Thursday, October 01, 2009

Battlelines, by Tony Abbott

This book purports to provide future intellectual and policy directions for conservative politics, or more to the point, future direction for the Liberal Party. I thought the book would have more ideas and an overall modern conservative program. Afterall, the blurb on the back of the book asks ‘What’s next for the conservative side of politics’.

If that’s the kind of book you’re looking for, this is a pretty potted effort. It’s more of a mixed bag of personal history, restrained opinion, first hand ministerial experience and a list of prescriptions to improve government bureaucracy. The centrepiece of the book is a call to, if not abolish the states, at least reduce their power. The appendix of Battlelines contains a proposed bill to allow more Commonwealth power in areas of shared responsibility with the states.

This may strike the reader as ironic, seeing Abbott is such a staunch Monarchist. One of his main criticisms of becoming a republic is that it would give too much power to a newly elected president, especially if we had a directly elected model. (I agree with this, by the way.) Yet he wants to concentrate more power in Canberra.

Tony Abbott can seem unusually modern at times. For example, I was surprised to read this rather extraordinary line:

"In politics, what’s not reported might as well not have happened."

Then again, it may explain why he seems to constantly pop up for television interviews.

Much of Battlelines reads like a long love letter to John Howard. Abbott goes over much of the Howard government’s achievements, and unequivocally thinks John Howard the exemplary style in leadership. (How interesting to contrast this against Peter Costello’s memoirs, where Howard is a shadowy, ill defined figure.) You get the impression that Howard is a bit of a father figure to Abbott. What else can explain this unblinking devotion?

There is much that is salutary in Abbott’s effort to write this book, but by the time I got to the end I realised why I could only go so far with the author. Abbott writes in a nice plain style, and his thinking comes across as neatly organised, yet every now and again there is a surliness in the writing. It’s subtle and passes you by, but sometimes its very weirdness sticks out and cries for attention.

For example, in a section where Abbott suggests that maybe a different category of marriage should be envisioned, one with a no-divorce option, the author writes:

"Certainly, if the law is to establish a new type of legally recognised relationship for gay couples, it might also manage to enshrine once more, for those who want it, a type of marriage that approximates to the Christian ideal."

Does he really see gay marriage as being a precursor to ‘Christian ideal’ marriage, a ‘death-til-us-part’ marriage? No, he’s just having a subtle back-hander at gay marriage advocates.

Then there are silly sub headings like ‘Environmentalism might hurt the environment’. I mean, this kind of irony is so lame and we know what the subtext of it is: environmentalists are a bunch of economic vandals who don’t have a clue about what they’re doing. Why not just come out and say it rather than sulking?

Another sub heading is called ‘Kings in Their Own Cars’, and pursues a defence of car drivers against any type of critic, legitimate or not: ‘For too long, policy makers have ranked motorists just above heavy drinkers or smokers as social pariahs.’ Really? Abbott fails to discuss the volatility of oil prices, time wasted in traffic congestion and the car fumes we all now breathe. Not to metion the heath impacts of taking in so many toxins along with our oxygen. No, because car drivers are absolute monarchs. It seems Abbott wants to keep car drivers wrapped up in cotton wool about the negative aspects of our car culture.

The impression I get at the end of this book is of a man with nowhere to go intellectually or ideologically, and he’s angry about his limited options. The Postscript is called "Days from Hell". He airs a few grievances over the fact that his colleagues did not think he would be suitable as a leader for the Liberal Party.

"Six years’ hard work in parliament as Leader of the House of Representatives, nine years as a minister managing fraught portfolios, and regular intellectual advocacy on behalf of a sometimes rhetorically challenged government seemed to count for little or nothing."

It seems to me Tony Abbott is in a world he can’t possibly change (think green politics, Aboriginal rights, feminism, gay rights). He wishes it wasn’t that way, and he would like to be able to think he could wish upon a star and these political and cultural realities would vanish. His problem is to fuse his antipathies to gay rights, environmentalism, feminism etc. with his own cultural agenda. And it seems he can’t possibly do it. He has to be civil about gay rights and the environment, paying a polite kind of lip service. He may tolerate these movements, but perhaps secretly finds them intolerable.

Indeed, I sense that his default position, going by the below quote, would be that of a morals campaigner. Here’s a line from the Days From Hell postscript:

"As an ambitious politician, I had never had the slightest intention of becoming a morals campaigner."

I’d be more interested to see Tony Abbott as a morals campaigner. It’d be fascinating to hear his views on a range of subjects, without the check his own political ambitions have put on his (perhaps?) true calling

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