Abbott’s siege mentality could work

It’s clear Tony Abbott is putting defence and nationalism ahead of all other conservative concerns. That’s likely to strengthen his support at home, despite its inherent dangers.

Ever since Tony Abbott wrested leadership of the Liberal Party from Malcolm Turnbull in December 2009, there has been speculation and disquiet about what kind of conservatism he would deliver to Australia. In the current dispute with Indonesia, we are starting to find out. 

It is far from clear yet whether the current diplomatic row over Australia's tapping of the phones of President Yudhoyono and many other senior government figures, lead us into a slow, grumpy healing process or into a genuine crisis affecting trade and strategic partnership. 

However, Abbott's response to it is shining a light on his brand of conservatism and where it might lead us. 

Australian conservative traditions have been disproportionately influenced by British traditions – something Abbott's critics forget when they try to cast him as a George W Bush-style 'neocon'. 

In his 2009 book Battlelines, Abbott wrote that "Conservatism starts with an appreciation of what is and what has been and tries to discern the good from patterns of conduct". 

That might surprise few, but it is deeply at odds with developments in the US Republican party in the past decade or so, in which ideology has begun to trump realpolitik – the Tea Party's utopian desire for a tiny, almost non-existent government being this tendancy's most gauche expression. 

Ideology is ruining the Republican Party, and Abbott will be using every fibre of his being to avoid similar break-outs ruining the Liberal/National coalition. 

But leadership isn't just about preventing embarrassing breakouts by unruly backbenchers. The real question is what Abbott is for

All the evidence so far, across a range of policy areas, is that he is for any pragmatic policy response as long as it fits with the core of his highly successful political strategy. To give it a moniker, it's the 'siege mentality'. 

The idea that there are people 'not like us' who, through sheer misguidedness, want to wreck what we have, is central to the Abbott ascendancy. 

Thus, climate science comes from weird boffins who lead cushy lives and get together at global fora to plot ways to maintain their privilege, while harming the prosperity of everyone else. We're under seige. 

In education, it's unrepresentative public servants who are re-writing our proud history, and imposing ideological teaching methods on kids who graduate without functional literacy or numeracy. Besieged from within.

On refugee policy, the seaborne armada has been Abbott's policy focus because it is much easier to see the invading army there than at the airport. Yes, deaths at sea are important to Abbott, but why should "stop the planes" be omitted from the refugee debate? And why aren't Brits or other European over-stayers in the news as much as hapless Somalis and Sri Lankans? One fits the seige mentality, the other does not. 

The rolling crisis of American conservatism that began with the Great Depression is fundamentally different to the Australian situation. However, a look at its three main pillars is instructive in deciphering the Abbott agenda. 

The struggle within the Republican Party over the decades has been to balance out three competing areas: the economic/business lobby that wants to be free to generate wealth; the social/cultural lobby that sees issues such as abortion and gay marriage as paramount; and the defence/nationalist lobby that wants to be the strongest, most patriotic nation on earth. 

Applying that prism to Abbott's actions, it is clear that he has put his own social conservatism on the backburner. Over the years he has come to respect multiculturalism as a positive for Australia. He won't mention abortion unless forced to. Gay marriage is easy for him, as the Labor party is as divided on the issues as the Liberals. And he might have only appointed one woman to his front bench, but he also created a monumentally pragmatic policy on paid parental leave to woo the female vote. 

So what about economics/business? His apparently pro-business agenda should be taken with a pinch of salt. While Abbott has argued that the carbon tax and mining taxes, plus oodles of red tape, are what's holding business back, they have been used as a smoke screen to avoid facing bigger issues – business tax reform, IR reform, competition policy that goes beyond voluntary codes of practice and industry policy that recognises that sustained damaging effects of the high dollar. 

And on the third source of conservative support, the defence/nationalism pillar, it's clear that Abbott is putting it ahead of all else. Restoring defence spending from 1.6 per cent of GDP to 2 per cent within a decade is his biggest commitment. 

You can add to that his decision to launch a military-commander led operation to stop boat arrivals, and his resolve in the past few days to insist on Australia's right to do what is required in the intelligence sphere to protect our interests. 

The Indonesians, meanwhile, have their own nationalists to play to. Recalling their ambassador sends a strong signal to tens of millions of fairly impoverished and poorly educated Indonesians that President Yudhoyono won't be messed around by arrogant, US-affiliated rich kids to the south. 

That is what makes this escalating row so dangerous. Two governments have a political imperative to play to a deeply felt defence/nationalism tendancy in their populations. Both want to rattle the sabre and talk about sovereignty/borders in ways that Angela Merkel and Barack Obama simply don't have to do – Obama quickly apologised to Merkel for tapping her phone. 

By putting the defence/nationalism pillar of conservatism ahead of the economic/business pillar, Abbott is likely to strengthen his support at home. And the only problem with that is that we'll all be the poorer for it. 

Australian conservatism is different. But as Melbourne-based political writer Tim Dunlop rather angrily put it recently, "For all of them, it is more important to raise a middle finger to what they see as their 'enemies' than it is to govern in reality ... Tony Abbott is more conservative and more of a culture warrior than the nation he now leads. He has set himself up for a reckoning, including from within his own party, and I don't think it will take too long to manifest. Still, a lot of damage can be done in the meantime, and it is important that people understand that."

A lot of damage is being done by showing Jakarta that defence/nationalism is the priority of this government.

Dunlop may be right that there will a "reckoning" ahead for Abbott – opinion polls in weeks ahead will give us a clue. On the other hand, it worked well as an electoral strategy, so who knows?

But win or lose in the polls, Abbott's strategy risks weakening Australia's trade ties and prosperity within our region – something a more balanced conservatism would not allow. 

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