above: Tony Abbott
In this guest-post article Tom Holland provides a critique of Tony Abbott's complex ideological contortions. Holland explores the tensions between 'Abbott the Conservative' and 'Abbott the economic liberal'. Holland thinks it ironic that Abbott puruses policies for parental leave and elsewhere that could be described as 'socialist'. The blog publisher (Tristan Ewins), however, observes that populist social programs have been implemented in the past by Conservative social forces seeking to broaden their appeal. (eg: Bismarck's 'practical Christianity' - Social Programs implemented in 1880s Germany partly intended to undercut the Social Democrats)
This article was originally published at Tom's blog on March 31st 2012.
Tony Abbott has gone a'courting this year with big ticket policy proposals for women voters, and in the process has exposed confused purposes at the heart of Coalition policy formation and an ideological departure that will disappoint conservatives.
The extremely generous proposed Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme, and the recently announced plans to extend the child-care rebate to in-home nannies are policies designed to woo women voters to Mr Abbott and the Coalition. Both of Mr Abbott's proposed schemes have their merits and are likely to appeal to voters. But both policies are decidedly 'big government' initiatives, and are at odds with Abbott's attacks on the Government, most notably over the Carbon Tax and the NBN, and more broadly with 'small government' conservatism that underpins Liberal thought. Recent weeks have produced friction and confusion for the Coalition party room accommodating the growing divide between the tenets of their faith and the approach of their leader. Does this change in policy sit with Abbott's political philosophy, or does it represent a divergence in favour of populism?
Abbott, the Conservative
The Liberal Party in Australia is the custodian of two ideological traditions - Liberalism and Conservatism. One champions the importance of the individual while the other places faith in the importance of our society's institutions. The contentions of both philosophies create a natural contradiction, which continues to this day. But with the emergence of socialism, to which both were opposed, a pragmatic union of the traditions occurred in the modern Australian context in the form of the Liberal Party. Party members still identify as liberal or conservative, known as 'wets or 'dries', with Tony Abbott very much in the latter camp.
Damien Freeman wrote an interesting analysis of the the political philosophy of Tony Abbott in Quadrant in 2010, examining what Abbott saw as the obligations for a conservative politician to justify policy decisions. He notes that Abbott, in his book Battlelines, explains that a conservative is not burdened to produce a unifying ideological justification for policy in the same way as socialists or liberals.
Abbott argues that the other ideological traditions are obliged to impose and justify change based on their philosophical model on how they wish the future to be. He argues that progressive conservatives, rather than opposing change, accept the inevitability of a changing society and need to ensure that this change occurs in deference to the past and its institutions - “achievement is possible because ‘pygmies are standing on the shoulders of giants’”.
Whilst Abbott argues that an all-encompassing ideological justification is not required of the conservative, Freeman does enumerate a few ways Abbott believes policy can be explained. Firstly, the ideological explanation from either a liberal or conservative perspective. Secondly, an 'approach that transcends ideology' and goes to nationalism and the national interest. Thirdly, a purely pragmatic policy approach without ideological abstraction. And finally, what Freeman calls the 'counter-ideological approach' where policy is directed towards frustrating an opposing abstract idea rather than promoting one's own.
When Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey, both liberals, for the leadership of the party, he restored a conservative approach to politics and brought with him his political philosophy. Through the prism of Freeman's analysis, one can identify where Abbott would justify his efforts up until this year. He opposes the Carbon Tax on counter-ideological grounds, takes a hard stand on asylum seekers on what he sees as nationalistic grounds and could justify his opposition to pokies reform on liberal ideological grounds. But when one considers recent policy announcements, it is difficult to explain these using Abbott's own methods.
The Nanny Scheme and Paid Parental Leave
This week it was announced that a Nanny scheme would be referred to the Productivity Commission by a new Abbott Government as a matter of priority. It would entail extending the non-means-tested child-care rebate to nannies, who are not currently covered. The child-care rebate increased under the Rudd Government to 50% of costs to a maximum of $7500 per annum per child with child-care subsidies already costing $3 billion dollars a year. The nanny scheme threatens to increase this burden.
While it is likely to produce some migration of children from centre to nanny care, thus ameliorating the expense, it will still be a costly undertaking for the tax-payer. Mr. Abbott has said the scheme must come from within the constraints of the "existing budget envelope", but given that he rejected the proposal at the last election due to its sizeable cost, this does not seem a realistic expectation. More recent comments from Liberal sources have suggested that Abbott knows this.
The other key policy announcement by the opposition recently was the PPL scheme, which is more starkly contrary to their aims of minimising government spending. The Coalition's PPL scheme will pay a new mother a full replacement wage for 6 months, including superannuation, of up to $150,000 per annum and is expected to cost $3.2 billion. Counter-intuitively for the Coalition, it will sting its natural business constituency to pay for it. Under the scheme, a levy of 1.5% tax will be applied on businesses earning over $5 million.
In this sense, it is not dissimilar to the Carbon Tax which Mr Abbott has lambasted as overreaching government interference in the economy, and has routinely warned will drastically increase the cost of living with flow-on costs to consumers. Perhaps this is not lost on some members of the Coalition with the scheme drawing uncharacteristically public opprobrium from the Liberal backbench and mixed signals from the front bench.
Abbott, the Populist
So lets return to Abbott's methods for explaining conservative policy. These policies are contradictory from a conservative point of view with government funding of the family unit via the PPL, only to disband it with incentives for carers to return to work through the Nanny scheme. Neither scheme is easily justified through nationalism, nor pragmatism when there are adequate existing schemes. And they can hardly be described as counter-ideological as each are 'big government' policies which will spend more on these issues than the social-democratic government of the day.
The Abbott opposition has spent much of its tenure attacking Labor for imposing a nanny state on Australians. Yet now, they have introduced two cornerstone policies, which have been described as close to Abbott's heart, which are closer to socialist in philosophy than liberal or conservative. As Emma Alberici put to Barnaby Joyce on ABC's Lateline programme, if "the Coalition in government would reverse the nanny state, [why are you] saying the state should pay for nannies?"
The answer lies with Abbott, and a departure from the political philosophy that guided him this point. Perhaps a still personally unpopular Abbott, faced with a re-united Labor Party, even with a recent thrashing in Queensland and abysmal polling at present, senses that he must lift his efforts to personally appeal to voters. The PPL and Nanny scheme are policy for populism's sake, and we may see more of it yet before the next election.