A fascinating column from Paul Kelly over the weekend, which describes how former PM Tony Abbott sees his future role:
The Paris attacks have seen two competing Australian voices in response — Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. The crisis has revealed Abbott’s long-run strategy — positioning himself on the global and domestic stage as a champion of the conservative forces in the current international security crisis.
Abbott believes the threat from Islamist violence is the defining issue of the age. It occupied much of his prime ministership and he intends to become a rallying point in the war of ideas and ideology at its heart. Abbott as a politician can only exist and operate with a mission. It has always been thus — and the deposed prime minister has found his new mission.
While Abbott has taken no decision on his political future, the omens seem clear: he is currently heading towards contesting the next election and carrying a banner for the conservatives, in parliament, the Liberal Party and the public.
Abbott clearly still has allies within the parliamentary Liberal Party, including former defence minister Kevin Andrews, who has now called for Australia to send ground troops to Syria in the war against ISIS. Andrews was mocked by some in the media for his poor showing in the ballot for the Liberal Party deputy leadership on 14 September, but he got 30 votes to Julie Bishop's 70, which demonstrated that there is a sizeable rump in the Liberal Party with misgivings about the more progressive turn of the Turnbull-Bishop leadership team.
But to see this purely as a right-left ideological debate inside the Liberal Party is incomplete. There is also a fundamental difference in threat perception driving this debate. Kelly is correct to say that Abbott and his allies see Islamist terrorism as 'the defining issue of the day'. To get a sense of how deeply this is felt, check out Greg Sheridan's weekend column, in which he describes a morally corrupt and vulgarised West (apparently Ronda Rousey is to blame somehow for the collapse of our civilisation) which is in danger of being overwhelmed by the ISIS threat. Niall Ferguson made a similar argument in a recent op-ed.
As Sheridan correctly identifies in his column, some people simply judge the threat differently. Sheridan defends the claims made by Julie Bishop and George Brandis (both considered ideological moderates within the Liberal Party) that the ISIS threat is 'existential'. Turnbull, of course, argued directly against Bishop when she claimed ISIS was the biggest threat to world order in 70 years, responding that 'Daesh is not Hitler's Germany, Tojo's Japan or Stalin's Russia'. Since taking over as PM, Turnbull has resisted calls to increase Australia's military role in Iraq and Syria, and used more inclusive language about Australia's Muslim community, reinforcing the sense that he sees the threat as serious but not as an existential threat to Australia's multicultural compact.
After outrages such as the recent events in Paris, Beirut, Bamako and in the skies over Egypt, it can be hard to sustain this perspective. Yet Turnbull's case doesn't need to be purely defensive. Australians are clearly unnerved by the ISIS threat, so it's not enough to simply say that the threat is less serious than they might believe. In fact, that course would be politically disastrous. But nor does Turnbull need to embrace the right's rhetoric in order to sound like he takes ISIS seriously. There is a third alternative.
At the heart of the right-wing critique is the sense that Western civilisation is decadent and depraved, and thus vulnerable to a well-disciplined extremist threat. According to Paul Kelly, Abbott's mantra is that 'the West, like Australia, must possess the self-confidence to defend its interests and its universal values.' This fear, that Western civilisation is feeble and on the brink of collapse, has been a right-wing talking point for years now, though the evidence for it is weak.
More to the point, though, this line of argument actually plays right into Turnbull's key message since becoming PM: one of optimism and confidence, a sense that right now is a great time to be alive and be an Australian. Where the hard-right sees only threat and fragility, Turnbull sees a strong country with a hopeful future. Turnbull can play this card against his ideological opponents. Why are they so pessimistic about Western civilisation at a historical moment when it has never been so dominant? Why, when faced only by a small army of poorly equipped extremists, do they have such little faith in a system which has seen off Nazism and communism, and which is a magnet for every persecuted minority in the world, including Muslims?
The right's case is drenched in nostalgia for an Australian society that has disappeared and a distrust of what has replaced it. Starting with his National Security Statement today, Turnbull can counter this with a determined and resolute optimism, one which uses the strengths of modern Australia to fight extremism, and one which refuses to be spooked by a threat that Australia and its allies can contain with sustained, proportional effort.