Australia's Tony Abbott is a man for everyone and no one

His campaign was a disturbing example of politics at its most crass and exploitative.

Editor's note: On 7 September, the Liberal-National coalition won the election and Tony Abbott became prime minister

On the 4 April, in the great stone-and-glass National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, luminaries descended to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), Australia’s leading free-market think-tank.

Tickets to the gala dinner cost a minimum of AU$500 (£340) per head, and an auction to raise funds for the IPA featured prizes including a guided tour of the Reagan Ranch in California and a behind the scenes Fox News “experience” in New York City, including a meeting with host Bill O’Reilly . Among the speakers were Rupert Murdoch, journalist Andrew Bolt, billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart, and a man named Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition.

Focus on Abbott has increased since Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that the Australian federal elections will be held on 14 September. After a disastrous few years for Gillard, Abbott is now the favourite against the incumbent; the man who may lead the Liberal/National coalition to victory.

Indeed, a number of recent opinion polls put Abbott ahead of Gillard, whose premiership has attracted controversy and misfortune since her election in 2010. This year alone her loosening grip on power has resulted in the Greens withdrawing their backing from Labor, an attempted leadership coup, an increasingly factionalised party, and resignations of key ministers. This has tarnished the image of Labor, and is driving away a not insignificant portion of its core vote. With the help of a largely right-wing media, Tony Abbott is working hard to capture swing voters. If he is successful, he will bring a particularly aggressive form of conservatism to Australia.

Faith or power?

Anthony John Abbott was born in London in 1957 to Australian expats, but grew up in Sydney. He attended a Jesuit high school, and later graduated from the University of Sydney with two Bachelors – in economics and law.

It was during his studies that Abbott met the man who would become one of the most important influences on his thought, B A Santamaria . Known as "Bob", Santamaria was a hugely controversial Australian Catholic political activist, strongly involved in anti-communist and social conservative movements. Abbott has described Santamaria as his “first and greatest mentor” and “a philosophical star by which you could always steer.”

In 1941, Santamaria founded the Catholic Social Studies Movement (known as "the Movement") which, among other activities, recruited Catholic activists to infiltrate trade unions in an attempt to prevent the spread of communism. This ultimately affected the Australian Labor Party, turning Labor leftists against anti-communist Labor Catholics, resulting in a party split, and the formation of the now defunct Democratic Labor Party (DLP) in 1955. As president of the Movement from 1943 till 1957, Santamaria was a key influence on these events.

Following a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, and an aborted stint at St Patrick’s Seminary in New South Wales, Abbott finally made the decision to go into politics. In a series of letters to Santamaria , he agonised over which party – Labor or Liberal – to join, writing “To join either existing party involves holding one's nose.” He was offered a job working for Santamaria’s organisation, the National Civic Council, but eventually decided to join the Liberal Party. When he won the pre-selection contest for Warringah, Sydney in 1994, Santamaria declined to give him a reference.

Though Abbott has arguably been driven by a genuine belief in the common good and the Biblical "golden rule" – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – his deep faith is often at the mercy of his ambitions for power. Indeed, the main reason he entered the Seminary was because he wanted to become the Archbishop of Sydney, no less. His rejection of Santamaria is merely the first in a litany of occasions where Abbott allowed his Machiavellian instincts to get the better of his religion.

Battling "big government"

In many of the speeches at the IPA’s 70th Anniversary celebrations, socialism (for these purposes, synonymous with "communism") appeared again and again as the great evil, set in contrast to the great virtue of freedom. Rupert Murdoch argued that true morality lies in the free-market rather than socialism because “it gives people incentives to put their own wants and needs aside to address the wants and needs of others.” Fostered by the likes of B A Santamaria – who zealously justified his opposition to Communism through tactics of apocalyptic fear-mongering – a dangerous degree of certainty and hostility has permeated some influential sections of Australian society, creating the backdrop on which to build a narrative of Manichean extremes; where morality is black and white, and the ‘good’ can win only by destroying the "evil". Politics is zero-sum. Compromise is failure.

As he praised Murdoch in his IPA speech, itself weighty with Biblical references, the tradition of politics Tony Abbott has embraced was clear – that of obstinacy, demagoguery, and dogmatism.

Reforms promised by Abbott during the speech included privatizing Medibank; the state-owned private health insurer for over three million Australians, and repealing Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. This latter policy is justified ostensibly in the name of free speech and the recognition of Australia’s Western heritage; something Abbott called “the new Great Australian silence”, absurdly comparing it to the disregard with which Australia treats its history of violence against Aboriginal people. If Section 18C is repealed, racial hatred will effectively be sanctioned by law.

As well as this, Abbott wishes to cut back public spending, regressively reduce personal and corporate taxes, and strengthen Australia’s borders to create a country “where the boats are stopped – with tough and proven measures.” 

It is worth noting that Australia rode out the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. Abbott voted against the AU$42bn stimulus that helped keep Australia out of recession, but despite his convictions, today the country’s government debt as a percentage of GDP is a mere 27 per cent – lower than that of Sweden, Norway, and Qatar – and it enjoys a triple-A credit rating from all three of the main ratings agencies. It is also experiencing a sustained mining boom along with steady GDP growth, fuelled largely by Chinese consumption. This has meant that the average household income in Australia has become much higher than the equivalent in the UK or the US – roughly AU$64,168 per year, equivalent to £43,590 in the UK or $66,765 in the US.

Why, then, are neoliberal economic policies being proposed by Abbott, and meeting with such positive popular sentiment in such a prosperous country? In short, the situation in Europe is being used in Australia to create fear and distrust in big government policies. The false narrative of unsustainable public spending and high taxes leading to financial crash and recession has been a potent tool in justifying further neoliberal reforms across the world. We have it now in the UK, and Australia wants to be next. Abbott, aware of the power of such fearful narratives, is using them to his advantage despite having once written to Santamaria of the Liberal Party that it was populated by “…more or less simple-minded advocates of the free market.”

They say jump…

In July 2011 a secret video recording was made, which showed ‘Lord’ Christopher Monckton – a British affiliate of UKIP and a climate skeptic – addressing a free-market think tank sponsored by billionaire mining tycoon Gina Rinehart. In the video, Monckton suggested that a new satellite TV channel, “an Australian version of Fox News”, should be set up by the “super rich”, complete with right-wing commenters like Jo Nova and Andrew Bolt but, like Fox, keeping the news “fair and balanced” to retain a veneer of respectability. The aim of this was to oppose climate change policies perceived to be damaging to business interests, such as the mining ‘super profits’ and carbon emissions tax, which at the time were not yet law.

In February 2012, Gina Reinhart purchased shares in Fairfax Media. “Good on Gina for being prepared to invest in journalism at a difficult time,” was Abbott’s take on the deal. Rinehart had already acquired shares in Ten Network Holdings in 2010, where right-wing, climate skeptic journalist Andrew Bolt began his show ‘The Bolt Report’ the following year. Rupert Murdoch owns a significant portion of the rest of the Australian media landscape, while one of the IPA’s goals is to have ABC, Australia’s public broadcasting service (and believers in man-made climate change) broken up and put out to tender>.

In Australia the debate about climate change is even more intense than anywhere else because carbon emissions are closely linked with mining, which brings a large amount of money to the economy through exports and jobs. In July 2012 two long-debated taxes on mining super profits and carbon emissions were painfully introduced following years of debate through different administrations. The country remains divided over this issue, with climate skeptics, mining interests, and libertarians lobbying hard for the repeal of both taxes.

During his IPA speech, Abbott sided with these interests; promising to abolish the Department of Climate Change, abolish the Clean Energy Fund, and repeal Julia Gillard’s already watered down super profits tax should he be elected. That Gina Rinehart was in the audience did not go amiss. That Abbott had reversed his stance on a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme did. Indeed, until becoming leader of the Liberal Party in 2009, he supported an emissions trading scheme. The influence of figures like Rinehart, along with the Murdoch media, the IPA, and the mining lobby are clearly visible on this ruthless shift.

It is hard to say for sure whether Tony Abbott will win the election in September. He was not the Liberal Party’s first choice for leader, and the polls are close. Nonetheless, despite his numerous gaffes, awkward manner, and unscrupulous power play, he is doing no worse than his opponent, and is a disturbing example of politics at its most crass and exploitative. Abbott is a man for everyone and no one, a flatterer of the rich and powerful, and an open vanguard for neoliberal hawks to pull apart the social contract. If he is elected, Australia will no longer be “the lucky country”. 

Tony Abbott. Photograph: Getty Images

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide