During the Weekend Update section of Saturday Night Live — the eight minutes of the show mandated to be funny, by federal law — there sometimes appears Fred Armisen’s character, Nicholas Fehn, “the political comedian”, who, in his own words, “‘takes stuff from the newspapers and improvises on it — like here from The New York Times, minimum wage may rise, and that is, I don’t, I can’t, I mean — … moving on, in The Wall street Journal“, and on he goes, a man in search of a subject and object.
One can’t help but see the same effect in my fellow members of that small and unlikely profession, opinionistas. I have now seen the same article from the same writer about the Abbott government about three times in a row from some people, myself included. With each fresh screw-up, there is a need to say something. But what? What more can possibly be said? For a while, the different character of the screw-ups gave some possibility for novelty. But now we feel like the entomologist who, initially excited by the act of taxonomy, comes to realise that the days stretch before her, classifying minimal variations on the same insect. What are we to do?
This appears to have come to a head with Quaedvlieg-gate, his attempted transformation of Melbourne into Budapest, c.1935, and the subsequent cover-up of the operation’s provenance. Ordinarily that would be a real juicy one, full of high farce and low tragedy, and revelatory of deep striations within the fabric of the Abbott government, etc, etc. But am I alone in saying that I can barely be bothered to analyse it? That I knew it would go wrong from the moment it was announced? That the manner of it going all Quaedvliegy can barely hold my attention?
Judging by the op-eds, I’m not. Most of them are pertinent; most of them could have been written by an app, preloaded with the prior record of the government and a series of exasperated phrases. Yet they couldn’t not be written, one feels. The sheer mixture of contempt for your own population mixed with an inability to act on it is some sort of … sheesh, I mean, uh, I would refer you to the “political comedian” again. But it’s September 2015. This government has been here for two years. It feels like 10. They feel like a third term, once-successful mob run out of puff and losing judgement. And there is a whole year to go. How is this possible? How can we possibly last?
This is a very strange moment, for there can now be no doubt that this is the worst federal government in our history. We all throw “worst government ever” around as a political insult, but here it is, here it actually is. Of course the desperate right will try to avoid that truth — but the rational right will glumly, if silently, accept it. I can’t even be bothered to go over the charges at length, but the summary would read: has achieved none of the macro-policy goals that it itself set as the big challenges, has had no plan B agenda despite the obvious fast-changing global economic framework, lied about its intentions to get elected, has wrecked good work that Labor did, or let it die away, has used foreign policy for cheap political gain, has provided only deceit, frustration and neurosis, where people wanted clear leadership of any political type.
Let’s look — this is more interesting — at the other contenders for worst government and why the Abbott government beats them out. Let’s put a caveat here: a worst government ever does not include a government whose policies you detest, but that governs competently. So the Howard government doesn’t make the list, no matter how much the accusation was thrown at it (in the same way that US conservatives rage at the Obama administration — for creating a healthcare plan, presiding over a growing recovery, and keeping the US out of disastrous, draining wars apparently).
That leaves eight contenders, going backwards: the Gillard government; the Rudd government; the first Howard government 1996-1998; the Whitlam government; the McMahon government; the first Menzies government 1939-1941; the Scullin government 1929-31, and the second Bruce government of 1925-1929. Let’s throw a few out to make a short list:
The Gillard government: this is and always has been right-wing spin. Gillard and many around her were somewhat inept at many small political skills, but the result of the deal with the Greens was a rare bicameral government that passed a raft of progressive and complex legislation the public supported, right into and after the 2013 campaign. Gillard’s record is secure. If she could have thought straight about same-sex marriage, she’d be seen as some sort of goddess come to Earth by now.
The Rudd government: the Rudd government’s candidacy for worst ever can only be tenable by ignoring the small matters of keeping us out of a recession that the rest of the world was falling into. Maybe the mining sector gave us more of a buffer than was thought, but we’ll never know, will we? The difficulty for the government’s defenders is proving a negative — and the fact that so much else was a victim of chaotic administration and near madness. But helping to start the G20 summits and gaining a UN Security Council seat also score. Maybe it’s better seen as the Swan government. Whatever the case, it’s off the list.
Howard government, 1996-1998: for all his subsequent deification by the right, 1996-1998 made it look as if all the doubts about John Howard expressed in the ’80s were true. Slashing and burning yet unfocused, handling badly the One Nation challenge, and then slipping in the GST — Howard lost the 1998 election, and poor electoral distribution won it back for him. But once he got it, he got his program through, and got a lot better at it, so the thing is best seen as a whole.
The second Bruce government, 1925-1929: Stanley Bruce (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him: in year 11 and 12 history you did gender and sexuality in post-war Kosovo, the films of Gus Van Sant and Local History 101: interview an old person about what it was like the year the biscuit factory burnt down. Australia from 1789 to 1983 may well be a mystery to you) was a patrician, right-winger who modernised Australian federal government, economic development and foreign relations in his first term and pursued his other agenda — destroying the arbitration system — in his second. Arguably, this obsession distracted from the parallel process by which Australia was slipping into a pre-depression recession and gave a false reasoning for its cause. We don’t usually put the Bruce government on the worst list, but the electorate of the time did — he lost by a landslide in 1929, including his own seat.
That leaves a short list of four. In reverse order:
The Whitlam government: many Tories would put this at the top, but that is because the government (actually three of them) is assessed as two different “worstnesses”. Conservatives hate what they did well in liberalising and modernising Australia, but also what they did badly, political management, some ham-fisted economic moves early on and the like. The crucial point, however, is that the Whitlam era was often chaotic through trying to do too much; the Abbott government is chaotic while trying to do nothing, while having a blank cabinet agenda.
The Scullin government 1929-1931 (you would have learnt about this in the year 11 class where you were otherwise encouraged to make a claymation video diary of a Holocaust survivor): Scullin’s Labor government took triumphant office after the Bruce rout in October 1929 — yeah, that October. Two days after Scullin took office, Wall Street crashed. Over the next year, Labor split three ways over how to deal with it — Scullin’s plan for a proto-Keynesian approach, traditional austerity championed by Joe Lyons, and a left approach, repudiating debt as well. Amid this, Scullin’s treasurer, Ted Theodore, was charged with some of the fantastic amount of corruption he had committed as Queensland premier. Scullin advanced a modified plan, forestalling full austerity, which caused the Lyons group to split and join the right — and the debt repudiators, around Lang, to vote down Scullin from the left. The latter’s hopes of a radical shift left were not vindicated — their move put the right in for a decade. The government is often assessed as having become mired in infighting — but is also judged as having prevented a worse depression fuelled by full austerity. In any case, whatever its record as a government, Scullin the man is a towering giant caught in impossible circumstances, compared to Tony Abbott.
And we get to the key contenders …
The Menzies government 1939-1941: oh, come on, you must have heard of him! Before he was PM for 191 years in the ’50s and ’60s, he led a government from 1939 through the start of World War II, a close-run election in 1940, and a toppling in Parliament in 1941, after which John Curtin took over and won another term in 1943. Curtin may or may not have saved Australia, but Menzies nearly did for us. Like most of the right he was deeply reluctant to acknowledge that a war between Germany and the British Commonwealth was certain, and one with Japan likely — in 1938 he praised Hitler and Mussolini as bulwarks against communism. When war broke out, he sent our army and navy to Europe, willing to sacrifice us to save England — and then spent four months in London, possibly entangled in some mad fantasy of replacing Churchill as an all-Commonwealth PM. That is all the mark of a dithering leader, unsure of his own loyalties — but in his defence, we weren’t at war with Japan yet. The main game was in Europe. His failure is overrated; but failure it remains.
The McMahon government 1970-72: the Golden Turd of bad Australian governments for decades. Billy McMahon, a bald hobbit-like creature, became PM after months of infighting, deposing the rather dashing but erratic John Gorton. Every PM in the above list has their defenders; McMahon has none. He was a terrible speaker who fancied himself a sage (“The world has suddenly grown small as it spins furiously down the ringing grooves of change” ), he was flayed alive by Whitlam at the dispatch box, hung out to dry by the Country Party’s insistence on maintaining vastly inefficient protection, and blindsided by the Nixon administration’s recognition of Red China, which McMahon had denounced — as a Labor policy — a week before Nixon popped up on the Great Wall.
But here’s the rub. Much of McMahon’s terrible reputation turns on his comical appearance and the disappointment felt by a rising class of boomers that Whitlam had been defeated in the 1969 election. McMahon would lose in part, in 1972, because many otherwise right-wing people couldn’t bear to see him on the world stage. But looking back over the record, well — he wasn’t terrible. He had to keep together a modernising Liberal party, an archaic Country Party, and appease the lunatic DLP. Four decisions stand out as key: against the wishes of the Country Party, he re-established Aboriginal affairs as a department and process (Holt had established it; Gorton, famed to history as liberal, but remembered by many contemporaries as a racist, had shut it down); he cancelled Gorton’s development of an Australian nuclear industry (including fast-breeder plutonium reactors), as contrary to anti-proliferation treaties; against the DLP, he permitted Don Chipp to continue loosening onerous censorship laws; and he withdrew all Australian troops from combat roles in Vietnam. And he held Labor to a 12-seat victory in 1972, hardly a landslide. Behind the scenes, much was chaotic and conspiratorial, the budget process was flawed (because of rife contradiction within the right, not cackhandedness), and he was a pompous and foolish man. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve the bronze or silver, but, well, when you look back at the month-by-month of the McMahon government compared to this mob, you really wonder what all the calumny was about.
Scullin and Menzies were faced with world crises they couldn’t master. Bruce tried a major power play that brought him down. Rudd got the one big thing right and couldn’t manage his own energy on other policies. Whitlam and Gillard got major programs through, despite terrible political optics. McMahon dealt not well, not terribly, with a global recession that sundered a 50-year right-wing political compromise between city and country. Abbott has achieved none of these. He couldn’t get the comprehensive Green reversal through that he wanted, “stopping the boats” has been a minor and highly compromised act — even if you ignore torture, killing and child abuse under government command — there has been no budget, no structural reform, no program, and every political maneouvre has failed, often comically. Some of the governments above were bad due to a lack of political skills, others due to a lack of program and purpose. Few were both, and the previous candidate — McMahon — looks like FDR compared to Abbott. The Abbott government appears to be the confluence of bad Australian statesmanship. With a year out, whatever happens now, I think, from any political perspective, we can call it: worst government ever.
And we still have to keep talking about it … I mean like uh, what, that’s, come onnnnnnn.