“The politics of imperfection”

 

Behind the contrived fluoro-jacketed appearances at workplaces, behind the simplistic sloganeering, is someone with a far more considered view of the world than his critics suppose. Abbott is comprehensible, but only on his own terms. You don’t have to like those terms, but it is possible to grasp them, to get some sense of how Abbott thinks about politics, and why his critics are destined to maintain their visceral rage towards him.

In the latest Monthly, Waleed Aly takes a nuanced look at Tony Abbott. It complements David Marr’s Quarterly Essay, “Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott”, from late last year.

Abbott drives a lot of people barmy, me included at times. His negativity, relentlessness and sheer chutzpah since taking over the top job have not been pretty. Although it must be admitted, to date at least, they’ve been effective.

In any event, you’d be a fool to underestimate him. His intelligence and fluency with language shone through the writings quoted in Marr’s essay. Equally, he mostly got good marks from staffers and bureaucrats at departments he presided over as Minister.

Aly sees a clear distinction between Abbott’s personal beliefs and his political pragmatism:

He accepts the idea that conservatives have no business trying to create a world that realises their own moral vision: “Unlike liberalism or socialism, conservatism does not start with an idea and construct a huge superstructure based on one insight or preference,” he writes, adding elsewhere that “ideologues want to impose their values on others. Pragmatists want to solve others’ problems as long as the cure is not worse than the disease.” He puts himself very much in the latter category.

This kind of conservatism is much misunderstood today. The word has been hijacked by neocons, the religious right and the rest of the grabbag of malcontents manning one side of the culture wars we’ve been plagued by in recent decades. Old-fashioned conservatism of the sort that Aly suggests Abbott believes in and follows is a very different animal:

Any serious conservative understands that there is a world of difference between private morality and public policy. It embraces axiomatically what Anthony Quinton dubbed “the politics of imperfection”: this idea that social norms should not be bent to the will of some overarching moralism. The great British conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called it a “mood of indifference”, which requires the conservative “to rein in one’s own beliefs and desires, to acknowledge the current shape of things, to feel the balance of things in one’s hand, to tolerate what is abominable, to distinguish between crime and sin”.
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Let’s hope Aly’s take is roughly right and that Abbott’s performance in opposition will prove to have been a lousy indicator of what we can expect if he ends up on the government benches.

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From Conversations at Stanley Park

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Steve from Brisbane
8 years ago

The problem I see with Abbott is that he has become a complete barbed wire fence straddling policy opportunist – mostly done to endear himself to the ideologues who have infected the Right – and this comes at the cost of pragmatism.

The best illustration of this is, of course, his climate change stance moving from “let’s just get this over with” (pretty clearly, it is a matter he has no great personal interest in) to “this ETS must be opposed, and I’ll swing in to the leadership on this” to “let’s say we will match the same target, but with a policy no economist in the land thinks makes sense, but I can sell it as different and cheaper”.

This is the opposite of pragmatism.

He has similarly caved in the last couple of days on the local government referendum: Abbott personally believes this is a pragmatic thing to do, but he’s done the old fence straddle again to keep the “small government/IPA/this is a Labor takeover” wing of his party happy. And tough luck for Barnaby.

This is the opposite of pragmatism.

The third example – his parental leave plan. In this case, he’s not trying to keep the Tea Party lite side of his party happy, but as Greg Jericho showed today in his excellent look at why the Productivity Commission and Labor did what it did in limiting parental leave – Abbott is still not displaying pragmatism. (He’s just trying to out do Labor in one area of government generosity. He’s impressing no one.)

A fourth example: his playing footsy with Gina regarding North Australia development. Not pragmatic.

I do consider Howard for the most part to have been a pragmatic politician who shot straight from the hip most of the time. Abbott’s performance since taking the leadership does not give me the same feeling, at all.

As for his personal beliefs not interfering with policy, the big issue everyone thinks about is abortion, but one presumes that (as before) there may be enough women in the Coalition to interfere with any plans he may be tempted to follow. (And the most that could happen, I think everyone acknowledges, would be Madigan forcing a deal to restrict funding in some cases. He was already talking about doing so earlier this year – it was entirely appropriate that Gillard raise it as an issue, given the history of the deals the Coalition cut with Harradine.)

Patrick
Patrick
8 years ago

I agree with Waleed Aly’s take, that’s been pretty much always my take on him

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
8 years ago

I’ve always admired the way Abbott speaks. That’s because I think conservatism – in the sense you’ve used it Ingolf is a profound political approach (as Oakeshott would have it, it’s not really a political philosophy like liberalism or socialism). For the avoidance of misunderstanding, I also admire the other great modern traditions of liberalism and social democracy as outlined here.

Conservatism is also remarkably underrepresented in Australian politics where Burkean conservatism hasn’t held much sway even as those who have called themselves ‘conservatives’ have been in power. This is in contrast to the UK where there are proud conservatives giving a good, principled account of themselves.

So I’ve liked the way Abbott speaks especially given the underrepresentation of genuine conservatism in Australian politics. I am also quite relaxed about how ‘negative’ he’s been. He’s a politician and he’s trying to win. And the appalling state of our media means that that’s more or less what he has to do in Opposition to prosper. He’s not done anything noticeably less ethical than other political leaders in achieving his aims. In today’s world it’s hard to judge politicians until you can observe what they do in government. In Opposition they have to carry on like pork chops to get noticed and they get no points for being reasonable.

The one thing that gives me pause is that I wonder if Abbott is really serious. If you’re a conservative and then people ask you if you saw Cardinal Pell on Tuesday arvo and you say ‘no’ and then it turns out you have, that shows a kind of frivolity about important matters that makes a particularly ill fit with professed (Burkean) conservatism. Ditto if you give people a “cast iron guarantee” and then it’s whisked away from the voters once you get back in and then you say – in your own defence no less – that you considered resigning. Well that doesn’t sound like a very serious conservative.

Still his discipline in Opposition has been impressive. I like it when people show a certain kind of determination, including a determination to master their own foibles. Bob Hawke showed it on his way to becoming the best PM in my lifetime. He gave us the best years of his life before retiring from Parliament and becoming a tippler once again. Keating, for all his talent lacked that kind of discipline. Since it’s so difficult to predict whether someone will be a good PM or not, I’m just hoping that if he has the chance he manages to show us something worthy of his effort in getting there.

Steve from Brisbane
8 years ago

NIcholas, in your list of “is he serious” matters [which I assume is a nice way of saying “has he displayed too much dishonesty in the past to be trusted now”], you didn’t mention his dishonesty in the 4 Corners interview re his role in the Hanson court action funding; latter sought to be excused as technically not a lie, although agreed as deceptive, and with a final “you should expect politicians to be this way to the media anyway” flourish as well.

Look, at the time, I saw him as doing the dirty work in this respect for the Howard government, and I think many people have a grudging admiration for how the parties’ “whatever it takes” operators plough through the ethical questions and (often) get away with it.

But when he’s the alternative Prime Minister – I think it does rightly taint his credibility for that position. As I have argued, I also think he’s basically been promoted beyond his level of competence in terms of policy formation.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
8 years ago

Steve, you are misreading me. My words are genuine, not a nice way of saying something that you would say. I think your views are naïve. I guess it’s a legitimate question to ask how honest a politician is, but dishonesty, if not literal lies, is baked into the fabric of politics. If you’re asked if you agree with the position of your party, you don’t last long if you indulge yourself by telling the truth. You say you agree, even if you’ve just been arguing black and blue against the position you now publicly support. It would be nice if you could say “I don’t agree with that decision, but it’s a majority decision of my party and I support it as such”, but the media won’t let you.

I’ve watched some of the most trusted politicians in the country lie barefaced. So I wouldn’t be wanting too simple minded a view about honesty in assessing a politician.

steve from brisbane
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Nicholas, I don’t think I am naive on political dishonesty at all, and basically accept what you say that there is always some of it baked into politics.

God knows, there is one area where you can safely assume dishonestly rules, and that’s in the matter of what contenders and their supporters will say in the run up to a leader being replaced. In fact, this point is so obvious, and has been the subject of so many examples over the decades that you really wonder why journalists or interviewers bother asking the questions re loyalty to the current leader as often as they do.

I am suggesting, however, that politicians below the level of leader have a bit more scope for dishonesty than the leader does, and a politician with a strong record in it (as I suggest, with one more example than you gave, Abbott does) can fairly expect that to be revisited and held against him or her if they become leader.

Maybe the problem is that I don’t get what you mean when you talk about your two examples showing a possible lack of seriousness on Abbott’s part as a conservative. Well, OK, perhaps I get the first example, regarding his Pell meeting denial, but not the second. To me, they both went to dishonesty, and that’s why I took the tack I did.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
8 years ago
Reply to  Ingolf Eide

Sure they do. I rest assured however in my own (and everyone else’s) ignorance. We simply don’t know. I doubt Abbott knows. We’ll have to find out – if he gets in. I certainly won’t be surprised if he turns out to be a dud. One could certainly find lots of evidence that he will be. But then you’d find lots of evidence that Bob Hawke was going to be a dud. And he wasn’t. And there’s evidence that he can change to suit the circumstances (in a good way – I don’t just mean he’s a chameleon.) I think we’ve only really had one PM who’s mastered the job and turned it strongly to the country’s benefit – and that’s Hawke. All the others have left a lot to be desired. Not saying that that’s such a crime – it’s a hard job. Perhaps Hawke was lucky. But no-one else has done it and Hawke was the one who transformed himself most. One might argue that that was the secret of his success, with all the others not being able to do so – except in fairly small ways. Perhaps Abbott will do that. But I must admit I’m not having much success in convincing myself that he will.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
8 years ago

Waleed Aly has always impressed me on his RN program and now I am more impressed.

In agreement with most of the above I see Abbott as a lightweight Burkean conservative. He is not the sharpest splinter in the woodpile and I expect PM Abbott will not be a one-man band for not only will the women curb any abortion frolic but in general the party seems to have him on a short leash.

So he will have to run a consensus cabinet (Imagine the difference if Turnbull got to be PM.) which would mean that the details of his personality and predilections won’t matter too much.

Patrick
Patrick
8 years ago
Reply to  Mike Pepperday

I wonder if that’s fairly completely backwards?

I don’t think he’d be the smartest guy in the party, but I think he’s plenty smart enough. I’m not aware of anyone suggesting he’s dumb, except for ideological reasons.

I also suspect he has the party on more of a leash than the party does him. Who exactly in ‘the party’ do you imagine is holding the leash?

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
8 years ago

Who exactly holds Abbott on a leash? I think no one exactly. I see both parties as mysteriously powerful immortals which are bigger than their members. They chew up and spit out leaders as they require. There was an interview this morning on Saturday Extra with Glyn Davis who compared the parties with gangs.
http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2013/07/sea_20130706_0835.mp3

The occasional silly things Abbott has said have struck me as not thinking ahead—so not too smart. Well, Gillard said silly things but she’s as smart as paint so, really, it’s an impression. I see confirmation in the way he has avoided extended live interviews. That would indicate he has some awareness of it which is, well, wise. Either wise in itself or else he is wise enough to listen to advice not to expose himself. I look forward to his debating Rudd but at present can’t imagine he won’t be cut to pieces.

Patrick
Patrick
8 years ago
Reply to  Mike Pepperday

I think you have a fairly strange way of seeing things. I actually think it is reasonably clear that Abbott runs the liberal party at least as much as anyone else, for now.

And do you mean that you imagine that he will be cut to pieces in a debate? He isn’t cut to pieces in Parliament all that often, for example.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
8 years ago

It’s rare that anyone is “cut to pieces” in a debate. Even if they’re done at the broadsheet end of the market with Kezza rather than Ray moderating, they’re so much set pieces that all you have to do is get your lines right “fairer for all Australians” and you go OK. It’s kind of weird/amusing/sad that immediately after the debate the pundits descend and tell you who won based pretty much entirely on the body language.

On the other hand an extended interview can be more difficult. It’s more genuinely adversarial and the interviewer can really trip you up – which is pretty much all they’re trying to do. But even there there’s safety in how formulaic the whole thing is. If you go on and your polls are bad, then the first five minutes will be about your bad polling. If some nit-wit in your back-bench as gone off message, the next five minutes will be on that. So it’s pretty easy to prepare for!

Throughout all this – whether you’re facing an interview or your opponent – woe betide the politician who tries to answer questions put to them rather than getting to their talking points as soon as possible before they pass “Go”.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
8 years ago

Yes I agree with Ingolf. The best politicians have always been able to create at least the simulation of sincerity – of going outside the talking points. But some are pretty genuine, and, so long as their political technique is up to it, it can be a big plus for them. I like and admire Windsor, but a bit like Malcolm T now, as opposed to when he was Leader of the Opposition when life was a lot harder, Windsor’s role as an independent means that that role is easy for him. The one who impresses me is Tanya Plibersek. She’s got impeccable technique – which is to say she virtually never puts a foot wrong – and yet she quite genuinely engages with her audience. I’m surprised people in the party don’t see it, though perhaps she doesn’t have the chutzpah, the aggression to be Leader or at least for the geniuses populating the Caucus to see it easily. I don’t even know if she wants the job, but Julia’s demise bodes ill for her chances of going further should she want to, or be prepared to.

steve from brisbane
8 years ago

Given what’s been said about talking points and naturalness in politicians, I can only assume that the last several months of Abbott clinging to and holding up an alleged compendium of policies at every opportunity would be assessed by everyone here, including Nicholas, as empty PR stunt-ery of the worst kind. As I say, he’s operating beyond his level of competence. Just because a large percent of the public went on an insane bender of personal hatred of Gillard based on fear of carbon pricing, and Abbott ended up the beneficiary of that, doesn’t mean he deserves credit as a successful opposition leader.

Tiny Dancer
Tiny Dancer
8 years ago

Steve, are you getting any chafing from the ankle bracelet?