Just before Abbott’s fall, I renewed my subscription to The Spectator Australia after a long break. Needless to say the Spectator offers a different take on Australian politics than the major broadsheets. Last Sunday, whilst reading the 17 October issue (I appear to get them in the mail a week late), I found myself disagreeing. And so flowed forth this letter (mini-essay), largely reflecting on Abbott’s Prime Ministership and the magazine’s take on our nation’s debate about Islam and terrorism. I’ll let you know if it actually gets published.
If you’re only interested in Abbott, skip to paragraph three.
Sir: Rebecca Weisser appears object to the introduction of more shades grey in the debate about the role of religious ideas and terrorism. The conversation ought to be a robust one, but the solution offered appears to be naming, shaming and relentless hectoring. Where in the world has this strategy ever worked without force? Even a quick glance at the literature shows that this doesn’t work. If anything it encourages the very behaviour Weisser abhors. For social change to stick it must be slow and the choice made by individuals themselves. This, if nothing else, ought to be the core lesson we have drawn from revolutions over the last 200 years.
Take for example your own magazine, which for weeks has published a stream of angry pieces about Abbott’s fall. Yes, this is a time of anger and grief for many, but the ‘relentless hectoring’ from the media, and even The Australian, has appeared to have done nothing to assuage Spectator columnists’ views. If anything, it appears to have made their views all the stronger.
Yes, Abbott was capable of great decency and service, perhaps more so than any Prime Minister for decades. But he was equally capable of self-serving ruthlessness.
No politician since 1975 has stretched parliamentary conventions to their limits, adding to collapse in public trust in parliament. Abbott stretched other parliamentary conventions too, such as using multiple address-in-replys to speeches by foreign leaders in parliament to run a political attack on the government.
Abbott readily admitted that it was not as grave a crime to mislead the ABC as it was to mislead the parliament, he readily admitted that what he said was not always the gospel truth. His prime ministership was undone, in large part, because he insisted that he had never made promises that he had in fact made. This was all the more remarkable because he destroyed Julia Gillard’s credibility on the grounds of trust.
As a practitioner of negative opposition, no greater example comes to mind. His political instinct was to sacrifice institutions if it served his needs and to shut down discussions and debates in order to make it easier to negatively frame his opponent. Yet, despite his great promise and a clear capacity for complex thinking and advocacy for unpopular ideas amongst his own support base, as Prime Minister, his vision for the future was to lock us in aspic. He took option after option ‘off the table’ and in doing so, impoverished us all.
Abbott was both complex and deeply flawed. That was part of his appeal, or rather, his fascination. But he was not a great Prime Minister.
Conservatives should know their task is to manage change in a manner that preserves traditions and institutions. That is, in fact, the point of the King Cnut story (quoted wrongly in your magazine). Cnut waded into the water to demonstrate that he could not in fact stop the tide. Successful conservatives know this too.