Liberal Leadership Aftershocks

The resignation of Nick Minchin last week is a reminder that the aftershocks of the late November leadership mania are still reverberating around the Liberal Party.
It was Nick Minchin’s role in the revolt against Malcolm Turnbull which sparked off the debacle that gave Tony Abbott the leadership. And the two men’s views on climate change are very similar.
But climate change isn’t the only issue in Australian politics.
The near fatal accident of Nick Minchin’s son was the trigger for his resignation.
But right now there is an underlying tension within the party over Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme. And there is some speculation that Minchin, as one of the Party’s most stalwart Dries, was deeply unhappy with the abrupt change in the Coalition’s stance on the issue.
The paid parental leave scheme – funded by a tax levied only on Australia’s most profitable businesses – is anathema to the free marketeers within the party. It’s just not very ‘neo-liberal’.
Indeed, on the day the parental leave policy was announced one senior Liberal told The Australian’s Samantha Maiden, that such a scheme resembles “a typical 1930s socialist impost on big business”. This was before the senior Liberal learnt that it was Abbott who proposed it.
When Abbott said that parental leave would be instituted “over this government’s dead body” he wasn’t speaking for himself, but for the government. Abbott has different views. But opposition to parental leave was the view – still is the view – of much of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party.
So it might seem odd, but Abbott and the leader he overthrew are quite similar.
Like Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott has a firm idea of the direction he wants to take the Liberal Party and the conservative movement. And as Malcolm Turnbull discovered before him, this may not be a direction the party wants to be taken.
The direction Abbott would like to take the Liberal Party is all set out in his book, Battlelines, point by point.
Nevertheless, in November, as the shadow cabinet faced an escalating series of resignations, no-one was pulling Battlelines down off the shelves to fully consider the pros and cons of Abbott’s philosophy of government.
Abbott’s book is a quirky mixture of policy, philosophy and personal chronicle – more fun than Peter Costello’s memoirs, but nowhere near as fun as The Latham Diaries.
It was seen as a curiosity at best.
Nobody in the party room was under any illusions about Abbott’s personal views, but neither did many expect him as leader to pursue each and every policy set out in his manifesto.
The alliance between free marketeers and the conservatives who supported (very un-free market) middle class welfare and family tax benefits was stable under John Howard – he spent his career traversing both the radical dry wing of the Liberal party and its conservative wing.
Certainly, Howard favoured one side more than the other. George Brandis said in his Deakin lecture last year that “For Howard, it was as much a conservative party as a liberal party; indeed, with the passage of time, rather more the former than the latter”.
But having been in the public eye for decades, Liberal free marketeers could still believe that Howard was one of them.
Unlike Howard, Abbott doesn’t want to straddle these two Liberal camps. Abbott, as “keeper of the conservative conscience” within the parliamentary party, sees government’s job to protect society from the bleakness of the market economy.
And instead of letting society flourish independently, as free marketeers would argue, Abbott believes government should actively build society in its preferred image.
As he told The Australian in March:
“You can’t run a decent society without a strong economic base… while I think it is important that the national government promote and develop a strong economy, it’s by no means the only or even, at every point, the main task of government.”
Abbott’s distinctly conservative approach is at odds with the other philosophical objective of the many in the Liberal Party – the primacy of the individual and importance of individual liberty. Launching Battlelines last year, Abbott made this explicit: “Individuals are only realised in a social context”.
So an Abbott government is not likely to be a small government.
If Tony Abbott personifies the conservative social-democrat side of John Howard’s legacy, then Nick Minchin personifies the radical free market side. Certainly, Minchin is big on “family values”, but for free marketeers, family values complement dry economic policies like low taxes and small government. For Abbott, family values trump those policies.
As many others have noted, Abbott’s vision of renewed conservatism with the Liberal Party is informed by fairly deep reading and reflection.
It is not, however, a vision uniformly shared within the party he leads.