No way to keep the lights on

by Crispin Hull on September 1, 2017

YOU can’t stop progress, the saying goes. But former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has turned that on its head this weekend, arguing that, “You can’t stop regress.” He argues Australia should build a new coal-fired power station to “keep the lights on”.

He also called for the abolition of the Human Rights Commission because it is “a kind of politically-correct thought police” and supported a nuclear-powered submarine which would “strike fear into the hearts of any potential enemy”.

Abbott argues these are all commonsense proposals so they are inevitable.

Wrong. They are neither commonsense nor inevitable.

As the Western Australian Liberal Party holds its conference this weekend at which Abbott and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will attend, Abbott has written in the party’s magazine Contributor with his delusional three policies and will distribute hard copies at the conference.

I say delusional because in arguing for these policies he says that the “challenge is not to fall silent, because a majority that stays silent does not remain a majority.”

But majorities in opinion polls reject coal-fired power stations and support same-sex marriage. I have not seen any polls on a nuclear submarine or abolition of the Human Rights Commission, but my guess is that they would not have majority support.

The delusion is that a majority thinks the same way Abbott does on a range of questions.

He did mention reducing immigration. Immigration has had a fair amount of support in the past, but on this Abbott is striking an increasingly supported position, but not for the dog-whistling reasons he has. (The right deed for the wrong reasons.) To the contrary, people seeking reduced immigration are worried as much about the environment as house prices or being “swamped”.

More delusion. Abbott vowed to remain “as a vocal MP for as long as Liberal-conservative values need a strong advocate.”

But a new coal-fired power station is not a conservative proposition. It is a reactionary one. Much of Abbott’s agenda is reactionary not conservative. It seeks to go back to an earlier world which is no longer sustainable – cheap coal-generated electricity. Conservatives, on the other hand, want to conserve and sustain their societies. To do that you have to move with them, albeit slowly.

The latest Abbott essay is viewed as another swipe at Turnbull. But I don’t think it is primarily so. Abbott wants to fight for the rearguard reactionary program against what Turnbull might do if the pressure from the reactionary wing is off.

In that respect Abbott is lucky, because so many people were wrong about Turnbull. They thought he would push for the things he believes in and move his party to the majority position on a lot of questions. Instead, he has turned out to be the man who wants to be Prime Minister for the sake of being Prime Minister, not someone who wants to be Prime Minister to do something.

It means that Abbott has not had to work very hard to ensure that the nation does not move (at least for now) to where he does not want it to go.

Abbott does not understand “valve” changes – ones in which a change goes through a valve and there is no going back, scream and kick as he might.

Conservatives will agree or even actively promote “valve” changes if they feel there is widespread support for them. That is what conservatives do.

Good examples are the New Zealand National Party and the British Conservative Party legislating for marriage equality and John Howard legislating for strong gun control in defiance of reactionaries who rejected new majority opinion.

Anexample of “valve” change, with attendant legislation, in Australia in the past decade or more, has been the unacceptability of discrimination or being offensive against minorities.

Earlier it was slavery, male-only suffrage, child labour. No-one would argue that these are commonsense therefore inevitable, to use Abbott’s words. Their abolition were valve changes.

Similarly, once Australia becomes a republic, has marriage equality and abolishes Christian prayers at the beginning of parliamentary sessions, there will be no going back. No-one will wake up afterwards and say, “Let’s ask Britain if we can borrow their monarch,” or “Let’s restrict marriage,” or “Let’s have prayers.” The reason is that the previous position was exposed as untenable and seen that way by an increasing number of people until it became the majority position. That is the time conservatives take it on, as they have taken on the Australian national anthem while reactionaries would prefer God Save the Queen.

The previous position was only tenable because it was an unquestioned status quo.

The only exceptions have been Prime Minister’s “captain’s calls”, which rather proves the valve-change rule. The reactionary restoration of Knights and Dames, for example, was made by one captain and did not need (and most certainly would not have got) approval by Cabinet, the party room or the Parliament, let alone the people.

The fact that the madly out-of-tune decision could and was made by just one person without reference to anyone else puts it in a category of its own, where what would normally be a valve decision is reversed. But one-person calls can be just as easily cancelled, and are.

Leaving aside “captain’s picks”, with its hopelessly inappropriate team-sport analogy in a disparate society like ours whose members do not cheer at the same time, Abbott’s conduct invites a brief reflection on Australian leadership.

Active, let’s-get-on-with-it leadership (Gough Whitlam and John Hewson) has its scary moments, but it beats reaction or do-nothing stagnation.

Australia has had far too much do-nothing stagnation. From the vibrant days of the 1993 election when both Keating and Hewson presented direction and vision (whichever one you preferred), we have had quarter of a century of small targets; same-song-sheet; risk-averse leadership with a brief interlude of Howard’s courageous gun control and GST ventures and the Rudd-Swan response to the global financial crisis.

The lack of direction and vision these days means that Hewson is now vying with Kim Beazley as the best Prime Minister we never had. At least he had a program. On social issues he would have progressed rather than dug in and the hard edges of his economic policies would have been rounded out and the most workable been adopted. His publications since joining the Crawford School at ANU show this.

After the GST, the Howard-Costello government lapsed into buying votes on the back of the mining boom and little else. And the Rudd Government abdicated leadership after it dropped its “greatest moral issue of our time” climate-change policy when the Greens allowed perfection to get in the way of the doable and blocked it in the Senate. Since then, leadership has wallowed with few exceptions (like Julia Gilard’s the national disability scheme).

What or who can bring courageous leadership back? Certainly not Tony Abbott and his reactionary slogans and one-liners.
CRISPIN HULL
This article first appeared

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brian O'Donnell 09.03.17 at 10:16 am

Hi Crispin,
You raise a number of interesting issues – and coincidentally I have been giving some thought to one of them lately.
Tony et al are fond of the term “politically correct”, which they like to use pejoratively. They do this in a misapplication of Aristotelian logic.
Their logic goes like this:
Political correctness is bad
Thing X is an example of political correctness.
Therefore, thing X is bad.
As with all syllogisms, the premises need to be carefully assessed to see how they might be flawed. Too much material here for a mere comment. 🙂
Instead, I would just like to suggest that Tony and co should give very careful consideration to the relevant admonition: “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me.”

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