Weighing in on Abbott's Labor Lite slight

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Two irreconcilable views of the ideological position of the Turnbull government are now in circulation. They can't both be right.

Malcolm Turnbull is weighed down by a bulky 'conservative' Tony Abbott. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonOne view, held by those who once had high hopes that Malcolm Turnbull would lead a small l liberal government, is that the Coalition clearly is a conservative government. Its conservativism is demonstrated by its words and deeds on matters like renewable energy, climate change and asylum seekers and refugees.

This state of affairs is generally put down to various factors, but largely to the internal dynamics of the government. The first part of any explanation is that Turnbull is beholden to conservative forces within the Liberal Party, including Cabinet members like Peter Dutton and past ministers like Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews.

The second element is that the Coalition agreement delivers influence over the Liberals to the more conservative Nationals, led by Barnaby Joyce and including outspoken backbenchers like Queenslander George Christensen.

The second proposition, advanced by South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi when he deserted the ship to form the Australian Conservatives, is that the Turnbull government is not conservative enough, maybe not even conservative at all.

Former Prime Minister, Abbott, is now using this second position to advance his destabilisation of the government. Abbott went so far in his latest contribution to claim that the government was 'Labor Lite'.

This throwaway epithet could mean just about anything but was probably meant to mean that the government was too centrist and coming too close to Labor in search of the middle ground. It was certainly not meant as a compliment. Abbott wants the government to turn further to the right.

Flowing on from this chasm between different views are conflicting interpretations of why the Turnbull government is struggling, trailing Labor in the Newspoll by 55:45.

 

"What Abbott misses entirely in his denunciation of the Turnbull government is the characteristic tone of modern politics with which he himself is most identified since his time as Opposition leader."

 

In short, Bernardi and Abbott attribute this unpopularity to the government not being conservative enough. For them the greatest danger for the government is that it is losing ground on the right, exemplified by the growth of One Nation at and since the last election.

Whereas commentators in general argue that the government's unpopularity flows not especially from this but either from it being too conservative over several popular issues, including same sex marriage as well as those mentioned above, or just general incompetence, indecision, disunity and lack of leadership.

It was these latter weaknesses that also exemplified Labor's last turn in office during the Rudd-Gillard years. It is this that makes the Turnbull-Abbott period similar but different from what went before it. Labor's woes were never primarily about ideological direction. Its disunity was therefore quite different to that of the Liberals, though it is understandable if the community just saw the infighting that occurred rather than its origins.

What Abbott misses entirely in his denunciation of the Turnbull government is the characteristic tone of modern politics with which he himself is most identified since his time as Opposition leader. Australian major party politics has immersed itself for too long in mindless adversarialism and mutual denunciation.

These are the weaknesses of major party politics that the community wants addressed. It wants the tone of politics lifted out of the gutter. Abbott's statement was in clear contrast to one also made last week by current NAB chairman and former Department of the Treasury head, Ken Henry.

In a speech to a business audience Henry, schooled as a bureaucrat not a politician, characterised modern politics as trench-warfare in which politicians 'fire insults designed merely to cause political embarrassment'. As a consequence, the predominant political narrative is conducted in 'the language of fear and danger' and the deliberate outcome is frightened confusion.

Abbott offered policy prescriptions, including cutting the renewable energy target, cutting immigration, scrapping the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, ending all new spending and reforming the Senate to restore major party control.

Turnbull claims he will not be distracted but the net effect of Bernardi's defection and Abbott's continued tirades may be to deflect the concentration of the government, and inevitably the Opposition too, on reaching sensible and moderate accommodation. Instead they may continue to fire bullets from their trenches.

 


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Cartoon by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Labor, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi


 

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Existing comments

The LNP is wracked by infighting. Nero fiddles while Rome burns. NSW has just had the hottest summer ever and our major party politicians are a 'basket of deplorables' when it comes to handling the greatest moral issue of our time - action on climate change. Even Labor want to open new coal mines, including the world's potentially biggest coal mine, the Adani Mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin. This planned mine is reportedly to be 40km long and 10km wide! What a pity there are no plans for a solar farm this size in this country. The Greens are the only party I know that are really serious about climate change mitigation. But there are many short-sighted Australians who aren't voting for the Greens. Wake up Australia! The Reef is dying! Megafires are increasing. Pacific Islands are going under, as will much of our coastal land. Australia could easily be 100% renewable energy with wind, solar and pumped hydro, as one of our University Professors recently pointed out. Read Pope Francis' encyclical 'Laudato Si' and act to save Planet Earth. Listen to Pope Francis, not to the 'clowns' who gleefully passed around a lump of coal in the Lower House.
Grant Allen | 03 March 2017


There are a number of important issues which need bipartisan support in this trench warfare battleground we call the Australian Parliament. Indigenous recognition in the Constitution, same-sex marriage, climate change, environmental degradation, asylum seekers to name a few. I believe parliamentarians would win new respect from voters if they showed enough strength to try to resolve long-standing social issues. It's telling that despite Turnbull's mediocre performance he still leads Shorten as preferred PM.
Pam | 03 March 2017


In regard to narratives couched in "the language of fear and danger", the question is whether they have a foundation in reality. Current unemployment, cost of basic amenities, escalating violence and disaffection with government would suggest they do.
John | 03 March 2017


It is often forgotten that Robert Gordon Menzies did not found a conservative party. That was why he called it the Liberal Party: it was meant to espouse classical Liberal values, just as the British Liberal Party did. Earlier Australian politicians, such as Alfred Deakin would also have fitted easily into this classic British and Australian Liberal mould. It was John Howard who turned the Liberals into a much more conservative party. The conservatives who, to a great extent control the Liberal Party today, are not really representative of Menzies ' forgotten people': the fast vanishing Australian middle class. To be honest, I don't think an issue like same sex marriage - put forward as a moral imperative by the likes of Rodney Croome - is considered important by the 'forgotten people'. They see it as marginal. They tend to live in middle to outer suburbia and to be concerned with real issues such as employment. They can also be more conservatively Christian. There are indeed elements of the old White Australia beliefs among some. Geoffrey Blainey is probably representative of this viewpoint. Seeing someone like Yasmin Abdel Magied claiming Islam was 'the most feminist religion' and inferring Australians are 'racist' would go up like a lead balloon. Pauline Hanson and One Nation are a godsend to those who feel that, not only was the traditional Australia not bad, but that it was a damn good thing. There is much middle class conservatism out there that is more Menzies than Howard. It's coming back.
Edward Fido | 03 March 2017


The problem is an antiquated adversarial system of parliament. It needs to be more business like based on a system of committees per portfolios, chaired by independent facilitators where both senators and MP's can attend by choice. Bring in the experts for a discussion and information briefing. Work collaboratively. The position of Speaker becomes redundant. Only those bills that pass committee stage proceed to the house where a vote ONLY is taken by the Clerk of Parliament. No more fake debates, Dorothy Dixers, character assinations and general ineffectiviness!
Cam BEAR | 04 March 2017


The proper business of politics is to secure informed public consent for necessary change, through objective information from trusted sources. Such for example as the Whitlam government's Schools Commission and Hospitals and Health Services Commission. We need to get back to it.
Race Mathews | 06 March 2017


I would have to agree John. If they spent more time concentrating on job creation, embraced renewable energy in conjunction with the DFC (clean coal fuel cell), adopted a more humane policy to the refugees on the boats and became creative for a change, they would earn some respect. If all our PM can do is sling insults at Shorten, he shouldn't be there.
Francis Armstrong | 06 March 2017


I like Cam's ideas about reforming the system. This business of playing the person instead of focusing on the matter in hand is beyond decency. It reminds me of a story about a drunk trying to get his key into a downstairs apartment door noisily and unsuccessfully. From an upstairs window a woman chides, "You're trying to put your key into the wrong door". Drunk: "That's nothing. You've got your head out the wrong window". John's article focuses by design on the conservatives in trouble. But how about Labor's opportunity for leadership, for a national inspiring narrative and a concerted effort to lift standards of debate? And move to the left, like Bernie Sanders who really stood for something of value.
Michael D. Breen | 06 March 2017


Agreeing with Edward Fido on the party founded by Menzies and changed by Howard, I look forward (probably a vain hope) to successful foundation of an Australian Conservative Party by Bernardi, and voluntary surge by all the conservatives out of the Liberal Party to join him. That would leave the Liberal Party to be again aptly named, on the British model. On expectation that in each of the (then) three major parties, party policy would be consistent with the party name, resulting in clear policy differentiation. Australian electors would then be able to vote for policy, not on the basis of who performs better in the Question Time dog fight.
Ian Fraser | 06 March 2017


Methinks it takes too many promises for one to become leader these days. So much so that the PM becomes beholden to all the promises. Turnbull, like Rudd, spent all his energy getting to be the leader but doesn't seem to have any vision of what to do now or is too beholden or both.
Carol | 06 March 2017


Interesting essay! Though I am not at all a supporter of conservative parties or governments, I’m glad you mentioned the debacle that is now called the Rudd-Gillard era. While my vote remained loyal to Labor ideals all through this period, I was not surprised that voters reversed their majority in favour of the Abbot-led conservatives. I laughed at Tony Abbot’s acceptance speech……”I declare Australia open for business…” Surely what he meant to say was “Australia is open for and behalf of business (interests)”. They have since done everything in their power to turn their backs on Egalitarian Australia and govern on behalf of the big business aristocracy and their imperialist values. Hence, a total disregard for low-paid workers, global warming (with their so-called “positive action policy”) and international refugees. Instead we have a rabid pursuit (though disguised as best they can) of short-term profits and lower taxes for corporations (i.e., the wealthy) plus scapegoating of the unemployed and ethnic minorities. Being one of the imperialists means that Turnbull is a big-end-of-town player too. Notice his capitulation to conservatives on issues like carbon taxation, solar/wind research funding and Sunday pay rates.
Andrew | 06 March 2017


Adversarialism and mutual denunciation as well as a focus on reelection are indeed characteristic of our politics but we should note that this is fost red by media who seek to headline the differended and oppsitions rather than policies.
Kevin Liston | 06 March 2017


Poor Malcolm is as much a victim of polarisation of national politics as everyone else in Australia. It is interesting to reflect on when this started, and who carrie the greatest blame in my opinion. the key event was the destruction of Rudd`s carbon trading came , essentially by the Greens (paradoxically?). That brought down both major party leaders: Rudd and Turnbull mark-1, pushing both parties to the extremes. The next phase was the destruction of Gillard, again by the Greens , in insisting on a far too high carbon-tax and destroying the "Malaysian solution" for boat people refugees. That was an especially, and underlines the this surely is all related to a deliberate and indeed successful attempt to undermine moderate and productive parliamentary democracy and politicians . The really key issues for Australia at the moment are: our budget deficits and debt, workplace techno-innovation and productivity, affordable and reliable energy while staying with Paris accords (but no more), major infrastructure development to both cities and regions, and moderating immigration until the rest are done. Because of our political polarisation none of this s going to happen; it`s tragic.
Eugene | 07 March 2017


"The proper business of politics is to secure informed public consent for necessary change, through objective information from trusted sources." Not only does Race Matthews (6 March) say it, but he says it all.
Roy Chen Yee | 07 March 2017


" The Coalition agreement delivers influence over the Liberals to the more conservative Nationals" This statement raises another issue. What is in the Coalition Agreement? Surely the public has the right to know and the Coalition should be pressed to reveal what is in the agreement.
Beejay | 07 March 2017


I agree with Ian Fraser that it would be a positive step if Australian political parties genuinely labelled themselves for the policies they stood for and showed some genuine commitment to these policies. Sadly, we are talking Australian politicians here, who will say anything at all for their own purposes. Such was the recent volte face by both "Father" Tony Abbott and "Man of Steel and Not-Quite-Head of the International Cricket Board" John Howard on Ms Pauline Hanson which seemed to leave the lady in question somewhat underwhelmed. John Hewson seems to have been the last leader of a political party in this country to have a program and to tell the public what that was before an election.
Edward Fido | 08 March 2017


Bernardi and Abbott both espouse catholic values-God bless 'em!
Father John George | 08 March 2017


I continue to be amazed that a lot of critics of Tony Abbott have a limited memory span and refuse to acknowledge the sabotage of Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott. As A Prime Minister he runs around in circles and I feel confident that many Liberal supporters will give serious thought to vote Labor at the next election.
Name Peter Sheales | 26 May 2017


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