How do you know the conservatariat’s landed? Because the whining continues even after the jet engines have been shut off, (and all the British people shot).  Days after the elevation of Prebendary Abbott to head of the Libs, the right-wing media were already getting into their “poor me” mode, with Imre Salusinszky writing about the return of the “Howard haters” and Greg Sheridan noting this morning:

It would be a tragedy for our political culture if the commentariat is successful in ruling Tony Abbott out of contention for national leadership on the grounds that he is a conservative Catholic, as though that condition were some kind of communicable disease requiring isolation.

This is a familiar pose from the Howard years — and indeed from all right-wing ressentiment politics, stretching back to the First World War. The logic is circular: X is a true representative of what the ordinary people think, but is not much liked by the cosmopolitans. However, X does not seem to actually be popular with the people of whom he is the true representative. Why? It can only be that the cosmopolitans are telling terrible lies about him. How do we know they’re lies? Because X is the true representative of … and on we go.

The “John Howard is the true spirit of Australia” dodge worked for a while, but the conservatariat  ultimately went mad from drinking their own moonshine. They never saw how contingent was mass public support for Howard. When Howard stopped seeing it too, his political judgement went utterly awry. From that moment he couldn’t put a foot right.

Though Howard was of the right of the party, especially  on IR, he was never of the core religious-cultural conservative right. His family were Anglican (though they attended  a Methodist church) — in such a cosmology, God is sort of third-in-command, below the Queen and Menzies. He’s always kept his view on abortion quiet, and while he made a lot of fuss about “political correctness” and “cultural relativism” in the ’90s, I don’t think he’s ever fully bought into the idea — certainly possessed by the Prebendary and his confessor, Cardinal Christopher Pearson, the scarlet man — that the war on terror was simply an earthly reflection of a cosmological struggle between God and his adversary.

Indeed I wonder if the half-hearted way in which Howard went about the culture war of his final term — stacking the ABC board, fiddling with the history curriculum etc — was, in the last analysis, evidence of an unwillingness to really unleash a full-scale kulturkampf, not only because it was one that the Right could well lose, but also out of some vestigial understanding that we now live in  a pluralist society in which social values stretch from the lesbian IVF-using vegan couple in Thornbury to the creationist cockie in Longreach, and we’re all going to have to get along somehow .

Prebendary Abbott has made an immense effort in past months to try and slip back into the cultural-political mainstream, but the widespread continued distrust of him — most particularly from sections of the liberal middle-class, centred around hitherto safe seats like Higgins — has not abated. Inevitably that is tied to religion — not Abbott’s Roman Catholicism per se, but his particular version of it.

There are three dominant ideas of God in Christianity at the moment. Leaving aside literal protestant fundamentalists, the division between the other two runs right through the middle of the Roman Catholic church. On the one side are those who believe that God may be a real entity, but cannot be expressed in human terms — and consequently the idea that God might have firm views on homosexuality, condoms, evolution, traditional aboriginal culture etc is a category error. On the other is the idea that God has a more knowable form with whom a dialogue of sorts is possible — if not exactly a Grandpa in the Sky, God can be thought of in terms sufficiently assimilable to humanity to make the pronoun “He” a meaningful one.

The division is not  around the unique divinity of Jesus Christ, but around whether the creation of a specific moral and political order is a business of humans left to do it by themselves, or one in which God’s will and law can be interpreted and acted on.

Our society and politics is overwhelmingly of the first belief. It is a widespread belief that underlies  the Australian polity as a humanist one. Tony Abbott is part of the second formation, and it is perfectly legitimate to pin him to the wall on it.

Though there are major tactical issues about how it is done, skewering Abbott on the way in which his politics are guided by his particular version of religiosity is clearly going to be an important part of reminding people just how separated from the common ground of Australian politics he really is.  The public know this of course — they saw it in the contemptuous way in which he blocked RU486 on spurious grounds, playing Borgian political games rather than openly declaring his moral opposition to making abortion easier and more straightforward. They saw it in his sleazy legalistic taking-down of Pauline Hanson — rather than fighting her ideas openly and publicly as the left did.

They saw it in his casual remarks about the late Bernie Banton, in his sudden ‘recollection’ that he had met with Cardinal Monsignor his Graciousness George Pell before the last election after swearing Oxford blue in the face  that he hadn’t, and most recently in his remark that Kevin Rudd was somehow to blame for the deaths of children at sea.

The great bit of luck for Rudd Labor is that Abbott can’t stop himself on these things. Nineteen times out of 20 he can remember that the people don’t have this abysmal Boschian cosmology churning in their guts, and talk like they do — about a reasonable topside world where people get together and talk things through. Then whoosh like a tongue of flame from the underworld, something comes shooting out of his mouth, and reminds us that he is not of this celestial level. Three of those over the next three months — especially about women, around whom he has more issues than John Howard does of Wisden — will be enough to brand him as the Liberal Latham, and have a good third of the party sit on their hands in the next poll…or bring a split ever closer.

One suspects the conservatariat knows this, and have already got their story straight. Poor me.  Poor us. The cosmopolitans have tricked the honest people again. Who could blame them if, guided by their representatives, they took the most ruthless  but necessary action in the years to come?

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey