Features Australia

The Last of the Conservatives

Has the poll-driven Turnbull coup put paid to conservative economic reform in Australia?

3 October 2015

9:00 AM

3 October 2015

9:00 AM

Before popular perception hardens into conventional wisdom, the misconceptions about the fall of Tony Abbott must be addressed. A trendy school of thought on the Right says his government failed because Abbott was not a true believer in economic reform. These critics hold that the Abbott government’s failure to achieve budget repair was to be expected because Abbott allegedly learnt his conservativism at the knee of Bob Santamaria, and was more of a believer in DLP-style Catholic social justice than in free markets and limited government.

But this account underestimates the real political challenges posed by economic reform. To claim the Abbott government failed because Abbott was too conservative, too Catholic, and not a pure enough economic liberal is to indulge in the fantasy world of student politics where everything can be put to rights, and politicians can crash through simply by being true of heart and pure of conviction.

When judged against the historical record, the Abbott government actually sat firmly within the mainstream of Australian politics. If you want to date when centre-right parties in Australia began governing like social democrats, don’t start with 2013. Try 1901, when the non-Labor parties cheered the introduction of the White Australia Policy and set the protectionist pattern of the early Commonwealth. Or try 1855, when NSW became the first colony to give the vote to adult males and the institutional foundations of the workingman’s welfare state were laid. Or try 1788, when Governor Phillip opened the government store to feed the convicts, and embedded a lasting faith in the role of the state.

No federal government has ever governed, let alone run successfully at an election, on a clearly defined economic rationalist agenda — not even the Left’s much-sainted Hawke-Keating government. As our great historian John Hirst has correctly observed, at elections during the ‘80s and ‘90s the Labor Party ‘attacked the Liberals for supporting economic rationalism. But when elections were over the Labor government adopted economic rationalism.’ The shining era of economic reform was due to bipartisan collusion by the major parties, and not due to the triumph of economic rationalism at the hustings — let alone to the ideological purity of the leaders.

Anyone who doubts this should recall the ‘93 ‘unlosable’ federal election. The only aspirant for Prime Minister who has ever run on an economic rationalist platform is former Liberal leader John Hewson. For his trouble, Hewson was dubbed the ‘feral abacus’ by Paul Keating. Ironically, Keating won the election by telling the Australian people that if Labor lost the election, Keating would pass the GST in the Senate.

This is to highlight how difficult it is to govern from the centre-right when the political centre of gravity in the country is located on the centre-left. It took a master politician like John Howard to get the GST legislated without bipartisan support; by taking his policy to the ‘98 election (the exception proving the rule that economic rationalism doesn’t play at the polls) and by agreeing to a compromise GST package to pass in the Senate. The Abbott government lacked political skill in prosecuting its agenda, especially given the unprecedented Senate situation, but that is not to say that Abbott’s problem was that his economic views were insufficiently pure. Abbott knew that this kind of purity is a one way ticket to oblivion.

To blame Abbott’s lack of purity for the failure of economic reform is to tilt at windmills instead of focusing on the real issues and political realities. The economic reforms that are needed to achieve budget repair will have to address the sacred cows of welfare, health, and education, which account for the lion’s share of expenditure. No politician in any western democracy knows how to wind back the entitlements enjoyed by so large a plurality of voters and then get re-elected. Remember the 2007 WorkChoices election — the Howard government’s economically rationalist Waterloo — and the subsequent re-regulation of the workplace by the Rudd government.

Rather than contribute any practical solution to these intractable challenges, Abbott’s critics have personalised his government’s failure to end the age of entitlement; claiming his economic conservatism was apiece with his social conservatism and Catholic faith. The veiled religious bigotry toward Abbott is one of the most unattractive recent developments in Australian public life.

Among Abbott’s chief critics on the Right are those who consider themselves to be economically dry and socially wet, and who are more comfortable aligning themselves with the ‘progressive’ social values of the cultural Left. By supporting the media-led campaign to sack Abbott, the anti-Abbott forces on the Right have craved the social approval of leftist elites — they have tried to hang out, as it were, with cool kids at the ABC, Fairfax, and on Twitter. They have more or less agreed with the Left that capital-C Conservatives should be barred from positions of national leadership; hence thinly veiled delight at the axing of Abetz and Andrews.

But what the trendies on the Right haven’t realised is that this is likely to be counterproductive and to make it even harder to achieve economic reform. The cultural Left do not share their economic values, and freely employ the ‘Conservative’ tag to label proponents of market-based policies. By repeating the opinion poll-shaping attack campaign waged against Abbott, the Left could exercise an effective power of veto over any Liberal leader who does not measure up to their definition of social and economic progressivism.

The unremarked upon significance of Abbott’s fall is that the Left has been politically empowered. Those on the Right dancing on Abbott’s political grave should be careful what they wish for. They may yet repent the broader political consequences of allowing the Left to employ the politics of personal destruction to pull down a prime minster not to their taste.

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments