Dead and buried: Abbott's life after Howard

Having turned against John Howard's policies, Tony Abbott is on a long journey away from his 'spiritual father'. Where is he headed?

Perhaps the most interesting -- even poignant -- response to the budget delivered by Joe Hockey but of which Tony Abbott is a co-parent, came from John Howard.

Abbott once described himself as the love child of Bronwyn Bishop and John Howard but that was surely only because Abbott believed a child needs two parents. 

It was John Howard whom he truly considered his mentor, his inspiration, his role model. And while Howard never had anything to say about the notion of having Abbott as a love child, he always made it clear that Abbott was his chosen one and that if at all possible, he would see to it that Abbott was one day the leader of the Liberal Party.

It was never entirely clear just why Howard regarded Abbott as his protégé. Perhaps Howard was convinced that Abbott, more emphatically than any of the other possible contenders for the Liberal Party leadership -- certainly more than Peter Costello -- understood and supported what was central to Howard’s conservatism.

Howard was always a conservative -- or a Liberal if you like -- in the Menzies tradition. He was not really a conservative in the Thatcher mould, a neo-liberal on economics who thought the smaller the government the better things would be.  Rather his constituency was what he called the Howard battlers, the small business people struggling to keep their enterprises afloat and aspirational lower middle class families who aspired to become firmly entrenched in the middle class.

These people were once Labor’s constituency and it was Howard’s great achievement to convince them that he understood the challenges they faced and that what they wanted for their lives and for the lives of the children, he wanted for them too.

He understood them. Howard understood them better than he understood any other part of the Australian community.  Not everything Howard did in government necessarily was designed to benefit Howard’s battlers, but he always took care not to do anything that would disadvantage them.

That is until hubris took over and he introduced WorkChoices. Many in his battler constituency saw this as a betrayal. At the time, Tony Abbott understood this and argued against such a radical deregulation of the labor market. It’s possible that in retrospect, Howard thought Abbott was right and that this made his support for Abbott even stronger.

At the heart of Howard’s strategy to win and retain the support of Howard’s battlers were three main policy imperatives. The mining boom would be used to relentlessly lower income taxes. Family benefits would be expanded and made more generous and were designed and sold not as a form of welfare but as reward for lower middle class families. And education spending would be used to favour the private schools to which the Howard battlers wanted to send their children.

Now given that John Howard has been very careful in the past not to say anything that could be seen as a criticism of his protégé and indeed has made a point of being supportive and encouraging, his criticisms of the Hockey and Abbott budget are significant, especially at a time when the Abbott team needs all the support it can get. Howard must have known how unhelpful his criticism would be.

And it was not mild criticism. Howard said that the attempts by Hockey and Abbott to deny that they had broken promises and that they had not increased taxes were doomed to fail. They were not telling the truth.

“I’m the father of the family tax benefit system so naturally I defend it,” he said. “And family tax benefits are not welfare payments, they’re tax breaks for couples who have children and we all know it costs money to have children and it never ends.” He went on to say that what Hockey and Abbott have announced on family benefits in the budget amounts to a tax rise.

Why would Howard come out so trenchantly against the Hockey budget at a time like this? When Abbott and Hockey are floundering around trying rather pathetically to defend a budget so widely perceived to be unfair?

Why would he implicitly but clearly trash Joe Hockey’s argument that the changes to family benefits are about limiting entitlements and have nothing to do with raising taxes because these benefits are not earned income?

Who knows what’s in Howard’s mind, but surely what his criticisms represent is a defence of his political legacy and a statement of his conclusion, reached with a heavy heart, that the Abbott government, the government run by his protégé, is not a government in the Howard mould and one that has repudiated the Howard-Menzies brand of Liberalism.

Abbott dismissed Howard’s criticism in parliament, in effect saying that Howard does not understand that times have changed -- have in effect passed him by -- and that he, Howard’s love child has grown up and left the political home that Howard had built for him.

The question that immediately arises is that if Abbott has left Howard behind, where exactly has he landed? If he is no longer Howard’s protégé, what sort of Liberal has he become? And when did this change happen? Certainly not during the years he was opposition leader when he trumpeted the fact that his front bench was full of Howard government veterans.

More than the broken promises and the inept selling of the budget and the fact that both Hockey and Abbott have shown themselves to be wrong about some of the important details of key budget initiatives like the Medicare co-payment and the move to allow universities to set their own fees, Abbott has revealed himself to be on a rather surprising political journey to a new and as yet undefined political home. 

The budget offers some clue about where he might be headed but if he is to somehow win back support for his government and maintain the support of his increasingly jittery backbench, Abbott will need to do a lot better than he has done so far in convincing Australians to come with him wherever it is he is going.

For a start, he could try and articulate just why he seems to have changed his mind on -- or rather repudiated -- the Howard-Menzies brand of Liberalism.

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