Abbott & Hockey as neoliberals

Considering Joe Hockey’s farewell to parliamentary politics. How are we to explain the close alliance between him and Tony Abbott? Hockey after all was Turnbull lite in the eyes of the media with a charmingly multicultural background. Hockey supported the Republic against Abbott and continues to provide tepid support for this cause. My view is that both Abbott and Hockey were conservatives, it is true that their respective economic and cultural enthusiasm reflected different aspects of the conservative cause, but all ideologies are coalitions. This is not the way that many observers understand the Liberal Party. The favoured model is a division between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’. Liberalism is seen as being about individual freedom (J S Mill), conservatism about tradition and authority (Edmund Burke). From this perspective Hockey and Abbott are unnatural allies. Neoliberalism is seen as being about ‘freedom’.


In this perspective Tony Abbott is seen as ultimately not a friend of neoliberalism, he is seen as one who draws his political inspiration from traditions allegedly hostile to the market. Catholicism is the favoured one here. Hence Ben Wilkie:


Indeed, anyone who used the word ‘neoliberal’ to describe Abbott either doesn’t know the meaning of the word or doesn’t know Abbott. He frequently espoused traditional values over egoism and self-interest, a strong state over a minimal state, nationalism over internationalism, organicism over atomism. Abbott defined himself in terms of community and compassion, valuing protection, conservation, and solidarity in the face of globalisation, insecurity, and de-traditionalisation — he saw threats everywhere in the world; his recent ‘death cult’ mantra was a 21st century restatement of ‘reds under the bed’. He made an utter mess of most of these convictions, but they were there, somewhere, even if they were hardly acted upon while Abbott was in office. These same values, at first, made him deeply wary of the Liberal Party: in the late-80s, Abbott wrote to his mentor, B. A. Santamaria, that the Liberals were ‘without soul, direction or inspiring leadership’, and that they were divided between ‘surviving trendies and the more or less simple-minded advocates of the free market.’ He lamented the Liberal’s ‘inappropriate economic Ramboism’.


Perhaps but the point is why were ‘they hardly acted upon’. Much was made of B. A. Santamaria’s criticism of economic rationalism in his final years, but when Santamaria counted for something he was a critic of the expansion of the state under Labor governments in the 1940s. Old-style Catholicism luxuriated in anti-capitalist rhetoric but pre-World war II European Catholics aligned themselves with the political right and slowed the growth of the welfare state.


The other consequence of this approach is the debate on the left about how to interpret Malcom Turnbull. One approach is to assert that because Turnbull is a ‘liberal’ he must be a ‘neoliberal’ and so committed to minimal government. Van Badham a reliable partisan for an imagined ALP-Greens coalition:


In what should ring alarm bells for the Turnbull epoch, his first speech after his caucus victory committed him to the principles of “freedom, the individual and the market”, echoing earlier statements that “the most efficient way for people to resolve their employment relations is by direct dealings between the employer and the employee”.


As if a Liberal politician would say anything else. Australian politics is at the elite level unidimensional. Turnbull will be to the left of Abbott on economic and social policy. Ideas only became ideologies that shape policy when they gain a material base.

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