Inside Story

An anatomy of Abbott’s army

What unites the group of Liberals who want to steer the party away from its roots? Norman Abjorensen profiles the ideas and the personalities

Norman Abjorensen 8 December 2015 2419 words

The platoon: Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic pats Tony Abbott on the shoulder after he lost the party leadership ballot on 14 September 2015. Among those with him are Eric Abetz and Natasha Griggs. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Back in the early 1980s, a seemingly invincible Neville Wran strung together a series of Labor victories in New South Wales that left the Liberal Party teetering on the edge of irrelevance. The federal Coalition’s election loss in 1983 under Malcolm Fraser merely compounded the problem. Members were deserting the party in droves.

The inevitable review of the party – its structure, policies and membership – called for a radical rethink at grass roots level to make branch membership both attractive and meaningful, and to give branch members a greater say in party matters. A very senior Liberal had heard it all before and wearily predicted he would hear it again in his lifetime. Shaking his head, he confided to a group of incredulous journalists, safely off the record, “Have you seen the sort of people who attend Liberal Party branch meetings? Well-meaning souls no doubt, but if they were ever entrusted to running the country, we would see capital punishment back tomorrow, military conscription and immediate war with one or more countries.”

Never mind his poor opinion of his own side of politics, the point being made was a salient one: people join political parties for a multitude of reasons, and there is no reason to assume they are in any way representative of society as a whole. For a start, very few people join any political party. In most comparable liberal democracies, only about 5 per cent of voters are party members; in Australia, the figure has dropped sharply to less than 2 per cent, according to the best estimates.

The parties themselves are secretive about numbers, but rough calculations can be made from Labor’s membership ballots and internal reports compiled by the conservative parties. The major parties have expressed concerns in recent years not just about declining memberships, but also about a declining degree of representativeness. In Victoria, for example, the Liberal Party worries that the average age of members is over sixty. In New South Wales, Labor laments the high proportion of students and retirees.

The eternal problem with broad-based parties like these is that they contain people of different, sometimes conflicting, views who join up for very different reasons. Since its formation 125 years ago, Labor has had in its ranks socialists, crypto-communists, union advocates, Christian socialists, republicans, pacifists, social democrats, democratic socialists, idealists, pragmatists, anti-communists and Catholic activists. The Liberal Party, like its forerunners, has contained a mix of conservatives of varying stripes, liberals, monarchists, libertarians, anti-communists, free traders, tariff reformers, culture warriors and business lobbyists.

The potential for internal conflict is obvious. It broke out in 1916, when Labor split damagingly between pacifists and pro-Irish on the one hand, and pro-Empire factions on the other; and it happened again in the 1950s when the party’s anti-communists clashed with its left wing over the issue of communist influence. Economic reformers and economic pragmatists clashed within the Liberal Party for much of the 1980s in what was in some ways a throwback to the liberal–conservative divide of the early Commonwealth.

The streams of diversity within the current Liberal Party are important in understanding why a failed and vanquished leader like Tony Abbott retains a solid core of support, albeit small, within the party – the parliamentary party as well as the party as a whole – when all the objective indicators point to his entrenched personal unpopularity in the electorate and the strong likelihood he would have led his government to defeat. Furthermore, his group – dubbed “Abbott’s army” by the media – appears oblivious of the turnaround in the polls since he was toppled in September and the near certainty of that Malcolm Turnbull will win another term in 2016.

“Abbott’s army” rather overstates the strength of his loyalists; “Tony’s platoon” might be more apposite. The self-styled conservatives in the Liberal Party neatly equate with the thirty who cast a symbolic vote against Julie Bishop as deputy leader when Kevin Andrews nominated against her after Turnbull became leader in September. Tellingly, eleven of the forty-one who voted for Abbott chose not to fall in behind Andrews.

Several of the people I’ve spoken to in recent days cautioned against putting all thirty of the anti-Bishop conservatives into the Abbott camp. “They might be sympathetic with Tony and his ideological positions, but most of them are pragmatic and realistic,” said one. Very few would be prepared to “die in a ditch,” he added, noting that “for most of us, whatever our views, the caravan has in reality moved on.”

Those most frequently identified with Abbott are the culture warriors for whom politics is more about values than about economics or policies, and more about tribal loyalty, identifying and attacking perceived enemies, and defending positions than about building electoral support. What is anathema to them is the very concept of consensus politics – and herein lies the problem for Turnbull, who is nothing if not a consensus politician. In a curious way, these present-day crusaders of the Liberal Party right are reminiscent of the Labor left of the 1950s and early 1960s: far more interested in retaining ideological purity than in compromising principles for expediency. As Gough Whitlam, who took on the diehards, was fond of saying, “Only the impotent are pure.”

If there is a discernible pattern among those who hope for a Abbott comeback, it is that they emphatically oppose same-sex marriage, hold strong conservative religious affiliations, and are likely to have been born overseas (like Abbott) or have one or more parents born outside Australia. Interestingly, many of those in the Abbott corner came into parliament at the 2013 election. The preponderance of religious affiliation raises the question of representativeness in an avowedly secular society in which, according to a global Gallup poll in 2008, 70 per cent of adults consider religion to be of no importance in their lives.

An often-overlooked element at work in the pro-Abbott camp is not an embrace of Abbott so much as a rejection of Turnbull who, most prominently among Liberals, has refused to play the tribal game or join the culture wars. He is not “one of us,” one Liberal told me, and he is therefore distrusted, despite his Catholicism. Short of being a Labor member, Turnbull is everything the tribal Liberal Party decries: a cosmopolitan in an increasingly nationalistic party, a social liberal in a social conservative party, a republican in a largely monarchist party, and an internationalist in a party that sees in the American alliance everything that matters.

The most prominent casualties of Turnbull’s ascension were senior ministers Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, both lawyers, who remain firmly loyal to Abbott (although they are said not to be part of the regular Abbott camp gatherings). Both fit the mould of the Abbott circle. Abetz has a long history as an enemy of progressive causes, was born in Germany and is aligned with the theologically and socially conservative Reformed Churches of Australia, whose mission statement proclaims: “Pray, multiply, train and align.” Andrews is a Catholic conservative activist and a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. As a backbencher in the mid 1990s, he wrote the Euthanasia Laws Bill, which overrode NT laws legalising euthanasia. (This is one of only fifteen private member’s bills to have passed federally since 1901.) He has been a staunch opponent and critic of stem cell research.

Perhaps the best-known of the self-styled conservatives is outspoken SA senator Cory Bernardi, author of a book called The Conservative Revolution, in which he expounds at length on his conservatism. A Catholic and the son of an Italian migrant, he has repeatedly taken positions regarded as extreme even by other Liberals, with fellow South Australian Christopher Pyne calling him a “boutique” politician.

The pattern is also evident among the lesser known Abbott loyalists, including Andrew Nikolic, the member for Bass in Tasmania. A former army brigadier who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, he is part of the growing number of military figures prominent on the Liberal Party right, and was government whip under Abbott. Born in Serbia, he used his first speech in parliament in 2013 to underline his small government and pro-business credentials. He is also a Catholic.

Senator Zed Seselja of the Australian Capital Territory holds the distinction of being a conservative in what is generally regarded as the most liberal jurisdiction in the country, having recruited sufficient supporters to oust former senator Gary Humphries. Seselja, a Catholic, a lawyer and the son of Croatian parents, used his first speech to defend traditional marriage: “I believe the institution of marriage between a man and a woman is a special one deserving special recognition and protection. Many people who voted for the Liberal Party did so on the basis that this is our long-held position.”

Michael Sukkar, member for Deakin in Victoria since 2013, is a former tax lawyer, a Catholic and the son of a Lebanese father. He happily wore the conservative badge in his first speech and proclaimed the influence of his faith. He also paraded his cultural warrior status: “Finally, in my view, our egalitarian principles of fairness and equality are built on Western foundations and traditions. It is, therefore, the duty of conservatives to protect those from the so called ‘progressive’ elements of our society, who so doggedly seek to undermine them.”

Tony Pasin, the member for Barker in South Australia, is also a lawyer, a Catholic and the son of Italian migrants. A first-term MP, he was among a group who warned back in February, when a spill motion was moved against Tony Abbott, that the party risked an exodus of members if he were toppled.

An unusually large concentration of Abbott support comes from Western Australia. Finance minister Mathias Cormann, born in Belgium, and a Catholic, was an Abbott loyalist to the end but was retained in the Turnbull cabinet. Senator Linda Reynolds is a former high-ranking army officer, deputy director of the Liberal Party, and a Catholic. She was among a group of dissident Liberals in favour of watering down the race-hate laws, and threatened to cross the floor. Melissa Price, the member for Durack, was a lawyer and resource industry executive before her election in 2013. Also a Catholic, she nailed her small-government credentials to the mast and underlined her readiness to fight on the cultural front in her inaugural speech: “A reduction in government employee numbers is a good start but, culturally, we have a long way to go.” Another Abbott supporter from the state is Singapore-born former property developer Ian Goodenough, elected to the seat of Moore in 2013.

For some in the Abbott camp, religious convictions and affiliations are paramount as drivers in public life. In this category are former Tasmanian state MP Brett Whiteley, member for Braddon since 2013, who made his Christian faith the key point in his inaugural speech, and Luke Howarth, member for the Brisbane seat of Petrie, who described himself as “a man of strong faith,” proclaiming the most important relationship in his life as “my relationship with God.”

Some other Abbott supporters are not so easy to categorise. Scotland-born Karen McNamara, of the NSW seat of Dobell, is a former state public servant. A protégé of discredited NSW Liberal powerbroker Chris Hartcher, she had Abbott’s support in a bitter preselection wrangle. Craig Kelly, member for the NSW seat of Hughes, a former rugby player and a small business owner and advocate, is a critic of windfarm subsidies and outspoken about “indecent” art on display in Parliament House. Even more problematic is the case of Natasha Griggs, member for Solomon in the Northern Territory, who, while still a nominal member of Abbott’s conservative “cave,” changed her previous stance of opposing marriage equality after consulting her electorate. At least one of the conservatives, Angus Taylor, member for the NSW rural seat of Hume since 2013, also has a long association with Malcolm Turnbull.

In the more sectarian 1950s and 60s, the Liberal Party was a bastion of the Protestant ascendancy; Catholics were rare in its ranks. (Sir John Cramer, for many years the sole Catholic in the parliamentary party, wrote of how, in the 1950s, prime minister Robert Menzies would joke on his approach: “Quiet, boys. Here comes the Papist.”) What we have seen over the past three decades is the Catholicisation of the Liberal Party, and that shift suggests not just a religious and a political change, but also a cultural transformation of some magnitude.

Correspondingly, the lessening of Catholic influence in the Labor Party has seen its focus veer towards more post-materialist concerns, notably in relation to social issues, women’s rights, gay rights and the environment – what conservatives rail against as a “progressive” agenda. New areas of political contestation (such as the “moral” Liberals versus the “godless” Labor Party) have opened up. The culture wars, which have dominated political discourse over the past twenty-five years, say more about conflicting sets of abstract values than about concrete policies in areas as diverse as education and immigration. Political discourse has been, to a large extent, “valuised,” with all sorts of implications for political messaging and campaigning.

Also of interest is the increasing role in politics, especially conservative politics, of the foreign-born and the children of migrants. Is this a new, hitherto unexamined constituency with its own set of mores and values, or is it that newcomers are more ambitious, more strongly motivated and better organised? How have they managed to become so influential within the modern Liberal Party? Or has the party been unsuspectingly infiltrated? What does this say about the syncretic nature of Australian conservatism? And why have newcomers been less prominent in the Labor Party?

Abbott’s supporters are unlikely to see a restoration. But their influence will be felt long after their preferred leader leaves the scene. The Abbott experience, for all its considerable shortcomings of governance and leadership, has at least helped clarify a new and significant dynamic within the body politic – and that, in the longer view of history, might be the Abbott legacy. •