Special Report

Finally, a Conservative Leader

Tony Abbott is the real thing like no one since Margaret Thatcher.

By 2.6.14

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In the middle of 2013, a French journalist asked me who I thought was today’s outstanding center-right head of government. After a few moments’ thought, I responded: “She died in April. Requiescat in pace.”

Looking around the world, the search for what might be called a full-spectrum conservative government leader was, until recently, a depressing exercise. On many issues, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron seems positively ill-at-ease with most of his own MPs (and certainly grass-roots Tories) who are more-than-a-few clicks to the right of him. Across the Channel, most European center-right governments are pursuing policies best described as marginally-less-social-democratic than those of the left. In Latin America, the picture is equally disheartening, especially after Michele Bachelot’s return to the Chilean presidency, following what some regard as a mediocre performance by the hitherto-governing center-right administration.

Lately, however, there has been a sign of hope. And it comes in the form of Australia’s new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Thus far Abbott has matched his open adherence to distinctly conservative convictions by implementing policies that reflect those principles.

Elected prime minister in September last year, Abbott is in many respects the left’s nightmare come true. For one thing, he’s a practicing Catholic, who, though he doesn’t draw attention to his faith, is generally associated in people’s minds with the Church’s conservative wing. Among other brickbats, that’s earned him (rather sectarian) epithets such as the “mad monk.”

At the same time, Abbott possesses — like his political mentor, Australia’s most successful modern conservative politician, John Howard — the common touch. In private and public, he comes across as rather normal and unpretentious. In Australian politics, that will take you a very, very long way. But Abbott is unique insofar as he combines an ability to communicate with ordinary people with being that rarity among conservative politicians: someone genuinely interested in ideas.

I can’t think of any other contemporary government leader who would quote one of modern conservatism’s leading intellectuals, Roger Scruton, in a speech to the World Economic Forum. A Rhodes Scholar and Oxford graduate, Abbott actually reads serious books, is well acquainted with the writings of conservative luminaries old and new, and somehow managed to find time while being an MP and cabinet minister to contribute articles relatively regularly to serious-minded Australian conservative and free market publications such as Quadrant and Policy. In short, he’s unafraid to bring intellectual steel into the public square.

Even more worryingly for the left, however, Abbott has been willing to buck the “popular” (i.e., lefty) wisdom on many occasions because of his beliefs. In 2009, he became leader of the then-opposition Liberal Party after resigning from the shadow cabinet and leading a parliamentary revolt against a Cameron-like leader who had signed up holus-bolus to the climate change agenda. “Unelectable” was most Australian commentators’ verdict on Abbott. How wrong they were.

Abbott’s willingness to match his ideas with corresponding actions has been very evident of late. On economic policy, his government has moved in the opposite direction of those who favor Dodd-Frank-like behemoth approaches to the financial industry. Instead it’s opted to simplify regulation. As the minister responsible for the reform bluntly pointed out, “no amount of legislation will ever be a guarantee against another Storm Financial.” Indeed it’s often excessive regulation that creates opportunities for financial shenanigans by industry insiders.

Regarding the welfare state, Abbott’s minister for Social Security, Kevin Andrews (another conservative politician-thinker), has announced a major overhaul of a welfare system that was starting to drift in a distinctly European-direction. Predictably the left are up in arms. But so too are those rent-seeking Australian businesses who now find themselves dealing with a government uninterested in subsidizing them. That’s nothing, however, to the fury that greeted Abbott’s disbanding of the climate-change bureaucracy established by the preceding Labor government.

Abbott has also long understood that conservative governments can’t treat cultural issues as the orphans of their policy agenda. He’s never hidden his belief that Western civilization is generally a very good thing — particularly its Anglosphere component. Nor have Abbott’s views on social issues ever won him applause from the left. On these and other subjects, Abbott has stressed he’s never been impressed by the “inevitability” argument that’s invariably trotted out by progressivists as they try to stream-roll their preferred objectives. That suggests Abbott isn’t likely to fall for the trap which John Stuart Mill proposed as the best way to transform conservatives into liberals: i.e., you convince conservatives that a liberal position is actually a conservative view.

The first sign of Abbott’s seriousness about obstructing the left’s long march through the institutions was his government’s appointment of the policy-director of the center-right Institute of Public Affairs to the nation’s Human Rights Commission. This was widely seen as the beginning of an effort to re-balance an organization long criticized as monolithically left-wing. Since then Abbott has indicated that major changes are coming to the ABC: Australia’s government-funded institutional — and ideological — equivalent of the BBC. The left isn’t disguising its nervousness.

Along the same lines, Abbott’s education minister, Christopher Pyne, has initiated a review of the national curriculum implemented by the previous government. A moment’s glance at the curriculum’s treatment of history soon illustrates the extent to which it seeks to downplay Australia’s indisputably Western heritage. In the words of Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell, “Europe, Britain and the United States are mentioned 76 times, while Asia is referred to on more than 200 occasions.” This disparity is odd because although Australia is certainly in Asia, no objective observer could say that Australia is “of” Asia. Moreover, while Australian students learn about “Gaia” and other deep-green fantasies in grade 9, many Australian universities find they need to put the same students through remedial English classes once they begin college.

Then there are Abbott’s initial steps on the international stage. Take, for instance, his recent remarks at Davos. Much of the address was devoted to pushing a strong free trade agenda and insisting that governments should let business do what it does best: promote lasting economic growth. “After all,” Abbott said, “government doesn’t create wealth; people do, when they run profitable businesses.”

In the same speech, however, Abbott made the conservative point that economic prosperity and freedom can’t be sustained in a value-neutral world. Nor did Abbott shy away from relentlessly pressing one of the most important moral arguments for free trade articulated long ago by Adam Smith: that economic freedom, combined with the right institutions, radically reduces poverty faster than any other approach. “No country,” Abbott added, “has ever taxed or subsidized its way to prosperity.”

All in all, the address added up to a solid integration of sound economics with conservative principles. That’s what makes Abbott different from, say, Canada’s Stephen Harper or Spain’s Mariano Rajoy. Abbott happily engages in the indispensable task of moral suasion in favor of conservative positions. What’s more, he’s quite good at it. With his rare combination of plain-speaking and intellectual substance, Abbott makes conservative ideas sound, well, reasonable to the average voter.

Of course no conservative government can do everything. Even Margaret Thatcher couldn’t shrink the state’s share of GDP during her time in office. Australia’s three-year parliamentary terms additionally limit any government’s room for maneuver. Abbott also surely knows that not all his MPs embrace all his views. The Liberal Party has always been an amalgam of Whigs, Tories, classical liberals, social conservatives, free marketers, protectionists, quiet religious believers, equally quiet skeptics, assorted careerists, and unabashed pragmatists.

Yet, like John Howard, Abbott has thus far proved adept at managing those differences. He also appears to grasp that what the conservative historian Maurice Cowling once said of the Tory party applies equally to its Australian equivalent: its business is to win elections. This is important, not just because ideological puritanism sometimes make the perfect the enemy of the good. It also matters because if Abbott’s government can maintain its current course and win elections, Abbott has an outside chance of doing, albeit in a more modest way, for his generation of conservatives across the world what Reagan and Thatcher did for theirs.

For a “mad monk,” that would be no small achievement.

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About the Author
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including Becoming Europe.