These days, Malcolm Fraser is much beloved by the left. As readers of Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs (which Fraser co-wrote with the leftist journalist Margaret Simons) will know, the former Liberal prime minister now receives standing ovations from sandal-wearing intelligentsia at taxpayer-subsidised literary festivals.
But it was not always so. As Graham Freudenberg pointed out in his 1977 book A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam in Politics, “Fraser’s performance in 1975 was one of the most concentrated, single-minded and effective exercises in political destruction ever undertaken in Australian history”.
Fraser took over the Liberal Party leadership from Billy Snedden in March 1975, opposed virtually all Whitlam Labor’s legislation in the Senate and finally blocked supply. In the parlance of the day, Fraser was the embodiment of negative politics. A veritable “Dr No”. But his tactics worked. In December 1975, Fraser led the Coalition to one of the biggest victories in Australian history.
Today, Tony Abbott is vilified by Julia Gillard and her colleagues, along with quite a few commentators, for his negativity. Yet this is not unusual behaviour for an opposition leader. In Freudenberg’s terminology, since Abbott became Liberal Party leader in December 2009, after narrowly defeating Malcolm Turnbull, he has sought to bring about the political destruction of first Kevin Rudd and now Julia Gillard by means of a concentrated attack on Labor’s emissions trading scheme or carbon tax. The 2010 election result and current opinion polls indicate this tactic is succeeding.
Jonathan Green, the presenter of ABC RN’s Sunday Extra, is one of a bevy of leftists who have recently acquired presenter positions at the ABC. On ABC News Breakfast last Thursday, Green ran the familiar leftist mantra that “Tony Abbott is a total dud that everyone hates but he’s going to be prime minister because the other lot are just such an incompetent rabble”.
Green, citing Australian Financial Review journalist Geoff Kitney, went on to claim that Abbott’s net approval rating is minus 17 and “that compares with the great minus approval ratings of history like Billy Snedden who copped a minus 30 at one point”.
But Snedden was not replaced as Liberal leader in 1975 on account of his approval rating. He was dumped because he was a lightweight who did not enjoy the confidence of his parliamentary colleagues. The real comparison is not between Abbott and Snedden but between Abbott and Fraser. In the last opinion poll taken when he was opposition leader, Fraser had an approval rating of 33 per cent and a disapproval rating of 54 per cent – in other words, a net approval rating of minus 21.
Unlike Snedden, Fraser had the ability and authority to keep his fellow Liberal MPs on side as he pursued Whitlam.
Likewise, Abbott has been able to get both Liberal and National MPs behind him as he set about the destruction of a first-term government and, since the election, a minority government. Many commentators thought this could not be done.
Quite a few commentators, who concede that Labor will lose the next election, want Turnbull to lead the Liberals. La Trobe University academic Robert Manne, in the current issue of the left-wing magazine The Monthly, has written a soft piece on the former Liberal leader.
Clearly Manne believes Turnbull should be Australia’s alternative prime minister. What’s lacking in the piece is any sense of self-awareness. Why should Liberal MPs, or indeed Coalition voters, care that a self-confessed Greens voter such as Manne believes Abbott should be dumped as opposition leader?
Unlike the Gillard/Rudd leadership battles, Abbott prevailed over Turnbull on a matter of policy – namely the emissions trading scheme/carbon tax. If elected, his first priority would be to junk Labor’s carbon tax. In other words, Abbott intends to dismantle his predecessor’s legacy, something Fraser did not attempt. It is a significant policy challenge, incorrectly classified by some as simple negativity.
Abbott has been consistently underestimated by many political opponents and commentators alike. He was an able cabinet minister, who understood the need for expenditure restraint, in the highly competent Howard government. It is fashionable for sneering secularists and sectarians alike to mock Abbott’s Catholic faith. In fact, he is a traditional Catholic who believes in human imperfection, forgiveness and eventual redemption. Abbott is no fanatic and is not without personal doubt.
Quite a few Liberals and commentators believed Labor’s Bob Hawke did not have the discipline to be a political leader. He became one of Australia’s most successful prime ministers.
Today, it is fashionable to label Abbott, in Green’s words, a “total dud”. This analysis is not supported by a scrutiny of the Opposition Leader’s political resume´.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.