Captain Catholic or Captain Compromise?

Battlelines by Tony Abbott
Melbourne University Press, June 1st, 2013 (first published in 2009)

Not being good at being relevant, I decided not only to read but also review this book a decade after it was first published. This is after Tony Abbott won the 2013 election, was deposed as Prime Minister in 2015 and most recently; has lost the seat he held since 1994 in the 2019 Federal Election. The decade since this was published has been both cruel and kind. So in a way it is relevant to look at what the man thought before he had the chance to put it into practice. I don’t have any published proof but Tony Abbott was the main leading Liberal I thought best placed to win back government back in 2007 and I was right. Of course, you only have my word for this.

I wrote about Tony Abbott a few years ago and after reading Battlelines, I still stand by what I wrote. As with Cory Bernardi, he is the kind of person I’m inclined to like because of how widely he disliked he is by his political enemies. As I concluded back then, I think he is a good bloke. Battlelines is far more political than personal though and I have taken much issue with the weakness of leading conservative figures and despite Abbott being portrayed as particularly right-wing, he is no less immune to criticism. It will become clear as you read, that this media image of him is far from accurate.

It would be better to start with what I enjoyed because it will only take a paragraph. Tony Abbott must first be commended for having written this book himself. There is no indication Battlelines had a shadow writer, and there is no “with So and So” under his name to be found anywhere on the cover or in the jacket. He also doesn’t make the mistake of turning this into a poorly disguised autobiography. The first chapter is certainly biographical but also mercifully brief and mostly relevant to the following chapters. The only chapter that is really bad is the one which starts out about Kevin Rudd’s idiotic 2020 Summit but ends up being a pot potpourri of brief thoughts on political issues tangentially related. Apart from that, Abbott writes about issues he felt were relevant at the time and gives a fair idea of what he would have done (some of which he subsequently did), had his political fortunes faired better.

The most radical of his proposals was to give more power to the Federal government to manage areas such as health and education which were constitutionally and traditionally left up to the states. As he points out; federal funding is already effectively huge in these two areas only without much resulting control over them. And as far as the average Australian is concerned, these areas are already assumed to be the domain of the federal government anyway. My preference for subsidiarity had me wincing at this -even with the suggestion that the government would fund but have boards run schools and hospitals locally. Had this come about, my assumption would be it wouldn’t last but a short period of time into the next Labor term. There is even a draft of an amendment to the constitution printed at the end related which should make it clear that this was the one he was most passionate about implementing.

As a book about his political vision and the future of the Coalition, it is now largely irrelevant so much like his final chapter, I merely want to cover a few things that jumped out at me during my reading.

First are two predictions:

Come 2020, I’m confident that Australia will still have one of the world’s strongest economies because the current yearning for magic-pudding economics will turn out to be short-lived. The United States will remain the world’s strongest country by far, and our partnership with America will still be the foundation of our security. We will still be a ‘crowned republic’ because we will have concluded (perhaps reluctantly) that it’s actually the least imperfect system of government.

One could quibble about US power but unless something drastic happens in the next six months (as of writing), this will have been more accurate than not.

Rudd lacks close friends or staunch allies to rely on when his popularity finally fades. He could soon find himself under pressure from his ambitious deputy, who seems more authentic, even to people who mistrust her hard-left antecedents and question what kind of prime minister she would make.

I’m sure that Abbott was particularly chuffed at how accurate these two sentences turned out to be – just a year after publication. It is often forgotten now that Gillard and Abbott used to get along very well on morning television much like Kevin Rudd and Joe Hockey did. He knew what she was like and how to fight her which is probably what made the 2010 election so close.

Now we come to my purpose in reviewing this:

I’m comfortable on the Liberal Party’s more conservative wing because conservatism is a pragmatic, eclectic creed, above all respectful of what’s stood the test of time.

Trying to keep ‘doctors’ wives’, Howard battlers and Hanson ‘rednecks’ more or less inside the same ‘broad church’ (as Howard called it) or ‘big tent’ (which was Joe Brogden’s phrase) is no easy task when in government, and is even harder when in opposition, but is essential if the Coalition is to win elections.

For conservatives, Johnson says, ‘changes should be brought about in an orderly manner under the rule of law.’

It’s no slight on Howard to observe that he was not a systematic philosopher, because conservatism is not systematic philosophy. Unlike liberalism or socialism, conservatism does not start with an idea and construct a huge superstructure based on one insight or preference.

These should highlight how empty and cynical conservative thought really is. As the three quotes above make clear; it doesn’t really stand for anything. Abbott like most prominent conservatives isn’t able to quote many thinkers outside of the usual Burke, Johnson etc. As Vox Day has said: conservatism is just a posture.

Also notice the implication that people who held the same views as their grandparents are “rednecks” but he still supposes the Liberals deserve their vote. I will allow that he would clarify this differently were he to be called up on it though but it is still an insult to people that his party would be lost without.

This next quote is very personal to me but also makes hay of the supposed “progress” we’ve made:

In 1960, said Maley, a single-income family comprising a couple and tree dependent children on 150 per cent of average weekly earnings, ‘after deductions and child allowances, paid no income tax and a had a final disposable income 3 per cent above its earned income.’ A comparable family in 2001, though, lost about 20 per cent of its earned income after taxation and family payments had been taken into account. Such a family, said Maley, was 23 per cent or nearly $14,000 a year worse off than its 1960 counterpart.

The Coalition is supposedly the pro-family party which it only really is now by default. Yet, despite quoting this and still more statistics showing high divorce, lower birth-rates etc. Abbott still encourage women in the workforce—even making a maternity leave scheme a major part of his political platform. There is the obvious “pragmatism” at play here to end some of those complaints about his “women problem” but it is amazing to me that people could ever have considered him right-wing.

As a journalist in the 1980s, I had attacked multiculturalism for eroding Australia’s distinctive identity. In fact, along with other contemporary critics, I had made the mistake of underestimating the gravitational pull of the Australian way of life. I was too defensive about Western values that have turned out to have near-universal appeal. Migrants from non-European backgrounds have taken to Australia as enthusiastically as their forebears from the British Isles.

I think I like the 1980s Tony Abbott better. I would put this down as the reason he is considered right-wing but given that even political journalists twice my ages can’t think beyond a few election cycles—I doubt it. I have gone over before how useless this magic dirt nonsense is. What is worse though is that he feels the need to apologise for what he believed. This is a book that will mostly only be mined for dirt by political journalists or praised (whether read or not), by Liberal true believers. Bringing it up at all would probably only result in the normally lazy political hacks going and looking up what he wrote in those old columns. It won’t win him any friends whether he is being genuine or not.

Now let’s have a look at how much of a ‘Captain Catholic’ he really is:

The fact that the divorce rate has increased from about 10 per cent to about 40 per cent in the past two generations is not really surprising. Nor is the fact that people frequently live together before making a formal commitment to each other. It reflects the social changes of the past century much more than it signifies a collapse of moral standards. Young people reach sexual maturity earlier but leave school much later and often spend years in higher or further education. It takes time to establish the independent households that most newly married people now expect.

A hundred years ago, most people married their first love at about twenty. These days, people typically marry their third or fourth love at about thirty and live to be about eighty. It’s not realistic to expect most young adults in the hyper-sexualised age to live chastely for many years outside marriage. Even if people’s expectations of their partners and spouses were much less high, longer lives would tend to mean more potential exposure to the rocks on which marriages often founder. People have not so much abandoned traditional mores as found that the old standards don’t so readily fit the circumstances of their lives.

These two paragraphs alone are in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Catholic Church. They may be something that many poorly catechised Catholics believe but that doesn’t do much to absolve Abbott who was once training for the priesthood. He shares quite frankly at the beginning of the book his failure to live up to church teachings in this area—as everyone does. I have admitted myself that I’m no better and possibly worse. It is easy to be chaste when you’re not being chased by women. It’s easy to moralise when you don’t have to answer for it. I get it. But failures (as Abbott would no doubt think in other arenas), are no reason to give up altogether. Should a father tell his son not to try for the national cricket team because he failed to get drafted when he was 17? If you make it about sport, we all no the answer and thankfully the same applies to Catholicism. We can fail as long as we don’t give up and giving up is the real problem.

Further, it is worth wondering why someone who would endorse men and women out of wedlock should be against homosexuals getting married? If you compromise on fornication and adultery then there is no reason not to compromise on sodomy. Effectively you’re just adding one more sin to the ones you’ve already at least tacitly approved. This is why the conservative arguments, however well stated simply fell flat at the time and still do now.

This is why we now have a prime minister who wont even admit to being against homogamy. A little over a decade ago we had an openly lukewarm Anglican who had no trouble at all saying so. This is proof of the observation that conservatism is just what liberalism was ten, five or even three years ago.

Here is Tony Abbott apologising for the very reputation that made him appealing to people who are actually right-wing:

…a reputation for being strident doesn’t necessarily dissipate with time. In particular, there was my colleagues’ judgement that I was ‘too Catholic’ on some sensitive issues. In some ways, this was an odd perception. A somewhat chequered past meant that I could never be sanctimonious about personal behaviour. How could I be judgmental about others, given my own failures to live up to ideals of good conduct.

The subsequent parliamentary debate over the abortion drug RU486 exposed a post-Christian parliament’s reservations about the suitability of Catholics for certain jobs. It also revealed a consensus, even among MPs, that Australian’s abortion rate was far too high. I had never supported any move to re-criminalise abortion, because that would have stigmatised millions of Australian women who had taken what they thought was the ‘least worst’ option in a difficult situation.

I believe that Abbott genuinely feels constrained by his past mistakes and I can definitely relate to this. Nonetheless, he has chosen to be pursue high office and claims to be a Catholic. He would well know the saying about serving two masters and that it is untenable.

As I indicated above, I would argue that this reputation as someone who is forthright is what got him elected and the reality of his not being this in reality played a big part in his undoing. Leaders can actually bring a lot of people along if they state what they believe and stick to it. He could have addressed his past simply by stating that he has made mistakes — like many — but that doesn’t change what is right and wrong. The only people he is really addressing is the above passages are people that do not care what he says. They’re going to think the same regardless of how he prostrates himself. They still won’t say nice things about him let alone change their votes.

All this does is dishearten the base for (perhaps), some of the ‘doctors’ wives’ votes he mentioned before. And in the end it was almost certainly these kind of people that saw him turfed in a safe seat despite the Coalition retaining power nationally this year.

Once again, I don’t think Tony Abbott is a bad guy. I think he’s a good bloke and I’m sure I’d enjoy having a beer with him. But he is also a case study in why conservatism has failed and how little one gains from compromising on vital issues. He also shows that the media labels for right-leaning politicians are a joke. How many pejoratives would they have to put in front of “right-wing” for someone who actually was?

It probably goes without saying that this book is not one I recommend. It was relevant at the time of publication right up until Malcolm Turnbull gave him the traditional Australian booting. It will only be relevant to people studying the period after John Howard’s election loss. Hopefully someone in the future will use it as evidence when writing about why conservatism failed to conserve anything.

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