The kind of Liberal Party that Tony Abbott leads became clear in his very first series of interviews.

The conservatives of old have reverted to type; scare tactics will again be the order of the day.

The Emissions Trading Scheme — which he claims to support in principle — is nothing but a big tax; this was repeated over and over, and picked up dutifully this morning by Senator Eric Abetz. (Well, yes it is, in a way, a tax on those who emit — presumably part of Abbott’s constituency). That really signals no rational debate on the issue, and Abbott’s attempt at explaining away his “climate change is crap” remark of just four months ago as a piece of political hyperbole, was not exactly convincing. I am reminded of the chilling word some years back of Liberal Party pollster Mark Textor to an industry gathering when he was explaining how to run a campaign: “Fear beats hope every time.”

Another old Abbott theme was revisited again and again — the fear of “big government” as was an Abbott favourite, the “nanny state”, an invention of a minor British Conservative politician, Iain Macleod, and popularised ad nauseam by Margaret Thatcher. The “nanny state” has been defined as “patronising government: a government that brings in legislation that it considers is in the people’s best interests but that is regarded by some as interfering and patronising”.

The “nanny state” as defined is one that enacts meaningful laws on consumer protection and environmental regulation, not to mention minimum wages and social security safety nets; these are not part of Abbott’s political thinking; they represent “meddling” and “interference with liberty”. This is just laissez-faire under another name, a formula for the strong few to ride roughshod over the weak many.

It really has little currency in Australia where the state has long been regarded as a benign or even benevolent agent, an essential actor in the pursuit of the goal of the “fair go”. Its usage in Australia has been confined essentially to the neo-liberal think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, and Tony Abbott.

Ordinary people have little to fear from a strong government that works for the betterment of the majority, and that in practice is a state with a distributive aim. The only ones who decry this, and preach “small government”, are the wealthy few  —  Abbott’s presumed constituency —  who do not want to see any form of equitable distribution used to fund essential services for the many.

And WorkChoices is back on the agenda. Abbott was adamant he would resist any attempt to return to the days when the unions ran industrial relations — as if they ever did. Abbot, like his mentor John Howard, professes a belief in “individual effort and reward for that effort” but if you think about it, isn’t that what the unions are trying to achieve the same for their members?

New leader, same old Liberals.

(And, as a postscript, if Bob Hawke is any guide, Tony Abbott will become Prime Minister. Casting back to the time after he was deposed by Paul Keating and Alexander Downer took the Liberal leadership from John Hewson, Hawke confidently predicted that Downer would be the next Prime Minister. Asked yesterday what sort of a leader Abbott would make, Hawke replied “a temporary one”.  On that basis, Abbott just might be around for some time.)

Peter Fray

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