LITTLE WINSTON DREAMS THIS IS HIS FINEST HOUR
Sydney Morning Herald
April 2 2010
"When Winston Churchill drove to Buckingham Palace in the dark days of
1940 to accept the King’s commission, he felt his whole life had been
but a preparation for this moment, or so he recounts in his memoirs.
This is not wartime Britain. And I am certainly not Winston Churchill.
Still, I feel well equipped to take on the leadership of the party
in what are testing times for the conservative side of politics".
Tony Abbott concluded the afterword to the new edition of his book
Battlelines with these words. He wrote them just four months ago,
on December 4, after his surprise elevation to the leadership of the
Liberal Party three days earlier.
Abbott’s comparison is instructive. He clearly sees parallels between
himself and Britain’s wartime leader, both of them political mavericks,
both seen as last-resort leaders and, perhaps not incidentally,
both of them writers.
Like Churchill, Abbott has been a journalist and has now written
a book although, unlike Churchill, he probably won’t win the Nobel
Prize for Literature.
Abbott had not expected to win. "I couldn’t decide whether to be
disappointed or relieved that the next leader would not be me,"
he wrote. Yet once the leadership was bestowed on him, he did not
hesitate. "As I went to sleep at about 3am, I was conscious of
a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give
directions over the whole scene."
This is Churchill, not Abbott, but it is from the same passage in
Churchill’s memoirs quoted above by the Opposition Leader and it is
not drawing too long a bow to suggest that this is the way Abbott
It is certainly how he acted. He immediately set about using his
newfound "authority to give directions over the whole scene" in ways
that startled even his most loyal colleagues.
First, he denounced the government’s emissions trading scheme, even
though it by now contained hard-fought amendments insisted on by the
Coalition. It was just a "great, big, new tax", he said, and would
no longer have the support of the opposition.
Next, he took the unprecedented step of appointing a National
Party member as finance spokesman. By itself that would have been
controversial enough – surrendering a key economic portfolio to the
junior Coalition partner – but by selecting the politically unreliable
Barnaby Joyce, he embarked on a high-risk course that was to prove
Then he announced a hugely expensive paid parental leave scheme that
benefited very high-income earners and would be paid for by an impost
on big business. Abbott did not take this policy to the party room,
or even the full shadow cabinet, but anyone who had read Battlelines
should have seen it coming. The only difference between what was
outlined there and what Abbott subsequently announced was the cost,
which had mysteriously dropped from $4.4 billion to $2.7 billion.
But then budgets and economics have never been Abbott’s strong suit.
Even his "headland" speech on Tuesday, designed to cloak him with
economic credentials – "for nine years I was a minister in the Howard
government and thoroughly absorbed its economic ethos" – was not
only sparse on specifics about what an Abbott government would do
differently from Rudd’s, it was littered with errors of fact and
Other commentators have pointed out Abbott’s spurious contention that
the global financial crisis was mostly a "North Atlantic" crisis which,
therefore, did not require the second stimulus package. And his claim
six European countries had smaller stimuli than Australia, yet have
lower unemployment, is flawed because these are countries where workers
cannot be sacked. Then there’s Abbott’s central economic mantra: the
Coalition will return the budget to surplus and will confine future
expenditures to 25 per cent of GDP.
"The next Coalition government will maintain the tightest fiscal
discipline but it will also aim to maximise Australia’s economic
growth," Abbott said on Tuesday. Exactly how he proposes to do this was
not spelt out, but a reading of the speech, together with Battlelines,
suggests a disregard for pesky financial restraints that would do
his mentor Churchill proud.
Not only is Abbott unrepentant about his parental leave policy
(despite the widespread criticism, including from his colleagues,
about the cost and the equity of the scheme), he proposes to remove
means testing from a number of key welfare payments. These will cost
very big bucks. Interestingly, all these reforms are justified as
being necessary to improve women’s workforce participation while
encouraging women to still have children.
In his speech, Abbott made reference to "a recent Goldman Sachs JBWere
report" that claims "bridging the productivity gap with men should
boost GDP by 20 per cent".
The report is Australia’s Hidden Resource: The Economic Case
for Increasing Female Participation and it was prepared by three
of the firm’s economists and released last November. It was an
"Australianised" version of a similar document produced by the firm in
the US. That report argued that if women’s labour force participation
were to equal men’s, GDP in the US would increase by "as much as 10
per cent". Equally impressive was the finding that the GDP increase
in the Eurozone would be 14 per cent, while for Japan it would be a
startling 21 per cent.
When the same calculations were done for Australia, the finding was
GDP could be boosted by 11 per cent. Most of the report is devoted
to discussing the policy measures needed to achieve this outcome.
Not surprisingly, equal pay, increased childcare subsidies, flexible
working hours, paid parental leave and other measure to make working
attractive – or even feasible – for women are recommended.
"Governments could do much more to close the male-female employment
gap" is one of the report’s conclusions. Equally, the report cautions
that "increases in family support payments this decade have vastly
exceeded the funds dedicated to increasing female participation and
may be acting as a strong disincentive to seek employment".
It is remarkable that Abbott, formerly the champion of traditional
family values, is now advocating policies encouraging mothers into
employment. He changed his mind on maternity leave, he says, under
the influence of "female colleagues who often felt torn between the
demands of parliamentary life and the duties of motherhood". Jackie
Kelly, especially, was an influence, persuading him that childcare
in Parliament House was necessary "if conservative, motherhood-minded
women were to enter Parliament before their children had grown up".
A maternity leave scheme, Abbott argued, "would send the very
traditional message that motherhood is important for all women". As
would universal payments for all children. He proposes to remove
the means test on both the Baby Bonus and Family Tax Benefit A –
at a cost of about $2 billion a year.
In Battlelines, Abbott approvingly quotes Harold Holt in 1941 quoting
John Maynard Keynes’s How to Pay for the War in justifying the Menzies
government’s legislation for a universal child endowment. Yet
in Tuesday’s speech Abbott attacked Kevin Rudd for being a
Abbott is nothing if not inconsistent.
"The Liberal Party certainly has to maintain its credibility as the
best party to manage the economy, but it also has to be clear about
the society it wants," he wrote in Battlelines.
Churchill never worried about how to pay for the war, nor what the
economic face of the peace would look like. He left that to Keynes,
his unofficial chancellor.
Perhaps Abbott hankers for a similar freedom so he can devote all
his energies to transforming Australian society. It’s not quite the
Battle of Britain but we can be sure that Tony Abbott will be just
as dedicated – and just as driven in his own way – as Churchill was.
Churchill dealt with his demons with a daily bottle of finest Dvin
Armenian brandy, along with a good number of glasses of champagne,
claret and scotch, and eight to 10 good Cuban cigars.
Abbott prefers a gruelling physical regimen. His triathlon last weekend
garnered headlines, as his Pollie Pedal bike ride from Melbourne to
Sydney next week undoubtedly will as well, but it is the obsessive
daily exercise that tells us a lot about Tony Abbott.
This is a man who needs to constantly test, and even punish, his
body; who gives vent to his psychic battlelines through well over
an hour a day of physical exertion. Who took up board-surfing to
bond with the boy who turned out not to be his son. Who has to purge
himself after question time with a run or a swim. Who has never quite
reconciled himself to his failure to become a priest but who is now
doing whatever it takes (including acting lessons to appear less
pugilistic) to become prime minister.
He would of course disavow those critics who say, as did his mentor in
his first speech as prime minister to the House of Commons, on May 13,
1940: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."
Instead Tony Abbott will be looking to make this, for which his whole
life has been a preparation, his finest hour.
The question is: will the voting public give it to him? So far,
the answer is a resounding no.