Moral hyperopia: Tony Abbott can see the forest, it’s the trees he’s overlooking

When Prime Minister Tony Abbott was asked about dwindling support for his own party – ironically by ardent supporter Miranda Devine – last week, he responded that the people of NSW’s South Coast gave no indication that they believed his government to be in “diabolical trouble.” Instead, Abbott insisted that his party are “only ones with a plan for our country’s future.”

One wonders what the folks of Sussex Inlet think now.

The last few days have been a smorgasbord of criticism against the Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, in the wake of the bizarre decision to award a resurrected knighthood to the equally bizarre Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip. However, in the wake of the close analysis on Prime Minister Abbott and the serious of misguided policy, political, and flatly embarrassing “barnacles” that have characterised his leadership, many have ignored the broader cultural and political setting in which the Prime Minister initially flourished as Opposition Leader, and in which he is now floundering.

The characterisation of Tony Abbott as short-sighted Prime Minister are not without basis. When the carbon tax was repealed, ALP Senator Penny Wong lambasted the myopic decision.

“I think future generations will look back on these bills and they will be appalled … at the short-sighted, opportunistic selfish politics of those opposite and Mr Abbott will go down as one of the most short-sighted, selfish and small people ever to occupy the office of prime minister.”

This visual analogy is informative. Short-sightedness, or myopia, is a condition by which the eye cannot make out what is far away, but can see what is nearby as precisely as anybody else. What political leaders ought to be is far-sighted.  The prudent politician, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, sees “as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.”

But the difficulty here is that Tony Abbott is far-sighted. In fact, that’s all he is, and that’s the problem. As any optometrist will tell you, far-sightedness, or hyperopia, is equally as problematic as myopia. The different is only in what one fails to see.

The Prime Minister didn’t see the outrage generated by the Prince Phillip fiasco coming because the decision fit into his grand narrative for Australia. A constitutional monarchy closely tied to, and enamoured by, its ruling monarchs, where hard work is rewarded and laziness is frowned upon, where each person plays a small role in making the whole great, and where the interests of the nation outweigh the interests of individuals.

Increased surveillance, GP co-payments, tough border security, these are sacrifices that individuals have to pay to defend the grand narrative that is, for Abbott, the nation itself; an entity related to, but seemingly removed from the people who populate it.

Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who Abbott describes as the “greatest academic exponent” of conservatism, described politics as being defined by two opposing understandings of the character and nature of political association: the nomocratic and teleocratic models of politics.

Nomocratic politics is interested in the preservation of the political association itself, as well as using law to enable citizens to choose for themselves what kind of lives they ought to lead, whilst teleocratic politics is characterised by the unification of individual efforts toward a singular, substantive goal. Teleocratic governments are well-disposed toward grand narratives, and they risk subjecting individuals, small groups, and at times even the majority on a path that the government is chosen.

Tony Abbott knows all this. And he knows that Oakeshott was sceptical of the viability of teleocratic politics in a liberal society. He has, however, fallen to the trapping of grand narratives and visions for Australia at the expense of consultation with the people, adherence to election promises, and even – in the case of asylum seekers – in flagrant violation of international law, common morality, and basic human decency.

This is because the Prime Minister is not just a conservative like Oakeshott; he’s also a warrior in a culture war that he cannot abide losing, even if it isn’t a war he begun. Tony Abbott may have shot to prominence in his pugilistic conflicts with Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, but the intense rivalry between the progressive left and traditional right long predates Abbott’s prominence, and it is likely to continue long after him. And that’s a good thing.

Debate, dissent, and a multitude of opinions are why we have liberal societies, something that ever person who was #jesuischarlie should know. But the growing hostility between increasingly polemical sides risks making victory more important than the process itself. And we’re all to blame.

Those of the left, waiting until election day to throw Abbott out of office, paying no mind to the fact that his alternative, Bill Shorten, is no better except that he happens to be on the right side, are buying into the same kind of thinking as Abbott. Those who think that national security justifies the violation of individual liberties or increased monitoring of Muslim Australians are no different to those who would, in the interests of defending innocent Muslims, pretend that Islam is in no way complicit in the terrorist attacks our world has witnessed in past weeks. Each group subverts reasonable and honest discourse to the greater goal of victory in the debate, in the polls, in the war to define what our nation is, and what it stands for. But what will our nation look like after the war is won on those terms?

Conflict begets teleocratic thinking as we unite toward a shared purpose: victory. But teleocratic organisations lose their meaning once the goal is achieved. They naturally disband, like a revolutionary force once the war is won.  Those who are united, having achieved what they desired, will lose interest and disband. Principles of honest debate, checks and balances on power, and a spirit of good will against those who disagree will be of diminished value, and – having achieved the goal of defining Australia – a nation united under a terminable goal will slowly disband.

A nation is not a project. It is a union of people sharing in community for the flourishing of all. This will require shared and united activity at times, but ultimately the nation is nothing more than the people within it. When you lose sight of that, it’s easy to see the forest, but you diminish the value of the trees within it.

We should all keep our eye a little closer on the ball.

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