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Kathy Gyngell: Tony Abbott was one of the West’s few conservative leaders. He was felled by economics not culture


Am I the only person lamenting the brutal overthrow of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott?

Alack and alas. Yes I am mourning his departure for the Western World is now remarkably short of socially conservative political leaders. Even Stephen Harper of Canada has been tacking to the centre ground, which is where David Cameron placed himself from the start.

When Tony Abbott took over the Liberal Party in 2009, then when he became the 28th Prime Minister of Australia on 18 September 2013, it seemed like a breath of fresh air – a politician able to speak his mind and express his conservative values without fear or favour. Of his faith, his understanding of the importance of family and why gay marriage would undermine this essential social building block there was no question. No social libertarian he.

Nor was he an intellectual slouch with his Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and his subsequent BA Hons in PPE.

His political experience was under the tutelage of John Howard, one of Australia’s most successful and clear-thinking prime ministers, becoming a member of his Cabinet following the 1998 election, then Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business. In 2003, he became Minister for Health and Ageing, keeping this position until the Howard Government was defeated at the 2007 election.

Initially, he served in the shadow cabinets of Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, but he resigned from the frontbench in November 2009 in protest against Turnbull’s support for the Rudd Government’s proposed Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS)

He oozed strength, principle and experience. But Australian politics is an ugly place to operate as Malcolm Turnbull’s successful overnight coup last week illustrates.

There had been, we are now told, widespread discontent with Mr Abbott’s performance at all levels in the party. He broke election promises on health and education reforms. Then this avid monarchist (Turnbull is an equally avid Republican) had the temerity to select Prince Philip as a new antipodean knight (I applaud him – Prince Philip deserves more appreciation in this country before it is too late) offending the new metrosexual, liberal left leaning Aussie public. And, dear me, the report continues, he all too often sought to impose his own views on his Cabinet.

One thing we can be sure of is that if he hadn’t, the ghost of Mrs Thatcher would have reproved him.

The reality I believe is otherwise. Political leaders can ride high if the economy is working or if there is a common enemy to overcome (reactionary or greedy unions, for example). They can even weather media gaffes. But if the economy goes wrong and they stay on the wrong side of the culture wars they risk all.

We will never know what Tony Abbott could have achieved if commodity prices hadn’t collapsed.

But they did and with a vengeance. The commodities boom, which a succession of Aussie PMs had the benefit of with the apparently insatiable Chinese appetite for everything Australia could unearth, suddenly collapsed earlier this summer. It threatened to turn the high-riding Lucky Country into the new Greece.

The country’s newfound ease and wealth was threatened. In that environment every political and economic mistake is pounced on and the social conservative outlier, Tony Abbott, was no exception. Step forward Malcolm Turnbull to exploit a vicious sequence of poor poll showings, stemming in part at least from the quite dramatic economic downturn.

But as one Jeremy Corbyn must be finding out to his cost, it is one thing to protest and criticise; it is another to take responsibility for day to day management of a party or a country – let alone deal with a fundamental economic crisis.

So we will see how the very confident Malcolm Turnbull will now do with the economy.

Turnbull said that Abbott had to go because first he made ‘too many captain’s picks’ (in Oxford English he chose too many of his own favourites); second, he was uncollegiate (i.e he asserted his authority which I thought is what leaders are meant to do) and thirdly in 30 successive polls Abbott’s ratings kept falling.

It would be churlish to remind interested readers what was said about the same Mr Turnbull when he lost the leadership of the Liberal Party some years ago by a single vote : one, he made too many captain’s picks, two, he was uncollegial and three, he was in opposition.

I would challenge anyone to predict (unless there is a commodity price upturn) whether Turnbull will prove better able to re-ignite the economy or improve its management. But I would put my money on Australia now endorsing gay marriage with the metropolitan Turnbull at the helm.

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Kathy Gyngell
Kathy Gyngell
Kathy is Editor of The Conservative Woman. She is @kathygyngelltcw on GETTR and is back on Twitter.

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