Tony Abbott’s claim for Liberal Party leadership by way of a book/manifesto is a novel approach for a Liberal, but in the ALP it worked for Mark Latham, albeit briefly.

Collectively the Liberal Party has been big on edited collections about “where we stand” when in Opposition, and to his credit this is what Abbott has attempted to do on his own.

The big problem — and one that has no quick answer — is what does a conservative party do when in opposition to a very conservative Labor Party? It can come up with ideas and risk the government stealing them (as Bob Menzies was prone to do in his long reign), or it can simply wait for Labor to fall over, in which case leadership will count for little.

Abbott has two pressing problems, which his tome will not dispel. One is his polarising effect within the Liberal Party, and the other is his rusted-on attachment to John Howard, who is still very much on the nose if letters to the editor and talkback radio comments about him at the cricket in England are any guide.

The simple fact is that no Liberal has come to the leadership in the way that Abbott is going. Menzies had to create a new party, Holt had simply to wait, Gorton was just lucky and McMahon even luckier. Fraser was there when Labor imploded, Peacock had connections, Hewson was a measure of desperation, Downer was extreme desperation and Howard was just there when it mattered.

As for the hapless Brendan Nelson, he was put there to stop Malcolm Turnbull, and Turnbull became leader mostly because he was not Nelson.

There are not many ideas there, save perhaps for Howard’s Future Directions back in the late 1980s — but it did him little good at the time (and was probably quite irrelevant in his eventual comeback).

The big challenge for Tony Abbott is to convince Australians that the Liberals really are interested in ideas rather than merely scrambling to regain power to again protect the privileges of the rich and further disempower the people who do the real work. That might just be beyond him, especially with WorkChoices not yet having faded entirely from memory.

Dr Norman Abjorensen, a Visiting Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the ANU, is author of ‘Leadership and the Liberal Revival: Bolte, Askin and the Post-war Ascendancy’.

Peter Fray

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