Punctuation aficionados will already have noticed the clever ambiguity the apostrophe creates in the title of Damien Freeman’s new book Abbott’s Right: The Conservative tradition from Menzies to Abbott. Is it a possessive apostrophe? And if so, what exactly is Abbott possessing? Is it Australia’s conservative tradition, or at least his version of it? Or is he claiming some unspecified right – to promulgate his beliefs, to say what he thinks, regardless?
Perhaps the apostrophe indicates a contraction – as in “Abbott is right”, meaning correct. The subject, our once and now deposed Tony Abbott, would certainly make the case for all three: that he represents the authentic traditions of Australian conservatism; that it is his right as a backbencher to prosecute his take on these traditions whatever the costs to the government; and that he sincerely believes he is correct. So does the book, which places Abbott in the conservative political tradition fashioned by Menzies, Fraser and Howard. It argues that the Liberal Party needs to return to its conservative roots as a centre right party, and sees Abbott as the champion of that return.
The book dates Australia’s conservative tradition as beginning with the “big-bang” of Menzies’ founding of the Liberal Party in 1944. This is wrong. In so far as there was a “big bang”, it was the Fusion of 1909, when Alfred Deakin’s Protectionist Liberals joined with Joseph Cook’s free traders turned anti-socialists. They presented a united political front to the newly-powerful Labor Party, threatening them both in the parliament and the electorate. It was an uneasy alliance, and the party reformed and disintegrated twice before the mid-1940s. By then, “conservative” had come to mean reactionary or at least reactive, hence Menzies’ determination that the new party be progressive.
The book includes a quick run-through of the thinking of the Liberal Party’s prime ministers since Menzies, together with discussions of the take on Australian political thought of Keith Hancock, Donald Horne and Paul Kelly. Freeman writes well, so the book skips along, but in so doing it elides so many distinctions and ignores so many facts that it is very unsatisfactory. One glaring omission is the failure to distinguish between economic and social policies. When Howard claimed that the Liberal Party was the custodian of both the liberal and the conservative traditions of Australian politics, he was embracing the economic liberalism of the 19th century free traders, while championing socially conservative attitudes to women’s role, marriage and family life, and to traditional British Australian nationalism.
In the second part of the book, titled “More than a three word slogan”, Freeman argues that Abbott’s thinking and policies can be located in a conservative tradition deriving from Edmund Burke. I found this unconvincing. Exactly how Abbott’s claim that the Liberal Party is the party of low tax, small government and economic freedom derives from Burke’s arguments for the advantages of incremental change and respect for the traditions of a nation defeats me, especially given Australia’s strong history of trade unionism.
Again and again, Freeman argues that an Abbott policy has its roots in Burkean conservatism, but it is only ever a claim, made so by saying it. The book ignores completely the influence of Catholic thinking on Abbott, and there is only one index reference to Santamaria. Surely this explains his social conservatism on marriage and the family at least as well as any debt to Burke.
Freeman argues that Abbott’s opposition to an emissions trading scheme and a carbon tax was “Burkean” because the Burkean is cautious about massive change. But presumably “Burkeans” are also cautious about massive risks, not just to the present but to the future generations, which they take as their special responsibility. Why isn’t Abbott’s rejection of a modest carbon price simply a reactionary and irresponsible defence of the power and wealth of the fossil fuel industry which is wreaking havoc in our atmosphere?
Abbott has an afterword, in which he claims that the heart of conservatism is “a trust between the living, the dead and the yet unborn. It is wrong for this generation to live on its children’s credit card”. How can the man who wrote this be so determined to wreck every serious attempt Australian politicians make to reduce our carbon emissions, including in his own party? The book is an attempt to cloak Abbott in a political philosophy. The shrinking band of Abbott’s admirers will no doubt admire the cloak. The rest of us will still see a naked political animal.