Questions continue to be raised about Tony Abbott’s political position. One leftist critic from his student days said no one knew what Abbott ‘stood for’. Others, including a well-known political commentator, have questioned his conservative credentials. In 2013, I took up the question of Abbott’s political philosophy in a commentary on David Marr’s 2012 fictive piece on Abbott in The Quarterly Essay, for which he won a literary award. I reproduce it here, revised and updated.
The first two sentences in David Marr’s 2012 postmodernist essay on Tony Abbott (Tony Abbott: The Making of a Political Animal) read: ‘Australia doesn’t want Tony Abbott. We never have.’
Postmodernism is all about free-flowing fantasy where the rules of reason (normally understood) are thrown out the window as remnants of rigid oppressive patriarchy. In these two sentences we have a wonderful example. Australia for David Marr is identified with Marr’s class – that superior class made up of fervid homosexual and feminist activists gallantly in the vanguard of the Left’s long march through our institutions. The rest of us are homophobic non-persons who, if justice prevailed, would be put outside the walls.
Later in the same essay we come across this: ‘It can be said [about Tony Abbott] that never in the political annals of this country have so many seen so much of so little [in his Speedos].’ This is a cute thought bubble full of penetrating meaning for the initiated. In Marr’s postmodernist world there is something about the size of the male genitalia that is a measure of something or other.
Much else needs to be said about Marr’s essay, but I will leave that for another time. For my purposes here, which focus on Abbott’s conservative motivations, these two quotations summarise the tracking of Marr’s mind, as representative of his class, and the content of this well-written essay. Indeed, if nothing else can be said about David Marr, he does write well, his style more suited to fiction than cold-fact analysis. For some of us the meticulously conjured drama might be a bit too studied and predictable, but that’s a quibble. His fantasy about Tony Abbott is a superior piece of fictive postmodernist writing.
Indulging in some fake praise of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies for his literary purpose, Marr says that Tony Abbott is not another Menzies, though some may couple him with Menzies. Oh, delusion! You see, Abbott’s the brutal unthinking political animal that will bash his way through the political opposition (‘political Abbott’) to shed that face of his dual personality to become the drooling religious fanatic (‘values Abbott’). God help us then. That was not Menzies, Marr tells us, meaning that conservative Menzies had some redeeming qualities in contrast to Abbott. That is the purpose of the fakery.
If we can escape from the madhouse of the postmodernist mind and engage with reality, Marr is just as ignorant about Menzies’ political philosophy as he is about anyone who subscribes to a Burkean form of conservatism. Menzies’ two autobiographical reflections Afternoon Light and Measure of the Years are replete with Burkean allusions and references, although he does not systematically discuss his conservatism. In Part IV (Problems of Democracy) of his book Speech is of Time, Menzies includes one of Edmund Burke’s clearest statements of the concept of freedom (see below).
This is the difference with Abbott. In his book Battlelines (chapter 3, ‘What’s Right?’) Abbott starts with an explorative discussion of the liberal and conservative strands historically in the Liberal Party and then goes on to discuss the main features of Burkean conservatism. It is an intelligent and philosophically informed discussion. Abbott knows his material. Marr quotes from this book to support his case against Abbott, but it is impossible he has ever read it. I will admit that it is possible he has had the book in his hands and has turned over the pages, but the words on the paper in front of him would not have penetrated the postmodernist fog that is his mind.
Anyone who reads Battlelines attentively should not escape the conclusion that Marr’s concocted distinction between political Abbott and values Abbott has little grounding in fact. A Traditional Catholic and indeed most serious orthodox Catholics would conclude when they came to the end of Battlelines that Abbott is rather a liberal Catholic with little taste for doctrinal distinctions and doctrinal purity – just as Edmund Burke had no time in politics for doctrinal discussions and any sort of Christian sectarianism. Defence of Christian Civilization was primary, but below the defence of Christian Civilization theological discussion like all abstract disquisition belonged to the ‘schools’. There is far more of the cultural Catholic in Abbott, from my observation, than the theologically dogmatic Catholic.
Abbott’s primary motivation in politics is a political philosophy that draws mostly from Burke’s thinking (presupposing the Natural Law), but has reference to other political philosophers. F.A. Hayek, J.S. Mill, Roger Scruton and Michael Oakeshott get important mentions. Abbott’s general political discourse is laced with Burkean allusions and clever aphoristic Burkean quips. These Burkean aphorisms often infuriate the Left leaving them to talk stupidly about slogans. Marr and his class are pathologically blind to the nature and depth of Abbott’s political philosophy.
Even if some on the Left have not consciously chosen postmodernism as their worldview, postmodernism had by the end of the 20th century become the Left’s default philosophical position with Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals their propaganda and campaign manual. Sixty years of Marx, Gramsci, Marcuse, Althusser and company have cascaded into an inescapable pit of lazy narcissistic postmodernism. That alone puts up a wall reaching to the heavens separating them from the philosophical patrimony leading back to Aristotle that Edmund Burke drew on – and thus Tony Abbott.
This brings me to the object of this short comment. On the 4th of April 2013, Tony Abbott gave an address at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) 70th Anniversary Dinner. Well-known political and business identities (including Rupert Murdoch) were present. The theme of Abbott’s address was freedom. This address is a stunning demonstration of what I have claimed above for Abbott. It is an intelligent compact summary of the main elements of a Burkean conservatism that has undergone a personal nuanced reassessment for application to the concrete circumstances of 21st century Australia. The clarity of the address belies its subtle distinctions and the accurate formulation of key Burkean ideas. Abbott has a style of writing that is easily on a par with David Marr’s but unlike David Marr’s goes unacknowledged in the mainstream media, as does Abbott’s considerable intelligence. I recommend the transcription (below) to the reader to judge for himself. Here I want to bring out the major Burkean ideas in the address. Let me preface this with one of Edmund Burke’s clearest statements on true political freedom, the quotation that Menzes included in Speech is of Time:
But the liberty, the only liberty I mean, is a liberty connected with order, and that not only exists with order and virtue, but cannot exist at all without them. It inheres in good and steady government, as in its substance and vital principle. (An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, 1791)
There can be no true political freedom without a social order that has developed and coalesced under the supervision of the natural moral law. One cannot be a Burkean conservative without understanding and adhering to this idea of freedom.
Tony Abbott on: The importance of protecting our enduring civilisation and its Christian foundation:
We celebrate things that are timeless – the freedom that our civilisation has nurtured and the faith that has nurtured our civilisation. In celebrating the IPA, we celebrate its calling which is to support and sustain the public culture which has shaped our country and influenced so well the wider world.
Tony Abbott on: The importance of long established law:
Freedom, ladies and gentlemen, is what we yearn for but it can only exist within a framework of law so that every person’s freedom is consistent with the same freedom for everyone else… Not for the IPA, a single-minded dogmatism or opposition to all restraint; rather a sophisticated appreciation that freedom requires a social context and that much is expected from those to whom so much has been given. You’ve understood that freedom is both an end and a means; a good in itself, as well as necessary for full human flourishing.
Tony Abbott on: Against an extreme Millian idea of freedom:
The IPA, I want to say, has been freedom’s discerning friend. It has supported capitalism, but capitalism with a conscience. Not for the IPA, a single-minded dogmatism or opposition to all restraint; rather a sophisticated appreciation that freedom requires a social context and that much is expected from those to whom so much has been given. You’ve understood that freedom is both an end and a means; a good in itself, as well as necessary for full human flourishing.
Tony Abbott on: The suppression of the treasures of Western Civilisation:
There is a new version of the great Australian silence – this time about the Western canon, the literature, the poetry, the music, the history and above all the faith without which our culture and our civilisation are unimaginable.
Tony Abbott on: Christendom’s unceasing message of charity:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the foundation of our justice. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” is the foundation of our mercy. Faith has weakened but not, I’m pleased to say, this high mindedness which faith helped to spawn and which the IPA now helps to protect and to promote.
Tony Abbott on: The superfluousness of a Bill of Rights:
You campaigned against the bill of rights because you understood that a democratic parliament, an incorruptible judiciary and a free press, rather than mere law itself, were the best guarantors of human rights.
Tony Abbott on: The limits of abstract theory:
Experience trumps theory and facts trump speculation.
These quotations from Tony Abbott’s 2012 Address to The Institute of Public Affairs 70th Anniversary Dinner make a joke out of the charge that Abbott is fundamentally driven by Catholic teaching and is out to impose Catholicism on the Australian public. Equally, they make nonsense of claims (even by self-declared conservatives) that Abbott is not a true conservative.
Abbott’s political and moral motivations harmonise in the same sources. There is no struggle between political Abbott and values Abbott. This a politically driven fiction of wilfully ignorant minds.