Recalling criticisms of Prime Minister Tony Abbott

What contribution did criticism by ‘friends’ make to the political assassination of Tony Abbott? Surely friends’ criticism had to be sound and constructive, and not a help to those treacherous party subversives who wanted Abbott gone no matter what. 

Andrew Bolt opened the first program of the 2015 ‘Bolt Report’ with an interview with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. He prefaced his interview by saying the Tony Abbott was his friend and he regretted having criticised him for breaking promises and awarding a knighthood to Prince Philip. The Prime Minister smiled weakly giving the impression he had doubts about Bolt’s kind of friendship. Who could blame him? For no sooner had Bolt finished his declaration of friendship than he began to pound the prime minister all over again for just those misdemeanours – breaking promises and awarding a knighthood to Prince Philip. But there was a difference this time.

Not only did Bolt subject Abbott to his furious criticism but he did it all the time acting out his frustration, stupefaction, and dismay. That his friend could do something so incredibly stupid was beyond belief. He flicked his head this way and that, wiped his brow, looked to the heavens, shook his head, and gestured appealingly to the prime minister to give a comprehensible explanation of what insidious devil had possessed him to act so insanely.

His friend the prime minister gave the answers he has always given – with a slight hint of weariness. Again, who could blame him? Abbott  said he had made the promises on the basis on one set of circumstances, but when he came to take up the reins of government circumstances were entirely different. The changed circumstances necessitated going back on promises that had been made in a different context. This was the meaning of his reply. The straightforward application of Burkean prudence. Bolt waved the explanation off with an expression of disbelief and frustration, showing he has little or no understanding of Burke’s crucial concept of prudence. Can my friend the prime minister really be serious? But Bolt wasn’t finished yet.

Like a headmaster striving to understand the delinquency of one of his head prefects, Bolt began to question Abbott closely on the thoughts running through his head as he made the decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip. He strained to flesh out the weird thought processes that led such to such a mad episode.  It was embarrassing. Abbott’s leftist enemies would have screamed with joy later as they watched a replay of the unremitting torture.

The effectiveness of Bolt’s criticism and the pleasure exhibited over it by the Left was painfully obvious when the leftist media began quoting him at length to support their frenzied efforts to destroy Abbott and his prime ministership. The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), Bolt’s constant target for its appalling bias, gloried in his attacks on Abbott. They quoted him long and hard. There has hardly been a media performer quoted so approvingly by the ABC than conservative Bolt. Why wouldn’t they, as people totally driven by leftist ideology and without a skerrick of shame? Bolt’s criticism of Abbott had three times the force of the usual ABC hack.

If the combined efforts of the leftist media – with the collusion of Liberal Party ants like dopey Andrew Laming MP – succeeded in bringing down Tony Abbott, then Andrew Bolt can claim a not insignificant role in that success.

The almost complete alignment of Bolt’s criticism of Abbott with the Left’s raised a question. How is it that an effective media player who insists he is politically conservative joined the Left on such a critical issue of policy analysis – the budget and  broken promises?

Bolt has carved a name for himself by ferreting out the shameless double standards, wilful misrepresentations, groundless accusations, and bitter ideological campaigns of the Left, particularly in the media giant Fairfax and the monolithic government funded ABC. This has been to the heartfelt applause of those who don’t have a voice in the public debates, people whose default positions are usually conservative. Bolt has given them a voice. But does this make him conservative in a philosophical sense?

Was he rather displaying some good old fashion Dutch nuchterheid – soberness. The Dutch generally are a sober-minded practical people. The ancestral background may be a strong influence. Although an empirical turn of mind – an eschewing of abstraction – is a foremost characteristic of the conservative mind, Bolt’s abhorrence of leftist bias and hypocrisy does not yet make him conservative in the philosophical sense.

I do not propose to embark on a thoroughgoing examination of Bolt’s conservative credentials, but I do want to take a look at his ferocious criticism of Abbott’s broken promises and the Prince Philip award as an indication of where he stands philosophically.

His criticisms are bald statements. No nuance or refinement in their content. Let me take the promise-breaking. Quite simply, according to Bolt, Abbott committed an obvious blunder in making promises and then breaking them. Look what happened to Labor’s Julia Gillard, he pointed out, when she made an unambiguous pre-election promise and then promptly broke it after the election. Abbott and the Liberal Party hunted Gillard ever after. Bolt reasoned that if Abbott was justified in hunting Gillard, so Abbott’s enemies everywhere would be justified in hunting Abbott. It was an egregious mistake that should never have been committed – and would not have been if Abbott had any sense. This is an understandable sober-minded reaction giving tactics the greatest weight in the political game.

First, Bolt is here employing an analogical argument. An analogical argument is an inductive argument. An inductive argument does not give a necessary conclusion. The strength of an analogical argument depends on the closeness of the sets of circumstances compared. But I would claim that the Gillard and Abbott circumstances of the promise-breaking are so dissimilar as to make the analogical argument weak, so weak as to be negligible.

Gillard gave a critical undertaking not to introduce a carbon tax if she won government. She had to make that promise if she was to win government. The electorate was dead against a carbon tax. She won government and promptly broke the promise in order to secure government with the Greens. It was a cynical political manoeuvre.

Abbott made a series of pre-election promises based on economic data given him by the Rudd government. When the Coalition came into government after the election, Abbot found that the pre-election economic data given by the Rudd Government presented a dramatically different picture from Australia’s actual budgetary position. It was not only a betrayal by the Rudd Labor government who had the grave responsibility of passing on reliable economic information, but it presented a very different set of circumstances from the Gillard circumstances. A comparison of the two sets of circumstance, therefore, would produce a weak analogical argument.

No doubt, a weak analogical argument won’t deter people from using it if it is effective and it seems that many, including members of the Coalition, cannot distinguish a weak analogical argument from a strong one. Both Bolt and the Left profit from the success of the weak analogical argument.

For the Left it is just a question about tactics, but for a conservative it is a failure of reasoning because the analogical argument in this case is directly related to actual circumstances – and not to an abstract comparison. The conservative deals with the concrete. Reasoning in politics is practical reasoning. You cannot be a conservative in the philosophical sense unless you stay connected with real events and real people. Bolt failed as a conservative by not identifying the weakness of his analogical argument in the concrete circumstances.

Of more importance, however, is how one reasons about the dilemma Abbott found himself in. This is where the test of the conservative truly appears. We know that Bolt says Abbott should not have broken his promises. His positions seems not so much a moral one, but one of tactics. The consequences of breaking his promises would be disastrous. On the surface, Bolt would seem to be correct. But I would rather think this a case of self-fulfilling prophecy aided by a massive leftist campaign through the media. That still leaves the question for Bolt of what precisely Abbott should have done about the budgetary situation if he could not adjust his economic undertakings. Bolt was vague about this.

Abbott, as I have said, claimed that the new set of circumstances required adjusting his undertakings if his government were to succeed in reducing Australia’s record level debt and to ensure that the nation did not spend more than it earned. Forecasts from respected economists had warned that if Australia did not curb its spending it would cripple the country for the following generations – like the man who inherited a great estate and then frittered it away to leave nothing for his children and grandchildren.

Edmund Burke, considered by many to be the father of modern conservatism, insisted that policy should always be aimed at achieving the good, rather than the truth. By this he meant politicians should concern themselves with the good of the community – with their happiness and well-being – rather than with abstract propositions about what should be done. Theoretical abstractions had little place in striving for the good of the community because there were many sides to the actual political good that must be taken into consideration in a complex society of people with a particular disposition and particular temperament. The political good to be sought was concrete, complex, practicable, and imperfect, according to Burke. Without going any further into Burke’s ideas about the political good, it was clear from what Abbott had said in the past and what he was doing that his mind was with the political good of his country – and not with abstract questions about tactics or ideological fidelity. But how to arrive at the political good?

Prudence, according to Burke, was the first of all virtues in reasoning about politics. But for Burke prudence has a definite meaning. Prudence, the practical reasoning about political action, was a constant process of sorting the moral and political data in order to construct effective policy – policy that achieves the good for society. This is exactly what Abbott meant when he said that circumstances had changed and changed circumstances called for different policies, even if that meant going back on undertakings made before the election. The political good must take priority.

The application of a Burkean prudence is exactly what Abbott was engaged in. The Abbott Budget which brought a lunar howling from the Left flowed from a Burkean application of prudential judgement. Now a philosophical conservative may debate different elements of the budget, but to dismiss the political process that Abbott followed and to utter a blanket condemnation because of ‘broken promises’ was not to reason like a philosophical conservative. I have also dealt with the question of core and non-core promises here. That article is relevant to this discussion.

To turn now to the Prince Philip award, Bolt expressed unrestrained and unseemly contempt for Abbott over his decision to recognise the Duke of Edinburgh in the new imperial awards. Bolt’s overdone response is mystifying. As others have pointed out, the award had no effect on government and many other countries have given Prince Philip a similar award in recognition of the same services to the community Abbott recognised. But there is an important feature of the award for an Australian conservative that has gone right over Bolt’s head. It has to do with recognising Australia’s historical and cultural links with Great Britain. It is about culture. I have already dealt with this in another article on this website and I need not repeat it here.

Instead of the extraordinary outburst about the award, Bolt, if he was a true philosophical conservative, would have striven to explain the background to the award as a counter to the frenzy of the Left – even if he had some reservations about the timing, or was unconvinced by the explanation. Bolt’s response to the award was not that of a conservative. Quite the contrary, it was more in line with the people who are his sworn enemies.

Gerard Wilson