Conservative parties and leaders win when people think they are strong but lose when people think they are nasty. After the political disaster of the 2014 Budget, Australian conservatives have a fight on their hands to prevent this happening to Tony Abbott.
The Liberal leadership clearly now knows this. The most remarkable thing in politics for a long time was Joe Hockey’s “This is fair” speech defending his Budget to the Sydney Institute earlier this month. The Treasurer who was an ambitious right winger in April 2012 is now posing as a defensive moderate just two years later. Why?
Because a party and leadership that has cleverly exploited modes of masculinity and strength for four and half years converted style into substance on Budget night – and went too far. Now they find themselves in a confused public retreat.
We’ve seen this happen in Australia before. In 1991, John Hewson – then still a radical right-wing Opposition leader – soared in public support on his Fightback! plan to abolish Medicare, create a three dollar per hour youth wage, and fund top end tax cuts with a tax on everyone. That was bad and contained the seeds of his defeat; but in many ways, it was when he turned nasty, saying things like you can tell you have a “renter” in your street from the unmown lawn, that he lost public support and lost the election in turn.
It’s happened overseas too. Conservatives often pick a fight with the present and point to the virtues of the past. But when George Bush Sr said during his 1992 election campaign
“We’re going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.”
A lot of ordinary people said “hey, I think he’s talking about us”. Nasty.
At their turn of the century electoral nadir, important figures in the UK Conservative Party even publicly acknowledged their Nasty Party crisis – but couldn’t persuade the leadership. Ian Duncan Smith went to the 2005 UK election on the notorious slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” – frightening both voters and progressives, for a time – but not even a divided government and a war-weary electorate could put the Tories into office. Why? Fears of his nasty plans for cuts in public spending and jobs.
The fundamental problem for the Liberal Party is not one of political style – it is one of policy substance. Australians just don’t support petrol tax increases, new GP charges and pension cuts. As George Megalogenis has written, “Australia leans centre-left on the issues – even in the bush.” This is why the Budget has failed politically – not through poor salesmanship, but because the people don’t want what the Government is selling.
Yet the failure of the Budget is now a challenge for conservative political style too, because the Abbott model of leadership is very poorly equipped for turning perceptions of nastiness back into perceptions of strength.
Tony Abbott has never relied on personal popularity – and this has limited the Liberal Party’s success under his leadership. Despite the bitter divisions in the last Labor Government he lost in 2010 and won a very modest election in 2013. Compared to the first-term Liberal landslides of 1949, 1975 and 1996, Abbott’s majority is no two-term buffer.
What Abbott has done in his four and half years as Liberal leader is to try to turn this weakness into a strength – to convince people that if he’s not nice, then at least he is strong. This has only every partly succeeded, but it has made a difference to his appeal.
George Lakoff’s 1996 text Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think spoke about the conservative “Strict Father” and the liberal “Nurturant Parent” models of leadership. The conservative commentator David Brooks retooled this into the “Daddy Party” versus “Mummy Party” thesis – the line that launched a thousand opeds. This has had a particular resonance in Australia, where it’s often been argued that issues on which Labor wins (health, education) are both “feminine” and “State” by contrast with the “masculine” and “Federal” issues on which the Liberals win (national security, the economy).
That’s mostly overdetermined and overcomplicated – or as Tony Abbott himself might put it, it’s mostly “absolute crap”. But there’s a grain of truth there.
When he’s been most successful, whatever else you say about him, Tony Abbott has looked like a man. Yet after the disastrous Budget sell which had everything up to and including Bond villain cigars, it’s clear there’s a lot of different ways to be a masculine figure in public life.
Think about the last scene of Gallipolli, as the argument rages about whether to press on at the Nek.
You can be a Prime Minister who sounds like Bill Hunter’s officer of the Light Horse, saying “I can’t ask the men to do what I wouldn’t do myself.”
Or you can be one who sounds like the nasty bastard with a corrected accent in headquarters insisting “the attack must continue at all costs.”
Right now, it’s clear which role you would cast Tony Abbott.