The South Korean cinema that fitted The Sound of Music into its daily program by cutting out all the songs. The Harold Holt swimming pool. The mediaeval assizes that put geese on trial for witchcraft. The student union that gave honorary life membership to the officer who’d been killed in a car accident. The barbecue the locals put on for the survivors of the Childers backpackers’ fire. To these moments, wonderful and terrible, can be added the synapse firing, sometime ago, in the brain of Anthony John Abbott, to the effect that not merely the best recipient, but the logical recipient, of an Australian knighthood should be Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Sir Prince Philip. Sir Prince Philip. The thing about it is, it’s like a Mobius strip, that little figure, where the inside becomes the outside.
“Sir Prince Philip”. Wherever you start from, you end up on the other side. “Sir” you hear, and think someone’s to be honoured, and then “Prince Philip”, and it is the opposite effect. Or “Prince Philip, what’s happened with him lately? He’s become a what?” Round and round it goes, incapable of resolution, like that old philosophy 101-busting conundrum “this sentence is false”. That’s why it won’t go away. Most dumb things politicians do are just dumb — reviving honours in the first place, knitting a kanga for the Women’s Weekly, doing anything John McTernan suggests, ever — but they run out of steam, and the stalwart can always be found to defend them. “Sir Prince Philip” is a rare example of the Abbott government’s commitment to renewable energy. It is a perpetual motion machine of ridicule.
The death of satire has been called many times, but this may well be it. For the simple reason that there is nothing funnier than “Sir Prince Philip”. It’s like the old writers’ room game of funny names — “Rabbi Seamus O’Flaherty! Reverend Abe Brillstein! Angela Jonesela!” — you get to a level, and then there’s nowhere else. Dame Queen Elizabeth. King Queen Elizabeth. The Duke of Earl. The King of Cheesecakes. The Tint Professor. Nowhere. Mr Tony, he broke it, then he dropped da mic. Sir Prince Philip. You feel the corners of your mouth turn upwards, even as you say it in your head.
So why didn’t Tony’s mouth do a similar thing? Didn’t he hear it? Well, no, I don’t think he did, for the simple reason that he was giving out the honour, not for the reasons he had claimed — to honour Australians of distinguished achievement — but as part of the restoration of a British identity to Australian society. Thus, since the Duke of Edinburgh has a whole series of honours of descending value, it was only proper that Australia should add its highest honour onto the tail. The guff about Philip having served the Australian people was just some desperate attempt to justify an aristocratic move, in modern terms. What Tony really wanted to say was, “They’re our royal family, this is now our highest honour, so it is obvious that he should have it”. I’m not even sure Tony has his order of procession right on this in any case, as there remain about half a dozen extant hereditary Australian baronetcies (a baronet is a sub-peer, hereditary but with no privileges in the Lords). Quite possibly, the only proper course of action would have been to revive those, and give Philip one, thus “Sir Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, blah, blah … .Baronet of* Mountbatten** of Caboolture. Or Punchbowl. Or Esk. Up to him really. If the royals gig didn’t work out, he could always become a star of 50s calypso. Go, the Mighty Sparrow!*** We need a ruling on this. Someone call Bubbles Fisher****.”
Thus while everyone was looking at the front of the new title, Abbott was simply looking at the back of it. To not add our new honours to everyone else’s would simply be disloyal. The logic is flawless — if you want to restore a pre-modern society in which titles confer rank, without consideration of the person occupying it. Once you try and defend it on merit, all hell breaks loose. Lord Daryl Somers. Lady Lady Gaga. Sir Helen Razer, of that ilk. The move has all the hallmarks of something that is not merely odd, but genuinely and wholly mad. Abbott’s dwindling loyalists are complaining that he did not consult anyone else on this move, but it’s worse than that — it didn’t even make it to the inner edge of his skull. The bit at the back of his mind that thought it was the right idea, the only idea, didn’t consult with the front bit that relates to the external world. A day or so in, when the front bit got the back bit to pay attention, and some basic information about what the hell, they came up with the merit idea together. That was hard enough got. The back bit is like one of those colourised newsreels of the Coronation, running on a perpetual loop, so it is tough to get its attention.
Tony’s act was thus, by the standard of the era he is living in, quite proper. It also dovetailed nicely with another key trait of his, as I noted earlier, that of sycophancy. As we discovered last year, one of Abbott’s vices is to suck up to whoever he’s talking to. He’ll tell Aborigines they’re the oldest continuous culture, then tell someone else that the land was unsettled. He’ll tell miners they’re the true source of Australia’s wealth and piss off the farmers, then tell the farmers they have the only true relation to the land, which will piss off the Aborigines, then — and round it goes. You can pick Abbott’s future gaffes simply by checking his appointments diary. Honours are sycophancy raised to the status of a system. How could he really resist? This is not a blunder in the second year of the honours system. This was what he had always wanted to do with it. This latest feint, with its mixture of British-Australianism, a vague whiff of imperial race loyalty, the mid-century antiquarianism of Sir Arthur Bryant, and the loyalty-become-servility of a British Catholic, is one out of the box. No wonder the poor old press gallery is at a loss. Their idea of culture is a glass of riesling and a Taggart marathon. We have a prime minister who has escaped from the wildest reaches of Baron Corvo.
The magnificent Gothic folly that is the inside of Tony’s head is proving testing not merely to himself, but to his political followers, who celebrated him as the “maestro” of quiet government, etc, etc. That is not because they are rational and he is mad, but because the whole of the Right is mad, too, and having your leader express this quality in a florid state unbalances the whole outfit. For three decades the Right has tried to project an idea of society based on conservative social values and free-market individualistic economic ones. The latter has now so reconstructed the former that nothing remains of it, except in dreams and fantasies. Conservatives should effectively preserve the society that is against programmatic change. But that’s a real program because what is now conservative is a mild secular-progressive cosmopolitanism, general across all classes, with some mild variations. That is our culture. So how can a Right conservative culture be established? Only by creating a fictional “elite”, who have allegedly imposed an alien culture on the modest masses. By relentlessly reinforcing this fantasy, they detach themselves from reality, and become incapable of reacting to social reality.
Which is what has happened to the Abbott government. It’s really bloody happened. They spent so much time reading Nick Cater and Bolt and Planet that they actually started to believe this stuff. Now that it has started to come apart completely, very public panic has ensued. Since their whole ideology is composed of magical thinking, the solutions are simply drawn from the same source. The more magical the thinking, the more it regresses to deep psychic fears. Thus the response to the accumulated failure of a year and a half of trying to impose an erratic and disorganised program that no one voted for is … to dump the woman.
The attack on Credlin, in my opinion, has nothing to do with what she may or may not have done. She’s most likely the last sane person there. But it’s a sacrifice to the gods, led by Rupert, a misogynist of the old school whose one elevated woman — Rebekah Brooks — was the one employee who never said no to him. On matters of business. Everywhere you look, the Right are turning into the Romanovs, locked in the palace hoping for a Rasputin who can stop the bleeding-out. Maybe Mark Simkin will help! Chris Kenny can fix this! To what question from hell could Chris Kenny possibly be the answer? Wow. This has all crowded out the everyday crazy of the Right. Bits that would normally be good for two days — such as Paul Sheehan’s call to have a dog put on the coat of arms — are barely getting any attention.
What makes this so dangerous — perhaps terminal — for Abbott is that this latest humiliation is both self-maintaining and utterly autonomous. The ridicule is coming from within and going outwards. Sir Prince Philip will still be as funny in a year as it is now. Age shall not weary it, nor the years condemn. Every time we see Abbott now, we shall be reminded of him. Better still, worse for him, is that such a level of abasement makes the removal of him an act with a different character, to that of Rudd or Gillard. Those were seen by the public as ruthless removals of leaders who were unpopular with some people inside and outside the party. Abbott’s execution will be seen as the removal of a man who was essentially an impersonator, someone who was not at all what we thought he was. By knighting Prince Philip, Abbott may have made his finest service to the Liberal Party — he has created a situation where they would look better, rather than worse, by sacking him. For many, it would be their first competent and decisive act since the 2013 election. Labor may be rejoicing at all this. But it may well be the moment it all turns on them.
*Baronets are styled with (surname) of (place), unlike Lords, who have no surname — and thus sign their letters to The Spectator rebutting the libel that Hitler was merely a house painter etc, “Devonshire”, “Elpus”, etc. My favourite Australian baronetcy is that of “Clarke of Rupertswood”, which should be held by one Rupert Clarke. But he refuses to claim the title and become Sir Rupert Clarke, 4th Baronet of Clarke of Rupertswood. Why? Because you’d need a fold-out business card? Selfish. Step up, Rupert, we say! This is the new Australia! Play your part!
**Philip has no surname, as he is a peer. He took the surname Mountbatten in 1948, while renouncing his Greek and Danish titles. His birth surname is Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg. Knight of Australia.
***Calypso musicians of the post-war era favoured honorifics, though Tony Abbott’s role in this is not known. Lord Kitchener, Lord Intruder, Lord Beginner, the Duke of Iron are some of the most celebrated.
****Diana “Bubbles” Fisher to you, Australian expert on royal etiquette, and coincidentally at one time a BOAC air-hostess on Caribbean routes at the time of calypso’s greatest triumphs.