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John Howard's eventual resignation could spell the end of the liberal party

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 1 May 2003


If John Howard stays on until after the next election and Peter Costello decides there's more to life than waiting around for a prime minister to quit, then Howard might choose to hand the top job to his ideological soul mate, Tony Abbott.

An Abbott-led Liberal Party would kill the liberal wing of the party that is already fighting for its life under Howard. Costello, by contrast, has been prepared to accommodate the liberals in the party with a progressive stance on the republic, reconciliation and Asia.

Abbott is a take-no-prisoners type of politician and a cultural warrior who abhors the liberal wing of his party. He is a Catholic and his politics reflect that fact. For Abbott there is good and bad, the deserving and the undeserving.

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He is the closest thing to a Thatcherite in the Howard government. Like Margaret Thatcher's blunt minister Norman Tebbitt - who once told the unemployed to get on their bikes because there was plenty of work out there if they wanted it - Abbott thinks there are "job snobs" who refuse to take decent employment because they think it's beneath them.

Abbott readily identifies with Howard's strategy that seeks to divide lower-income earners into those who are deserving (they have jobs) versus those who are not (they don't have jobs).

In January, Abbott told the Young Liberals' annual conference that Labor was about "making life more comfortable on social security" and that "this fuels the blue-collar sense that modern Labor represents the welfare class ahead of the working class. Howard, by contrast, strikes a chord with traditional working people because he understands that battlers want a hand-up, not a handout".

Abbott is also a hit with the think tanks that most overtly support the right-wing of the Liberal Party - Melbourne's Institute of Public Affairs and Sydney's Centre for Independent Studies. Both these organisations champion the free market, distrust government and support the concept of "mutual obligation" in welfare policy.

Abbott is their champion. He delivered the IPA's prestigious C. D. Kemp Lecture in 2001, saying proudly that the Howard government's Work for the Dole program had ended passive welfare in Australia.

He delivered the CIS's Bert Kelly Lecture in 2000, and again his target was welfare policy. Abbott cited Pope John Paul II, a noted conservative, to support the Howard government's devolvement of responsibility for job seekers through the Work for the Dole program - which relies heavily on community organisations - and the privatisation of the Commonwealth Employment Service.

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At the Conservative Breakfast Club in Brisbane in September 2001, he told his audience Work for the Dole was about all Australians pulling their weight - making no mention of the fact that the capacity of some people to pull their weight is severely limited by economic, social, mental or physical handicap.

The Brisbane speech demonstrated Abbott's preparedness to abuse the term "liberal" for his own political and ideological purpose. In it, Abbott was at pains to point out that the Liberal Party under Howard was conservative and liberal. But, when it comes to the latter, conservatives such as Abbott allow themselves the privilege of carving "good" liberalism from the "bad".

In Abbott's view there "are good 'liberal' arguments, for instance, for giving parents more choice about their children's schooling and mothers more choice about whether they go back to work". But he is not keen on freedom of choice when it comes to euthanasia or abortion. "The liberal argument for over-turning the Northern Territory's euthanasia law was that human beings should never be treated as disposable commodities. But for many, the chief problem was the Territory's cavalier disregard of our culture's most powerful moral and ethical commitment, to the sanctity of life," he commented.

Tony Abbott is not committed to liberalism - he is a capital "C" conservative like John Howard and if he were to become leader of the Liberal Party its already emasculated liberal wing would face extinction. The transformation of the Liberal Party into the Conservative Party of Australia, begun under John Howard, would be completed under Tony Abbott.

Let's hope Peter Costello's famous patience lasts a little longer.

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This article was first published in The Age on 24 April 2003.



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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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