Tony Abbott’s big government conservatism

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.

17 thoughts on “Tony Abbott’s big government conservatism

  1. I have no doubt that you are right that problem-solving is one of the main reasons why Abbott is a centralist.

    Abbott seems to see centralism as a way to introduce greater contestability in provision of health and education services.
    What I find hard to understand is why he believes that more centralism is necessary to achieve greater contestability.

    A better approach, as I argue in my comment on Abott’s book on my blog, would be for the central government to achieve greater contestability in service provision by giving tax money back to the people to enable them to purchase alternatives to services provided by state governments.

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  2. I haven’t seen Abbot’s book yet, so I can only speculate here, but I wonder if “problem solving” isn’t actually code for something else — e.g. a mistaken view that coercive power is the solution to every problem.

    There is a mentality which seems to be quite common nowadays that the best way to “solve problems” or to “get things done” is to consolidate the stakeholders in any given area into a small number of big, powerful, disciplined hierarchical organizations. No messy time-consuming negotiations with a disparate bunch of players like in the Senate. The small number of people at the top of each organization do a deal, and all the thousands of people lower down each hierarchy just fall obediently into line.

    No doubt this kind of command-and-control arrangement makes life easier for, and so seems to make sense to, individuals who are placed at the top of the pyramid, like Abbot was for so many years. The people lower down generally don’t like to mention just how much waste and inefficiency and sheer stupidity arises in the middle and lower layers of these large organizations, which tend to cause as many problems as they solve, and cause new problems in the course of solving existing ones.

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  3. alanc: I don’t think there is any corporatist ideology behind Abbott’s centralism. Abbott argues that one of the strength of the Howard Government was its pragmatic, problem-solving approach. In the context it is easy to see how he would view the states as being in the road of sensible policy solutions.

    It seems to me that Abbott is still viewing federalism through the lens of his former role as minister in a government that was in office for a long time. It will be unfortunate if the Libs do not use this period in oppostion to take a fresh look at the issues involved.

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  4. Tony Abbott is a conservative authoritarian, pure and simple. Of course he is to going to propose big government solutions.

    “Liberal politicians should write more books”

    Good idea, but who else is capable of writing one, other than memoirs? (And even Peter Costello’s was ghost written by his father-in-law.)

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  5. Disappointed to learn that Abbot is a centralist. He is then, no alternative to what we already have. Centralism does not solve problems, it just takes the proposed solution further away from those effected. Our founding fathers were wise enough break up power into three tiers, local, state and federal, knowing full well that central power will grow and grow to the detriment to the people. Whether it is socialism or ‘conservatism big government” the end result is the same.

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  6. I’m not sure if you’ve blogged on this before Andrew, but why is it, do you think, that more Liberal politicians haven’t write books? Are there any other front-bench figures in particular that you would be interested in seeing policy-focused books from?

    Wouldn’t mind reading Battlelines, though not sure I want to splash out on a book I will likely largely disagree with at this point. 🙂

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  7. Guy – George Brandis is the only one who comes to mind as having an interesting book in him. But the party is a bit of an intellectual wasteland – Peter van Onselen lamented how difficult it was to get senior MPs to even write a chapter for his edited collection on the Party’s future – and presumably a combination of pollies not having enough to say or writing ability, the lack of political credit they are likely to get for it, and the fears of publishers that Liberal books won’t sell all combine to make them rare.

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  8. One obvious candidate for book writing is Queensland Senator Russell Trood, ex foreign policy academic. According to his web site:

    “Russell has written, edited and published over 40 books, book chapters, journal articles and newspaper articles and delivered many conference papers on a wide range of international and foreign policy issues.”

    Its a wonder such an egg head managed to get Liberal Party preselection, and in Queensland of all places.

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  9. Just amazing how far the thinking of most modern Liberal parliamentarians is from the average Australians. Oh well, enough of the deadwood will be eliminated with the next election, and the one after that, and maybe then it’ll be time for a Turnbull or Roskam kind of Liberal to lead the country.

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  10. The deadest of the Liberal deadwood is Wilson Tuckey, a one man petrified forest, who is not only making no positive contribution, he is revelling in making the most negative contribution imaginable to his own party. Yet he isn’t going anywhere. He won’t lose his pre-selection and is in one of the safest seats in the country.

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  11. Mitch – The Australian Election Survey polls both voters and candidates. Though the latter doesn’t always get a good response rate, Liberal candidates have generally been closer to mass opinion that Labor candidates – though obviously it would depend on the questions asked (and I have not seen any analysis of the 2007 election on this point).

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  12. Subsidiarity is a little known principle but leaves as many decisions as possible to the lowest tier of government. That way accountability is maximised and government spending minimised. The weakness of it is in a democratic society with a left wing press that Labor would always win by bringing functions to the federal level with the support of the media and academia and trounce any party that tried to do otherwise. So that with Labor you’d get “Medicare” but with a genuine small government party you would get “user pays”. The election would be a “one horse race”.

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  13. Greg: You seem to imply that the lowest tier of government always involves a greater element of user pays. I don’t think that is right. A lot of local and state government activities are paid for through taxes. It seems to me that centralization and user pays are quite different issues.
    It is also important to distinguish between centralization in payment for services and centralization in provision of services. For example, it would possible for the central government to pay a standard fee for provision of services by hospitals through Medicare, irrespective of whether the service was provided by a public or private hospital. This would promote greater efficiency in service delivery without the perceived political problems in moving to a user pays system.

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  14. Simply being closer to Labor doesn’t make them representative. They’re too old, overly regional and rural compared to Labor, and a significant part of their frontbench is made up of former Ministers from a government the country recently decided it was sick of (which also signals the party is lacking in talent). Dead wood.

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  15. Mitch – I thought you were talking about policies rather than sociological features. Age profile of parties is fairly closely linked to the electoral cycle – changes of government bring in newer and younger MPs. The Rudd government will age as the Howard government did before it. I’m not sure how big a factor this is, but clearly parties need to refresh themselves. I tend to think you are at least partially right on sociology however – some left-field (metaphorically speaking) candidates will be needed to renew interest in the party. This will be more important than policies, which are generally not known by voters anyway.

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