IDEALIST OR JUST ANOTHER POWER HUNGRY POLITICIAN
It was with a mixture of bemusement and contempt that Paul Keating eyed Tony Abbott when the new kid on the bloke enlisted points of order to silence the Prime Minister. From the moment he entered the parliament after a by-election in 1994 Abbott was shameless in his use of standing orders to silence Keating.
‘The mad monk’s at it again,’ my fellow independent, the politically astute Member for North Sydney, Ted Mack, would quip. Ted had a keen eye for the path a member was walking and an uncanny ability to deconstruct the antics. Abbott, he said, was a man on a mission. But is it a mission driven by idealism or is he just another craven politician seduced by the scent of power?
Replete with biblical and religious imagery, and ending with a tribute to the Jesuits and the hero of the divisive Catholic politics of the 1950s, Bob Santamaria, Tony Abbott’s maiden speech might have led many to conclude that he was a devoted idealist. To my eyes his speech read like a miss-mash of self-righteous conservatism of the kind so easily and so often jettisoned in the interest of political pragmatism.
And so I don’t believe for a minute that it’s idealism that has driven him to destroy Malcolm Turnbull. If Abbott was truly and deeply opposed to the current Emissions Trading Scheme why did he support the concept of such a policy before and after the last federal election? In his press conference after defeating Turnbull it hardly appeared that the new leader’s position on the ETS was ideologically driven. His words were those of a man who saw in the ETS the basis of a potential campaign against Labor, a campaign not unlike that waged by Paul Keating against John Hewson and the GST in 1993.
With Turnbull and Joe Hockey committed to the ETS only Abbott was in a position to wage such a campaign. And those in ALP ranks who imagined that Abbott would jump from the blocks, sounding like a global warming denialist must have been disappointed. Whereas Turnbull was talking as if the Liberal Party would be crushed at the polls as a backward party opposing to the science of global warming, Abbott was no such target.
In the eyes of the Australian voter a politician is someone who will say or do anything to get elected. And for all his flirtations with religion and the morality of the right Tony Abbott is still a politician. Sure it might have been better for him to wait until Hockey was scorched by defeat in the federal election planned for next year. But Hockey leadership was predicated on the party accepting Kevin Rudd’s ETS rather than developing its own policy. And accepting such a policy would have denied the Coalition of the means to label Rudd the Hewson of 2009.
Abbott’s coup is clearly high risk. But is it as high risk as embracing the ALP’s ETS and still being crushed at the polls next year? The answer is clearly no. Instead of going to the polls as a shadow of the ALP the Coalition will attempt to seduce the electorate into believing that far from being a weak imitation of Labor and a party lost on climate control it is it’s own master and is prepared to reduce global warming, but only in a way that doesn’t hurt the average punter.
None of this will cut the mustard with rusted on ALP or Greens voters. But these voters were no impediment to John Howard winning a succession of elections. As every analyst knows, the party that wins over that slither of voters occupying the marginal ground wins elections. In 1993 Paul Keating struck fear in the minds of this stratum with his colourful portrayal of the diabolical consequences of John Hewson’s GST, a GST he had once supported. It might have been enough for Australians to vote him back in, but it wasn’t enough to stop the implementation of a GST, nor its ultimate acceptance by Labor. Pragmatism always triumphs in politics.
Tony Abbott well knows that a government which goes to an election advocating an increase in taxation, no matter how well it is travelling in the polls, runs a genuine risk of defeat. It would be a brave, or maybe silly Kevin Rudd who would take such a risk. The problem for Tony Abbott is that once the filibuster has subsided he has to explain just how he’s going to pay for whatever version of an emissions trading scheme he has in mind.
The Leader of the Opposition has come a long way since the days when his points of order made him the court jester of the parliament. But strip away the myths about idealism and I reckon you’ll find a bloke who’s as pragmatic now as he was then. And wasn’t pragmatism the greatest weapon his hero John Howard wielded when the smell of an election was in the air?