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In Howard's steps


Michelle Grattan

Tony Abbott has taken much from his political mentor, but it would be wrong to think he is just John Howard by default.

Tony Abbott said before Christmas: ''I hope to be John Howard's political heir, not his clone.'' In this early stage of his leadership, Abbott is giving plenty of reminders that he is Howard's child. He has made the Murray-Darling a centrepiece of his first election-year policy initiative, as Howard did in election year 2007; he is embarking on a series of defining speeches, reminiscent of Howard as opposition leader in 1995. He has even hired one of Howard's right-hand men, Tony O'Leary, as his director of communications.

Howard is personally much closer to Abbott than he was to former leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. ''He does [seek advice] from time to time. I'm not in his ear every day,'' Howard said this week. ''Tony has a lot a views that are the same as mine,'' he said, but added that they diverged too, a reflection of the age gap. For example, ''Tony has had more on-the-ground involvement in indigenous issues.''

A reading of Abbott's book Battlelines, published before the leadership change, leaves no doubt that Abbott's approach will borrow from the Howard brand. ''He's obviously been a great mentor to me over the years,'' Abbott said on Thursday. But it would be a mistake to think that Abbott will just default to Howardism. Even in government, the two had some sharp differences, particularly over Abbott's desire for a federal takeover of the hospital system.

Abbott's conservatism, like that of Howard, has a strong streak of pragmatism. He is not afraid to pitch for what would be thought of as the enemy's territory, as he did this week on the environment.

''The political left shouldn't be seen as 'owning' the environment … and I am determined to challenge any assumption that it does,'' Abbott said, agreeing he was bidding for green preferences.

While (leaving aside the Greens) the environment is Labor's natural ground, Howard showed that the Liberals can play there too.

For the 1996 election, Howard promised a $1 billion natural heritage trust from the proceeds of part-selling Telstra. In 2004, he cultivated the conservationists - but then when Mark Latham overreached on Tasmanian forests, Howard stepped back and stymied his opponent.

In one of the ironies of pragmatic politics, the election pitches of Howard and Abbott on emissions trading are diametrically opposed. As part of his struggle on the climate change issue, Howard in 2007 promoted an ETS that was later substantially reflected in the Rudd model.

Abbott won the leadership because he opposed the scheme, and his ascension killed the Government's legislation.

Abbott is walking both sides of the environmental street: his proposal for a private member's bill to unlock Queensland's wild rivers does not exactly fit the bid to be a greenie.

What Abbott's advocacy of federal action on the wild rivers and (if necessary) a referendum to get federal power over the Murray-Darling have in common is the resort to central power. Howard and Abbott both broke the nexus between conservatism and federalism.

In his policy speech in Sydney on Thursday, Abbott sought to contrast his style with an unflattering description of Kevin Rudd's. He attacked the PM's ''rhetorical overkill''; his conceit; his penchant for turning everything into a grand cause, with himself at the centre; his setting of long-range targets that he would not be around to meet. ''People are starting to get the impression with Mr Rudd that it's all about him. By contrast, the Coalition's aim, on environmental policy as well as more generally, will be to understand the relevant problem, to talk to the relevant stakeholders, to devise an achievable improvement, to be able to explain it, and to know how to deliver it.''

This is an attempt to reprise how the opposition of 1995-96 portrayed Paul Keating as arrogant and obsessed with highfalutin causes.

Howard became opposition leader (for the second time) about a year before the 1996 election; Rudd also got the job around a year out. They both had one big advantage compared with Abbott: they faced governments that people wanted to defeat. The Rudd Government is new and highly popular; it would be extraordinary if voters did not give it a second go.

Rudd was relatively unknown when he became leader; Abbott was a senior minister for a long time and a controversial figure because of some of his views. But many voters have little idea of him as alternative PM. People had a fix on Howard, even though for the '96 election he sanded off some of his harsher ideological edges. Left-leaning Phillip Adams, in this week's The Spectator Australia, argues that Abbott resembles Latham, and is as big a risk for the Liberals as Latham was for Labor. ''Both are high-impact leaders. Like Latham, Abbott will campaign strongly and rattle the incumbent, at least at the outset. And like Latham, he's doomed to self-destruct … Abbott's no John Howard who constantly risk-assessed.''

By contrast, Tom Switzer, a member of the Liberal Party and former staffer to Nelson when he was opposition leader, believes Abbott has the ability to win over ''Howard battlers'', especially in Queensland. ''They deserted the conservative cause in 2007 because they felt WorkChoices, rising interest rates and costs of living threatened their economic security.'' Abbott's harping on the higher cost of living under an ETS could help reconvert them, Switzer says.

Anecdotally, Abbott has made a better start than many expected. Liberals report good feeling among the conservative base. But his juggling act, which he started this week with his environment pitch, is to reach out to middle-ground voters at the same time as appealing to his stalwarts.

Labor argues that Abbott is a polarising, extreme figure who will divide people. An alternative view is that Abbott, because he does come through as ''authentic'', could be quite liked by those who find many of their politicians too confected (Abbott also has to juggle staying ''authentic'' but keeping disciplined).

But there is a big step between liking a leader and being willing to vote for him. Voters could warm to Abbott because of his ''what you see is what you get'' personality, but still be unprepared to take the chance that if he were running the country they might actually get something unexpected.


  • With respect Michelle...Ye Gods...the analogical Book of Revelations for whom the bells toll, indicates The Word pragmatism is but a new name for old ways of thinking.

    Bob Lansdowne
    A to Zee
    Date and time
    January 16, 2010, 6:05AM
    • Why are we banging on about Abbot? He is a loser! 26 years in politics and he finally makes it to the leadership of the Libs because of a mistake! A poisoned chalice if ever there was one. Nobody else wanted the job so, like the proverbial bull in the china shop, Tony falls into the job. He simply couldn't resist his moment of glory. The more astute Libs must have all breathed a sigh of relief when old ding-dong took it on! Unfortunately he didn't receive a injection of intelligence with the title, so we still have the same blundering, foot in the mouth, Abbot, doing little more than chest beating, while Kevin gets on with the job of restoring our credibility overseas and starting to do the long negleted public works never even attemptrd by the Liberal government. No doubt about it, Tony is the "fall guy" as the Americans would say, keeping the seat warm whilst the Libs sort out a real leader for the election after the next.

      Swifts Creek
      Date and time
      January 16, 2010, 8:29AM
      • The electorate has also already had the experience of Abbott in power driving his conservative agenda with gusto. Who could forget the RU486 stoush, wherein even women from Abbott's own party coalesced against him, and with other women across the political spectrum, to defeat the Health Minister's attempts to stymie a woman's right to choose which method of contraception and birth control she could access?
        Not to mention his underhanded and covert attempt to nobble Pauline Hanson by setting up a front group, which he was behind, to chop her off at the knees by tying her up in legal action?
        He is the archetypal political wolf in sheep's clothing. He has assiduously crafted an image for himself that attempts to disguise his rougher ideological edges.
        Shame on him for fooling us once when he was in government, shame on us for being fooled twice by him, should his chimera of a campaign cause people to forget what the real Tony Abbott, hidden behind the facade, is like.

        Date and time
        January 16, 2010, 8:40AM
        • No one in the Liberal Party expects Abbott to win the election. His job is to limit the damage. He will do this by emphasising Rudd's long list of broken promises, the latest of which apparently (according to The Age) is the failure to engage in political donation reform.

          I doubt that Rudd has turned out the way the voters expected. To begin with they expected him to actually achieve things rather than place the emphasis on process. This focus on process went out of style in the buisness world several decades ago. I'm surprised the media hasn't caught on.

          Mawson, ACT
          Date and time
          January 16, 2010, 8:55AM
          • Comparisons of Abbott and Latham are in my opinion off the mark. Whilst they both have a tendancy to shoot from the lip Abbott has at least had a solid senior ministerial career behind him. Latham did not.

            Date and time
            January 16, 2010, 9:00AM
            • I find Abbott very confusing and unsettling. Its almost as though he sees the world as a whole lot of independent issues which required independent political/ideological solutions. He seems not to appreciate the connections and interconnections between issues and the need to step back and take a consistent national or global approach to their solution. But then again perhaps that reflects the conservative philosophy that values individuals over the common good. At a time when global warming is threatening to create no end of social, economic, environmental and political problems on a global scale, Abbott's propensity to come up with simplistic and ultimately divisive solutions to complex problems is a real worry. For example, his 'tax on everything' response to the ETS legislation simply shows he does not understand the scope of the global problem we all face, or the difficulty of introducing change in a world against the overwhelming forces of self-interest.

              Date and time
              January 16, 2010, 9:56AM
              • By eliminating the ETS Tony Abbot may well be remembered as the man who saved us from the greedy grasp of "THE MARKET". Given the limited explanation and discussion in the press on an "EMISSIONS TRADING SCHEME", my understanding of it is that the Federal Govt. issues Carbon Credits to various firms. These are a financial instrument which is intended to be traded on international financial markets which in turn would establish their value. Those markets and the traders, hedge funds and futures traders are controlled by the very same people who recently sent the world broke by using borrowed money to inflate the price of food and oil to a point that the basics of modern life were unaffordable to many.When John Howard was considering an ETS those markets were considered reliable and some believed infailable. We now know to our great cost that was wrong. To suggest today that these same firms and people should be given control of our energy prices must border on being manic.

                Date and time
                January 16, 2010, 11:14AM
                • Michelle, what you call "pragmatism", others call "hypocrisy". Abbott's facade is so obvious the man is a laughing stock. As for Howard, he is so thoroughly discredited that anyone seeking his mean and tricky advice must surely have a screw loose.

                  Date and time
                  January 16, 2010, 12:24PM
                  • The media has conducted an extensive analysis of the Federal Opposition and its three leaders - Nelson, Turnbull and Abbott.

                    There has been so much analysis that it would be easy to form the view that the Liberal Party was in power and setting the agenda.

                    In the meantime, Kevin Rudd has broken election promise after promise, focussed intensely on process rather than outcomes and achieved well below expectations on substantial and important issues.

                    It is now time to see the general media focus objectively on Rudd, the ALP, its performance and achievements over the past 26 months and look past the spin and hype and report what has actually been achieved to date.

                    After all, the people will be called to vote this year. It would be helpful to have an analysis of Rudd rather than Abbott - after all, it is not Abbots deceicions that have been important in opposition.

                    Date and time
                    January 16, 2010, 12:43PM
                    • "The Shadow Boxer" scraped in by one vote, Some one forgot to vote, Not a landslide by any means, please report the real facts and stop making out the clown is popular, If you want a real contest, put Abbott in the real ring with M.R. Mark Latham, Blood will flow, "Michelle."

                      Coloured Glass
                      Port Darwin
                      Date and time
                      January 16, 2010, 2:06PM

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