Conservative Models
American conservatives should eschew David Cameron’s example.

Australia’s Liberal party leader, Tony Abbott


John O’Sullivan

Where is conservatism heading in the English-speaking world? This question is currently being answered in the four countries of the Anglosphere — namely, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Britain — in four distinctive ways.

I will assume that American readers have a rough grasp of the state of conservatism in the U.S. as revealed in the Republican primaries. It is currently — as it has been for many years — a struggle for dominance in the movement between economic and social conservatives.

Readers abroad who rely for guidance on their mainline foreign correspondents (who in turn rely on the establishment media in the U.S.) may have the impression that this is a vicious battle between incompatible gangs of lunatic extremists. But as Tim Stanley writes on his Daily Telegraph blog, the struggle is really a less fundamental one between the country club and the church picnic.

Each of these contenders for the soul of conservatism is accustomed to cooperating with the other. Both are fairly conservative. So, unless Romney is a sheep in wolf’s clothing — which seems to be the principal anxiety about him among Republican voters — this is also a struggle that both sides can afford to lose.

To put it in negative terms: A practicing Mormon such as Governor Romney is unlikely to be morally radical; a Catholic moralist such as Senator Santorum is unlikely to continue the economics of overspending and debt; and a visionary futurist such as Speaker Gingrich is unlikely to tolerate either the government’s Luddite obstruction of innovation or its enforcement of a new morality of subsidized bohemianism.

All conservatives can ultimately live with the victory of any of the leading candidates. All will gain somewhat by the adoption of their favorite policies. All will be disappointed from time to time — but very few to the extent that they will leave the Republican coalition.

American conservatism remains vigorous and fundamentally healthy. Its rhetorical excesses and its internal battles — however inconvenient from the narrow standpoint of party management and electoral discipline — are evidence of that health and vigor. What it needs to acquire from the primaries is a leader who has both the firmness to adopt a strong program of reform — combining, say, the Ryan plan and tea-party principles — and the rhetorical skill to persuade the American people of its necessity.

Such a leader is easier to describe than to find. Reagans and Thatchers don’t grow on trees. Do other conservative leaders in the Anglosphere give Americans either hope or guidance?

Conservatism is thriving both in Australia and in Canada — but doing so in very different ways. It is advancing in Australia by boldness and in Canada by caution.

In Australia the key moment in internal conservative politics occurred in December 2009 when Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal party by defeating his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, over the latter’s support for Labor legislation introducing a carbon-emissions trading scheme.

Abbott’s election was greeted with glee by both the Labor government and the left-wing media, which saw him as an unelectable right-winger. But he won a moral victory by holding Labor to a draw — 72 parliamentary seats each — in the 2010 election. Today his Liberal-Country Coalition enjoys a 10 percent lead over a faction-ridden Labor government uneasily reliant for its tiny majority on three independent MPs.

Abbott is a brilliant but unorthodox conservative politician. He emerged from the social-conservative wing of his party — and some free-marketeers are uneasy about him — but his program includes bold cuts in spending and the repeal of recent Labor “reforms” (including the carbon-emissions tax that narrowly passed this year). He is stealing away blue-collar voters — until recently Labor’s core vote — both because of his robust personality and because he defends ordinary Australians against the bright ideas of new Labor elites. He manages to combine populism with pragmatism in a rare, if not unique, mix.

In a 2011 study of Abbott that should be read in full here, Paul Kelly of The Australian summed him up as follows: “[Abbott] has a conservative set of values that he champions yet his policy outlook is highly flexible and pragmatic. . . . Because Abbott is seen to stand for enduring values he gets away with multiple policy switches with impunity.”

Currently Abbott is expected to win an election that must be held some time in the next 18 months — and to do so on a program that is boldly conservative but not dogmatically pure.