Since the 2006 mid-term congressional elections that began the Republican party’s decline, American pundits have been scanning the horizon for models of conservatism that the GOP might usefully emulate. David Cameron was their first nominee. His embrace of climate-change regulations and, more significantly, his wary avoidance of traditional Tory issues like immigration and ‘Europe’ marked him out as a new kind of conservative (that is, a not very conservative conservative.) Today they rarely speak of him. It is easier for them and kinder to him. He now campaigns desperately on the issues he once shunned and retreats quietly from green policies which are pushing consumer energy bills relentlessly upward.
Canada’s Stephen Harper, though electorally successful, never really captured their interest. He is a chill cerebral conservative who employs a gradualist strategy of moving so quietly to the right that nobody will notice how far he has gone. For some reason American pundits are among those who haven’t noticed. It may have something to do with Canada.
They will now turn their attention down under. Though few votes have been cast and none counted, the auguries indicate that the Rt Hon Anthony John Abbott will lead the Coalition to victory and be invited to form the next government. If so, he will have defeated in quick succession Australia’s three most dominant politicians since the people retired John Howard: namely, Malcolm Turnbull (defeated on points in a preliminary round), Julia Gillard (withdrawn hurt by trainer), and Kevin Rudd (challenger declared the winner when the champion knocked himself out in the final stages.)
That’s a formidable record. What makes it still more impressive is that when Abbott was elected opposition leader three years ago by one vote, his selection was treated by most of the media as an act of suicide by the Liberal party. He proved that condescension wrong in the 2010 election when he unexpectedly held Labor to what was effectively a draw. Yet as Paul Kelly — who is the shrewdest Abbott-watcher for my money — has pointed out, Labor and its media mates so convinced themselves that their opponent is an extremist and free-market ideologue that they consistently misread and underestimated his appeal. At the same time, Abbott had not ‘made the sale’ with the voters until the last few weeks. He was still not fully understood. But Rudd’s erratic performance since ousting Gillard has helped him to win over the doubters.
If so, Abbott will now get the chance to remake the Liberal party in something like his own image. That image is of a new kind of conservative, but a conservative new conservative. He will broaden the Liberal Coalition by bringing into it social and ethnic groups that Labor has taken for granted and now risks losing altogether. In that regard Abbott is the anti-Cameron. Cameron went looking for votes in the crowded metropolitan middle-class centre, competing with the Labour, Liberal and Green parties for them, embracing cultural liberalism and ignoring not only traditional Tories but also social conservatives and patriotic working-class voters. Across the English-speaking world, however, these groups of voters have been moving right on economic issues as well as on cultural ones in response to the hostility or contempt of left-wing parties towards whole industries, those who work in them, and their often gritty social attitudes. This is a chance in a generation to realign the parties. Abbott knows it, and he directs his appeal to the forgotten families and the Howard battlers, emphasising the moral value of work as well as its economic necessity. Mining constituencies obviously respond to such appeals. So do voters in strong Labor areas who support the monarchy.
A third such group is immigrants. Abbott is about more than ‘Stop the Boats’, important though that is and bravely correct though he has been on it. He is sometimes said — by himself among others — to have changed his mind about multiculturalism. In fact, he’s done something more interesting: he talks to immigrants as an Australian who loves his country’s institutions, including those linking it with England, and who assumes that they either feel the same way or will shortly do so. He treats multiculturalism as a resting place on the way to a full Australian identity. It’s a relaxed patriotism that rests on the belief that people who come honestly to Australia like the country and its institutions. And it works.
A customary objection to this argument is to suggest that these electoral appeals are bogus. If conservatives really empathised with the working and middle classes, they would introduce more generous social measures to strengthen struggling families. Abbott agrees with that (minus the cultural condescension). In his very readable book, Battlelines, he argues strongly on demographic as well as social grounds for a family wage that would recognise the social contribution that parents make in raising children. In this campaign he has promised similarly generous maternity leave payments. Indeed, the possible cost of these social conservative promises opened up the only real vulnerability in his campaign — which, if Rudd had not bungled his attack and forced the Treasury to firmly disavow it—might have halted the Liberal bandwagon then starting to accelerate. Among other things, this was a test of Abbott’s commitment to the forgotten families. He passed it easily.
Free-market libertarians mutter behind their hands that this sounds too much like paternalist state intervention. If the Coalition is to become Australia’s dominant governing party, however, it will need to attract these and/or other voters who as yet don’t buy into libertarian economics. If it does so — and the polls suggest that Abbott is winning them over – they would change the party by their support and presence. It would become a larger, looser and more accommodating tent, more in tune with the Great Australian Middle. Such parties tend to win elections. As members in good standing of such a party, libertarians would win their fair share of debates and gain the benefits of a long-term stable economic policy that stops a little short of libertarian purity. Not a bad bargain (even if it often irritates me). Abbott knows how parties expand from his own experience. He entered Liberal politics through a conservative Catholic side-door at a time when the Liberal party was seen as a Protestant redoubt. Thirty years later he won its leadership in a contest with two other Catholics. He may open his party still wider to new ideas and new groups this weekend.
John O’Sullivan is a former editor of National Review in New York.