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Clowns to the left, Jokers to the right

Those who critisise the Coalition from the Right for lacking ideological purity do Tony Abbott a disservice

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

In the early 1970s, Scottish pop group Stealers Wheel (featuring the late, great Gerry Rafferty) had their one international hit, Stuck in the Middle with You. Its chorus sums up prime minister Tony Abbott’s political dilemma as his first team nears its mid-point: ‘Clowns to the Left of me, Jokers to the Right, Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.’

Since the new senate commenced in July, Abbott and his Coalition are stuck in the middle with Clive Palmer and his dysfunctional PUPs – Glenn Lazarus, Dio Wang, petrol-headed hanger-on Ricky Muir and that camera-hogging lover of the well-hung man, the Bogan Moth Jacqui Lambie. Their mix of weirdness and populism is impossible to ignore: the Canberra press gallery and 24-hour news channels fall over themselves in milking Palmer’s motley crew for every possible story angle. The PUPs themselves have revelled in their balance of power and media spotlight, holding the government’s agenda hostage as once did legendary Tasmanian independent senator Brian Harradine, but without Harradine’s cunning, subtlety and courtesy.

As for the clowns to the Left of Abbott, Bill Shorten’s Labor party has forgotten nothing about Abbott’s brilliance as opposition leader in bringing the Rudd and Gillard governments to their knees. More than a year since its decisive defeat, Labor also has learned nothing from the incompetence, disunity and chronic policy omni-shambles that got them booted out in 2013. Instead, the government’s sub-par polling makes them think they can coast, unreformed, back into office.

And those other clowns, the Greens? Bob Brown was an intransigent zealot who preferred tree-hugging ideological purity to getting real outcomes, as his refusal to compromise with Kevin Rudd about emissions trading showed. But his humourless, cat’s bum-mouthed successor Christine Milne is even more holier-than-thou and bloody-minded than Brown, eagerly attacking Abbott at every turn rather than engaging constructively with him in the national interest.

Such virulent negativity to Abbott from the vanquished Left was predictable. The Left’s natural state is opposition, and Abbott can happily leave them playing with themselves in the wilderness. What has disappointed, however, is the equally dogmatic and trenchant resistance from thought leaders of the Right who seemingly prefer ideological purity to working positively with centrist fellow travellers.

The problem is summed up by the political rise of Liberal Democrat senator and self-described ‘classical liberal’, David Leyonhjelm. Since his election in September 2013, Leyonhjelm has been ubiquitous. He may have been elected accidentally thanks to a favourable spot on the ballot paper and an ambiguous party name, but he has made brilliant use of the senate’s bully pulpit as one of the eight crossbench senators needed by the Coalition to secure its legislative agenda.

Intelligent, articulate, and conviction-driven, Leyonhjelm has become the Calvinist preacher of the libertarian Right. He has a knack for media grabs, and his print columns are entertaining and thoughtful. Leyonhjelm’s appropriating J S Mill’s message of being free to live as one pleases as long as one does no harm to others resonates with politically-aware voters cynical about governments, politicians and all their works.

But Leyonhjelm’s free-spirited libertarianism, and that of like thinkers inside and outside parliament, isn’t helping Abbott. Instead of being natural allies for the prime minister as he grapples with huge economic and foreign policy challenges not of his own making, these influential thinkers indeed have become jokers to the Right, constantly finding fault but rarely offering the Abbott government constructive compromise solutions.

Notably, Abbott was condemned for his backdown on removing the Andrew Bolt provisions of 18C; the Institute of Public Affairs in particular using his pre-election words against him, and raising public subscriptions for display ads to highlight its anger with the government. Abbott also has been condemned by the libertarian Right for going too far in protective measures combating home-grown and external terrorist threats, and for going not far enough in terms of the task of budget repair and pursuing the Holy Grail of smaller government. Even the government’s cautious but not dismissive stance on gay marriage has drawn fire from Leyonhjelm and other critics.

Amid last week’s memorial Goughfest, IPA executive director John Roskam wagged an admonitory finger at Abbott in the Australian Financial Review, urging him to be ‘more like Whitlam’ by showing vision and leadership in government. In holding up Australia’s most incompetent prime minister as a paragon of political virtue, Roskam effectively agrees that it’s better to crash than crash through.

But in joining the mindless Left in constantly flailing Abbott for not living up to their purist philosophical and ideological standards, the thinking Right isn’t thinking. While Leyonhjelm, Roskam and others may not approve of everything Abbott and Co. are doing, surely the government we have is far better than a Greens-backed Labor alternative?

Bismarck famously said politics is the art of the possible. To the Menzian tradition of the Liberal party, this means balancing the rights and obligations of individuals with the community’s greater good. The Coalition is striving, albeit imperfectly, to get this balance right, whether it be its most contentious budget measures like the GP co-payment, tightening data and communications security, or taking a measured stand on social institutions like marriage.

Abbott essentially is a statist Burkean conservative rather than a libertarian, but he knows opposition is the place for ideological purity, not government. There’s no question his government has disappointed supporters in its tough first year. But instead of constantly excoriating Abbott, the thinking Right should offer its support more often and promote workable policy compromises, rather than constantly criticise and lament ideological impurity.

Unlike the clowns to the Left, such thinkers should stop playing jokers to the Right and accept that getting 80 per cent of what you want beats getting nothing, and having a sometimes blundering but generally well-intentioned Coalition government trumps any Labor alternative.

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