An emerging conservative leader?

by Robert Maynard

The Acton Institute recently ran an article entitled “Finally, a Conservative Leader“on a political figure who they consider to be an emerging conservative star.  Unfortunately, he is over in Australia:

Lately, however, there has been a sign of hope. And it comes in the form of Australia’s new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Thus far Abbott has matched his open adherence to distinctly conservative convictions by implementing policies that reflect those principles.

Elected prime minister in September last year, Abbott is in many respects the left’s nightmare come true. For one thing, he’s a practicing Catholic, who, though he doesn’t draw attention to his faith, is generally associated in people’s minds with the Church’s conservative wing. Among other brickbats, that’s earned him (rather sectarian) epithets such as the “mad monk.”

At the same time, Abbott possesses — like his political mentor, Australia’s most successful modern conservative politician, John Howard — the common touch. In private and public, he comes across as rather normal and unpretentious. In Australian politics, that will take you a very, very long way. But Abbott is unique insofar as he combines an ability to communicate with ordinary people with being that rarity among conservative politicians: someone genuinely interested in ideas.

I can’t think of any other contemporary government leader who would quote one of modern conservatism’s leading intellectuals, Roger Scruton, in a speech to the World Economic Forum. A Rhodes Scholar and Oxford graduate, Abbott actually reads serious books, is well acquainted with the writings of conservative luminaries old and new, and somehow managed to find time while being an MP and cabinet minister to contribute articles relatively regularly to serious-minded Australian conservative and free market publications such as Quadrant and Policy. In short, he’s unafraid to bring intellectual steel into the public square.

Even more worryingly for the left, however, Abbott has been willing to buck the “popular” (i.e., lefty) wisdom on many occasions because of his beliefs. In 2009, he became leader of the then-opposition Liberal Party after resigning from the shadow cabinet and leading a parliamentary revolt against a Cameron-like leader who had signed up holus-bolus to the climate change agenda. “Unelectable” was most Australian commentators’ verdict on Abbott. How wrong they were.

Abbott’s willingness to match his ideas with corresponding actions has been very evident of late. On economic policy, his government has moved in the opposite direction of those who favor Dodd-Frank-like behemoth approaches to the financial industry. Instead it’s opted to simplify regulation. As the minister responsible for the reform bluntly pointed out, “no amount of legislation will ever be a guarantee against another Storm Financial.” Indeed it’s often excessive regulation that creates opportunities for financial shenanigans by industry insiders.

Regarding the welfare state, Abbott’s minister for Social Security, Kevin Andrews (another conservative politician-thinker), has announced a major overhaul of a welfare system that was starting to drift in a distinctly European-direction. Predictably the left are up in arms. But so too are those rent-seeking Australian businesses who now find themselves dealing with a government uninterested in subsidizing them. That’s nothing, however, to the fury that greeted Abbott’s disbanding of the climate-change bureaucracy established by the preceding Labor government.

Abbott has also long understood that conservative governments can’t treat cultural issues as the orphans of their policy agenda. He’s never hidden his belief that Western civilization is generally a very good thing — particularly its Anglosphere component. Nor have Abbott’s views on social issues ever won him applause from the left. On these and other subjects, Abbott has stressed he’s never been impressed by the “inevitability” argument that’s invariably trotted out by progressivists as they try to stream-roll their preferred objectives. That suggests Abbott isn’t likely to fall for the trap which John Stuart Mill proposed as the best way to transform conservatives into liberals: i.e., you convince conservatives that a liberal position is actually a conservative view.

So, what does the arthor see as Abbott’s future impact?

Of course no conservative government can do everything. Even Margaret Thatcher couldn’t shrink the state’s share of GDP during her time in office. Australia’s three-year parliamentary terms additionally limit any government’s room for maneuver. Abbott also surely knows that not all his MPs embrace all his views. The Liberal Party has always been an amalgam of Whigs, Tories, classical liberals, social conservatives, free marketers, protectionists, quiet religious believers, equally quiet skeptics, assorted careerists, and unabashed pragmatists.

Yet, like John Howard, Abbott has thus far proved adept at managing those differences. He also appears to grasp that what the conservative historian Maurice Cowling once said of the Tory party applies equally to its Australian equivalent: its business is to win elections. This is important, not just because ideological puritanism sometimes make the perfect the enemy of the good. It also matters because if Abbott’s government can maintain its current course and win elections, Abbott has an outside chance of doing, albeit in a more modest way, for his generation of conservatives across the world what Reagan and Thatcher did for theirs.

Stay tuned folks, this could get interesting.