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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle