Howard knew better than his heirs how to distract from the government’s problems. By Nick Dyrenfurth.

Nick Dyrenfurth
Abbott’s clumsy culture war

“All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice,” Hegel observed, with Karl Marx adding of Napoleon III’s 1851 coup d’état: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” One doesn’t need to be a devotee of the long-dead revolutionary, or, even more improbably, look upon Tony Abbott as a statesman, to regard the latter’s government as an exemplar of Marx’s timeless description.

It is now a little over six months since Tony Abbott was sworn in as Australia’s 28th prime minister. But such are the comparisons with the early Howard years that, in political terms, the nation seems to have awoken from 18 years in cryogenic storage. Abbott, despite his earnest election-time promises to lead a “no surprises” government of “adults”, has already flip-flopped on a number of what John Howard once creatively described as “core” and “non-core” promises, the most spectacular of which was Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s ham-fisted attempt to undo the previous government’s Gonski school funding package. 

Akin to Howard’s experience, a number of polls show the opposition ahead on a two-party-preferred vote. Abbott’s is the poorest performing new federal government since the early 1980s. Howard went on to narrowly win re-election in the 1998 election, and others after that. And through the good and bad polls of his long prime ministerial reign there was one constant: the so-called “culture wars”. Indeed, within months of moving into The Lodge, the conservative warrior was speaking of “politically correct” left-wing “elites” oppressing ordinary “battlers”. He denounced the “black armband” version of Australian history, and publicly snubbed indigenous leaders. Following his first re-election, in 1999 Howard provocatively sought to include a reference to “mateship” in a proposed new preamble to the constitution.

Howard believed in all these stances, but the more significant effect was to divert attention from his government’s woes. Take the brouhaha over mateship. Predictably, a potpourri of left-wingers, feminists and other progressives attacked his proposal, which was precisely the aim. The republic debate was sidetracked and Howard was able to pose as the great defender of traditional “Aussie” values.  

Abbott has evidently taken a leaf out of his mentor’s copybook. 

First, there was the appointment of right-wing think-tank identity Tim Wilson as our Orwellian “freedom commissioner”. Then came Pyne’s incendiary and needless (re)review of the national school curriculum, in order to address what he called “partisan bias”, of course overseen by noted culture conservative warriors. Abbott himself has berated the ABC, accusing it of taking “everyone’s side but Australia’s”.

The reignited cultural war took a decidedly kooky turn last month when Abbott unilaterally announced the reintroduction of damehoods and knighthoods of the Order of Australia, a practice discontinued by Labor’s Bob Hawke in 1986. On the one hand, this is a blatant broken pledge: as recently as last December Abbott said he had no plans to reintroduce such honours. On the other hand, Abbott’s provocation is a calculated diversion from his government’s troubles. 

Whether it is the manufacturing crisis, the embarrassing antics of George Brandis in relation to the proposed repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, or the announcement – quelle surprise, immediately following Abbott’s culture war sortie – of Medibank Private’s privatisation, this is a government in strife. With a politically challenging May budget rapidly approaching, watch this space.

A number of ideological warriors have leapt out of the trenches. “The left will have to man up if it intends to fight back,” announced The Australian’s right-leaning columnist Nick Cater, “for the momentum is running against progressive conformity.” A seemingly self-anointed progressive generalissimo, journalist Ben Eltham, answered the call to arms. “The left will fight,” he proclaimed.

Abbott’s ideological opponents would be wise to avoid taking the bait for two reasons. First, culture war machinations are prima facie evidence of his political weakness, not strength, and the absence of a coherent legislative program. Second, if, by prosecuting a new culture war, Abbott and his media supporters are articulating a core philosophy, it isn’t conservatism. 

The real culture war in Australia today is not one waged between conservatives and progressives, or even left versus right. Rather it pits doctrinal libertarians against a new communitarian alignment of progressives and small “c” conservatives. It is a war between people who are intent on the hyper-individualisation of Australian life, and advocate a scorched-earth approach to economic management and the destruction of venerable public institutions, and people who reject the false division between individuality and collectivism, and the tired debate between advocates of “too much market” and “too much state”.

It isn’t saying much to suggest that Labor in opposition is struggling to articulate a counter-narrative, or critically reflect upon its recent time in office. Yet Abbott’s clumsy culture war may provide Bill Shorten with the opportunity to fashion a new vision for Labor built upon this political realignment. Rather than raise his head over some false parapet, Shorten needs to drive a debate over the long-term direction of Australian society, one that heeds everyday concerns around the dearth of meaningful, well-paid and secure jobs; reframes the terrain of industry policy; and begins to explore the radical devolution of education, childcare, welfare and health services that gives families and communities a real say in their operations. The alternative is to ape former leader Kim Beazley’s post-1996 small-target opposition strategy. 

It is something of a Labor tragedy that Beazley, instead of Kevin Rudd, didn’t take the party into government in 2007. In many respects, he had only himself to blame. It would be nothing short of farce if the man many regard as Labor’s brightest hope since Bob Hawke suffered the same fate.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 12, 2014 as "Abbott's clumsy culture war".

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Nick Dyrenfurth is an adjunct research fellow at Monash University’s national centre for Australian studies, and has worked as a Labor adviser and speechwriter.

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