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Battlelines by Tony Abbott – Review

9 August 2009 5,938 views 2 Comments

London-born NSW Rhodes scholar, priest, journalist, volunteer fire-fighter, and parliamentarian, Tony Abbott has been the federal member for Warringhah on Sydney’s northern beaches since 1994.A longtime devotee of B.A (Bob) Santamaria, and a fearless champion of Catholic action and of what he terms ‘the evolving family’, the feisty Abbott has a reputation of being the Liberal Party’s most relentless parliamentary pugilist and ideological warrior.

Yet, apart from a deep commitment to key conservative values, to those who don’t know him personally Battlelines demonstrates an appealing vulnerability in Abbott that is often absent from his media and parliamentary “attack dog persona. The book also reveals in harrowing detail the ‘toxic side of politics’, in particular the devastating impact of his private life made public upon the members of his immediate family and on his first true love, with whom Abbott thought (wrongly as it transpired) he had fathered a child.

Intellectually, the heart of the book examines the state of our federation. It is hard to disagree with Abbott’s contention that there are few problems, including that of education, health, and water security, that a dysfunctional federation doesn’t make worse. The facts are that state governments often have “legal responsibility for issues that only the national government has the political authority and financial muscle to resolve.  Currently, the only effective way to significantly improve our schools and public hospitals and to better allocate water, especially on the Murray/Darling, is “for the Commonwealth to bribe the states. Yet all too often the states take the money, but fail to deliver a desired outcome.  The only credible way to ‘fix the federation’, Abbott argues, is to “give the Commonwealth legal authority commensurate with its political responsibility.  In Chapter 6, “Making the States Do Better, he maps out how best to ensure that major political problems are subject to “clear lines of responsibility and accountability and how best to avoid the ‘blame game’ of constant buck passing between states and the Commonwealth.

When analysising what may best be described as the key concept of political economy, Abbott admires some of conservatisms most historic and seminal thinkers. This is especially the case with Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and more recently, Michael Oakeshott, who is perhaps his foremost modernist philosophic influence. Indeed it was Oakeshott who articulated a position close to Abbott’s heart and intellect: that conservatism is as much a state of mind as a developed political philosophy. It is, he argues, a way of life. In one of the books key chapters, “What’s Right, Abbott puts it thus: “Conservatism prefers facts to theory; practical demonstration to metaphysical abstraction; what works to what’s in the mind’s eye. To a conservative, intuition is as important as reasoning; instinct as important as intellect.

Inevitably there are weaknesses in the book. Abbott is far too close and too kind to that spectacular Liberal Party failure, John Hewson, and is uniformly uncritical of the horrendous economic and foreign policy legacy of George W. Bush. Stylistically, he repeats ad nauseum one of my pet hates – the annoying phrase ‘Of course’- which the editors of Battlelines should have expunged in their entirety.

Yet these are relatively minor quibbles about a book which is frequently fascinating, and amusing too. Thus it’s useful to be reminded that often the best way to be reported in this country is to write the report yourself!

One doesn’t have to be a supporter of the coalition to believe that it’s very much for the good that there are senior shadow ministers who “might be thought of as keepers of the conservative conscience. At a time when pragmatism and political spin relentlessly rule the roost, Australian public life is better off for having a longstanding parliamentarian of the ilk of Tony Abbott who actually believes in, and actively promulgates, a set of key moral values, and who clearly regards politics as a vocation. Ultimately, politics is as much about values as policies; articulated or not, values fundamentally affect policies.

One of Abbott’s key characteristics is an often disarming frankness.  Unlike so many 21st century politicians, almost always we know where we stand with him. And as befits an ex journalist for The Bulletin and a leader writer for The Australian, he knows how to work with words.

Perhaps this is why Abbott’s lively political and personal manifesto compares favourably with Kevin Rudd’s recent essays, which have been duller than dishwater. Dull Abbott isn’t. And it’s still far from impossible that the member for Warrighah will end up as leader of the parliamentary Liberal party. If that ensued, then, in an electoral fight with Rudd, the battlelines would be well and truly drawn , on one side anyway.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and Professorial Fellow at the Australian Catholic University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 31 books, including ‘The Pope’s Battalions: B.A. Santamaria and the Labor Split’.  He is currently writing, Under the Influence, a history of alcohol in Australia.

2 Comments »

  • David said:

    The secret is out. Tony Abbott is in fact a Pom. The Liberals have kept that under wraps. The Australian public would never vote for another foreigner as PM. If you live in NSW, you would have a Pom leading the country, and a Yank leading the state. Can’t happen. Thanks for the heads-up.

  • Gerard Henderson said:

    The only substantial fresh material in in David Marr’s second edition of ‘Political Animal’ (PA2 )turns on correspondence between Tony Abbott and B.A. Santamaria which was discovered by Geoffrey Browne in the Santamaria Papers in the State Library of Victoria. Historians Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt wrote about the Abbott/Santamaria letters in a front page story in The Weekend Australian on 13-14 October 2012. The correspondence is interesting but no more than that – and is consistent with Abbott’s own previous accounts of his relationship with Santamaria.

    For PA2, Marr interviewed at least one prominent (non-Catholic) Australian commentator who spoke favourably of what Tony Abbott would be like as prime minister if the Coalition wins the September 2013 election. But the person is not quoted or even mentioned in the author’s second edition. Instead David Marr found a new source who is critical of Abbott. Namely former Liberal Party leader – and long time Liberal Party critic – John Hewson.

    Media Watch Dog, April 12 2013