Is Tony Abbott moving towards a coherent ‘modern conservatism’?

John Howard said that he supported ‘modern conservatism in social policy’. I argued several years ago that this seemed to amount to more emphasis on facilitating the social institutions conservatives did like – such as supporting families through generous handouts – and less emphasis on prohibiting or penalising things conservatives did not like.

During the Howard years, however, there were anomalies in this approach, which Tony Abbott seems to be moving towards removing.

Earlier in the month, Abbott announced a paid parental leave scheme. While this didn’t go down very well in his party room, I argued that it fits with a ‘modern conservatism’ that recognises that married women work, and that this is a factor in both deciding to have children and in the care of their children. The social science case for giving women six months off to care for and bond with a newborn child is far stronger than the case for longer term income redistribution in favour of families.

Yesterday, though learning from his previous mistake of making major announcements without consulting colleagues, Abbott indicated support for improved legal recognition of gay relationships. As The Age reported:

”I’m in favour of stable, enduring relationships. I’m in favour of people keeping their commitments to people. I would be very sympathetic to some institutional arrangement which encouraged that across the board, rather than in just what might be described as the more common or traditional contexts,” he said. … He was ”very happy to look at” civil unions.

In the Joy FM interview from which this is taken, he puts this in a conservative context (at about the 19 minute mark):

“it is a very conservative position to want to encourage enduring stable relationships. What conservatism needs to do is to apply enduring values to the new reality of our time…[it is] important that we find ways of encouraging those enduring values to the different context of today.”

This is pretty much what, following Andrew Sullivan, I have been arguing for years.

Though it seems counter-intuitive at first, support for gay civil unions and indeed marriage flows logically from the way conservatism has been developing. It is now about encouraging ‘enduring stable relationships’, and it makes no sense to exclude gays from that. The most likely alternatives – promiscuity or miserable sham marriages – hardly seem better from a ‘conservative’ perspective.

On small government grounds, I don’t support new taxes to finance parental leave. But I think Abbott is leading conservatives towards a more coherent version of ‘modern conservatism’.

27 thoughts on “Is Tony Abbott moving towards a coherent ‘modern conservatism’?

  1. Agreed. Finally starting to come around to Abbott. I think we’re at a point where he just might win. Probably more likely, though, he’ll destabilise Rudd to a point where he’ll be replaced by Gillard after a narrow Labor win at the election. Either way I think Australian politics will be better for not having Rudd around.


  2. In one small way, perhaps; in general, no.

    I think you overlook the difficulty Abbott will have in bringing Liberals around to the idea of official recognition of gay relationships. Sure, it might have a Nixon-in-China element of surprise about it, but the people who support Abbott are frightened of losing religious conservatives, however few in number they may be.

    More generally, I have no idea how “modern conservatism” relates to the economy, the environment or other issues affecting more people more directly. I’ve been listening to Tony Abbott for many years and have read much of his written work, and I am none the wiser (nor better informed).

    For example, I don’t know why Indonesia’s President Yudhuyono can state that there is more to the Australia-Indonesia relationship than seaborne refugee movements, only to have Abbott countermand him as though it were a central issue for “modern conservatism”. If Tony Abbott were moving toward a more coherent “modern conservatism” I would expect to find it here, there and everywhere, rather than being notable for its incongruity (and frankly, all the more politically fragile for that).


  3. Andrew – The post was about social policy, where we would expect a distinct ‘conservative’ view; it is not about a whole philosophy of government (which only one opposition has ever had, with unfortunate eventual results). Obviously Abbott’s views are not the general conservative view at this point, but I think these changes are significant because someone in Abbott’s position and with his standing among conservatives can prompt a re-think in a way that other people saying the same thing cannot. They need to find the parental leave money from some other source, but apart from that what Abbott is saying does in fact (in my view) fit neatly with core conservative ideas, even though not all conservatives are yet persuaded of this.

    The events of 2001 gave the refugee issue an unfortunate and lasting prominence on both sides of the debate, which has obscured far more interesting things – a massive multi-ethnic migration program under Howard which met remarkably little opposition from either conservatives or public opinion. I haven’t noticed a lot from Abbott about migration, but even the relative silence is interesting.


  4. I have been a conservative social democrat ever since I lived in the US during the early nineties. Its the only social policy that makes any coherent sense given the way society is going.


  5. Andrew I know that you’d like to believe it to be so. Personally I doubt Abbot’s motives and his sincerity. The 4 Corners profile did nothing to change my perception of him and I’ll wait for actions to be convinced otherwise. I’m sure he’ll be ‘very happy to look at’ civil unions while in opposition, just like he was very happy to look at RU486 while in government.


  6. [Mitch
    March 26th, 2010 11:04
    ………….. Probably more likely, though, he’ll destabilise Rudd to a point where he’ll be replaced by Gillard after a narrow Labor win at the election……….]

    You have to laugh, those that have drunk the cool aid are so delusional.

    You have to give Abbott his due however, he is smart enough to sniff the political wind. It is going to be fun watching political theorists trying to put some sort of coherent structure around his outbursts as we walks his road to Damascus.

    Good luck Andrew.


  7. The welfare state is here to stay.

    Conservatism is about conservation of traditional identity, particularly as expressed in integrated institutional authority.

    Constructivism is about the construction of fashionable identities, as expressed in differentiated individual autonomies.

    You can either have a liberal constructive welfare state, focused on differentiating individual autonomies. Been there done that, it doesnt work. Family breakdown, overload, backlash etc

    Or you can have a corporal conservative welfare state, focused on integrating institutional authority. That works, as Bismark understood and Moynihan implored. Family values.


  8. Andrew, on paid parental leave, what is your instinct for whether this wins more key votes than it loses. Here’s the thing:

    1. some people will say it shows he’s ‘suspect’ and putting forward ‘ill conceived ideas’; but

    2. I’ve been in Adelaide for the last couple of weeks and everybody (well every woman between 30 and 35) I speak to who is not already a die hard voter one way or the other says it is the best thing I’ve heard from a politician for years and big business are just whingeing.

    I think it is conceivable that the two effects may cancel each other out? I’ll be interested to see the next poll or two.

    My guess is that he paid parental leave issue is a real slow burn on both fronts and where he media might look for the decisive move one or the other, he real effect will be seen in campaigning locally in seats where is a high number of families below 40. The problem with Abbott’s policy is that he needs to make the cap much lower than $150K, if he made it $100K or even $75K is the issue of distributive ‘fairness’ would be easier to defend, and the cost would be more containable, hence the levy could be lower, I’d be amazed if they didn’t end up there.


  9. A very interesting article on the failure of the republican party.

    One very interesting paragraph:

    “Disregarding evidence and expertise, we shrugged off warnings of environmental problems. One consequence: In 1988, the elder George Bush beat Michael Dukakis among voters with four-year degrees by 25 points. In 2008, Barack Obama won the BA and BSc vote, the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.”

    This weekend Rudd is probable reading another book or “dealing with matter of state”. Abbott is competing in a Iran man competition. Underlines the problem really.


  10. Charles – I think we need an Iran man competition:)

    Corin – In my view particular policies have a very marginal impact on the total vote in any one election, particularly for the Liberals on ‘Labor’ issues. Howard lavished staggering amounts of money on families, but it delivered him nothing on the Newspoll question about which party is best for families. But I think the sociological-political reality is that the Liberal as much as the Labor constituency is going to want to participate in the state taking over more parental responsibilities, and the Liberals won’t ignore this in policy terms. The point of the post was to look beyond some of the detail that has caused this issue to be problematic for Liberals (costs to employers, support from the enemy feminists) and show how it fits with the way conservative thinking has been evolving.


  11. Charles, I don’t understand your point.

    Surely one of the attractions of Abbott is that he is an ‘all rounder’. He surfs, keeps fit, tends to his spiritual needs, reads widely, writes books, masters his policy detail and gets out to meet people.

    Whereas Kevin reads, goes to church and masters his policy detail, occasionally venturing out to meet people, but only when the cameras are on.

    I think it is much healthier to have a leader who is physically active. I suspect Rudd would be a lot less narky and more pleasant to deal with, and more likely to think through the consequences of his policies, if he had some physical release for his nervous energy. As it is, he is impatient and tense like a coiled spring, primed to snap in an instant.


  12. Jeremy
    I think you concede too much to charles.

    Tony Abbott has been a public intellectual for far longer than Rudd. He has recently written a book, and before that has contributed articles and book reviews to Quandrant and other such journals. I hear he is also involved with a conservative discussion group called the Edmund Burke society. For all of try-hard Rudd’s dogged attempts to swot himself into the Paris Left Bank his sole product has been an overrated essay in The Monthly which could well have been co-written by Andrew Charlton for all we know and a series of technocratic policies with no particular coherence. Abbott is the real deal, an intellectual involved in public and community life who also happens to be physically active.


  13. Jason, I knew libertarians were suckers for a man on horseback, but this is ridiculous.
    Abbott was absent from the debates on economic reform during the 1980s and ’90s. He might preach to the converted occasionally in Quadrant as a profile-raising exercise, and has surrounded himself by people who won’t challenge him too much (unlike Edmund Burke). When he was a shadow minister he offered poorly considered, all-care-no-responsibility suggestions in areas beyond his portfolio which might have impressed some, but was designed to make policy development by any leader other than him look inept.
    I agree that Rudd’s essays aren’t intellectually strong, but they do seem sincere and you can point to congruities between them and actual policy. You show me major policy initiatives put by Abbott since he became leader, and I defy you to find any trace of them in his Quadrant articles, Battlelines or any other output. A politician has no right to be taken at face value intellectually.


  14. The parental leave stuff was in Battlines – Catallaxy has the extract. So was the idea of direct action on climate change (p.170).

    I’d certainly agree that Abbott isn’t a systematic thinker and is not a ‘policy wonk’. But he does have wide-ranging and long-standing interests in ideas. There were a couple of books on the republic debate before Battlelines.


  15. The point is that if Rudd weren’t PM no one would take notice of his essays or solicit his articles. Being a PM is no mean achievement. But he is a late-comer in any claim to being a public intellectual compared to Abbott who has demonstrated a long standing interest in engaging in ideas while still maintaining his other interests. So all these people going on about how Rudd is obviously using hs time better because he must be reading a book instead of participating in an Ironman competition have to contend with a few things
    1) perhaps Abbott manages his time enough that he still finds time to read books
    2) by a rough input-output measure, Rudd’s reading books to producing stuff from things he’s read isn’t actually that good on a lifetime measure compared to Abbott.


  16. While Abbott and Rudd are quite different characters, both are quite active intellectual contributors as far as Australian politicians go. Perhaps they aren’t first rate minds (I think Beazley was of a higher standard), and neither has shown much interest in economics, but both have their passions.

    Rudd was heavily involved in the Asia-literate debate of the 80’s/early 90’s, and has extensive views on regional foreign policy, while Abbott’s spent a long time trying to work out an actually conservative approach, while his party goes economically liberal and his society slowly trades in stability for social mobility and relegates its religion. Abbott’s reluctantly accepted most of the major rhetoric and ideas of a liberal economic approach, but his parental leave scheme shows he see’s it as a way to prosperity, not as an organizing principle for society.

    Both are decent men, though I’d rather meet Abbott. Then again, I’d rather have had a beer with Mark Latham and George Bush Jnr, but their opponents were the better leaders.


  17. Jeremy

    Is there any evidence that Rudd “reads?” He strikes me as not being particularly intellectual at all. In fact, quite possibly anti-intellectual.


  18. I hadn’t thought of that, Peter. I just assumed that he would have done.

    He certainly isn’t much of a thinker.

    I thought of another reason today, while chatting to a friend, why it is a great thing for Abbott to be out and about, rather than chained to the desk, a la Rudd. It means that whenever he has a bad idea, there aren’t thousands of bureaucrats around on hand to do his bidding in an instant.

    Think about it. Rudd has worked ’24-7′ for two-and-a-half years now. The (major) results? A flood of border busters, a budget deep in deficit (despite our being at near full employment), school toilet blocks costing a million dollars each, a seriously crapulent ‘essay’, a broadband network set to cost many billions for no known benefit to anyone, a reignited housing bubble, and grumpy major trading partners from Mumbai through Shanghai to Hokkaido.

    Plus one disillusioned air hostess.

    I think we’d be much better off if Kevin pulled on the togs and spent seven days a week in training.

    Go Kevin – don’t let Tony beat you!!

    Go! Go!!


  19. Peter, if you had in fact liven on this planet you would have observed the Liberals were quite anti-intellectual.

    What is it about people who claim to have high intellectual abilities that they wish their leaders to have them.

    Howard was no intellectual nor was Menzies.

    The only Intellectual that might have been Leader was Doc Evatt.


  20. BBB

    My comment wasn’t intended to be partisan. And yes you are absolutely correct. There are oodles of Liberal pollies who are/were anti-intellectual; complete “boxheads flat out counting past ten” in PJK’s inimitable words.

    My point is nothing more this particular Prime Minister strikes me as completely un/anti-intellectual.

    At least Howard was interested in history and political philosophy.


  21. Peter – I agree Rudd is more smart than an intellectual, though that is often a benefit in politics (at least perception wise). I can’t find the story, but over Christmas Rudd said he was reading a few things including the new max hastings book on Churchill during WW2 (He didn’t reply to the Andrew Leigh study on favourite/current books).

    Likely he is a big reader of history, Most politicians are. Rudd just doesn’t seem to publicize it for too much discussion of what you do in your time off and people may think you lazy.


  22. Andrew

    Yes, I also agree that being an intellectual is not necessary for the job of PM. Naturally, being very smart, knowing a lot of stuff, and plenty of experience – whether academic, professional, or hard knocks – having your ways of thinking pricked, prodded, and sharpened are essential.

    I have a lot of time for the ALP burping and farting “inter-f***ing-lectuals” of old, with their ‘whatever it takes’ attitude. Give me that any day over “steering committees for the equitable and inclusive dialogue with the ‘other'” that is more typical of the modern day ALP intellectual.


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