It is understandable that members of the Parliamentary Liberal Party are furious with Tony Abbott. But they fail to realise that his behaviour is a manifestation – admittedly a stark one – of traits that are embedded in the Liberal Party.
In Stalin’s Soviet Union anyone uttering the name of a purged comrade put themselves in mortal danger. If a mention of Trotsky or Kondratieff were to slip from one’s lips, the response would be a friendly warning: “Comrade who?” Any repeated indiscretion had dire consequences.
So it is with Turnbull’s response to a journalist’s question about onetime loyal comrade Tony Abbott. “I’m not going to comment on the gentleman you described”.
It’s understandable that Turnbull and his supporters in the Liberal Party’s so-called “moderate” faction would like to see Abbott dispatched to some far-flung gulag. His “call to arms to the forgotten people of our party” may attract some votes that would otherwise leak to One Nation or to Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, but for every vote saved the party would lose many more to Labor and the Greens. Turnbull knows this, the party strategists know this, and more importantly Shorten knows this.
But as any scholar of the Bible or Talmud knows, scapegoating one member of the flock is at best a temporary measure, because the sins borne by the scapegoat are usually the sins of the group. Finding a scapegoat and banishing the unfortunate animal doesn’t purify the remaining faithful.
Abbott is no outsider. In fact he embodies two of the Liberal Party’s defining principles – a solid connection to Australia’s “respectable” social conservatives, and a well-honed fighting spirit to ward off the supposed evil of a Labor Government. Banishing Abbott to the wilderness doesn’t purge these politically dysfunctional attributes from the party.
Abbott is right when he claims to be more representative of party members than the party machine people are. The bitter pre-selection battles in the NSW branch have been centred on the conflict between branch members and the state executive. (Janet Albrechtsens’ portrayal of this struggle reads like a description of the machinations of the Soviet Communist Party in 1936.)
What Abbott and Albrechtsen miss, however, is the tiny size of the party’s membership. Political parties usually keep their membership numbers confidential, but in response to Abbott’s accusation that the party has been haemorrhaging members, the numbers have become public – around 50 000 nationally and 11 000 in NSW.
That’s about one member for every 500 people nationally, or one for every 700 in NSW. At first sight a social researcher may suggest 11 000 is a pretty good sample size, but it has also come out that the median age of NSW members is around 70 years. Those one in 700 are hardly representative of the wider society.
These are people who spent their formative years in a “white” Australia, where people stood up in cinemas for “God Save the Queen”, where the only known homosexuals were in odd places such as ballet troupes. Many of these party members, particularly the women, would have missed out on the tertiary education opportunities that were just opening up in the 1960s. They grew up during the Menzies era, attributing the prosperity of those years to the supposed inherent economic capability of the Liberal Party, rather than to a combination of good economic luck, favourable electoral boundaries and the flow of Communist Party preferences to the Coalition. While some may have fallen on hard times, that cohort includes many who have enjoyed a lifetime of privilege at the expense of following generations.
Labor’s membership base is probably from a similarly narrow demographic, but the party has the advantage of a formal relationship with trade unions. Although union numbers have fallen, there are still about 1.5 million union members (one in 16 Australians). And by definition union members are working and are therefore younger and are likely to be moving in wider circles than retirees.
The difference shows in opinion polls. The table below is taken from the Essential Poll of May 23:
Abbott’s other quality is his fighting spirit. It’s manifest in his negativity, or as Josh Frydenberg says, his “constant critiquing” of the government.
Abbott’s tactics are the tactics of the Liberal Party. It’s a party that stands on a platform – generally implicit but sometimes explicit – of protecting Australia from the evil of a Labor Government, without ever specifying what that evil is, or at most making up wild and unsubstantiated allegations about the horrors of a possible Labor Government. To continue with the Soviet-era analogy, it’s reminiscent of Erich Honecker’s explanation for the Berlin Wall, as a way to protect the good people of East Germany from the supposed economic and social deprivations of West Germany.
This tactic is manifest most strongly in the conservative faction of the Liberal Party. To quote some of their patronising drivel:
“… the worst thing for our country is for Bill Shorten to get in there, to become prime minister and to wreck the economy, to run up debt.” Peter Dutton;
“We are still working to fix the Budget mess that Labor left behind.” Mathias Cormann.
That’s the tone of the criticism Abbott is now aiming at his colleagues. It’s what comes naturally to the party – criticism based on fear and misrepresentation, rather than on reason and evidence. If someone has trained his or her dog to be savage, and it bites its owner, is the dog wholly to blame?
This negative approach is crippling the Coalition, because it results their having to reject perfectly sensible policies – such as a market price on carbon or abolition of tax breaks for housing speculators – on the ground that they are Labor policies.
There is spite and incoherence in Abbott’s attacks. Were they within a coherent political philosophy, proposing some realistic direction for the party, they would make some sense, but the dominant ideas – neoliberalism, small government and social conservatism – that have come to define the party in recent years, are not only incompatible with one another, but they are also increasingly out of touch with the values of most Australians.
Except, of course, to the 11 000 members of the NSW Liberal Party.