The Agenda

Understanding Tony Abbott

Australia’s Liberal-National coalition has won a substantial victory in this weekend’s general election, and all eyes are on the incoming premier, Tony Abbott. Though unknown to most Americans, Abbott has garnered some attention in left-of-center circles, as various anti-Abbott media clips have gone viral. Abbott has been characterized as, among other things, a misogynist, a homophobe, and an intellectually retrograde climate change denier. In short, he has been turned into a right-wing caricature, and so his victory has delighted many conservatives in the English-speaking world. The Wall Street Journal editorial page celebrates Abbott’s victory as a blow against “the faddish politics of climate change,” and as an indication that “voters are looking for leaders who believe in something.” But what does Abbott really believe in?

The central narrative coming out of the Australian election on the right is that Abbott demonstrated that running against environmentalism run amok works. Abbott’s environmentalist critics have helped this narrative along by pointing to statements he made years ago dismissing the threat of climate change. More recently, however, he has softened his stance, making the case for “direct action,” including inducements designed to encourage carbon-emitting firms to adopt less carbon-intensive technologies, in lieu of carbon pricing. This strategy has been widely criticized, yet it is worth noting that the Danes, pioneers of carbon pricing, actually give the proceeds of their carbon tax to firms to subsidize environmental innovation. And Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental policy scholar at the University of Colorado at Boulder, published an analysis in 2011 which explained why the Labor government’s emission reduction policies were highly unlikely to achieve their stated goals. Given the high cost of carbon pricing in Australia, and the economic pressures facing Australia’s large mining sector, it is easy to see why some Australian voters might find Abbott’s approach more attractive than Labor’s.

Perhaps the main reason Abbott has become a punching bag for the left in the English-speaking world is his opposition to same-sex marriage. There’s something fishy about this, as his immediate predecessors, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, were both opponents of same-sex marriage until very recently, when Rudd reversed his position. Abbott is a former Catholic seminarian, who is also staunchly opposed to abortion. Yet he also has an openly gay sister, a local politician who is a member of his center-right party, with whom he has a close relationship, and his views on gay rights are said to have softened in recent years. Abbott’s Liberal party has a strong socially liberal faction, and it is not unreasonable to assume that he will at some point permit a conscience vote on the issue.

What is most interesting about Abbott, however, is that he departs in many respects from orthodox small-government conservatism. Tom Switzer, the editor of The Spectator’s Australian edition, touts Abbott’s opposition to Labor’s “big-spending and interventionist agenda,” compared the new Australian prime minister to Thatcher and Reagan. But he quickly pivots to acknowledge that Abbott “is hardly the second coming of Milton Friedman,” citing Abbott’s paid maternal leave proposal as a mark of a “social-engineering streak.” It is certainly true that the proposal, which aims to provide subsidized maternity leave to women for up to six months, is expensive, and Abbott has called for financing it through a 1.5 percentage-point increase in the corporate tax rate on top-earners. The Economist describes the proposal as essentially cynical, “a bit to improve his poor standing among female voters.” (I should specify that I don’t think subsidized maternity-leave is a particularly good idea. What is interesting about it, however, is that Abbott believes that rather than imposing a mandate on firms, it’s best to provide direct subsidies.)

But one could just as easily characterize the paid maternal leave proposal as a reflection of a more “Christian Democratic” sensibility. Abbott’s social conservatism has influenced his views on domestic policy in many respects, as he makes clear in his 2009 book Battlelines. In praising John Howard’s successful Liberal-National government, Abbott cites the fact that it tripled spending on child care and doubled the number of child-care places available, and its support for more flexible workplace arrangements, which contributed to a sharp increase in the labor force participation of women. He also favorably referenced the Howard’s government’s Baby Bonus, a universal payment to new mothers, which was recently abolished by the Labor government.

Far from being some quirk or exception, Abbott writes at great length about his support for paid maternity leave in Battlelines. In the book, he sees it as part and parcel of a larger “stimulus package for families.” American supporters of family-friendly tax cuts will find Abbott’s call for removing the means test on Australia’s Family Tax Benefit Part A heartening. “If this were done,” Abbott writes, “people bringing up children would receive a benefit based not on their need but on the contribution that they are making to Australia’s future,” a line that might easily have been penned by National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru. Abbott goes further, suggesting that his proposal “would be a very significant recongition of the importance of parenting and the value of children and should, over time, have an appreciable impact on the birth rate.” Let’s keep Abbott’s support for family-friendly tax reform in mind when U.S. conservatives start championing it.

Since we’re all wont to overinterpret foreign political developments, let me add my own thesis: Tony Abbott’s political success demonstrates that family-friendly conservatism can succeed. The truth is that Abbott won more out of exhaustion with Labor infighting and concerns over an economy that seems to be going south than anything else. But Abbott has managed to combine classic pro-market politics with a call for revamping the welfare state along pro-family lines, and my guess is that this combination could prove just as successful in the United States. Indeed, this combination could go a long way toward demonstrating that the GOP is culturally modern and responsive to the interests of middle-income households with children, a large and culturally diverse constituency.


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