Tony Abbott – much to like, many reasons to doubt

There’s much to like about Tony Abbott. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to who has met him (I’ve known him slightly since my mid-1990s Sydney days) finds him to be engaging and affable. I find his internal struggles to reconcile his Catholicism with his political imperatives and personal desires interesting and even appealing. If other Liberals change their minds because they never believed in anything in the first place, Abbott sometimes seems to change his mind because he believes in too many things, which are competing for his loyalty.

But can things that make him attractive as a person make him successful as a Liberal leader? The pundits are saying he has trouble with women. Kerry O’Brien and Nic Economou both said this on the 7.30 Report tonight, Bernard Keane at Crikey said that he is ‘deeply unpopular with female voters due to his hardline and aggressive Catholicism’. But the evidence for this is thin. – the Newspoll this week in fact found that women voters preferred Abbott over Turnbull. We should not confuse the self-appointed feminist representatives of women with women voters. The Newspoll this week found that Abbott’s support was near identical between male and female voters.

Abbott is not a simple ideological conservative. His centralist views, for example, put him outside the conservative mainstream. In my criticism of his recent book Battlelines, I argued that the problem-solving approach he adopted as a Howard minister and still defends leads to a far larger and more interfering government than most people on the centre-right would prefer. However, this approach does reflect the Australian public’s approach to things. They want problems fixed.

That said, the Catholic conservative elements of Abbott’s political beliefs – on abortion, on euthanasia, on stem cell research and on gay marriage (I think – I can’t actually recall what he has said on the matter) – are at odds with public opinion. On the other hand, these issues rarely come before the federal parliament and some are dealt with by conscience votes. None of them are likely to be election issues in 2010.

Obviously what Abbott most needs is a political strategy that will avoid a wipe-out in next year’s federal election, and that has to include a way of handling the climate change issue. Turnbull’s strategy was to neutralise the issue by doing a deal with the government, assuming that the people passionately opposed to the ETS had nowhere else to go but the Coalition. Abbott’s strategy is to confront the ETS head on, criticising it as a big new tax.

On my reading of the climate change polling, there is political scope for an anti-ETS campaign. The alarmist case has been losing popular support, and a significant minority of Australian households will be substantial losers from the ETS. The others will see a shift in relative prices but receive government handouts to cover the cost; it’s harder to read the politics of that. But while I think there is scope for such a campaign, and believe that the polls would shift further against the ETS if the public was better informed about its implications, I am not at all sure that this will be enough to preserve the Coalition vote at the next election.

The outright ‘denialist’ position would seem to have no prospect at all of achieving majority support, and a significant number of Liberal and swinging voters will continue to want action on climate change. Yesterday’s Nielsen poll had Liberal voters 52-39 in favour of an ETS, and to improve from current low polling figures (though interestingly the last week has not had a dramatic effect on support) the Liberals must attract voters currently supporting Labor. Abbott was tonight talking about various non-ETS ways of reducing carbon emissions, but really there are no easy options.

Even before the mess of the last couple of weeks the 2010 election was clearly going to be lost. The goal has to be avoid such a wipe-out that we have an effective one-party state. NSW is a warning of what can happen when you get to that position. I hope Abbott can pull it off, but for many reasons – some to do with him, but most to do with the state of the party and the difficult issues any leader must face – I’m not at all sure that he can.

33 thoughts on “Tony Abbott – much to like, many reasons to doubt

  1. With respect, the “one party state” meme is simply wrong. Whatever our faults a a nation, we are a sophisticated democracy. Stuff up, you will be punished. Do well you will be rewarded. Rudds government is being rewarded for being cohesive and positive, and for doing OK on the GFC.
    Yes, people are ambivalent about where the ETS thing is going – but not in a way that supports the denialists.
    Abbott, cannot been seen as credible on this issue, however much he attempts to obfuscate, and will be seen in the public mind as a denialist.
    This is a dead end for the party.

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  2. Andrew, what impact do you think Climategate will have on public opinion? Much of the shift in public opinion so far has probably been due to people becoming more aware of the costs of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. If Climategate causes more people to question the claim that human activity is causing catostrophic global warming, that is likely to cause another big shift away from the alarmists position.

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  3. The current problem for the Libs is that Malcolm Turnbull’s ineptitude allowed the government to equate ‘Action on Climate Change’ with ‘ETS’.

    I think Abbott and his colleagues have enough time to sink this myth and develop an alternative, at the same time as attacking the ETS as a monster tax, a la Keating in 1992-93. This might not win them the next election, but it should boost their support with wavering Liberal voters while comforting the base, and give the Libs the space to manouevre for a recovery.

    Haven’t thought much about what Abbott’s ascendency means – mostly because I had never envisaged it! Thanks for your thoughts.

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  4. Tom – I don’t think that analysis make sense. Given a choice (in feminist terms) between someone who is about as progressive as you get in the Liberal Party, with a high-profile wife who is highly successful in her own terms, and Tony Abbott, Catholic conservative with stay at home wife they chose Abbott. Perhaps it was the speedo pics.

    Johno – I’m not sure what effect Climategate will have. You’d have to be paying a far amount of attention to follow it in the MSM. I’d say it supports the impression that the alarmists are pushing their case too far, rather than that there is no problem.

    PJP – The problem when one party has an overwhelming majority is that you can stuff-up and not be punished, because the opposition is not big enough to present a credible alternative government. That’s what happened in NSW, when earlier Coalition wipe-outs left then non-credible at the last election. A Galaxy poll showed that only 30% of NSW citizens wanted to re-elect Labor, but more than 50% voter Labor 2-party preferred. Even now, the worst state government in living memory has about 45% 2-party preferred support because the NSW Opposition is not that impressive. That situation would be far more dangerous at federal level, given that federalism is so gutted that even the worst state government can do only so much damage. I wrote on the this a couple of years ago.

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  5. Despite me not liking his politics, I do find Tony Abbott an interesting person and think he would probably be good around a dinner table. But I think that he comes across as too aggressive – most people don’t seem to like aggressive political leaders. He also seems to be making mistakes already, promising to match Labor’s emissions reduction commitments without making any difficult choices – seems like policy on the run. Still, I don’t think he should be written off as some people on the centre-left seem inclined to do – although Labor is taking him seriously given the attack ad they released just after he became leader.

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  6. ” … with a high-profile wife who is highly successful in her own terms … ”

    Is Malcolm’s wife the same Lucy Turnbull as the one on the CIS’s Board of Directors?

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  7. Johnno, not sure that Abbott is the wooing type. It’s hard to change the habits of a lifetime. I think he realises that he is going to lead his party to the mother of all defeats at the next election and so he might as well stir things up along the way, just for sh*ts and giggles.

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  8. SOTR I think you’re half right. I suspect Abbott knows that the Coalition is in line for a drubbing at the next election. Lord knows that’s why no-one wanted the poisoned chalice of the leadership, even though Turnbull was less popular than Satan.

    However, I don’t think he’s there for hits and giggles. Like everyone except the Turnbullies, he realised that the ETS has nothing to do with anthropogenic global warming and everything to do with creating a massive Labor Party slush fund with which to bribe the electorate in perpetuity. It would keep the Liberals in opposition for years.

    Abbott’s leadership is, I suspect, a kamikaze effort aimed at preventing the ETS from passing into law. Not he, nor anyone else ever expected him to be leader, not least because he is seen as being a couple of standard deviations from the centre. However, he has successfully completed two out of three parts of his mission: stopping the Liberals from acquiescing in their own kneecapping, and stopping the passage of the bills, for now anyway.

    The next part is to prevent the coalition parties from losing an election so badly that the passage of the ETS becomes a fait accompli.

    However I don’t know what part of the plan calls for the budgie smugglers 🙂

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  9. I’m not so sure that the Liberal Party will face a drubbing at the next election. With Tony Abbott they will at least start to fight. I’m looking forward to being pleasantly surprised seeing a lot of commentators being proved wrong again.

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  10. Abbott will revive the Liberals just as much as Nelson and Turnbull were going to when they were elected leader. It happens every time there’s a change of oppositon leader. “Now we’ve shed the baggage of [insert previous leader’s name] we can really take the fight to the government” say the cheerleaders. And so they do, for weeks, sometimes even months. But then reality sets in and the cycle begins anew. Unless governments are really on the nose with the electorate (not on the nose with partisans, but with the mass of voters) then the job of opposition leader is excruciatingly hard. If the opposition are fighting among themselves, it is impossible. If the opposition leader carries baggage and has a big target painted on their back (think Mark Latham) it is ridiculous.

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  11. The alarmist case has been losing popular support

    Err, shouldn’t that read The facts have been losing popular support? Because being a denialist really does put you in opposition to the facts. As they say “the facts have a well known liberal bias”.

    I think Abbot has adopted a clever tactic in pushing nuclear though, piss weak policy as it is. He’s trying to split the government’s supporters in the same way the government split his. It won’t be enough to save him from electoral oblivion though.

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  12. I would have thought a socially conservative, big government centralist would be anathema to you, Andrew.

    There’s no way Abbott will have any credibility on climate change. Greener building standards, carbon sequestration, etc; we’re already doing all these things, and there’s no doubt Labor could match the Libs if they wanted to take these things further.
    As for the harder stuff, like updating the technology in coal plants, there’s already evidence this will add at least as much to energy costs as an ETS. As far as I can tell they’re just delaying on the issue, hoping public opinion will swing dramatically in their favour so they don’t have to deal with it.
    Turnbull will be back.

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  13. DD – do your ‘facts’ include the growing number of climate scientist pointing out the holes in the AGW theory, the global cooling of the past decade or the scandal revealed by the East Anglia University Climatic Research Unit’s emails? Or are they just Inconvenient Truths to be ignored?

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  14. NSW now has a Catholic American as Premier. Can’t wait for the Fairfax media and ABC to dish out the same treatment to her as they have to Tony Abbott over his catholicism 🙂

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  15. Where does this global cooling nonsense come from? The long term upward trend is there for everyone to see. The global average temperature in last decade was warmer than any previous decade. And if you really and completely unscientifically want to point to the hottest year on record (thereby ignoring that global temperatures have more than one cause) that was 2005, not 1998 as often claimed.

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  16. SOTR – The long term trend shows global temperatures increasing from the mid 70s to the late 90s, but since then temperatues have plateaued with a slight downward trend. This pattern is consistent with your observation that temperatures in the last decade were higher than previous decades, and consistent with my claim that there has been global cooling in the past decade. Whether this cooling continues, we will have to wait and see, but the key point is that none of the dodgy IPCC forecasts predicted a decade of constant or falling temperatures.
    As for the point about 2005 or 1998 being the hottest year, we may need to wait a while to verify that one as The Met in the UK have announced that they are re-examining 160 years of temperature data in the wake of Climategate. This will take 3 years to complete.

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  17. The 2005 temperature peak shows in the data compiled by the National Climatic Data Center, a US Government agency. Three years of flat or falling temperatures is not evidence of a break in the upward trend. The same conclusion applies even if you think that 1998 is the peak. Global temperatures have more than one cause and 1998 was an El Nino year. El Ninos make the world warmer, but temporarily, as do other factors, like solar cycles. Long term trends in temperatures are caused by long term forcing factors, of which by far the most important is the greenhouse effect caused by the trapping of carbon dioxide and equivalent gases in the atmosphere. You have to distinguish between long term trends and short term cycles around the trend.

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  18. Actually, the issue at dispute in the science is not
    (1) CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing due to human action
    (2) CO2 causes warming.

    The issues at dispute are things such as
    (3) There are positive feedback effects in the atmosphere which will provide more warming than the CO2 would alone.

    (1) and (2) are pretty clear science. (3) is not, but necessary for the catastrophist case since CO2 alone will only get you about a degree of warming over the next century, not something to worry about. Many so-called “denialists” are actually “lukewarmists”, they accept (1) and (2) but not (3).

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  19. “Many so-called “denialists” are actually “lukewarmists”, they accept (1) and (2) but not (3)”

    In the popular/political debate the denialism is that

    (i) there is no warming. This is the Minchin and Fielding position
    (ii) The increase in CO2 is due to volcanoes not industrial activity. This is the Ian Plimer position.
    (ii) if there is warming, it’s due to natural events like solar cycles (Plimer and others).
    (iii) any observed correlation between CO2 and warming is due to (a) fraud by scientists all over the world (b) grant-grubbing by scientists all over the world (any number of prominent media commentators)

    Michael, can you provide a reference to a lukewarmist?

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  20. Sceptics? Denialists?

    How about being the bastard child of Michael Crichton and Richard Tol.

    ….. the level of expected interference in the the global economy to mitigate doesn’t match the expected gain without mitigation until further science comes in…. that is science which isn’t polluted by political advocacy.

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  21. Andrew reckons no prediction is a fact.

    Well I predict that if large amounts of bacteria are exposed to low concentrations of a new antibiotic that the survivors will be those who happen to have a resistance to the antibiotic. So antibiotic resistance is not a fact and I’ll disregard the advice on the packet to always finish a course of antibiotics once I start it.

    After all, the prediction comes from the theory of evolution by natural selection, which is just a theory and one that is contested by scientists at the Creation Institute in the US. Clearly microbiologists are part of a conspiracy to get more grants and maybe even impose World Government on us by interfering in the market for diseases. Those microbiologists have developed really hard-to-understand mathematical models that “predict” the conditions under which antibiotic resistance happens, and we all know that if I can’t understand it then it can’t be true. And I also hear that some of them in East Anglia were rude about some other microbiologists, not to mention the scientists at the Creation Institute, in their emails.

    Son of the Ratpack is right. There are no lukewarmists, because if you’re rational enough to accept that CO2 is causing warming then you’ll be rational enough to take on board the solid theory, backed by climatologic history, that there are indeed powerful positive feedbacks. True, the timing and strength of those feedbacks is uncertain. That’s exactly why we still have some genuine uncertainty in prediction about the timing and strength of future global warming. That’s very different, though, from saying they *must* be insignificant and betting our futures on that.

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  22. Antibiotic resistance is surely a case in favour of the general point I was making – a prediction based on science and observed past results started to become less reliable as some bugs evolved.

    As I have said many times, my view is that faced with serious people arguing that we face major risks we should do something to reduce them. But as I have also said more than once, I don’t like the tactics of some ‘alarmists’, and I am not surpised that they have generated the backlash we are now observing.

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  23. Andrew

    Surely the point of the bug example is that the prediction (based on the theory of natural selection) has become MORE reliable. Some people did not finish their courses, the surviving bugs were the most resistant and spread in the new environment – exactly as predicted.

    I suspect the backlash is less generated by the alarmists than byt the growing realisation that averting major damage will require very strong action very soon. While there is some exaggeration, this is mostly about timescales – people giving the impression that catastrophe will arrive in only a few years. Those scientists who are willing to comment are saying that, if we don’t do something very quickly, catastrophe will arrive in 100 to 150 years. What discount rate do we apply?

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  24. Peter – Evolutionary theory as I understand it (admittedly my science knowledge is very limited) does not produce strong predictions about how organisms will evolve in future, even if it can predict that they will evolve.

    The antibiotics example also highlights that the more variables not fully under control there are (and climate change theory also assumes humans will behave in certain ways) the harder it is to make accurate predictions.

    While I agree that public opinion is shifting in part because people are more aware of imminent costs, the alarmist witch hunt of right-wing ‘denialists’ (and I cop some of this when I fall short of the required denunciation of sceptics) has helped trigger a tribal response from the right. The blocking of the ETS is a consequence of this.

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  25. Andrew

    In my understanding, evolutionary theory only predicts that survivors – if any – will be adapted in any way open to them. Part of the point is that as evolutionary pathways are strongly conditioned by history, the general theory cannot make predictions about particular cases.

    This is not true of physics. While it is true that the future path of warming is conditional on the human choice on whether to put more CO2 in the air or not, this is about the only factor that counts. Most of the rest follows from the laws of thermodynamics, which are intrinsic to the operation of the universe. In one word, inexorable.

    The exact consequences are hard to map – and so are consequences on timescales shorter than a decade or so. But these are not essential to the overall outcome – once you start warming the deep ocean, it takes decades to centuries to alter the flow-on effects.

    I agree the invective does not help, nor does denunciation. But I can sympathise with the activists more than the deniers – those who sense the hard logic of the predicament are desperate to see a solution, and see the deniers as barring the exits.

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