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Thursday, 9 October 2014

Tony Abbott's problem with Australia's most venerable institutions

Tony Abbott's problem with Australia's most venerable institutions

Tony Abbott's problem with Australia's most venerable institutions

its one year in power, the government that Abbott leads has amassed a
dismal record of bullying, belittling and meddling with some of
Australia’s most venerable institutions

Prime minister Tony Abbott: a conservative politician facing venerable institutions.

Prime minister Tony Abbott: a conservative politician facing venerable institutions.
Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Should every TV and radio weather presenter in Australia call prime
minister Tony Abbott and his advisors for their daily forecast? According to Abbott’s advisor Maurice Newman last week, the Bureau of Meteorology
was wrong about, well, the weather. Abbott should have defended our
national weather agency against his advisor’s harmful overreach. Instead
the attack was allowed to stand.

But the besmirching of Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology is far from
an isolated incident. In their first year of government, Abbott and his
closest advisors have been leading radical attacks on some of
Australia’s most important institutions.

In his 2009 book Battlelines, Abbott argued that the Liberal party of
Australia is Australia’s party of conservatism. Indeed for many, Abbott is “the archetypal Australian conservative”.

But one of the central tenets of conservatism is supposed to be
respect for inherited institutions. In Battlelines, Abbott quotes a 1980
statement from Malcolm Fraser with approval, that “[o]nce liberal
institutions are installed in a society, a government which wishes to
preserve them must be in some sense conservative”. Traditional
conservatives mistrust the arrogance of political actors in the present
who would reconstruct institutions in accordance with fashionable
thinking or petty partisan advantage. As Abbott wrote, the “conservative
appreciates that judgement is essentially provisional, wisdom relative,
and success transient.”

Yet in its one year in power, the government that Abbott leads has
amassed a dismal record of bulling, belittling and meddling with some of
Australia’s most venerable institutions.

The CSIRO, founded in 1926, has been the subject of unprecedented budget cuts and political interference. The high court,
established by the constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia and
founded in 1903, became so threatened by budget cuts that chief justice
Robert French had to take the extraordinary step of writing to the prime minister to remind him of the court’s constitutional independence.

Australia’s university system has been subject to enormous
interference, as the government seeks to overturn practices that have
been in place since the 1940’s Menzies era by complete deregulation of
fees. The ABC, established in 1932, is the subject of constant belittlement and denigration by the Abbott government and faces budgetary evisceration.

And of course the most venerable national institution of all is
Australia’s physical environment. Conservatives should, at base, have a
predisposition for conserving the environment. Nothing could be more
profoundly radical than Abbott’s de facto denial of climate change and wilful negligence towards the national natural estate.

In addition to the overt political assaults on our institutions, the
Abbott government is also conspicuous in its unwillingness to think or
act institutionally.

In his short book On Thinking Institutionally,
the American academic Hugh Heclo defines thinking institutionally as a
kind of “respect-in-depth” for the rules of the game rather than mere
preoccupation with winning. According to Heclo, this “respect entails a
deferential regard for something beyond one’s self”.

While noting that a failure to think institutionally might be
intuitively expected to be more common on the radical left, Heclo
acerbically observes that when “results-oriented ‘conservatives’ are not
getting the partisan results they want, you can expect that you and
your institutional values will be thrown overboard”. In other words, if
the political right is not getting the best within liberal institutions,
they will abandon conservative principle and attack the rules of the
game which they are no longer winning.

In recent Australian political history, Abbott and his pack have made
an art of putting short term political gain ahead of the greater good
of the system. Whether it is the confected budget emergency that even
treasurer Joe Hockey has effectively admitted is not real; or bad faith appointments like climate sceptic Dick Warburton reviewing the Renewable Energy Target or Janet Albrechtsen being appointed to the panel that oversees nominations to the ABC Board; the use of royal Commissions to pursue petty political vendettas; or the absurd extension of doctrines of secrecy
to keep Operation Sovereign Borders from being subject to reasonable
public scrutiny, this is a government that values ephemeral advantage
above custodianship of our institutions.

As institutional economists, historians, sociologists – and plain old
common sense – will tell us, a big part of what makes a country
peaceful and prosperous is having stable institutions. From an
environmental perspective, strong and durable institutions are crucial
to lasting sustainability. Our national institutions bind us together;
they are the source of our sense of community, common obligation, and

None of this is to say that institutions do not need to reform, adapt
and change to meet the needs of the times. But nobody could seriously
argue that this is what the Abbott gang has in mind if they attack, say,
the ABC or the Bureau of Meteorology.

Our institutions should embody the spirit of our shared life and be
above the petty ruckus of day to day political advantage. Attacking
Australia’s institutions spreads mistrust, erodes cohesion and gives
life to an ethic of ‘anything goes’ in the name of winning among our
political class. These are all outcomes that conservatives should

In their 2008 work, The Times Will Suit Them: Post-Modern Conservatism in Australia,
political scientists Geoff Boucher and Matthew Sharpe diagnosed the
contemporary Liberal Party as having “jettisoned their belief in the
liberal institutions and democratic ideals that founded modern
Australia”. It is a book worth dusting off to help understand the Abbott

In seeking to achieve narrow political advantage, the Abbott
government is happy to denigrate and damage decades of accumulated
institutional wisdom and practice. Far from being conservative, in its
anti-institutionalism, Abbott is running a radical government that is
attempting to pull up the root and branch of our national life.

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