Move to the Right Not Winning Down Under

As Republicans in this country continue to debate whether their long march to the ideological right has gone far enough or needs to go further, the engineer of a rightward turn in another country’s conservative party is in pretty deep trouble. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, seventeen months after a big victory for his (conservative) Liberal Party, has an approval rating in the 30s and just survived a tough leadership challenge (or “spill”).

At National Review, John O’Sullivan offers a very revealing analysis of Abbott’s problems–revealing less for the light it casts on Australian politics than for its self-conscious effort to absolve conservative ideology for the blame. Indeed, he attributes Abbott’s swoon in no small part to “two departures from conservative orthodoxy;”

In government he backed away from a promise to repeal “Section 18C” of the race-relations act that, as interpreted in a controversial court ruling, had greatly expanded the concept of giving offense and so greatly increased restrictions on free speech. That retreat offended his libertarian supporters and was seen as a betrayal by his media allies. It goes some way to explaining the latter’s tetchy and irritated columns about him in the early stages of the leadership-spill debate.

More significant, however, is Abbott’s large socio-economic “signature” reform: a very expensive scheme of six months’ paid parental leave for women. That proposal bore the mark of Abbott’s early political experience. He entered the Liberal party through the side door of the Catholic social-justice wing of Australian conservatism. His book, Battlelines, argues strongly that state assistance should reward service to society at least as much as meet need, in particular the service of parents in bringing up the next generation. Family assistance, seen in this light, is a form of workfare.

Whatever the merits of the argument, it’s hardly a conventional right-wing one. And because parental leave was to be financed by a tax on business, it was highly unpopular with both the corporate and free-market wings of the Liberal party.

You might want to remember that comment, and the Australian example it involves, when thinking about similar Reformicon ideas in the U.S. for boosting marriage rates and making “responsible” parenthood pay via the tax code. A lot of conservatives in the pursuit of coalition politics will go along with such social-conservative schemes, but are quick to blame them if they mess up the fiscal equation. That was the case here with George W. Bush, who got enormous guff from the Right for his “compassionate conservative” initiatives, as opposed to his tax cuts and wars, which remained very popular among most conservatives.

O’Sullivan also blames Abbott’s Labor Party predecessors for profligate fiscal policies, of course, which we will hear in the U.S. over the next four-to-eight years if Republican regain control of the White House in 2016. The important thing to understand, as always, is that among Republicans the only thing that cannot be blamed for misfortunte is conservative ideology. It can itself be betrayed, or inadequately pursued, or perhaps even misapplied. But conservative ideology survives every experience untouched by failure or scandal, which is why more, more, more of it also seems like a good idea to its devotees.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.