Battlelines ( 2009 ) by Tony Abbott is an interesting, well written book that is rare in Australian political books in that it is also a book that is of interest for the future, not just the past. It’s no Audacity of Hope but it is a book that also makes the writer more sympathetic.
The book is a collection of related essays rather than a book with one theme. The chapters are: The Making of a Liberal Politician, A Tale of Two Governments, What’s Right, Unfinished Business, Australia’s Biggest Political Problem and How to fix it, Making the States do better, If the 2020 Summit had been fair dinkum and Postscript: Days from Hell.
In the Making of a Liberal Abbott goes over his upbringing and early life. Abbott is absolutely frank in saying he was very privileged. He also writes about how he was reasonably wild as young man. He goes on to talk briefly about his girlfriend who thought that Abbot fathered her child and his foray into the seminary and his time as a Rhodes Scholar. He doesn’t emphasize his intellectual credentials, probably because he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t have to pretend to be a wonk. He also talks about being invited to join the ALP which is unsurprising.
In A Tale of Two Governments Abbot talks about his time in office and the Howard government. He clearly greatly admires Howard for his skill in running things. He liked the way that Howard respected his ministers but would on occasion make overriding decisions. He is clearly annoyed that Howard’s legacy has not been better treated. In doing so at this point he is also helping the Liberals avoid what the ALP suffered after their loss in 1996 where the ALP unwisely disowned the Hawke / Keating legacy. In the book it also clear that Abbott does not loathe the ALP and respects them. It’s good to see this lack of vicious partisanship.
In What’s Right Abbott discusses the Liberal Party’s ideology and the way that it is an interesting combination of liberal and conservative views. He dismisses critics of Howard who regarded Howard as a Free Market fundamentalist. And correctly too. Howard raised social spending, introduced harsher gun laws and other measures that don’t fit into the US Republican style of conservatism. Australia is very lucky to have two major parties that are pragmatic.
In Unfinished Business Abbott goes over social policy and payments under Howard. Interestingly, he wants a reduction in means testing and increased family payments. I.e. he wants more government. He is absolutely upfront about this. This again shows that the Libs are certainly not purely a small government free market party.
In Australia’s Biggest Political Problem Abbott goes over the relationship and responsibilities of the State and Federal Governments. He clearly sees the States as poorly run and failing. He thinks they have little value and should have their powers reduced. It’s a big change. He doesn’t believe that some of Australia’s regions and cities would suffer by the Federal Government picking and choosing issues for electoral reasons. Amusingly, he cites the Mersey Hospital in Tasmania as an example of why the Federal Government should run things. This would appear highly unwise. It did look like the Federal Government was playing politics on that occasion, it was like the Sports Rorts whiteboard affair during the decline of the ALP.
In the chapter on 2020 Summit we get a plethora of policy outlines. Abbott sees the ALP as practicing magic pudding economics. He clearly things they will run into trouble with an inability to balance the Federal Budget. On the environment Abbot is sharp. He has read and knows who Bjorn Lomborg is. It is great to see a politician who has done this. He also quotes Ian Plimer. He is aware that the historical record shows considerably colder temperatures in Europe during the 1500s to 1800s. But he is prepared to go along with popular feeling on the issue and points out that the ALP’s ETS is similar to Howard’s proposed ideas.
In the final chapter Abbot calmly and humbly describes his terrible few days during the 2007 election. He talks about having to tough things out. He then writes about how there is hope for the Libs in future with some voters quite likely to ditch Rudd when things worsen. He also talks about how politics is a vocation that you should take through both the thick and the thin. This is clearly to contrast with Liberals who have decided that the party won’t win the next election and probably the one after that and those who have been parachuted in to leadership. Abbott makes his position clear. He is going to stick around. He is also making clear that he wants to lead the party. He will. This books is a statement of what the Libs will look like when Abbott becomes leader. For this reason alone it is worth reading. It’s also pleasantly short, crisp and is well written. A Rhodes Scholarship and time as a journalist make for a good writer.