Going against the grain isn’t easy. For all that’s written about Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, it must be recognised that he went against the grain for the good of the country. Under the last Labor government, over 50,000 people arrived illegally by boat, costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars. According to the ‘Canberra consensus’, this was simply the ‘new normal’ and nothing could be done.
It would be nice if Australia could have an “open arms” immigration policy that made everyone feel good, but political leaders must live in the real world, where boat arrivals beget the tragic chaos of more boats and more drownings. So Abbott went against the grain. He pledged to stop the boats.
Deterrence doesn’t work, thundered the Greens. A pig-headed refusal to accept reality, wrote Michelle Grattan. A policy that risks lives, said Mike Carlton. In the face of this opposition, Abbott delivered. Since the 2013 election, just one boat has arrived. Lives saved, borders secured, order restored.
On climate change, the “consensus” was more of the same. Climate Armageddon was nigh, we were told, so businesses and individuals must cough up billions of dollars.
Abbott took a more measured approach: Yes, we must look after the environment, but shackling the economy in a bid to reduce the world’s temperature by four one-thousandths of a degree would be going a little too far. This in the face of a climate orthodoxy that successfully frightened governments in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland into spending tens of billions of dollars on desalination plants that, to this day, sit idle while dams fill and flood.
So Abbott again went against the grain and promised to scrap the carbon tax. Too difficult to undo, said Labor. Impractical and disruptive, according to the SMH‘s Peter Hartcher. Reckless and disturbing the status quo, said Michelle Grattan.
In the end, the people agreed with Abbott, and the carbon tax was abolished. So, too, the business-killing mining tax, which just about every talking head in Canberra agreed was a great idea — right before the iron ore price crashed.
It has been said that conservatives are often in government, but rarely in power, in part because many centre-right governments simply accept the status quo, failing to reverse bad policy. Tony Abbott not only opposed bad policy, he actually rolled it back, and he did it decisively and quickly in the face of a hostile Senate and an intransigent Labor Party. This is not to say he didn’t have flaws or make mistakes. Deviating from core Liberal values by raising taxes, not keeping to election commitments and not bringing people on the journey of reform were undoubtedly contributing factors in his demise.
Meanwhile, going against the grain on climate change and boat arrivals earned Abbott the abject hatred of the political Left, as did stripping terrorists of their dual-citizenship, challenging the conformist orthodoxy of the ABC and opting for the will of the people to decide on gay marriage. Despite this, much like John Howard before him, the secret of Abbott’s initial success was simple: he addressed the concerns of the silent majority – not the chattering classes – using Liberal principles.
With a change of leader there will be a temptation to downplay, even do away with, the achievements of the Abbott government. This would be a mistake for several reasons.
Firstly and most importantly, conservative policies are not fantasies – they apply in the real world, and they work. The boats have stopped, the taxes have been axed, free trade agreements signed and the budget on track for repair. The country is the better for all that.
Secondly, any shift to the left would be a betrayal of the Liberal base, which is profoundly and unapologetically conservative. They do not get their talking points from Q&A or The Age. They will have no truck with a government delivering a Labor agenda in Liberal clothing.
Thirdly, Liberal electoral success has always come from the centre-right.
Liberal governments do not and should not exist to deliver a policy agenda defined by the chattering classes. We are the party of the aspirationals, the small business owners and the people they employ – the Forgotten People referred to by Robert Menzies – and theirs are the views we should be listening to.
It was disappointing to see this group left out of the recent reform discussions in Canberra. The inclusion of groups like the Australian Taxpayers Alliance in any policy discussions should be a given.
Lastly, as John Howard has always said, the Liberal Party is the custodian of both the conservative and classical liberal traditions — at its best when both are valued and blended. This demands that the party’s new leadership team must now also go against the grain: they must stay true to the base and shirk the platitudes of the chattering classes, delivering policy that works in the real world, not just in the dreams of leftist fantasists. There have been promising signs from the new administration that what is being adopted is a change of tone, rather than a change of direction.
The challenge now is to lift economic growth. This has only ever been done sustainably by lowering taxes, limiting the size of government, removing regulation and empowering entrepreneurs to use their capital to get the country moving. Returning more taxation power to the states and building the competitive federalism of the future should also rank high on the priority list.
In his short tenure, Tony Abbott put in place the foundations for social and economic prosperity. Electoral success depends on keeping the Abbott legacy intact, while building for the future.