The National Interest
By Tom Switzer
TONY ABBOTT LIKES TO TELL THE STORY about his first visit to the United States as a newly elected member of the Australian Parliament. It was 1995, and he was widely seen as a rising star in the center-right Liberal Party, where the word “liberal” still means more or less what it meant in the nineteenth century. He had also distinguished himself as a leading opponent of the Labor government’s ill-fated proposal to replace Australia’s constitutional monarchy with a republic.
But something got lost in translation: Abbott’s Washington-based hosts, the U.S. Information Agency, had been told that he was “very liberal and strongly anti-Republican.” Which meant his itinerary during his two-week study trip consisted of meetings with only commentators and interest groups on the far left of the American ideological spectrum.
Trans-Pacific jokes aside, the conventional wisdom of just a few years ago held that Abbott was too right-wing to become prime minister down under, a throwback to a bygone era. After all, the devout Christian and former Oxford boxing blue is skeptical about abortion, same-sex marriage and alarmist claims of global warming. He is an Anglophile who is a great admirer of the United States and its leadership role in the world. (He once said, “Few Australians would regard America as a foreign country.”) He champions “smaller government, lower taxes, greater freedom, a fair go for families and respect for institutions that have stood the test of time.”
When he is not on message, which is rare for spin-soaked politicians in the relentless 24-7 media and Internet environment, he is gaffe-prone. During the federal election campaign last August, he said that a female parliamentary candidate had “sex appeal” and that his opponent, the then Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, was not the “suppository” of all wisdom. He has ticked almost every unfashionable box in modern politics.
Like Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the UK Conservative Party’s leadership contest in 1975 and Ronald Reagan’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 1980, Abbott’s narrow victory in the Liberal Party leadership ballot in 2009 delighted his political opponents, who had dismissed him as easy to beat in a general election. The Canberra press gallery — our equivalent of the Washington press corps — did not take him seriously as prime ministerial material. He’s “too archetypically conservative.” He’s too much of a “King Catholic.” He views the world through a “narrow ideological prism.” He’ll “split the party.” “Australia doesn’t want Tony Abbott. We never have.” So said seasoned observers of Australian politics.
Nor were they alone. The nation’s intelligentsia was contemptuous of the “Mad Monk.” Under Abbott’s leadership, one distinguished academic warned, the conservative Liberal Party would become “a down-market protest party of angry old men and the outer suburbs.” Even the U.S. ambassador in Canberra, in a cable to Washington that WikiLeaks revealed a few years ago, called him “a polarizing right-winger.”
And yet for all his evident shortcomings, the fifty-six-year-old Abbott reminds one of the adage that low expectations are a priceless political asset. He has seen off three Labor prime ministerships in as many years. And last September, he won one of the nation’s biggest landslide victories since World War II. Simply put, the man who once trained to be a Catholic priest has resurrected the conservative cause, which had languished in the Antipodes following the downfall of John Howard, Australia’s prime minister from 1996 to 2007, whom Abbott served as a confidant and cabinet minister.
SO HOW DID THIS POLITICAL NEANDERTHAL win power in Australia? What defines the Abbott worldview? Is he a role model for American conservatives? And are the early reports of his political demise exaggerated?
From the outset, I should acknowledge that I have known Abbott for fifteen years. I like him enormously and consider him a friend, or — in Australian parlance — a top bloke with a larrikin streak. He’s been so faithful to his mates that he has not lost any. He is a volunteer bushfire fighter and lifeguard in his federal seat on Sydney’s northern beaches. He is deeply committed to the welfare of indigenous Australians, and spends weeks living in remote Aboriginal communities in the outback. There is nothing phony about him.
But although I am not one of his many critics in Australia’s media and intellectual community, neither am I an uncritical admirer. Among other things, his oratory tends to lack range and theatrical effect. At times, he is even rhetorically challenged, more likely to address his fellow citizens in simple sound bites than in an engaging conversational style. He gave unqualified support to the previous government’s commitment of Australian troops in the depressing and endless war in Afghanistan. Never mind that our presence there had not been yielding lasting improvements that were commensurate with the investment of blood and treasure. (Australia lost nearly forty lives in the last four years.)
Moreover, despite his vaunted commitment to reducing the size and scope of the federal government, he is hardly the second coming of Milton Friedman. His government, not even three months old last December, controversially rejected a takeover bid by the U.S. agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland of Australia’s GrainCorp. Given Abbott’s declaration on the night he was elected that Australia was “open for business,” it was an uncharacteristic move, one that earned an editorial rebuke from the usually sympathetic Wall Street Journal. His plan for an expensive paid paternal-leave program also suggests a social-engineering streak.
Still, one can concede Abbott’s flaws and broadly support his political agenda. At the heart of his appeal is his brand of conservatism, something both his friends and foes misunderstand. Abbott does not subscribe to the left-liberal consensus, which explains why the well-educated folk of inner-city Sydney and Melbourne are full of scorn. But neither does he cleave as faithfully to the conservative “movement” as do many American conservatives. Nor could he genuinely be described as “right-wing” in any crude ideological sense. Such terms and labels are inappropriate ways of properly understanding the true nature of conservatism.
Conservatives, traditionally speaking, are essentially antidoctrinaire and opposed to programmatic laundry lists. Like Tories of old, and unlike Tea Partiers today, they prefer flexibility and adaptability to rigid consistency and purity of dogma. As Samuel Huntington observed in an important article in the American Political Science Review in 1957, the antithesis of conservatism is not simply left-liberalism or even socialism. It is radicalism, which is best defined in terms of one’s attitude toward change. For conservatives, temperament should always trump ideology, and the single best test of temperament is a person’s attitude toward change. Although conservatism accepts the need for change, the onus of proof is always on those who advocate for it.
Abbott more or less represents this tradition. He is temperamentally conservative, someone who likes to do things in settled and familiar ways, and he recognizes that radical change is fraught with the danger of unintended consequences. This is a man at ease quoting Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton and Paul Johnson, distinguished conservative writers who champion incremental and consensual change over the large and divisive variety.
That is why Abbott defends the monarchy and opposes a republic. His critics try to paint him as a romantic loyalist who is sentimentally attached to the queen and “Mother Country” (where he was born in 1957). But his position is based on a belief that a republican form of government could amount to radical tinkering with the constitutional arrangements that have undergirded the nation’s stability and prosperity since 1901, when Britain granted formal independence to its colony.
Abbott’s conservatism also explains why he is skeptical about alarmist claims of global warming: he has proposed to abolish the previous government’s carbon tax on the grounds of its expense and uselessness. And it is why Abbott is wary of unfettered free markets and lax foreign ownership laws, lest they create a radical backlash from the losers involved in the process of what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.”
On the other hand, many American conservatives, especially Tea Partiers, fail the temperament test abysmally. They do well on the doctrinal purity scale. They impatiently lust after radical change and upheaval. And they yearn to be consistent in the application of a fixed doctrine. But they attach little or no value to continuity. Nor do they place much emphasis on the role of changing circumstances and conditions in the course of devising policy. Given the intransigence congressional Republicans and presidential primary candidates have displayed in recent years, and their utterly unconservative refusal to ground ideological ambitions in political realities, there is much to be said for Abbott’s mind-set.
What also distinguishes the Australian prime minister from his conservative brethren across the Pacific is his belief that a center-right party should represent a big tent, one capable of embracing a variety of beliefs and implementing a range of policies depending on the circumstances and conditions. He is fond of quoting a 1980 address by Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser on the natural compatibility between liberalism, understood in nineteenth-century terms, and conservatism, understood in eighteenth-century terms. (As it happens, the speech was written by Owen Harries, a fellow Australian conservative who became founding coeditor of The National Interest in 1985.)
Like many Australian Liberals before and since his tenure (1975–1983), Fraser believed that the Liberal Party is the custodian of the center-right tradition in politics. But he also stressed the importance of both liberal and conservative thought in shaping public policy. Liberalism “always emphasises the freedom of the individual and the absence of restraint,” Abbott approvingly quotes Fraser (and Harries) as saying. “Conservatism . . . stresses the need for a framework of stability, continuity and order not only as something desirable in itself but as a necessary condition for a free society.” And he further asserts: “The art of handling this tension, of finding that creative balance between the forces of freedom and the forces of continuity which alone allows a society to advance, is the true art of government in a country like ours.”
Again, in striking contrast, Tea Party Republicans and many conservatives inside and outside the Beltway place more stress on classical liberalism as a rigid political ideology, à la John Stuart Mill and the Enlightenment, and less emphasis on the more classical conservative virtues of prudence, stability and measured change, à la Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton. This perhaps also helps explain why Tea Party Republicans exhibit a far deeper hostility toward the state than, say, Australian or indeed most Western conservatives.
STILL, ALTHOUGH ABBOTT HAS little stomach for ideology, his political rise is attributed to his doing the very thing so many British Tories have shied away from doing in more recent times: he had the political nerve and moral conviction to sell a seemingly unpopular policy to “middle Australia,” where the center of political gravity is decidedly to the right of most editorial offices of media outlets as well as the senior common rooms of our nation’s great learned institutions.
When Kevin Rudd won power in 2007, the accepted wisdom was that the Labor leader would consign conservatives to the political wilderness for a generation, much as the American consensus predicted Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 would mark what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had previously called a new (liberal) cycle of history in U.S. politics.
During the first two years of the Labor government, from late 2007 to late 2009, the parties that form the conservative coalition were vacillating, divided and leaderless. They proved unable to present a clear alternative to Canberra’s big-government agenda. Like David Cameron in Britain and John McCain in the United States, Australia’s conservative political leadership embraced the global-warming agenda, and essentially aped the Labor policy to introduce a cap-and-trade scheme on the eve of the UN’s Copenhagen climate conference. A gap of fifteen to twenty percentage points between the two major parties was the norm. Aussie conservatives were in the deepest political valley.
The turning point came in December 2009, when Abbott took over the Liberal leadership. His internal opponent was Malcolm Turnbull, a Mitt Romney–type figure without any conservative instincts, and he—just like McCain and Cameron—had been a willing accomplice in the other party’s agenda to price greenhouse-gas emissions in order to slash the nation’s carbon footprint.
But the (political) climate was changing, at home and abroad. For several years, from 2006 to 2009 — which marked the period from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth to the U.S. House’s passage of the Waxman-Markey climate bill — the global-warming debate had been conducted in a heretic-hunting and illiberal environment. It was deemed blasphemy for anyone to dare question not only the doomsday scenarios peddled by the climate alarmists but also the policy consensus to decarbonize the economy via a tax or cap-and-trade scheme. Rudd claimed that climate change was the “great moral challenge” of our time. And in clear breach of the great liberal anti-Communist Sidney Hook’s rule of controversy (“Before impugning an opponent’s motives . . . answer his arguments”), Rudd linked “world government conspiracy theorists” and “climate-change deniers” to “vested interests.”
It was in this environment that Abbott challenged the media-political zeitgeist. Cap and trade, he argued, merely amounted to economic pain for no environmental gain, especially for many Australians who were mortgaged to the hilt. The nation, having weathered both the Asian and the Anglo-American financial storms in 1997–1998 and 2008–2009, respectively, has not suffered a recession in more than two decades. But a significant segment of the electorate has been increasingly conscious of high living costs, thanks to a tight housing market and exorbitant energy prices. Add to this the fact that Australia accounts for only about 1.2 percent of global carbon emissions and depends heavily on mineral exports for growth. Abbott’s case was not an appeal to do nothing, but to avoid doing something stupid. And unilateral action to slash Australian emissions when no major emitter would follow Australia’s lead, while its trade competitors were chugging up the smoky path to prosperity, was hardly in the national interest.
Then came the failed 2009 Copenhagen summit, which exposed the Labor agenda as a sham. When the rest of the world refused to endorse the climate enthusiasts’ fanciful notions for slashing carbon emissions, Rudd imploded. Almost overnight, the Labor prime minister’s stratospheric poll numbers collapsed and he ditched his cap-and-trade scheme, his government’s keynote legislation. Labor factional warlords panicked and, in an act of brutality late one night in June 2010 that could have been mistaken for a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, they knifed Rudd in an internal party coup and installed Julia Gillard as prime minister.
Undeterred, Abbott continued his relentless attacks on other key issues of principle and policy. Throughout the next three years, he opposed the Labor government’s big-spending and interventionist agenda, which had turned a multibillion-dollar surplus under the previous conservative government into skyrocketing debt and deficits, and he promised voters he would not be profligate with tax dollars. He also supported tough border-protection policies, which had traditionally helped boost public confidence in large-scale, legal immigration. So effective was Abbott in challenging Labor that the government changed leaders (again): Gillard herself was fatally knifed in June 2013 — by the very man she had backstabbed three years earlier. By refusing to buckle in his opposition to Labor’s increasingly antibusiness agenda and its craven attempts to woo groups such as gays, refugees, the arts lobby and public broadcasters at the expense of its more traditional constituency of blue-collar workers, Abbott aggravated the sensibilities of the metropolitan sophisticates. But he also broadened the appeal of his conservative agenda. He subsequently set the scene for the very electoral success that his critics had predicted he would never achieve.
ON FOREIGN POLICY, and reflecting a broad bipartisan consensus, Abbott will ensure that the U.S. alliance remains the centerpiece of his foreign policy. This is no surprise. Australia is the only nation to have joined America in every major military intervention in the past century: both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. It has done so for the most part out of conviction as well as calculation. When disagreements do erupt — most notably over trade, where Australia has been more committed to unilateral cuts in agricultural subsidies than America — they have been moderate and usually privately expressed. Australia has not resented its dependence on American power. It has neither sought nor received aid in return for its support. And it is one of the few U.S. allies that has not been a burden on American taxpayers. At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, Australia provided bases and other facilities to the United States. More recently, in 2011 the Labor government, supported by Abbott, agreed to what amounts to a U.S. Marine base in Darwin on the northern coast and potentially in western Australia.
The alliance is deeply embedded in the national psyche. From its birth as an independent state in 1901, Australia has always sought a close association with a great power that shares its values and interests. For the first half of the twentieth century, Britain filled that role; since the end of the war against Japanese militarism and the onset of the Cold War, it has been the United States.
The advantages of the U.S. alliance include favorable access to technology and intelligence, as well as an important security insurance policy. On the American side, the alliance is of value because Australia is a stable, reliable and significant presence. It is the twelfth-largest economy in the world and serves as a fast-expanding and wealthy market for U.S. goods and services.
“When Australian ambassadors in Washington express support for the United States, it is heartfelt and unalloyed, never the ‘yes, but’ of the other allies, perfunctory support followed by a list of complaints, slights and sage finger-wagging,” the columnist Charles Krauthammer has observed. “Australia understands America’s role and is sympathetic to its predicament as reluctant hegemon.” Abbott shares that view. “It is often thought of America, in its dealings with the wider world, that its knowledge is scanty, its attention span short, its judgment flawed, and its actions frequently counter-productive,” he wrote in his memoirs in 2009. “What can’t seriously be questioned,” he added, “is Americans’ collective desire to be a force for good.” And he declared at the Heritage Foundation in 2012: “America needs to believe in itself the way others still believe in it.”
But he is changing his thinking on international relations in subtle but crucial ways. For one thing, he appears to recognize what is emerging as a new political truism in the Antipodes: that the spectacular rise of China, now Australia’s largest trading partner, means that Canberra must learn to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before. Notwithstanding Abbott’s sincere admiration for America, there is a sense that he believes Australia is not faced with a stark binary choice between China and the United States. This means that Canberra, far from embracing old traits of dependability and unconditional loyalty, will need to be more nuanced, qualified and ambiguous in its diplomatic outlook.
On the eve of his election last September, Abbott appeared to recognize this reality. Under the headline “I would be an Asia-first prime minister,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald: “Decisions which impact on our national interests will be made in Jakarta, in Beijing, in Tokyo, in Seoul, as much as they will be made in Washington.”
Which brings me to another reason why Abbott has recently changed his tune on foreign policy: he appears to have been mugged by reality in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001 and Bali in 2002, Abbott became an unashamed supporter of the George W. Bush administration’s doctrine of preventive war and democracy promotion. He embraced American neoconservatism. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was overwhelmingly unpopular among most Australians, yet Abbott and the government of Prime Minister John Howard gave strong support to Washington’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime and attempt to transform postwar Iraq into a viable state and flourishing democracy.
Over time, however, he has come to recognize that such policies are costly in terms of blood and treasure as well as credibility and prestige. In the lead-up to last September’s federal election, he took issue with then prime minister Kevin Rudd over how Australia, a member of the UN Security Council, should deal with the Syrian crisis. The Western allies, he warned, did not have a dog in this fight between “baddies.” Victory for either the Assad regime or the rebellion could mean dreadful massacres and ethnic cleansing, as well as an increased threat of terrorism if the insurgency won.
Rudd seized on Abbott’s use of the term “baddies,” slamming it as “simplistic.” “Words are bullets,” Rudd lectured, and Abbott’s failure to side with the opposition Syrian National Coalition meant that diplomats all over the globe would “scratch their heads” and “walk away in horror at this appalling error of foreign policy judgment.” In Rudd’s telling, a Prime Minister Abbott would damage Australia’s standing in the world.
But whereas Rudd was talking as if it were still 2003, it was Abbott’s more realist response to the simmering cauldron of sectarian malevolence that was more appropriate for 2013. Although no one, including Abbott, doubted the tyrannical nature of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, it was also true that many rebels were linked to powerful and sinister groups of West-hating Islamist fundamentalists, including Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the Obama administration was wary of entangling itself more deeply in what was becoming essentially an anti-Iranian alliance with the Sunni autocracies of the Persian Gulf that back the Syrian rebels.
The episode was revealing. Here was Rudd, widely perceived as a foreign-policy prime minister, whose hawkish pronouncements merely reflected a childish posturing in an attempt to make Australia punch above its weight. Abbott, on the other hand, merely recognized the wisdom of Talleyrand’s advice, “Above all, gentlemen, not the slightest zeal.” This was especially the case when none of the supporters of a military strike against Syria had a clear sense of the mission. Given the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and since the political objective remained perilously unclear, there was much to be said for Abbott’s straight talking and foreign-policy realism.
IN POWER FOR ONLY SEVEN MONTHS, ABBOTT’S GOVERNMENT has gotten off to a rocky start. Vacillation and ineptitude over the implementation of popular education reforms, along with a deteriorating relationship with Indonesia thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations of Australian intelligence spying on Jakarta’s political leaders in 2009 as well as displeasure with Canberra’s border-protection policy of turning back boat people to Indonesian waters, has brought to an end Abbott’s postelection honeymoon. Meanwhile, he has failed to develop the art of selling the government’s success in slashing illegal immigration, a hot-button issue in the electorate.
Already his new political opponents are confidently predicting that Abbott will be a “oncer” — a one-term prime minister. Leave aside the unintended irony here: after all, in the modern Labor Party, to serve a full term as prime minister is an extraordinary and enviable achievement given that the last two, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, were dumped before either reached that particular milestone. The point here is that the critics who casually dismissed Abbott’s prospects of ever leading the nation should be more cautious about doing so again, especially so early in his term. Besides, Australian voters are a conservative lot, wary of changing parties in power after only one administration. Not since the early 1930s has a first-term government lost office.
In any case, a clear majority of Australians preferred Abbott to the widely maligned Labor Party in last year’s election. He may not be flashy and charismatic. But he is the personification of old-fashioned conservatism, representative of the unexciting virtues of prudence, continuity and measured change. It’s a lesson to which conservatives in Britain and especially America should pay close attention.
This article was originally published at The National Interest