, for instance,

How about the condescendingly frequent references to Abbott as the 'Captain Catholic' of Australian politics?

I could go on and on.

But please note that the point isn't that Abbott is Catholic. It is that he is so obviously Catholic. He actually believe enough to bring it to bear on his political life, on public debate, and on the task of moral reasoning. This is where Abbott best represents the heir to Santamaria's legacy. In Battlelines, he recalls that, ‘What impressed me, even as a youth, was the courage that kept [Santa] going as an advocate for unfashionable truths. He always seemed more concerned for the cause than for himself.’
Scott Stephens | 25 August 2009

He along with his Cabinet colleagues committed Australian troops to Iraq despite wide spread opposition in the Australian community.

My answer to Mr Abbott, retire and fade into the political sunset where you belong with John Howard.
Terry Steve | 25 August 2009

There is much, much more to Abbott than meets the eye of the undiscerning critic who reacts with simplisitic knee-jerks to the media's public representation of him as 'the mad monk'.

Abbott is a sleeper, an acquired taste, a long-term prospect for the conservatives who need to go through their long, dark night of the soul. It would be unwise for him to waste the opportunity of leadership through a too-hasty tilt at the top job. 'Sheer plod makes plough-down sillion Shine, and blue-beak embers, ah my dear, Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.' So it will be with Tony Abbott.
Maggie Tulliver | 25 August 2009

If Humphrey B. Bear lead the opposition they'd have a better chance of saying something useful.
Ian James | 26 August 2009

What has happened to EUREKA? .Scott Stephens has put forward a thoughtful commentary on awell known Australian.The left wing zealots once again race off to raise questions about Howard as though he was hated by all Australians and never did anything good---

To suggest that Stephens has expressed abhorrent & dangerous ideology or that Abbott can only appeal to the most uneducated brainwashed people says a lot about the balance or objectivity in views being expressed
BRIAN.MARTIN | 26 August 2009

I agree entirely with Brian Martin. For many people who tend to the left the ultimate sibboleth of their orthodoxy and good standing is to express an unreasoned moral repugnance to all things Howard. That Howard was evil was a self-evident truth.

I was pleased to see Eureka Street include an article towards the other end of the spectrum.

I would like Chris Gow, even given the restrictions on space, to provide some evidence himself for why Scott Stephens's views are an abhorrent and dangerous ideology.
Patrick James | 26 August 2009

My great fear for my country is that Tony Abbott will one day be chosen to lead Australia as its Prime Minister. Why? Because when Australia faces its darkest and most dangerous days, it will only be then that Tony Abbott will be recognised as the one needed to lead us out of peril. He may yet be required to be the John Curtin of this era.
Claude Rigney | 26 August 2009

Thank you so much Scott Stephens and Brian Martin and Patrick James. The left wing zealots who never fail to swarm when the name Howard is mentioned deeply embarrass me. It is the moderate and sensible commentary that people such as you provide that keeps me persevering here.
Rosemary | 27 August 2009

Is this a joke? Tony Abbott is likeable in person, but as a public figure he is too divisive (behaviour during stem cell debate was appalling) and conservative to be an effective leader of the country. As a catholic I suspect oposition to Abbott owes little to anti-catholic bigotry. Most people just don't share his views.
sean johnson | 28 August 2009

Please, no more committed 'Christians' in politics, let alone as leader. There are too many already exerting too much influence in complete disproportion to their relevance to Australian society. It is a threat to secular society.

Abbott in particular is far too hard line in his attitudes to be seriously considered for leadership of this nation. Far too theocratic.
Trevor Melksham | 28 August 2009

Thank you for publishing the article by Scott Stephens. It proves that Eureka is truly 'catholic' in presenting views, even biased and blinkered views. Stephens chooses to ignore the principles and moral stance laid out in Rudd's essays in 'Monthly'. He also selectively excludes Howard, the ultimate antitype of charity, belief and courage...and remember that Abbott was and is a great ally and supporter of Howard.

No, Scott Stephens, your essay does not support the case for Abbott, rather it shows your own selective views.

John Garrett | 03 September 2009

What a refreshing article! Thank God! I think Tony Abbott is one of the very few politicians left that actually have substance. Rudd and Turnbull are a disgrace for themselves.
Michael | 10 December 2009


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