They say that in 19th century Boston, people used to gather at the pier when the ship carrying the magazine containing the latest episode of David Copperfield hove into view. I knows the feeling. Early every afternoon over in London, one waits for the “midnight turn” of the front pages of Australian papers, wondering what Mr Tony will have done next. Made an otter minister assisting the Prime Minister on the status of women? Compared Fiona Coote to Pablo Escobar? Sacked Margie? He was right about a government of “no surprises”; it’s all cliffhangers. Did he really convene a panel on violence against women? Panel like critical, or panel like in The Voice, to find Australia’s top talent? Will the first piece of advice be “punch either side of the head”?
Yes, more sneering leftism. But of course, no matter how much Abbott’s dwindling band of loyalists like to complain about unfair criticism — the pack has turned on him, etc, etc — none of this has anything to do with the Left. We’re at the bar sitting this one out. One, or two, or 17, or 29. Nothing we say could be as damaging or excoriating as what is coming from a section of the conservatoriat about Abbott, and nothing they say could be as damaging as the leaks that are filling page after page of all newspapers everywhere. “Leaks” doesn’t capture it. This is the world’s first rainforest-shower-head government. The backbenchers must be queuing up outside press gallery offices. Word is Nikki Savva’s installed one of those deli-counter take-a-number dispensers. “No.67?” “He tore off the head of my children’s kitten and used it like a puppet! He said it was part of the ‘traditional curriculum!’.”
The usual practice is to pad one to two-and-a-half leaks in a story with a lot of recap and string it out. Savva, Sam Maiden, Michael Gordon, et al, appear to have abandoned that, under pressure of being scooped, and now simply run the information as a series of dot points of recent Abbottrocities. The effect is to bring the usual memoir postmortems forward. We don’t have to wait until “election date” 2016 plus five months to find out what was really going on. Through sheer internecine conflict, the Abbott government has achieved what Julian Assange described as the defeat of a government: the point at which information inside and outside the conspiracy is perfectly equal, and its power collapses entirely. The early stuff about the “kamikaze Right” and the nervous Nellies, etc, appears to have simmered down a bit. But there’s still Chris Kenny to claim the first 16 months of the government as “the best in seven years”. The thing about Kenny is you can tell from the writing alone, without ever seeing a photo, that the man essentially has no chin.
The Right is beset by full civil war. Perhaps worse; it is a sort of Mogadishu of roving armed bands, combining and splitting again. The polling reversal reaches so far back up the pendulum that there are now around 25 MPs, who are now feeling their necks and looking at the calendar. They include a number of first-time members who might have assumed they would get two terms under their belt quickly, and get within cooee of some really decent lifetime super … serving their country to the fullest possible extent. Having bumped themselves into Parliament, they now face the possibility that this musclebound god-bothering lunatic might plough the thing into the ground, and they’ll have to get a job again. No wonder they and others are pissed off.
So too are many of Abbott’s supporters in the meeja. The tone in much of the reportage was that of real anger — anger at being gulled into supporting a man who appears to have no intention or ability to be the sort of leader who can be acceptable to the broad public. The bullshit concerning Abbott’s Churchillian qualities was laid on so thick that his abysmal performance has now damaged their credibility. They may even be a little angry with themselves for having been persuaded to suspend their usual cynicism to lay down palm fronds in his lycraceous path. They’re also really angry that the most accurate picture of Abbott came from … the Left, who saw Abbott as embodying all the contradictions and reactionary nostalgia in one barely sutured-together body, and presumed that there would be a blow-up.
The desire to believe in Tony Abbott runs deep, and not merely among the Right, or the despairing cynical atopia of the press gallery middle. To many, he presented as the last man, who embodied the Thatcherite synthesis of free-market liberalism and social conservatism. Thatcher did that magnificently, not only because she was delusional, but because the contradictions of that position had not yet become unmanageable — in 1987, it was still possible for this “champion of freedom” to introduce Section 28, banning “homosexual advocacy”. But Thatcher was no neurotic, and Tony Abbott is no Thatcher, and there is no social conservatism to draw on anymore. The Woodstock generation starts drawing their old age pension this year. We’re all here now, in this post-’60s modernity. John Howard adjusted to that. Tony Abbott never has.
Never has. And so his whole purpose, his vow to himself and the world, has been that he become prime minister and fight this transcendental fight to reinforce the old order, which he knows to be true. But you can’t get there by being that, and so for years, decades, Tony Abbott has developed a persona, as a modern conservative with a traditional touch. The student politician, the Oxford-attending Rhodes Scholar, the seminary student has had to wear masks before, and so he knew how to do it. His performance has been magnificent, through all the rehearsals, right up to opening night, when it fell apart. So good in fact that many of the press gallery fell for it. Witness Katharine Murphy’s piece about the Tony Abbott she has known vanishing. Of course it did. It vanished in the way that a spy’s cover ceases to exist when no longer required. The press gallery isn’t the first to fall in love with the cover.
Crucial to that has been a misunderstanding about the nature of Abbott’s politics, exemplified by Murphy in her belief that he drew on DLP traditions and would therefore govern in moderation. That is quite, quite wrong. Abbott did take on a few DLP-ish social movement themes in the election, but the source of his politics is British Catholicism, quite a different thing. The DLP was an Irish-Catholic political tradition, formed in the 1890s, autonomised by the WWI conscription debates, in which Catholic leaders came within a whisker of being charged with sedition for opposing the shipping of young men for live slaughter in the Flanders Fields. Collectivist, worker-centric, opposed to higher education, free speech, and all aspects of liberalism, it was not republican, but it had no fealty to monarchy or Anglo traditions either.
“He purports to be a maverick and a leader, yet he is sycophantic and shapes himself to larger powers. He purports to live off deeper wellsprings of life than others, yet he appears to be a pathological liar with no fixed core.”
British Catholicism, Abbott’s Catholicism, a near-absent tradition in Australia, is utterly different. The loyalty is not only to the crown and all that comes with it, it is ostentatiously so, an attempt to demonstrate its loyalty, after the unpleasantness of, you know, 1527 to 18-something (I can’t be bothered to look up the details of the various acts). It is conservative and individualistic in its view of economics. Evelyn Waugh, its greatest 20th-century representative, said “there was no such thing as the man in the street, there are men, and for their various ends, they use streets”, and British Catholics see that individualism as central to their conception of the relationship between humans and God. Any collective is in the way of that. Waugh’s Guy Crouchback, the hero of his Sword of Honour trilogy, imagined himself being “the last priest giving communion to the last Pope” in a catacomb somewhere, and that is absolutely how Abbott sees the world. Crouchback was called back to life after a period of decline and “a celibacy which even the local priests found unedifying” by WWII, but all the more so, by the 1940 Soviet invasion of Finland, when he thought that Britain should declare war on both Germany and the USSR. “It was the modern age in arms. There was a place for him in the battle,” he thought, and so too does Abbott. His colleagues have been slow to understand this, and the press gallery — well, they’re like a sort of discursive pitch-drop experiment, one insight every 30 years.
Of course, Abbott went back to being a fuckwit the Monday after surviving near-death. Of course there is no collectivist sentiment in him. Of course he was resisted on the six-months-no-dole proposal by Kevin Andrews, who is from the Irish DLP tradition with the face to prove it (doesn’t anyone in the press gallery actually know any Australian political history, or is it all a hazy mist before 1991?). The bizarre push for a co-pay, for university fees, dole harshness, 40-job-applications-a-week, full fees, etc, may have come from Treasury, etc, but they all dovetailed nicely with a pre-modern sense of master-and-servant and the rule of providence, as carried in the breast of the prime minister. No wonder that such schemes got support from his anima, Peta Credlin, in cabinet, wittering on about how her dad didn’t have the dole in Wycheproof, where she grew up, and he was like self-reliant and — my god. I have had this conversation at the Depot Hotel Richmond in 1989, with some chambray-clad law student sucking Southern Comfort and Cokes and waiting for the AFL footballers to arrive. God knows it may have well been Credlin (as revealed by Sam Maiden, who must now be on her third Spirax labelled “leaks’).
Let’s just step this back a bit, shall we. Len Credlin, Credlin pere, may not have availed himself of the dole while young Credlin was growing up in the ’70s. He could have — Clive Palmer, who opposed the recent dole measures, was at that time sailing a boat down the Murray and getting his dole cheques posted serially to ports along the way — but he was a part-time farmer and a contractor in a region that was as socialist as Yugoslavia. The gumment bought your wheat at inflated prices, Board of Works built your stuff, Telecom gave you a phone, and the ABC was the only channel with clear reception. The wheat rotted in the silos because we grew too much of it, but if we had stopped, the Credlins would have had to move to the city and get jobs. Self-reliance? Bullshit. Rural Australia was a privileged corporatist state, privileging farm owners. Grow up without that, see if you get into Melbourne Uni law. These are the mythologies these people live by, they tell them to themselves over and over, and they use them to impose on others conditions they never suffered and would not have triumphed over. They are the soft-handed products of a beneficent social democracy, and when they forget it, they fuck up absolutely.
In the couple of days after the would-be spill, commentators noted that Abbott would “really have to change” to get back on track. Who did they think they were dealing with? This is the man, the raw wire, there is nothing else. He purports to be a maverick and a leader, yet he is sycophantic and shapes himself to larger powers. He purports to live off deeper wellsprings of life than others, yet he appears to be a pathological liar with no fixed core. He tries to project a sense of representing a calm and torpid suburban civilisation, yet he is a tormented, discontinuous individual, defined by other people’s passions. Committed to his religion by a father who converted on a Pascalian wager — that if the family survived a ship crossing, they would all become Catholics — he gives every impression of hating every task that has been handed to him and gaining no ebullience or verve from the mission allotted. Quite possibly he hates God, the ridiculous, capricious Yahweh his father imposed on him, and his aggression, his writhing, his need to project this dark energy outwards, comes from that. Dealing with this has caused him to grow a narcissistic shell impervious to real self-examination, which has been reinforced by an obsessive development of musculature. Inside that, his true self has withered and died, but the muscle-mass marches on. The “change” that people looked for after the spill attempt would only have come from a repudiation of a whole way of being, a deep revaluation of self. He could have saved his premiership and his government with a few sentences:
“Well, the party has spoken, and it’s clear that many people have had misgivings about my leadership, as do the wider public. I must listen to that and heed it. So let’s rule off. I made a series of commitments to the Australian people in the 2013 election, and I did not honour those. I was pursuing a much reduced deficit, which is vital for this country. In my zeal I was too willing to go back on commitments we made. That was an error, it was arrogant, it was thoughtless. So no more. Deficit reduction is as urgent as ever, but the Australian people have made clear that they want Medicare to be free at point of service for all who require it, that unemployment benefits should not penalise the vast majority of those trying to get jobs and build a life, because of a minority abusing the system, that university fees should not become a barrier to aspiration and advancement. Lets take that on board, and turn to the task of taking the deficit in one direction, which is down — something that for all our faults, we are committed to, and that Labor never even tried.”
Piece of piss. Back on track with a middle rank of voters, desperate for any way not to vote Labor. But he’d never say it, and it’s too late now. Instead, the Coalition has simply cast itself as the opposition and tried to open new flanks in a fear war, this desperate last-chance dance of the Right. Yet, as a banner displayed in Portugal on the weekend said, “‘fear is changing sides”. None of that is going to work any more, despite your great expectations — you see what I did, God bless us, one and all.