Well, it would appear that the Coalition has missed its chance to dump Tony Abbott as PM, presuming it was ever there. The reviews of his National Press Club speech are universally “bleh” to terrible, with no major repositioning therein. Instead there was the same old frayed, frayed rope about Labor leaving us in a hole, but it’s not as big a hole as we said, but the cuts had to be made, but we won’t have to this year, even though the hole got bigger, look, terrorists. The return to Islamist terrorism is a desperate, desperate ploy — Abbott knows by now that Labor will defend everything up to the firebombing of Labor Party HQ just in case Hizb ut-Tahrir had hidden in the stairwell. “We had, no other choice …” “There’s no division between Labor and the PM on national security,” said a singed Shorten.
And the public have switched off terror, just as they switched off the boats, once the boats thing was sorted. There was nothing in the kick, no sign that Abbott believed he had to make a new connection with the Australian people and —
Gah, I can barely go on with that last paragraph even though it’s meant to be a parody one. Can you believe the groupthink that has descended in the past few days about forging a new connection and selling himself to … etc, etc? This is nonsense. There never has been a connection between Tony Abbott and the Australian people, as umpteen polls showed. He was never elected prime minister per se. The Coalition was elected, and he was their prior choice as leader, just. Most of the Australian public have always found him odd, or actively repellent.
His whole demeanour, from the Skeletor body-muscle suit to the self-flagellating fitness binges, the lizardlike tilt of the head when he’s about to lie, and the vague whiff of both incense and sulfur that trails him … coming out of an old Australian tradition of the Catholic hard Right (nudging towards clerico-fascism), is utterly alien to the sun-blanched lobotomised Los Angeles exurb that the country has become. Newscrap’s broadsheet columnists have been willing to give him a tonguebath, but the tabloid boosting during the election was largely image-based — Tony as Mr Strong — and anti-Labor. There were enough willing to give him a chance to throw Labor out, while keeping the ALP’s policies. When he dumped Labor’s policies and revealed a series of old-school “New Right” attacks, and himself as a liar, the government’s numbers plummeted in a fortnight, to 47-53, where they mostly stayed. Until they plummeted further, in recent weeks to 43-57.
The core of Abbott’s problem was that he ignored the manner of the 2013 vote, which was that of a contract between the voters — or sufficient swinging voters — with very tight borders. They weren’t voting for Abbott as they voted for Hawke, or (eventually) for Howard, as someone who in some way embodied their own ideas about themselves, and their best qualities. They voted for Abbott like they chose the lawyer who was going to sue their sister over the matter of their mother’s will. He didn’t do the job that was asked, and now they want to sack him.
That was the state of play before Christmas. But Sir-Prince-Philip-gate — that will never get old, will it? — changed that. Now they started to see Abbott as someone who was not merely deceitful and bad, but who was detached from reality. Most people know that moment in the workplace. The very promising employee, the office hot shot, has failed to deliver again. The excuses have piled up. A while back they became surreal, obvious lies. The presentation is finally given. It is not merely bad, it is fictional. The PowerPoints are pictures of cats, the tables say “figures to come”, the blather ends with a JFK quote.
“Abbott has brought himself a few weeks, even though his greatest impact on Australian politics appears to have been to return Labor to dominance in state power …”
At the end, the speaker’s eyes blaze, daring anyone to challenge him. They don’t, because they’re too busy thinking back to a whole series of disasters that now make sense. The man was always in his own reality and now must simply be worked around.
That’s how many people who voted for him now view him. They still believe Labor can’t be trusted on the economy, but Abbott is no longer part of that solution, nor even part of the problem. He’s just off to one side. There’s a quality of David Brent about Abbott now. He is attracting a mix of pity, contempt and resentment, which is prelude to a simple desire to be rid of him. But if ’twere to be done, best be done quickly. Labor, in dumping Kevin Rudd, had been able to move quickly because the micro-factions still had sufficient organisational power to move things in one direction decisively. The Libs, lacking these squalid gangster-groupings, can’t pull it together, a victim of their own individualist philosophy.
But whatever other hesitations and machinations there were, they were also faced with the problem of, well, absurdity. Rudd was executed not for any one thing, but for many things, and the party then took the heat. Paradoxically, the public would have been far more relieved to see the back of Abbott, but how can you sack someone for knighting a prince? The absurd act makes the response ridiculous. The absurdity spreads from the source of the problem, and out to every ostensible solution to it. I’m not going to unironically use a dead phrase like tragedy and farce (I’m not Nick Dyrenfurth), but, dude, tragedy and farce.
Most likely, they’re now in a slide zone. Abbott has bought himself a few weeks, even though his greatest impact on Australian politics appears to have been to return Labor to dominance in state power, holding two of the big three, five years or more before they would have been in contention. What would give them an opportunity to finish him off? Another major gaffe, or simply another bad poll? They don’t, after all, need anything like a cause. They just need a pretext that doesn’t look bizarre. And they’d get a very different reaction to the one the public gave Labor, after Rudd was defenestrated. People would be grateful. Grateful for being spared the pain of watching this man turn and turn in a wholly private world.
But there are other barriers too, quite aside from the residual distrust of Malcolm Turnbull on matters of climate change. There is also the momentousness of sacking a prime minister, which is to say, killing him. That’s especially so for someone who has staked so much of his being on this job. Should Abbott manage to stagger to September 2016, then even defeat will give him a single term, a completeness, a narrative. Enough to keep going at any rate. But if Abbott goes now, his life is a cruel joke by the universe. The boy who was told he would either be pope or prime minister chose the wrong office — the one they can sack you from. Should he be carried off in a sack, everything he has done up to this point is a feed to a cosmic punchline. Everything after will be a life of embarrassment, a constant mental struggle — or, as a response to that, a passage into genuine delusion.
We saw a taste of that post Sir-Prince-Philip-Gate, when Abbott said that his team was good because he was their captain. That was frightening, genuine clinical narcissism. A narcissist sees the world the way we see the world in a mirror. We see ourselves first, then the world distant behind us. But back and forward and left and right are reversed — thus, so is every gesture. In the mirror, saying that you make your team look good is simply the most direct way of praising your team. That’s how Tony Abbott sees the world. That’s how he always has. Other habits of narcissists? Magical thinking about cause and effect, a supernaturally ordained sense of meaning to their lives. Obsessive body shaping, since you yourself are always in view. They are responsible for great things they had nothing to do with, but nothing is ever their fault. Oh, and they often partner with people who look uncannily like them, though I’m sure that has no relevance here. Funny that John Howard’s favourite book was Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites. He should have read his Culture of Narcissism — he might have been able to warn the party.
Narcissists build cults, using the particularly incomplete — those who see no one in the mirror — as their raw material. That may well explain the split on the Right around Abbott. While the half-dozen ex-Liberal MPs with newspaper columns have all excoriated Abbott in terms so thinly veiled as to pass the Bernardi test, the commentators in The Australian (and its Fairfax adjunct, Paul Sheehan) simply adopted the sayings of the prophet and competed to outdo themselves in fealty to the chosen one. There was Greg Sheridan, telling us that sacking an MP from a position not in the constitution and replacing him with another MP would lead us into “a dark history”. Sheehan told us that the Queensland result was the fault of Twitter, and that the Australian public was too irresponsible to elect the correct people. Paul Kelly endorsed this anti-democratic elitism, with the resigned sigh of the one liberal in the latifundia, who must now watch the tanks roll in to the plaza.
“Nothing in Abbott’s speech suggested that he understands the depth of the problem, nor even its nature.”
But the gold stamp goes to Nick Cater, Saul/Paul of Essex University, the lost sociology grad and BBC lifer, who found his purpose in the lucky culture, his wholly imaginary projection of a pious religious-imperial society onto contemporary Australia. Cater’s task is difficult. He wants to blame Abbott’s problems on the “Abbott-haters”, tweeting with their elite thumbs, for the bad press. Sadly, he has to deal with two lost elections, polls underwater, the collapse of Abbott’s personal approval rating, Coalition MPs moving motions against Abbott’s own laws. How does he do it? Psychology. It’s not Abbott who is so deranged as to be dysfunctional, it’s the public. They have fallen prey to, and I quote, “confirmation bias”, “the ostrich effect”, “reactive devaluation” and “availability cascade”. Jesus. Once a redbrick university sociology 2:2, always a redbrick university sociology 2:2. You have to be impressed by someone trying to prove that the entire voting public, the “kamikaze Right” — including the 2IC of the Howard government, apparently — and the Abbott-haters on the Left are all delusional because they disagree with a man who knighted Sir Prince Philip.
Well, this is a moment, ain’t it? The Right has abandoned the crappy faux-populism of “anti-elitism” and played to its strengths, which is a hatred of the demos. This is clearly connected with the fact that the demos is going Left, from Syriza to Spain’s Podemos to, however, fainter a splash, Victoria and Queensland.
In all this stuff about decadent publics, and their twittering habits, you can hear the authentic voice of the anti-democratic Right. This is European Catholic conservatism, from de Maistre down, and Abbott’s conservatism, for all his Brit-bunyip blather, is of that type. Thus, he now has the IPA crowd on his tail for saying, in the NPC speech, that only “the people” can remove a prime minister. That is flat wrong, but it also has a ghost of the idea of the general will about it. But really, what he means is this: God wanted him to be prime minister, his family told him so, and Greg Sheridan can fill you in on the details. In this mix of crackpot anti-democratic elitism by the magic-water boys, the climate change deniers, and the psyops boys, you can see the same ideological roots of Franco, of Pinochet and others. Well, if the Murdoch cult now want to have a big sulk and blame the public, we couldn’t be happier. After all, it’s their withdrawal from reality that has created the fishbowl in which Abbott swims. They have made it impossible for the Right to test their ideas against reality. It now appears that the other Right — those who were once actually MPs among them — are rebelling against this idiocy. They’re learning faster than the Right in the US: there, the Murdoch bubble has cut the Right off from presidential power for eight, soon to be 12, then 16 years and beyond.
Well the proof of, is in the … Everyone’s trying to outbid on how quick they were to suss Abbott. Here’s mine, from 2009:
“Abbott’s politics is ultimately one that knows it has lost – it is a politics of mourning for a lost world, predicated as much by individual psychology as by clear sense. Abbott has a deep and original desire to fail nobly, to be spared the burden of success. Labor has to find that desire and bring it to the surface, and Abbott will do the rest.”
Well, I was wrong about Labor — all they had to do was stand back. But as to the rest of it, I wonder if it’s closer to what the Coalition are thinking, or whether they are trying to work out how to reverse the public’s affirmation cascade, so that Tony’s true genius can be appreciated.
Nothing in Abbott’s speech suggested that he understands the depth of the problem, nor even its nature. With some massive exercise of will, he may be able to find the discipline he exercised during the election campaign and hold it together until he reaches calmer water. But that was only achieved with Peta Credlin’s strict discipline. Warning her off might actually make Abbott truly ungovernable. And I suspect he used up all his psychic energy in the 2013 campaign, with the idea that government would be the reward, where he could do all the crazy stuff he wanted to. If I’m right about that, his character is too rigid for any reflective process hold now, and his perspective permanently reversed. He will blunder again because it will look the correct action. Then he will be gone, and the waves, not the affirmations, will cascade over him. The Coalition will take years to recover from such a parricide; the public will barely remember him, a fortnight after a more rational government starts to address the problems within the terms of the contract set out in the 2013 election.
But such are the days these days that, having said he is probably safe now, he will most likely be gone by the end of the afternoon.