This morning’s Age gives a prominent headline to Kevin Rudd’s declaration that “I have never been a socialist and I never will be a socialist.”

But the paper’s competitor has a much more serious break with tradition: in The Australian, Tony Abbott repudiates the central plank of his government’s electoral strategy of the last five years.

The piece is an extract from a speech Abbott gave in Sydney last week to a conference on “The Journalist and Islam”, in which he methodically strips away all the justifications for scapegoating and demonising Australian Muslims. You need to read the whole thing, but a few quotes will give the flavour:

… in these times, unlike the convict era, every newcomer has, in effect, voted for Australia. … treating migrants and migrant cultures as interlopers is going to make the challenge of integration harder…

The last way to reach yet-to-be-convinced Muslims is telling them, in effect, to like us or leave. … Media portrayals of xenophobia and extremism are inevitably inflammatory in the short run, but in the long term force people to confront their own prejudices.

Abbott explicitly equates the Muslim experience with that of an earlier generation of Irish Catholics: “This is far from the first time some Australians have been concerned about the readiness of ethnic and cultural groups to assimilate”.

Does he not realise that many of his constituents (and colleagues) would have heart failure at the thought that Muslims might one day be as numerous or prominent in Australia as Catholics are now?

This is as clear an attack as you are likely to get on the subtext of John Howard’s repeated messages to the Australian public: that Muslims are uniquely resistant to assimilation, that Christianity is fundamental to Australian culture, that immigrants have to adjust to our values, that talking about the causes of terrorism constitutes appeasement, that the Cronulla riot was a media beat-up, and so on. Abbott one by one demolishes these shibboleths.

Is he serious? It’s hard to say; we know there is some discontent within the Liberal Party at the idea that the prime minister could be shaping up for an election campaign on anti-Muslim bigotry, and Abbott could be positioning himself accordingly. I confess to some personal interest in this, since I first suggested almost two years ago (Crikey, 3 March 2005) that he could try to outflank his rival Peter Costello on the progressive side of refugee-related issues.

On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that he could be dissociating himself from his mentor Howard as dramatically as he seems to be.

Regular readers will know that I have little sympathy with Abbott’s philosophical underpinnings. But he is a genuine intellectual; enough of a one, perhaps, to just not realise the political implications of what he is saying.