Stephen Harper has lost a friend in Tony Abbott in Australia .. what will it mean for October 19 in Canada?

Sep 15th, 2015 | By | Category: In Brief

Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott admire each other’s shirts at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Meeting in Bali, Indonesia, October 2013.

REPORT FROM GREG BARNS IN AUSTRALIA. Stephen Harper might feel a little lonelier today.  With the election of Malcolm Turnbull as Australia’s 29th Prime Minister —  after a late night Liberal Party room vote on Monday (September 14, 2015) — Mr Harper loses an ideological soul mate in Tony Abbott, the man Mr Turnbull replaces.

From at least one Australian point of view, Mr Abbott, only elected in 2013, was cut from almost the same cloth as Mr Harper. Like John Howard, the former Australian Prime Minister (1996-2007) whom Mr Harper modelled himself on, Mr Abbott was socially deeply conservative, a committed ally of Washington in its ‘war on ISIS’, the architect of illiberal anti-terror laws, and an aggressive protagonist in taking on what he saw as the out of touch liberal media in Australia.

Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper in Ottawa, June 2014.

By contrast Mr Turnbull is a social and economic liberal who has much more in common with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key than Mr Harper.  Like Mr Key Mr Turnbull is a believer in same sex marriage, the need to liberalise the economy so as to ensure that the power of ‘disruption’ is harnessed rather than blocked (think Airbnb and Uber), and he is likely to pursue an Australian foreign policy that is more nuanced given the rise of China in the Asia Pacific region.

All this has some further importance in the context of the current Canadian federal election campaign, where Mr Harper’s team has recently deepened its involvement with Lynton Crosby. Mr Crosby is the campaign strategist who has run so many Liberal Party campaigns in Australia over the past three decades, and who is renowned for negative campaigning — scare tactics laced with a touch of xenophobia about asylum seekers.  In Australia now Mr Turnbull is likely to be less receptive to such simplistic tactics. In articulating on Monday why he wanted to replace Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull complained about the reductionist nature of politics in Australia today. Too many slogans and not enough grasping of complexities was his criticism.

Abbott (l) and Turnbull (r) in the Australian federal parliament on Monday night. Both are members of Australia’s Liberal Party (the main conservative party down under). But the federal party caucus has now replaced the more aggressively right-wing Mr. Abbott as prime minister with the more moderate Mr.Turnbull.

In fact Malcolm Turnbull is a modern liberal. He belongs to a political party that has been as conservative as Mr Harper’s Conservatives. But Mr Turnbull understands that such an approach is unsuited to a 21st century democracy.  The gulf between Mr Harper and Mr Turnbull is manifest in their respective attitudes to the British monarchy.  Mr Turnbull founded the Australian Republican Movement, chaired a taskforce on an Australian republic for former Prime Minister Paul Keating (1991-1996), and headed, with this author, the 1999 republic referendum campaign.  Where Mr Harper clings to the notion of the British monarch as a symbol of stability for Canada, Mr Turnbull views the tie as an anachronism for a country like Australia, positioned in the Asian region.

Stephen Harper has lost his last ideological ally among Commonwealth leaders in Tony Abbott. Canadian voters might want to pay some attention to just what this could mean, for the future of one brand of conservative values in Canada today.

Greg Barns is an Australian writer who worked with Malcolm Turnbull on the 1999 Republic referendum campaign.

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