Ha, ha, ha, ha. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Ha, ha, ha, ha. The whole article could be in this vein, but I suspect that would test the reader’s patience by line 100 or so. We’ll also leave the roll call of how utterly correct I was about Tony Abbott to the end of the article, but we will revisit, oh, you betcha. In the meantime, some analysis and thinking ahead.
Abbott now unquestionably takes the crown as the worst prime minister in our history. He went to the electorate on a centrist program, promising to keep many of Labor’s policies and run them better. He broke that social contract with his first budget, lost public support, and never got it back. The budget was bizarre and unnecessary, a program designed to retroactively justify the electoral rhetoric of a “budget emergency”. Having failed to get that through, he failed to get anything else done, save for “stopping the boats” and establish a tropical archipelago of violence, abuse, rape and neglect. Nothing has been moved forward — not even anything the right wanted. That is failure complete.
Dubbed the “worst PM since McMahon”, he only edges Blinky Bill out because the latter looked funny and Abbott doesn’t. But McMahon discontinued Australian “fast breeder” nuclear development, continued the decommissioning of our absurd censorship laws, re-established Aboriginal affairs as a ministry, and withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam combat roles. Not much. Not nothing, neither. What’s Abbott got? No, to avoid the wooden spoon he needed another year to get something, anything done. He didn’t get that. His 54 colleagues didn’t just remove him yesterday. They condemned him to a role as the great laughingstock of Australian history.
Abbott’s total inadequacy for the role of prime minister surprised everyone — friend and foe alike. Having won the leadership by a single vote, most assumed that he would be able to keep his mad monkish traits in check and would focus on governing Australia as it was, not as he would have wished it to be. He managed to do this as opposition leader, taking the fight to Labor brutally. Now, after his disastrous premiership, it’s become clear in retrospect that he was effective in opposition because it allowed him something to define himself against — and hence define himself at all. Labor, especially Gillard Labor, was the “modern age in arms” — everything Abbott had defined himself against since his student days. It was easy to be in service to an imaginary world, a conservative, monarchist, imperial-family Australia when you didn’t have to run the real place, a vast ‘burb using mining money to pay people to serve each other overpriced coffee, irreligious, disconnected from any meaningful idea of the Commonwealth.
In 2009, your correspondent noted that Abbott was no “careful” Burkean conservative, but a European Catholic reactionary in the Joseph de Maistre mode, and that he had a deep desire to fail, to fall nobly in the service of an old order. I thought he would be able to conquer that part of his soul, and make a transition I was wrong about that, and to that effect, more right than anyone else.
Abbott’s rise was based on the contradictions within the right. Turnbull’s rise doesn’t solve them. Pretty much until the 1990s, the left-right political divide was an economic one, with cultural and social agenda attached to each side. But this hid an asymmetry. The right’s politics were fused together — social conservatism was used to create collective life, mostly nationalistic, within which the “free” market could work. The left, before the rise of the Greens, was a coalition. Many working-class Labor supporters shared the right’s cultural values and disdained those of the left-liberal new class with which they were in alliance. But the economic cause was strong enough to smooth that over.
In the ’90s, that alliance collapsed. The most obvious cause was that economic policies ceased to differ in any real way (when they reappeared, as with WorkChoices, the old alliance fell back into place for a while). But the more subtle process was that culture and knowledge production was becoming such a large part of the economy that they began to constitute a class in their own right. It was this shift that allowed the Greens to emerge as a stable and grounded third force.
All this was good for the right in the short term, and formed the basis for Howard’s approach and strategies. But by the late 2000s, this mix of market-oriented, cosmopolitan, high-immigration policies had been in place for twenty years. People whose professional and other attachments might steer them towards the Liberals now had social and cultural values represented by the Greens. Even a genuinely liberal-conservative party would find this a tough combo to handle, but Abbott’s election had given the remnant social conservatives their last, best chance to stand athwart Australian history, yelling “Stop!”. The net result of Abbott’s two years has been to ramrod a process that was already underway — the direct transfer of votes from the Liberals to the Greens.
But Turnbull’s election will improve Liberal numbers among the public and take the cultural fight right to the centre of the Coalition. Should he be able to refashion the party as a genuinely liberal-conservative one, he can write his own ticket. But the reactionary forces will continue to make their case. If he makes any concessions to them, he’ll be tarnished. If he doesn’t, they’ll mount an internal insurgency. Either way, Turnbull’s election simply creates a fresh set of problems — though ones preferable to the rank incompetence, which has preceded him. And Shorten, well, the undertaker that came for Mr Tony might want to wait around to avoid two trips.
Beyond all this analysis, there is always going to be something mysterious at the heart of the phenomenon that was Tony Abbott. Right from the start he was a hybrid: British born, his father a Catholic convert, imposing, confident and charismatic from a young age, he was told by his family that he would either be pope or prime minister. Reminiscences by his university contemporaries recall both a man at ease in the blokey world of the right-wing student life and also a fire-breathing, hyper-energetic political-cultural warrior. This reactionary-Catholic cultural politics was what attracted him to B.A. Santamaria, and this fooled many for a while into believing that Abbott was a man in the DLP tradition. But the DLP was, of course, Labor Irish Catholicism in exile, many of its principle at variance with Santa’s cultural pessimism. Abbott was an Empire-loyalist Catholic, a man who yearned to reconcile these two traditions — just as both of them were becoming irrelevant to Australian life. Such a separation from your own times turns you into either an artist or a neurotic. Abbott was the latter, a man riven by conflicts between these different forces.
Much of his life has been a search for external constraints on his internal conflicts: between the call to piety and humility and the thirst for glory and the glittering prizes, between the moral demands of his faith and his libido, between the Christian message of peace, and his extraordinary aggressiveness, between the cosmopolitan modernity in which he must live, and his disdain for “the others”. He looked for that first in traditional life: the student right, Oxford and traditions, etc. He looked for it in the seminary. Eventually he looked for it in physical discipline, the body made into such a hard shell as to contain him. The role of leader of the opposition gave him the whole of Parliament House to contain it — within its thick walls he could let rip. When he had to go outside, as in the 2013 election, he was managed by Credlin and co, like the Tasmanian Devil of the old Looney Toons cartoons: a dark blur let out and re-caged at 15-minute intervals. But of course, the one role in any society where there is no restraint is that of the sovereign. There was now nothing to hold his chaos in. So the chaos of this government came right from the very centre. The thing was contradictory, divided, and leak-riven, fantasising and disorganised, because Abbott is, and he imparted this to the whole enterprise.
Once Abbott had created a context of total chaos then he had achieved one of the conditions Winnicott suggested was necessary for mental equilibrium — a match between your inner and outer worlds. Remember when, via one of Hartcher’s leaks/full transcripts, we heard that Abbott had told his gape-mouthed party room to guard against complacency? How could he have thought that? Because the smoking ruins of his government looked like the smoking ruins inside his head. All was in order: ditto honours (Sir Prince Philip) unsettled Australia; extrajudicial citizenship removal; budget emergency; “jobs Holocaust”; “at least the Nazis …”; “Cape York time”; “what have you done for the economy?”, “we stopped the boats”; and so many others. It is amazing that such a man became prime minister in our era, a measure of the desperation of the conservative forces in his party, and a boon to political pathologists — it’s rare to see such a brutal confrontation between raw reality, the reality of sovereignty, of being the power, and utter sustaining fantasy. How instructive it has been.
For Tony Abbot, well, I feel for him at a human level. Who wouldn’t? He reached the ordained acme of his life, only to find that it has all been a ghastly joke on him, with an audience of 25 million. For make no mistake about it, this is whole-life failure on a grand scale, bread too bitter to the taste to eat. This is not “tried nobly and failed”, “reached too high”, “disappointing end to a distinguished career”. Abbott’s very ordinary political career and thin list of ministerial achievements was all focused on this moment, defined by its presumed achievements. But there were none, and that works backwards along the line. Tony Abbott is not simply an Australian political failure — he is the new standard of Australian political failure, the failure equivalent of the standard metre, lying inert and separated in a super-cooled vault in Paris. His failure of execution was all his own, but it was bound up in the right’s fantasy view of the world — that there is some natural state of affairs where the free market roars into every area of life, but traditional society remains sacred. Any change in it, any loosening of it, must therefore be the work of enemies, the elites, the relativists, etc. And so eternal traditional society must be imposed by the state, which is simply enforcing what is there anyway. But not there. Which, etc. The position itself is chaotic and self-contradictory, no reason why its exponents wouldn’t be.
But Abbott, man. He really took it to the buffers. And he really went down with it. And will keep going. That disaster, and its decades-long denouement, was a hell of a thing to stay healthy for. The man himself will either lapse into all encompassing fantasy, or draw on every skerrick of a Christian attitude to get through. But that depends on what Tony Abbott’s relation to his faith is, and what it has ever been — whether it offers the idea of universal worth, combined with raw honesty in one’s self-assessment, or whether it’s the narcissistic smoke-and-mirrors version Greg Sheridan outlined in his memoir, where the Virgin Mary turns up sheathed in white, to reassure you that you’re special, and there is a mission for you on Earth.
There’s none of that for Abbott now. As mission, his life is a failure, and all that remains is mere raw life itself, with no recourse to destiny, mission or the like to give it a sense of meaning and purpose. That is an opportunity to really live, and maybe part of Abbott will welcome this release. For I suspect, deep down, Abbott has always felt that his faith was imposed on him by his father’s demented Pascalian wager (he bargained with “God” that he would become a Catholic if the family survived a risky sea-crossing). To grow up in Catholic tradition is one thing, to be a convert another. To be hustled into a bargain — a bargain welched on if you leave — is to find oneself in a situation where hatred, not love, of what you are surrounded by might be the deeper thought, to be quelled by greater fervour, by sending your hate outward to the infidel, whether Islamists or uppity women, and by making your body so hardened that it is a deadened carapace, rather than living flesh.
Such analyses tended to be scorned in Australian political commentary, but Abbott was setting himself up to fail in 2009, and I presumed he would sabotage himself fatally within six months of the February spill, and the above is the reason why. The man does not want to be who he is, and thus, when he can do anything he wants, he became a force of destruction and failure. The fact that you can spot it a mile off doesn’t take away from the fact that it is tragedy in its fullest form, pure catharsis. What he did any of us can do. It is possible to get your life wrong for years, decades at a time, and stay that way until it’s too late to change, and it’s pretty chilling to see that played out in dumb show. The captains and the kings depart. So does the laughter and the schadenfreude pretty quickly, and we are left with the terror of it, and the pity, and all played out on the main stage of history.