They say a man’s always promoted to his highest level of incompetence, and Australian voters saw to that in 2013.
Now, before we get off on the wrong foot, that’s not to slander Tony Abbott. It’s not an insult to say that someone wouldn’t make a good prime minister. There are many people I admire and revere that I wouldn’t let within a hundred yards of the Lodge (my mother, for instance, God love her.) Everyone has his or her strengths; just as surely as my mother’s is healthcare, Tony Abbott’s isn’t prime ministry.
And that’s okay. Mr Abbott is, nevertheless, a man of exceptional ability. Monarchists owe their victory in the 1999 referendum largely to his tireless, visionary leadership. He’s a terrific mentor to Young Liberals across the country. He was perhaps the greatest Leader of the Opposition in modern history. If Peta Credlin has distinguished herself as an outstanding political commentator on Sky News, imagine what he could do with a primetime slot on Radio 2GB. Most importantly, his conservative instincts are undoubtedly the most solid in parliament – except, of course, Cory Bernardi’s. Politically stupid as reviving knighthoods might’ve been, it showed an unwavering devotion to traditions upon which Australian society is built.
The problem is that prime ministers can’t be politically stupid, and that goes double for conservative ones. Whether we like it or not, Australia isn’t an overwhelmingly conservative country. It’s not – to its great credit – an overwhelmingly ideological country at all. Voters have very low expectations of their leaders: keep us safe, pave the roads, and take as little from our paychecks as possible. That’s how it should be in the developed world. All nations should aspire to a society where the government is rendered virtually irrelevant to public life.
While this makes it difficult to advance the conservative agenda, that’s really the least of our problems. Unlike South American dictatorships and Middle Eastern theocracies, Western peoples are so well off that they’re naturally skeptical of activist governments. Our lot is so good that we strongly doubt any glorified bureaucrat could improve it. In the case of knighthoods, that skepticism manifested itself as a massive over-reaction … but it hardly came as a surprise. So, either Mr Abbott somehow didn’t realize what a furor his proclamation would arouse, or he didn’t care. Either way, he set conservative public policy back by at least five years.
Likewise, while Mr Abbott is unquestionably ‘one of us’, he also revealed himself to be unaccountably susceptible to left-wing identity politics. That a conservative PM should’ve led the push for recognition of Aboriginals in the Constitution is nothing short of a scandal. And his consistent refusal to acknowledge any links between the Islamic State and the Islamic faith – pottily referring only to ‘Daesh’ and the ‘death cult’ – made it clear that he was incapable of truly breaking the Left’s stranglehold on public discourse. (Edwin Dyga writes luminously on this subject for the New Oxford Review.) We slowly came to realize that his great forays against political correctness were simply gaffes. When prime minister Abbott had sufficient presence of mind, he was as beholden to the multiculturalist narrative as Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten. And let’s not even start on paid maternity leave.
I admired Tony Abbott long before I came to Australia: he was, and remains, something of a messianic figure to monarchists across the English-speaking world. So I never have, and never would, set out to slander him needlessly. It’s only because I have so much regard for him that I hope he never returns to the Lodge. The odd years of his prime ministership were a waste of his talents. His time and energy were better spent acting as the Liberals’ conservative conscience, fostering talented young statesmen, and representing the Forgotten People in the court of public opinion. But the bully pulpit granted by the 2013 election transformed him from advocate to prosecutor overnight. He was given the choice, as all PMs are, to either embody a movement or represent his own agenda. He chose the latter. We may castigate him all we like, but it would be wise to remember those words of caution from Henry IV: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. If given the same power Mr Abbott wielded, you and I very probably would’ve behaved as poorly. That doesn’t make him a bad man, or even a bad conservative: only a bad prime minister.
So, much as I sympathize with those still clinging to their 2012 fantasies about an Abbott government, it’s time to acknowledge the 2016 reality. He repeatedly failed to strike a healthy balance between conservative principles and Australians’ low tolerance for state interventionism. Either he was too right wing for the greater public or too left wing for his own base. He just couldn’t walk that fine line between traditionalism and liberalism that Menzies laid down when he founded the Liberal Party. That came as a surprise to most of us, considering how ably he led the Coalition in opposition. But the Liberal Party has always been, fundamentally, the Not-Labor Party. Poking holes in the socialist program is one thing; drawing a positive agenda from a negative identity is entirely another.
The only sensible course of action now is to put the past behind us – to go out in search of a new incarnation of Menzies, one capable of bearing the unbearable crown, which falls on every Liberal prime minister. He or she may not be immediately forthcoming; but, then, we walked in darkness for some many longs years and were heartbroken by false dawns before Mr Howard revealed himself. With Messrs Howard and Abbott standing by to lead us in that search, both of them liberated from the temptations of opportunism, surely it wouldn’t take so long as that.