This attempted marriage of liberal and conservative thought doesn't work. In practice, the shift is always toward liberalism.
Abbott gave a speech on the weekend to the Young Liberals convention in which the mixture of genuinely conservative thought and radically liberal policies was especially gruesome.
Here is the Burkean conservatism:
As conservatives, we have Burke’s sense that a successful society involves keeping faith with those that came before and those that will come after us. Our instinct is to respect and cherish our country and its institutions because they have helped to make us what we are ... We never lightly change the things that really matter and, when change is necessary, try to change as little as possible.
This would be great if it were reflected in Liberal Party policy. But it's not. It's not reflected in the Liberal Party immigration policy which Abbott supports. Nor is it reflected in Abbott's view on family:
Similarly, we can’t be judgemental of people who are trying to make the most of the circumstances they find themselves in. Supporting families shouldn’t mean favouring one family type over others. We have to resist yearning for “ideal” families and “traditional” mothers. Every family is a source of nurturing and security for its members. All parents are striving for the best for their children. There can be no antediluvian thoughts linking childcare and women neglecting their children during the working day. Whether formal or informal, for parents in the paid or the unpaid workforce, at least some childcare is the absolutely essential means for most parents to give their children a decent standard of living and to have a fulfilled life.
I wouldn't mind if Abbott had simply said that we shouldn't be judgemental toward people who find themselves in less than ideal circumstances, that there is a place for childcare and that many single parents work hard for their children and so on. He's gone much further than this, though, and endorsed the radical position which claims that there are many family types, each as good as the other. ("Supporting families shouldn't mean favouring one family type over others ... Every family is a source of nurturing and security for its members ...")
Abbott has effectively committed himself to the idea that fathers are not essential to family life, and that the connection between mother and baby is not as important as it was once believed to be. These are ideas which don't make for a stability of family life nor for a determined commitment to parenting (if my role as a father makes no difference to the quality of family life, then why would I make such an effort?).
Abbott has rejected a defence of a traditional culture of family life, in favour of a brave new world of more fluid relationships. Yet he still claims the mantle of Burkean conservative:
Today’s anxieties are less that Australia might become an economic backwater but that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The next successful prime minister will tap people’s yearning to be a community as well as an economy; to belong as well as to succeed. A Liberal who understands the importance of the social fabric and the part Burke’s “little platoons” play in it is more likely to provide this than a Labor leader addicted to bureaucracy.
Again, fine words, but to set people the task of "belonging" after the natural forms of community have been torn away is probably not what Edmund Burke had in mind.
So what has gone wrong in Abbott's politics? Why has his reading of Burke done so little good?
One problem is that Abbott still takes as his central principle the liberal ideal of "freedom". In the liberal philosophy, freedom is understood to mean the unimpeded individual will. We are supposed to be, within the limits of order, free to choose in any direction.
In this view, individuals are free when they are unencumbered by ties of ethnicity, or by traditional family roles, or by the authority of fathers, or by ideals of masculinity or femininity.
I don't accept this understanding of freedom, and so I can't cheer on Abbott when he says:
Because we place our faith in the common sense and decency of every human being, we think that people should be free. This preference for freedom would be almost revolutionary in the Labor Party but it is an article of faith for us. We are the freedom party but it is freedom on ethical foundations that we support, in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, because it offers the surest path to a better society.
Abbott has written elsewhere that "The Liberal Party’s animating principle is freedom". Once you accept "freedom", understood in terms of liberal philosophy, as the "animating principle" of your politics, then the things that matter aren't likely to be upheld, no matter how much Burke you read.
Which brings me to a final point. If Abbott lived at a time when the unspoken understanding of things was conservative, rather than liberal, then Burkean conservatism might have led to something better. But, as Lawrence Auster has pointed out, a Burkean reverence for a received understanding of things has radical consequences when liberalism has begun to dominate as a tradition.
Here is Auster writing about the British columnist Theodore Dalrymple:
I gather that what Dalrymple wants to bring back is an appreciation of non-conceptual Burkean prejudice, the wisdom of the accumulated experience of society, adherence to habit and tradition. The problem is that this Burkean outlook can only work in a society that has a sound and functioning tradition. In a society that has been transformed by leftist ideological radicalism, as Britain has been, Burkeanism is worse than useless, because the received habits and prejudices that it seeks to preserve are the habits and prejudices of the dominant left. It is for this very reason that British "conservatism" has been so helpless to hold back the ever advancing tides of cultural leftism since World War II and particularly in the ruinous period of Blair. Indeed, under the leadership of David Cameron, conservatism has defined itself as simply a type of left-liberalism, which is the natural destination of Burkean conservatism under a left-liberal order.
Read the newspaper columns of even the best conservatives in Britain today. They are unable to wage an effective intellectual and moral battle against the forces of destruction, because of that same British/Burkean dislike of first principles to which Dalrymple appeals--that distaste for conceptual thinking and clear distinctions that renders the conservatives so weak and watery.
Only a conceptual, rational conservatism, a conservatism that attempts to discover and articulate the essential truths of man and society, can fight back effectively against the dominant leftist ideology and its false principles.