As Tony Abbott alienates more and more of his party, his conception of his own role grows ever larger. In a speech yesterday to the smoking ruins of the Western Australian Liberal Party, Abbott cast himself as a truth-teller using his free time to see the bigger picture. “When you don’t have to manage a party, run a country and win an election, it’s easier to see the failings of our political system because it’s no longer all your fault and your responsibility instantly to fix,” he said, in words Malcolm Turnbull must be delighted to hear.
In this guise of itinerant political philosopher, a ronin condemned to wander the Australian polity, the once — and perhaps future — king believes that the disillusion gripping the electorate is because leaders are no longer willing to defend the core values of Western civilisation.
“There are many causes of our present discontents: jobs are less secure; families are less stable; our personal and national security and our personal and national prosperity is less assured. There’s economic disruption. But there’s values disruption too and that’s even more unsettling. Overwhelmingly, our people believe in our country — but it’s hard for them to have faith in politicians when the politicians and those they promote don’t believe in the things they do.”
Not for Tony Abbott the persistent polling, and election results, and surveys, that show the economy, jobs, health and education are the persistent drivers of how Australians vote. No — “values disruption” is their big concern. Bigger than whether they’ll have a job next week, or be able to pay the mortgage, or get their kid to a decent doctor or get a good education.
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Thing is, Abbott and people like him actually believe this. I sat across a TV panel desk from Bronwyn Bishop a few months back and said 18C was a “peripheral issue”. Her eyes blazed. It was not a peripheral issue, she insisted, but a crucial one that Australians were focused on. These people actually think Australians obsess about 18C as much as they do.
All of which leads to another question — where do these values that are being disrupted, to such dismay among voters, come from? As the recipient of an expensive private school, Sydney University and Oxford education, and with, as he says, the free time to cogitate on such matters, Abbott is surely well placed to answer such a question? Alas, the former PM appears to have been out at rugby training while the philosophical basics were being imparted. His take on Western civilisation and its values is a dressed-up version of the comments section of a News Corp article.
For a start, this is plainly about white Western civilisation; indigenous Australians don’t feature at all in it; there is literally no mention of them other than Abbott noting there were indigenous people at the Anzac service he graced with his presence. For a prime minister who, whatever his other faults, took indigenous issues more seriously and devoted more time to them than any of his predecessors, this is disappointing at the very least.
But where do values come from? From God, Abbott thinks. “We are convinced that every human being has God-given equal rights and responsibilities,” he says, speaking on behalf of us all.
There’s been a long philosophical struggle over the derivation of human rights — are they divinely ordained, or an innate aspect of humanity, or just some (inevitably bourgeois) construct? Unsurprisingly, Abbott comes down on the side of God, which unfortunately is the most flawed answer. Since God doesn’t exist or — more to the point for believers — is otherwise unavailable to be consulted on who has what rights, divinely derived rights end up just being a human construct based on whatever people in power think God believes, which tends to be whatever suits people in power best. That’s why for centuries, God was held not to give equal rights, but to give greater rights to monarchs, to give greater rights to clergy, to give greater rights to the wealthy, to Christians, to white people, to heterosexuals, to men. Indeed, even today, it is literally impossible for a serious Christian to believe “that every human being has God-given equal rights” since as a matter of orthodoxy, women and LGBTI people do not have equal rights in Christian churches.
Abbott compounds that inconsistency by going off-piste and declaring that Australians “know that Gospel values are the best way to live”, which must be a worry to women, Jews and non-believers, all of whom are targeted by Jesus in the much-nicer-than-the-Old-Testament Gospels — Jews and non-believers, of course, being damned to an “unquenchable fire”, according to Jesus.
But for Abbott, the most fundamental human right is freedom of speech. Abbott’s authority for this is not God, or the Catholic Church — probably not a good idea to ask an institution responsible for the Inquisition to justify free speech — but Bobby Kennedy, whom he quotes at length. Come to think of it, given Kennedy worked for Joe McCarthy and was responsible, when his brother was president, for a program to murder foreign leaders who didn’t suit the interests of the United States, the sainted RFK is also an unlikely source of authority on free speech.
But here’s the real inconsistency for Abbott and his elevation of free speech to the most fundamental human right. In Australia, there is, literally, no protection for free speech. There’s merely a convoluted and very limited implied protection that was discovered/invented by the High Court. But in the Western tradition, societies protect free speech at a fundamental level. The United States, the polity most clearly influenced by the development of a philosophy of rights in the West, has freedom of speech, via the First Amendment, built into its constitutional structure. The European Union, via the much more recent (1953) European Convention on Human Rights, has also made free speech a basic right. Yet Abbott and the right — as well as many on the left — are adamantly opposed to any embedding of a right to free speech within Australian law via a human rights act or other form of binding legislation that would restrain governments from abridging it.
Like Abbott’s jumbled CliffsNotes understanding of Western values, his vaunted commitment to free speech in inconsistent and poorly founded.