Tony Abbott
(Image: AAP/Ben Rushton)

As record numbers of people vote early so they can tune out of a largely lethargic and dispiriting election campaign, it’s noteworthy that Australia’s most famous backbencher Tony Abbott still arouses such strong reactions — negative and positive.

For all the perception of Abbott as a gaffe-prone, onion munching, three-word sloganeer, there is a large section of discourse dedicated to Abbott as a man of ideas and action, who does good work — something even his critics tend to admire about him — in his local community and who has made a huge contribution as a conservative thinker.

An “effective and ‘can do’ minister” 

In David Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott, ‘Political Animal’ — which by no means shies away from criticism — Abbott’s time as health minister is described in terms that contrast with his public image as an inveterate brawler. He’s presented as an open, thoughtful, and relatively assiduous minister, polite and well-liked (if not always completely understood) by bureaucrats and stakeholders. 

‘He wasn’t ruthless,’ said an observer of his time of his time in the portfolio. ‘He didn’t have an appetite for nasties … people find it amazing but he doesn’t seek conflict.’ 

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“He was a godsend to the Howard government,” former Liberal senator Nick Minchin told Crikey. “An incredibly effective and ‘can-do’ minister.” 

Marr’s essay quotes former communications minister Helen Coonan about Abbott’s contributions to the Howard government: 

Right at the end of the discussion he’d say ‘A thought, can I offer a thought, Prime Minister?’ And they were not bad thoughts. He’s somebody who is capable of thinking outside the square. And it was very Jesuitical, of course. I think he was true to his upbringing, his roots, his values.

Personal v political

‘Political Animal’ goes into great depth on the struggle between “politics Abbott” and “value Abbott” — “politics Abbott” knows curtailing abortion rights in Australia isn’t practical, but “values Abbott” can’t help but mention it might be good if it were. 

For all Abbott’s reputation as the “mad monk”, director of policy at the Institute of Public Affairs Gideon Rozner told Crikey that the majority of Abbott’s policy positions as prime minister don’t spring from Catholic social conservatism.

“His personal statements are often conflated with policy positions,” he said. “But broadly, he pushed for centre-right reform.” 

Abbott the conservative thinker

Damien Freeman’s book Abbott’s Right argues that, far from cynical sloganeering, Abbott’s politics are part of a longstanding, distinctly Australian brand of conservative thought following on from Robert Menzies and John Howard. In particular, Freeman casts Abbott as a conservative in the tradition of Edmund Burke.

Freeman cites Abbott’s use of the phrase “intergenerational theft” after becoming prime minister as an example:

He takes the ‘ultimate unfairness’ to be ‘saddling our children and grandchildren with debt so that an irresponsible government will continue buying votes with dollars it doesn’t have’ … It would be difficult to find a more Burkean basis for economic planning. Burke gives us the idea of society as a trust between past, present and future generations.

Freeman told Crikey Abbott’s speech before his first budget as prime minister reveals his considered approach to economics. “He had an understanding that economic policy wasn’t an end in itself, but a means to social policy,” he said.

Nick Minchin is an unusually influential figure on Abbott’s career, leading the rebellion that would deliver Abbott the Liberal party leadership. “[Abbott’s] a convictions politician, he really believes that politics is a calling,” Minchin told Crikey. “He’s not about his ego. People don’t believe this, but when challenged for the leadership, it was honestly solely about the policy, not him. Both he and I begged Malcolm [Turnbull] to change his position.”

“What’s often forgotten is just how intelligent and well-educated he is,” Minchin said. “He’s a Rhodes Scholar, a gifted communicator, and his writing is some of the best in Australian politics. I envy him that.”  

What might have been?

For his supporters, there is a great “what might have been?” surrounding his prime ministership. If he had better messaging, if he’d had a more united party, would he have been a more successful or long serving prime minister?

“In the book Battlegrounds, Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington try to just demolish Abbott, but even they admit that the most successful prime ministers only came into their own in their second term,” Freeman said. “So it’s hard to assess — he was committed to making some tough calls, to doing some real nation-building. But he didn’t get the opportunity.” 

“One thing I would counsel new members of parliament about was that they shouldn’t expect to quickly change everything — it’s a place of incremental change,” Minchin said. “And, of course, Tony is a conservative, like me. We favour gradual and considered change anyway.”  

Rozner said he believed Abbott, had he not been rolled, would have campaigned better than Malcolm Turnbull and won the 2016 election more comfortably, giving himself a reinforced authority. Rozner also points out the lingering influence of Turnbull, the Liberal leader Abbott replaced. 

“If Andrew Peacock had hung around like a bad smell, people might remember John Howard very differently,” Rozner said. “It took a long time for people to really love Howard, he wasn’t always the popular figure he is now.”

His admirers admit there were serious mistakes along the way — particularly “knights and dames” and the formulation of the marriage equality plebiscite. In a piece arguing Warringah and Australia would be worse off if Abbott loses, his old friend and great defender Greg Sheridan quoted Burke’s maxim to the effect that an elected official owes their constituents their best judgement, not their obedience. On this policy Abbott provided neither; his policy was to outsource the decision to the electorate, and then to ignore it by abstaining from the vote. Rozner and Freeman both agree, for different reasons, the plebiscite was a mistake — though Freeman defends it as a political necessity.

What now?

Now, particularly after his admission he would lead the party again “if asked”, the question lingers: if Abbott holds his seat this election, what is his role in the Liberal Party going forward?

“He’s a standard bearer and a great advocate for the conservative end of the Liberal Party, which needs a balance between conservative and moderate thinking,” Minchin says. “So I hope he’s reelected and continues to lead that tradition.” 

Whether a re-elected Abbott could assume such a role, Freeman said, depended on the Liberal Party’s willingness to have a serious conversation about “what kind of party it really is and can be”.

“I don’t know if the party is up for that conversation.” 

Charlie Lewis is reporting from our special Warringah bureau for the length of the election campaign. Follow his coverage here.