Entering the mind of Tony Abbott is slightly scary. He is, after all, an enthusiast, in the old sense of someone with rather strong doctrinal convictions. But he is also a more complex character than the Mad Monk caricature would suggest; this is a man, after all, who but for the grace — perhaps literally — of God might have become one of Jonno Johnson’s chook rafflers on the Right of NSW Labor, lining up with the hardline Catholics of the SDA.

He is also, courtesy of mere chance, probably now the highest profile replacement in the event something untoward happens to Malcolm Turnbull. The faked email affair, Christopher Pyne’s absence that week, and the timing of the Abbott book has provided an unexpected shot of credibility and coverage to a man until recently languishing, by his own admission, a long way from the action.

Abbott observes in the book, and repeated at his Press Club remarks yesterday, that John Howard was a better Prime Minister in the 1990s than if he had won in 1987; defeat had purged him and made him a better leader. Judging by Battlelines, Abbott has his own political journey ahead of him, but it’s a start.

Critically, the journey needs to take him away from John Howard, not merely because the book is at its best when Abbott unmoors himself from his fallen leader, but because, as Abbott said yesterday, the success of the Howard Government, like all governments was peculiar to its time, and times change, requiring new political generations to solve new problems and win new battles.

It may be difficult. Abbott clearly idolises Howard, describing his Government in rapturous terms and continually returning to Howard’s philosophy and experience as a conservative touchstone. Abbott is prone to idolising — B.A. Santamaria also looms large in his life and thinking, as do other male leaders Abbott found compelling as a young man. One suspects it gets in the way of his understanding of the Howard Government, which he variously describes as conservative, liberal and, above all, pragmatic.

His adoration for that Government leaves unanswered the question of why it stumbled so badly with what Abbott calls the “catastrophic political blunder” of WorkChoices, and why a government led by a man who in the 1980s despised Medicare, Asian immigration and big government, became, in the mid-2000s, the biggest taxing and spending government until then and one running the biggest immigration program. There’s also a question — which the Right doesn’t seem interested in addressing, of why the Howard Government was so like UK Conservative and US Republican Governments, who all increased the size of government or lacked fiscal discipline in contrast to their rhetoric.

It may be that Abbott is still not quite sure how to articulate his own brand of conservatism. Unlike Peter Costello, whose political philosophy remains something of a mystery despite his memoirs, Abbott devotes considerable length to discussing Australian conservatism. Like many ideologues, and not just those on the Right, Abbott sees his ideology everywhere. Most people have conservative instincts, he avers. Friedrich von Hayek is revealed as a closet conservative. Social conservatism is fundamentally similar to economic liberalism.

Indeed, conservatism is why western societies have changed so much (yep, I didn’t quite get that bit). By the end of an entire chapter exploring Australian conservatism, it appears to embrace pretty much everything except the activities of trade unions, whom Abbott clearly loathes.

When we finally get onto policy, Abbott finds the footing firmer and going easier. He lacks any sort of overarching economic analysis but his three concerns are defending middle-class welfare, fixing federalism and devolving responsibility for health and education. For Abbott, middle-class welfare is an unmitigated good, and means test the work of the Devil, or at least of the Devil’s Labor helpers. Abbott happily justifies an entire culture of handouts to those who don’t need them because of an obsession with effective marginal tax rates and a desire to allow women to remain at home. Abbott keeps his faith out of the book for the most part, but he can’t help but show just how much he supports John Howard’s view that governments ought to encourage women to drop out of the workforce and have kids.

“Women have fewer children than they would like,” he declares.

Indeed, women only feature in Battlelines as frustrated childbearers looking for more support to stay home and raise children. He does admit the experience of some of his female colleagues has changed his views, and argues that the Howard Government missed an opportunity to establish a paid maternity leave scheme, but undercuts it by arguing that employers should be compelled to pay for it, not government — in effect suggesting that only stay-at-home mothers merit taxpayer support.

Imposing parental leave on employers isn’t the only extravagance in the book. Indeed, Abbott has followed the Howard lead and is a big fan of government expenditure. He variously proposes dropping capital gains tax on new investment, dumping means-testing on the baby bonus and Family Tax Benefit (A), guaranteeing a minimum income level, adding dental care to Medicare and spending an extra $1b on paying teachers, while proposing only the lifting of the pension age to 69 (an excellent idea, albeit one that he says wouldn’t save much money) and eliminating superannuation tax concessions by way of offsets.

It’s on federalism that Abbott makes his most substantial break from Howard, and it’s where he’s strongest, accurately critiquing the current Government’s buy-off-and-bribe “cooperative federalism” and drawing on his own experience in government, particularly in health, to nail the problems of the current funding structure. He proposes a constitutional amendment to give the Commonwealth the power to override the States anywhere it likes — a mechanism he admits might be misused by Commonwealth ideologues — he refers to the Keating Government on IR but omitted the Howard and Rudd Governments using it to override euthanasia and gay union laws. Abbott also wants to devolve as much responsibility for health and education as possible to local communities and boards.

There’s plenty more, but touched on very lightly. Abbott’s comments on foreign policy — including our rise as a regional power and the glories of the Anglosphere — are best treated as excusable embarrassments and ignored. He has a visceral dislike of Kevin Rudd, going to great lengths to bag him on any issue possible, which suggests his self-identified goal of learning from what the Labor opposition did well will be beyond him. There are some errors: I would hope it is not now a given that Paul Kelly devised the idea of “the Australian settlement” when the original idea was actually Gerard Henderson’s in Australian Answers. And Abbott’s brief discussion of the LNP doesn’t actually make any sense.

But whereas Peter Costello failed to give any real insights into either the Government that he was a critical part of or his own take on Australian conservative thought, Abbott does both, and occasionally does it well. It’s a start, though, not a finish: if Abbott wants to rest on his laurels for a while, he should use it as preparation for more and better writing in the future.

Peter Fray

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