‘The politics of imperfection’

Behind the contrived fluoro-jacketed appearances at workplaces, behind the simplistic sloganeering, is someone with a far more considered view of the world than his critics suppose. Abbott is comprehensible, but only on his own terms. You don’t have to like those terms, but it is possible to grasp them, to get some sense of how Abbott thinks about politics, and why his critics are destined to maintain their visceral rage towards him.

In the latest Monthly, Waleed Aly takes a nuanced look at Tony Abbott. It complements David Marr’s Quarterly Essay, “Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott”, from late last year.

Abbott drives a lot of people barmy, me included at times. His negativity, relentlessness and sheer chutzpah since taking over the top job have not been pretty. Although it must be admitted, to date at least, they’ve been effective.

In any event, you’d be a fool to underestimate him. His intelligence and fluency with language shone through the writings quoted in Marr’s essay. Equally, he mostly got good marks from staffers and bureaucrats at departments he presided over as Minister.

Aly sees a clear distinction between Abbott’s personal beliefs and his political pragmatism:

He accepts the idea that conservatives have no business trying to create a world that realises their own moral vision: “Unlike liberalism or socialism, conservatism does not start with an idea and construct a huge superstructure based on one insight or preference,” he writes, adding elsewhere that “ideologues want to impose their values on others. Pragmatists want to solve others’ problems as long as the cure is not worse than the disease.” He puts himself very much in the latter category.

This kind of conservatism is much misunderstood today. The word has been hijacked by neocons, the religious right and the rest of the grabbag of malcontents manning one side of the culture wars we’ve been plagued by in recent decades. Old-fashioned conservatism of the sort that Aly suggests Abbott believes in and follows is a very different animal:

Any serious conservative understands that there is a world of difference between private morality and public policy. It embraces axiomatically what Anthony Quinton dubbed “the politics of imperfection”: this idea that social norms should not be bent to the will of some overarching moralism. The great British conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called it a “mood of indifference”, which requires the conservative “to rein in one’s own beliefs and desires, to acknowledge the current shape of things, to feel the balance of things in one’s hand, to tolerate what is abominable, to distinguish between crime and sin”.

Let’s hope Aly’s take is roughly right and that Abbott’s performance in opposition will prove to have been a lousy indicator of what we can expect if he ends up on the government benches.


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