Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines is part personal memoir, part Howard goverment history, part conservative philosophy, part analysis of current politics. I don’t think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts are interesting enough.
For me, its main value is in being a relatively detailed statement of ‘big government conservatism’, from the perspective of a supporter.
Even coming after the big-spending Howard years, there are several proposals for more spending still, including teacher salaries, dental care, and yet more family spending (I laughed out loud at the sub-heading ‘how families have been forgotten’). Luckily there are also some proposed cuts, from a higher retirement age and to superannuation concessions.
Though there is an ideological element to the family spending idea, Abbott’s plausible claim that the Howard government was a problem-solving government rather than one that was highly ideologically driven also helps explain why government grew under Howard.
All democratic governments must at least try to remedy problems, but the ad hoc nature of policymaking that follows from an ‘unideological’ version of this approach is that governments end up with cumulative, systemic effects that are far less attractive than any of the individual solutions to problems. With demands to ‘do something’, problem solving often ends up requiring extra spending and imposing more bureaucracy and red tape.
This problem-solving approach is one of the main reasons Abbott ends up as a centralist. He sees the states as incompetent and central control the way to improve services, and align political, legal and financial responsibility. I’m not so sure that this is the right approach for a Liberal.
To the extent Labor-owned issues like health and education become federal issues, it makes it harder for the Liberals to win, since these are areas in which Labor is preferred pretty much regardless of their objective performance. The Liberals have a better chance of winning federally to the extent that they can focus on genuinely national issues such as the economy, defence, and immigration.
It’s also less than clear that the federal government would do a better job than the states. While they are good at giving money away, where they have had to manage complex organisations – eg defence – their performance hasn’t been brilliant. (My own experience in higher education policy also reduces my confidence in federal competence).
So I’m not convinced by key Abbott arguments. But I do agree, as he says in his introduction, that Liberal politicians should write more books. This one is an easy read.