Harper’s model from down under - Macleans.ca

Harper’s model from down under

Abbott likes to be photographed in Speedos and called PM Kevin Rudd a ‘toxic bore’


Michael Ignatieff is safe for the moment, but there is one Liberal leader whose party showed him the door this month. Malcolm Turnbull led Australia’s Liberal opposition until Dec. 2—when the party’s parliamentary caucus voted 42-41 to strip him of the top job and give it to Tony Abbott instead.

That made a few well-tuned Conservative ears here in North America perk up. Recall that in Australia summer is winter and the Liberal party is home to the country’s conservatives. (The main party they face, the left-leaning government, is formed by Labor under the blandly reassuring Kevin Rudd.) John Howard’s 1996 Liberal election victory was one of the models for Stephen Harper’s Canadian election win a decade later.

Tony Abbott’s sudden rise is no guarantee of anything. His party is still well behind Rudd’s in the polls. But the kind of guy Tony Abbott is has won him the attention of people close to Harper.

“He combines Stockwell Day’s religiosity and athleticism with Stephen Harper’s ideology and intellect,” one Canadian Conservative said to me in an email.

Abbott won the Liberal leadership by opening a big gap between his party and Labor where his predecessor had sought accord on a big issue: climate change. Rudd won the 2007 election by propounding an emissions cap and trade scheme. The aging Howard, desperate to appear hip and modern, supported Rudd’s idea, but the younger man was more credible on the issue and the left won the day. Other short-lived Liberal leaders have followed suit: Turnbull, the guy Abbott whacked in the caucus vote, remains a staunch supporter of cap and trade.

But Abbott has never shied away from the politics of division. If he’s a blend of Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper, it’s the Day side you see first. A young, strapping 52, he’s a trained bush fireman and former boxer who attended Catholic seminary school (as a result, he’s sometimes called the “Mad Monk”). In the ’90s, he served as director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy when his country’s constitutional debate over getting rid of the British crown was heating up.

He’s fond of showing up at the beach, within sight of news cameras, in teeny Speedo bathing suits—“budgie smugglers” in the local parlance. When he became his party’s third leader since its 2007 defeat, he cheerfully shared with reporters his daughter’s opinion that he is nothing but a “gay, lame, churchie loser.”

And yet. He may be a seminarian with a fondness for swimwear, but he was also a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (a decade after Michael Ignatieff won the same honour). He served in three cabinet posts in the Howard government.

Abbott shares Harper’s fondness for sharpening differences at least as often as he chooses to blunt them. He’s called Rudd “a toxic bore,” and, in October, he labelled the notion that humans cause global warming “absolute crap.”

He likes to call Rudd’s cap and trade scheme “a great big new tax on everything.” With some support from smaller parties, the Liberals have now managed to block passage of cap and trade twice in Australia’s parliament. Stymied on a key government policy, Rudd is now in a position to call elections a year early. But as of early this week he seemed reluctant to face Abbott too soon.

Abbott, the Mad Monk with the closet full of budgie smugglers, knows he is still a long shot to ever beat Rudd. A poll taken less than a week after Abbott ousted his predecessor showed he’s now nine points likelier to be named as respondents’ preferred prime minister, while Rudd’s score has fallen by five points. But that still leaves Rudd streets ahead, at 60 per cent to 23 per cent.

“If we win the election I’ll be regarded as a genius,” Abbott told an interviewer. “If we don’t win I’ll probably be political roadkill at some point in time.”

So Tony Abbott will stand or vanish based on luck and local circumstances, and he wouldn’t be of much concern to you or me, except for this: despite his Rhodes pedigree, Abbott is his country’s standard-bearer in a battle between what you could call a new conservatism and a new liberalism. This is a class conflict to its boots, and the conservatives—Harper Conservatives here, Abbott Liberals down under—explicitly don’t represent blue-blood bankers, preferring instead to throw in their lot with the middle and working classes.

In a clash of values between city and suburbs, Abbott appeals to suburbs. He concedes university graduates to Rudd while seeking support among community college grads and Australians who work in the skilled trades. It’s the same ground Richard Nixon staked out in the 1960s, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the ground the U.S. Republicans seek but can’t yet control in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory last year.

It’s the ground Stephen Harper won on in 2006 and used to expand his base in 2008. The example of Tony Abbott is reminding some around Harper that confrontation can be smarter than conciliation. That kind of attitude won’t win a broad coalition of support. But in Canada, about 40 per cent is all you need for a majority. Harper has always preferred models who don’t shy from a fight. He has a new model.


Harper’s model from down under

  1. "This is a class conflict to its boots, and the conservatives—Harper Conservatives here, Abbott Liberals down under—explicitly don't represent blue-blood bankers, preferring instead to throw in their lot with the middle and working classes."

    The same could be said for Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives. Very interesting.

  2. Recall that in Australia summer is winter and the Liberal party is home to the country's conservatives.

    Also, hamburgers eat people!

  3. The encouragement of an economy based on skilled labour and personal property is the surest antidote to socialism or a large intrusive government that I can think of. It is no accident that political affiliations break down largely based on what profession you hold. If you gain your income through salary (particularly a salary taken from public funds) the more likely you are to vote left.

  4. It is interesting one Australian newspaper compared Abbott's deposed predicessor Malcolm Turnbull to our own Joe Clark.

  5. This Abbott fellow even bears a passing resemblance to Day.

  6. "A young and strapping 52?" As Harold Ross used to say at the New Yorker; "No vivid writing please!"

  7. “He combines Stockwell Day's religiosity and athleticism with Stephen Harper's ideology and intellect,” one Canadian Conservative said to me in an email."

    "Athleticism" is now a key element in selecting our leaders? Terrell Owens for PM!

    Bonus, "religiosity" too!

  8. "…in October, he labelled the notion that humans cause global warming “absolute crap.”


    Based on his extensive knowledge of climate science, natch.

    • Was that before Climate-gate, and the fact of GW expert's fudged the numbers, he's brilliant!

      • Another climate expert! And right here on the Maclean's board! Who knew there was so much expertise out there?

        • Another Liberal, will become a rare species after Cope15

          • For sure.

          • I'm already a rare species thank you very much!

          • No, you just 'think' you are.

          • Such a comfort to see that whole hearted commitment to pluralism that so many folks have these days.

          • thank god for that!

  9. I'd been hoping that someone would write about what's going on down under. I've just returned from living there for three years and this latest turn in Australian politics has been pretty fascinating. Some more context for this article might be intersting to some of you. Tony Abbot is the third party leader for the Australian Liberals in the two years since their huge defeat in 2007 which saw, for only the second time in Australian history, a sitting PM lose his own seat. Since then the party has been struggling in the polls, aimless and divided. Abbot only won his leadership by one vote and it was in the second attempt at a leadership spill against Malcolm Turnbull in the space of a week. The spill was orchestrated by outright climate change deniers, see Abbot's "absolute crap" comment. Australia is still suffering one of the worst droughts on record that has seen municipal water supplies hover at around 30-50% of storage capacity or lower for years. Australia is also at risk of losing the great barrier reef to rising temperatures and ocean acidification (the other effect of increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations that has the potential to be another massive problem even if no warming were to occur at all), as well as all sorts of other potential effects from climate change. Support for carbon reduction schemes is relatively high among the Australian populace. The Australian Libs are saying that they will propose some sort of measure to combat climate change but that it won't involve any sort of tax, cap or price on carbon. In the face of still very low poll numbers, a divided, reeling party and campaigning on a platform promising some unspecified 'no pain' carbon reduction scheme, it'll be interesting to see how the Australian Libs do in the next while. Two other comments, Tony Abbots repeated insitent use of the phrase 'Big new tax on everything' in the Australian media suggests to me that the Australian Libs might be looking to the Canadian conservatives as a model and not the other way around (or at least the looking is going both ways). Also, one of the refreshing things watching politics in Australia is that MPs from all parties routinely talk to the press and can even be seen debating other party MPs on the news most nights

    • Third in two years, well that sounds familiar.

    • I have been living in Australia for three years, good points all, but you forgot one thing. Although it takes us off topic, Howard didn't lose due to climate change, he lost because he gave away Australians hard fought rights and introduced something called workplace choices. This effectively removed most workers rights toward employers and it doomed him from day 1 of the legislation.
      I must say I do derive much joy seeing conservatives in Australia hiding behind other party names, too embarrased to field their own party, because clearly Australians recognize conservatives for what they are and under the name conservatives they are unable to keep a party afloat. It is somewhat similar to the desperate coalitions formed in Canada when the conservatives were about to disappear :)

  10. "Thatcher was ousted by Major in 1990 … "

    No, Thatcher was ousted by the Caucus on the pretext of her opposition to further integration with Europe, although the real reason was the chaos and loss of support created by the Poll Tax. Michael Heseltine was the challenger, following the resignation speech of Sir Geoffrey Howe over Thatcher's "no, no, no" comments in the House of Commons. Major came up the middle between Heseltine and Douglas Hurd. I can still hear Maggie saying "no, no, no" : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2f8nYMCO2I

    • I realize Major was the compromise candidate, and Heseltine the instigator – I was giving the one sentence version.

      Also, I prefer this version…

  11. The Liberals there are really conservatives. The Conservatives here are really Liberals. Conclusion: Politicos have no principles any more!

    • Well, somebody's off their meds this afternoon, I see.

  12. I am somewhat intrigued as to what the current status of relations are between Harper and the British Labour party. I have heard rumours that Harper is fast going from someone ignored to becoming disliked immensely at Downing Street. Gordon Brown badly needs to show that he can rally the G20 to get tough on banks, big business, big bonuses and the rich to get his core Labour vote out to the polls next summer and Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty are viewed as biggest obstacle in the G20.

    Harper of course has the fact that Canada's economy has not been effected as much Britain in the downturn and was given the honor of cohosting G20 along with South Korea next year due to the fact the G8 is supposed to be phased out. Harper is also helped by the fact no one in the Ottawa press gallery really cares about Canada's relationship with the G20 or even the fact Harper is hosting the next meeting in June thus Harper can play rough in the corners against Gordon Brown without the referree noticing.

    • Don't worry, Gordo will be out of a job soon enough.

  13. I actually think Stephen Harper's hero is Sheriff John Arpayo.

  14. I will resist my kneejerk impulse to bash the Liberals in favour of reminding Wells that the MIghty MIghty Bosstones are performing on Kimmel tonight. http://abc.go.com/shows/jimmy-kimmel-live

  15. It seems more plausible to me that the Australian Liberals are taking their cues from the Harper Tories. Harper's reign has illustrated that the environment is not a slam dunk issue for the left. You can easily peel off about 25% of people who don't believe in global warming, plus another large chunk of voters that does believe but thinks the costs of actions are too high. The latter group is going to be high in countries like Australia and Canada where we have low population densities, use lots of fossil fuels, and export lots of energy intensive goods (in Canada the biggest exports are oil & gas, car parts, planes, lumber, and various metals).

  16. Dear JC1976:

    Paragraph breaks are not the enemy.

  17. It wasn't the mechanism of leadership change that I think is a bad sign for the Liberals, it's the pace of leadership change and that they can't seem to settle on and stick with a leader post-Howard. Before the 2007 election campaign as the polls showed increased support for tha Labor party, one of the major questions about the Liberal party was whether John Howard would step down or not. There had been for some time a sort of passive aggressive push for the leadership from the treasurer Peter Costello who thought that Howard had promised to step aside for him and who had been widely regarded as the natural successor to party leadership.

    The election happened, the party lost and Peter Costello decided not to take leadership of a party in need of rebuilding. Instead he hung around in the parliamentary back benches for a little while, casting a shadow over the leadership of the guy who did take over the party, Brendan Nelson, by not completely ruling out a future run at the leadership. Just under a year after taking the party leadership Nelson was ousted and Malcolm Turnbull took over. About a year after that we're now seeing Tony Abbot in the leader's chair.

    The point of all this is that The Australian Liberals were a successful party under the strong leader John Howard and were the government for eleven years. The 2007 election loss has shaken them. They haven't been able to settle on a new leader or determine the future direction of the party (in general terms, seek the middle or strike rightward). They've been trying to find their feet again after a big election loss and they've only got until November 2010 at the latest before they have to face an election again, thanks to Australia's three year election cycle.

    P.S. I'm experimenting with paragraph breaks, thanks Anon.

  18. “He combines Stockwell Day's religiosity and athleticism with Stephen Harper's ideology and intellect,”

    And Obama's ears from the looks of that picture.

  19. Andrew, are you sure Iggy was a Rhodes Scholar?

    • I thought Rae was the Rhodes Scholar, not Ignatieff.

      Ignatieff got a PhD at Harvard, fully funded — nothing to sneer at, either.

  20. Your historical review of Aussie leadership politics is interesting. Another good comparison with Canadian politics that happened just before the time frame you selected was the systematic undermining by Bob Hawke from 1980-83 of the leadership of then Labor leader Bill Hayden. I watched this battle at first hand in Canberra and was often reminded of it later in Canada when Paul Martin's supporters repeatedly attacked Jean Chretien's leadership.

  21. Clearly you don't have to write about Australian politics for a living. Then again, some of those who do have also written some pretty frankly stupid stuff about Abbott.

    Yes, he's interesting – especially compared to Rudd. That, at least, gives political journalists something to write about.

    But he's downright unelectable. His religiosity is not the only thing that puts him well to the right of the electorate – let alone the electoral base of the (Australian) Liberal Party, which has, to use your terms, always embraced *both* the 'city' and the 'suburbs' (largely because the gap between the two is, I suspect, much narrower in Australia than in Canada).

    There's a more elementary point here. Scare campaigns only work when you're in government – and thus clothed with the authority that comes with office. Mounted from opposition they just make you seem, at best, shrill and, at worst, unhinged. That will be Abbott's fate.

  22. It all boils down to the old saying… 'no matter who you vote for… a politician wins', the sad part of that is today they are all batting for the same team.

  23. Correction: Michael Ignatieff wasn't a Rhodes scholar. His father, George, was.