For want of a nail … Though this has been a travesty of an election campaign, whose principal effect has been to reveal the multiple and mutually reinforcing failures of the Australian political system, the result will not be without consequences for the future of the country.

That is less likely to be a function of what each leader would do, or can do, than of what they represent, and the focus they can serve in the culture wars. Tony Abbott should he prevail, will most likely be held in check by a Labor-Green Senate.

The Right are expecting or pretending they expect that Julia Gillard, should she prevail, will shed her moderate and piecemeal political image, and emerge again as the Victorian leftie. But Gillard has discovered that the best way to give the appearance of being a centre-right figure is to become one. A Gillard government would most likely be a Labor state government writ large cautious, targeted, and without big themes (to put the most generous spin on it).

But though each figure would be constrained from within and without, what they represent by their very being is signal, and will ramify. In the Gillard versus Abbott contest, the culture war has become personified. The candidates represent something not by what they do, but by who they are.

Tony Abbott can modulate his style and policies all he likes, but he represents a figure not seen before in Australian parliamentary politics, a politico-theological culture warrior, an ex-seminarian, one who sees politics not through the lens of Harold Laswell’s old definition of politics, who gets what when how but as a manifestation a larger struggle, between the heritage of the Christian West and modernity, itself a version of the struggle between God and the adversary, or ha-Satan, to give the adversary his Hebrew name.

Abbott’s whole adult life has been in service to this idea. He is smart enough to minimise the degree to which it shapes his public persona, but the whole shape of his life as an agon, a struggle, draws its energy from this conception. From his driven pursuit of academic glory, to his dalliance with a religious vocation, to a sports regimen that can only be described as scourging in lycra, the shape of his life is characterised by this conception of existence.

Such a groundedness in cosmic belief yields many advantages. Abbott has a tenacity at a time when the bottom has fallen out of the more secular and strategic social conservatism fashioned by Howard. Compared to Abbott, everyone else in the Liberal party is a joke (mind you, compared to the bloke in the tinfoil hat and ugg boots yelling at cars they barely scrub up either). Brendan Nelson was a nothing, even Joe Hockey doesn’t take himself seriously, and Malcolm Turnbull is a rich bohemian, who’s a Catholic like he’s an art collector; it’s something you acquire with the lifestyle.

John Howard was sustained by his vision of an Australia that combined furious global capital with the settled Australia of the Don, the Queen and the Huttons man. That’s a caricature, but not by much. In 2006, when he should have been focusing on re-election, Howard was fiddling with the proposed new history curriculum, like Napoleon designing the gold braid for his army’s uniforms. Howard’s energy came from his delusional fantasy but he was our last pre-60s prime minister, the late last outing of Sandy Stone.

Abbott is a last act too, but not his own. He’s one of Santamaria’s grandchildren, part of the last generation to come to political maturity while the Santa was still running his own outfit. That political circus taking in the NCC, the Australian Family Association, the Australian Defence Association, and the Meat Marketing Board of Tasmania* — is now in a pretty shambolic state, but in the ’70s it was still turning out cadres through various “Democratic Clubs” at universities.

Santa built them to last in those days. He and his henchmicks took a bunch of people with a sense of vocation, and canalised it from religion into politics. Abbott has given various accounts for why he failed at the seminary (no shame in that — it’s designed to test to destruction), but it comes down to this: Santamaria had already got him. Vocationally, intellectually, in terms of resolve, he is the man for whom politics is the road to salvation,and not merely for himself.

Santa’s little helpers run the Right these days, because they’re the “Last Men” standing. The Protestant liberal-conservative tradition has all but died out as a self-possessed political intellectual strand or dwindled down to Peter Coleman and Alexander Downer, which is the same thing and the mitteleuropean anti-communist phalanx never took any exercise, and checked out early. Tony Abbott, Greg Sheridan, Dennis Shanalamadingdong, Gerard Henderson keep on going, Duracell anti-modernists.

Santa’s little helpers have been assiduous in waging the war by all means necessary. You can get an idea of the worldview by recalling that Sheridan once remarked that his life had meaning because he believed God wanted him to live in Australia and do his work.

The problem with this sort of belief was best expressed by one of its adherents, Evelyn Waugh. In Sword of Honour, while recounting his own credo (attributed in the novel to the hero Guy Crouchback’s father), he notes that together with all its virtues, “It was not exactly a sane conspectus”. Santamaria, born in an Australia where Catholics were still called “Romans”, and Australia was essentially a bicultural society, could live within it, but for Abbott it’s very different. He’s as much a child of Woodstock as the rest of us, and thus the only way to live his faith is as an oppositional one, contra the dominant spirit of the age. That makes him literally eccentric to the post-religious, post-everything giant Nhill that Australia has become.

Maintaining that conspectus takes an enormous degree of psychological, existential and spiritual energy, and the ultimate result is functional neurosis. Abbott’s urge is to wage a holy political war. But he lives in a polity where the provision of a new communications network can become some sort of key moral-political focus, rather than a mere technical question. If he looks like the lid is screwed on a little tight, it’s because he’s only just restraining his impatience. If he often fails on the detail in numerous policy areas, it’s because he can’t take it seriously as a political cause (though I’m not suggesting he wasn’t a competent administrator in government).

That neurosis may go deeper than the faith, and the latter may be the answer to the former. One of Abbott’s problems is that he has drive without an object, an excess of energy that appears to be generated by an enormous amount of anxiety. You can over-psychologise politics, but you can under-psychologise it too, and if you don’t notice that Abbott cannot merely not be contained, but cannot contain himself, then you ain’t paying attention. Hence the triathalons, the skeletor appearance, the confessions for that is literally what they are about not always telling the truth, and the spectacle of a candidate for Prime Minister talking about getting depressed three days before the election.

Hence, the presence of Christopher Pearson, his eminence grosse. Pearson is a vastly more intelligent, learned and wily person than anyone around the Liberal traps, but talk about your political neuroses from committed Maoism through s-xual cosmopolitanism to ultramontane Catholicism. God knows they’re like as a political unit, those two. Like a musical version of A Man For All Seasons done by the team behind La Cage Aux Folles, I suspect.

Abbott’s eccentricity has always been apparent to the mass of the Australian people, which is why, even with the lathering-on of blokiness, they have by and large rejected him as preferred PM by a large margin. Once the ALP replaced a man who seemed even more separated from the common run than Abbott, any ground gained there was swept away. Most people sense not merely Abbott’s transmuted anxiety in his religious mien Tartuffe with a telephone but also the residual narcissism contained therein.

Abbott, those who knew him way back tell us, was quixotic in his politics. It’s the word that comes up more than once, and it’s worth reflecting on the original Don Quixote and what made him so. Tilting at windmills the medieval Spanish equivalent of a petrol station and believing them to be dragons, the Don wanted reality to be more than it was, dreamed of a heroic era now gone, the clash of civilisations on the Iberian peninsula.

But to want reality to be more than it is, is to avoid the struggles in the world as it is, in part because one is terrified of the encounter with the real, and the possibility of loss within it. In Sword of Honour again, Waugh had Guy Crouchback end of an ancient English Catholic line imagining himself as the last priest in a catacomb somewhere, giving mass to the last Pope.

It’s the ideal of noble earthly failure that lives within Abbott, and causes him to repeatedly sabotage himself, to forget the script dictated by the mundane world. Its psychological purpose is to protect one’s fragile selfhood from the wounds of actual, as opposed to fantastical failure. Abbott, as I noted some months ago, would like to be Crouchback, but he is closer to Fast Eddie Felsen in The Hustler, who feels, in his match with Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason/Robert Ray?/Richo?/David Feeney? — we’re not short of candidates) the absolving pleasure of failure, the easy of it. ‘This kid’s a loser’ says George C Scott (Nick Minchin), telling Minnesota to go all the way and crush him. Eddy wants to be a champion, but he can’t help but prefer the cheap and easy hustle. He eventually wins — and tries one last hustle, and they break his thumbs. Fast Eddy did this in part out of guilt for destroying Piper Laurie I’m not sure where she fits into the allegory at all.

That Abbott has come close, and may win tomorrow, can’t be taken away from him it’s a testament to his determination to answer his own inner adversaries. But the fact that he got in with a shot was largely due to Labor’s own internal collapse, and the fact that the campaign was probably one week too long for him he just couldn’t hold it together that long.

And that, of course, is a problem for Santa’s Little Helpers. For they, and their fairly flyweight fellow travellers from classical liberalism and the think tanks, have offered up Abbott as a representative of mainstream values against the elites. Tom Switzer fired that gun early, in The Age, repurposing the anti-elite thesis used for Howard, for Abbott, a very different pisces. They perhaps did not anticipate that they would not be up against Kevin Rudd, a conservative evangelical Christian, but Julia Gillard, secular humanism in a pants-suit. Guy Crouchback saw the Hitler-Stalin pact as the event saving him and the world from lassitude and sin “It was the modern age in arms. There was a place for him in the battle”.

Ostensibly that should be a gift from God but, of course, it is proving the reverse. For with a Rudd versus Abbott contest that proposition wouldn’t really be tested both candidates would be socially conservative religious types, the elites trooping along to vote for the one who doesn’t have a Mullah-Omar-esque concern with his daughters’ virginity. Now, for the culture warriors, it’s put up or shut up.

It matters not that Gillard has attached herself to several conservative positions. What’s important is the sheer fact of who she is, and what her life has been. Should she win, it cannot be taken as occurring because she is an atheist, unmarried, childless woman from the inner-city leftie-lawyer elite, it can be regarded as occurring despite that. We won’t ever know whether her identity won or lost votes, but we will know that it just doesn’t matter.

That will be, should it occur, a more important victory than had it occurred with Gillard campaigning on an aggressively left-liberal platform. In a swoop, all the culture war, elites, family-centred, blah blah nonsense will have been torpedoed. It won’t stop the Right from using it, of course, but it will be a bit of a zombie-walk from then on, until someone finds fresh cucumber.

Nor is it necessary to feel any joy at Gillard’s policies, or identification with them from the left, or any sense that the system is genuinely functional, to see her victory as an advance. As with Obama, the important fact is that it will have happened, that it is a real event that makes history (however minor), not rhetoric urging it.

Of course, should Abbott win resoundingly not merely borderline, then the opposite conclusion would have to be considered, even allowing for the malign degree of bias in News Ltd and elsewhere. Furthermore, we might have to concede a deeper point that people do not reveal certain thoughts or predispositions to pollsters, however anonymous the process. So despite the anti-campaign on the surface, and with no credit at all to either side, this has become a battle telling us something, creating something. It’s also one that brings to the surface a deep current within Australian history. For the truth is that Abbott, both personally and in what surrounds him and precedes him, is by far the more interesting person and politician bearing with him all the Sturm Und Drang, the sense of import and consequence to politics that anyone from the radical left can recognise as symmetrical to our own conceptions.

Gillard, meanwhile, bodies forth all the eminent reasonableness, and nothingness, of the bitter end of the social democratic tradition. She simply does not reflect back Abbott’s manic sense of Weltanschauung, and that tends to undermine him fatally, revealing him as part fantasist, no matter how quotidian he tries to be. In that she represents that part of Australia that will always drive certain figures to destruction, its existence as the kingdom of nothingess, the place where there cannot be the grip of history (for the non-indigenous at least). Those who want life to be more, the world to be more, and cannot recognise themselves to the country’s determination to refuse mass identity, meaning, being they are wrecked by it. Those reconciled Hawke and Howard sail through, enjoying life in its minutiae. Those who want more Keating, Latham, Rudd and possibly Abbott leave a larger part of themselves on the rocks, as they sail away from it.

What will be Abbott’s fate, should he fail in this quest? Who knows, but maybe Sword of Honour can help us one last time. Crouchback, whom we find divorced (legally but not of course in his eyes) by his modern flighty wife Virginia, briefly reconciles with her. Later she gives birth to a son, Gervase, before she is killed by a V-1 bomb. After the war Guy raises Gervase, with his new wife, believing his line to be continued. What he doesn’t know is that Virginia had had a liaison with one of Guy’s fellow junior officers, Trimmer, a man Guy regards as the representative of the nihilism of a world without God. It is the issue of Trimmer and Virginia who will go forth into the world.

And Trimmer? Well as the name suggests, he was by profession, a hairdresser.