Julian Kaye: Why me? Why did you pick me?
Leon: … Because nobody ever cared about you. I never even liked you much myself.
— Paul Schrader, American Gigolo
Wow, Tony Abbott — for us, I mean, what luck. What freedom. What opportunity. Tuesday’s interview with Ray Hadley gleamed in the sunlight. Having said that there would be no recriminations or backbiting, he booked an interview with the most slavish and andropausal of his loyalists, Ray Hadley. Having said he didn’t want a headline to come out of it, he gave out one great one, on Morrison, and a couple of first reserves. He affirmed his loyalty to the party by urging people to vote “through gritted teeth” for Malcolm Turnbull. If the interview wasn’t as bad as some people made out, it was no act of departing grace, as Bolt et al tried to portray it. Fair enough, there is the urge to defend oneself and make an account, but to his multitude of public vices, Abbott added yet another — a wheedling passive-aggressiveness, a hostility that cannot speak with its own name.
Tony Abbott is about to fade fast, which is why it’s worth getting a few last interpretations in. He’ll either disappear from public life for a while, or he’ll stick around and fade in full view. The man is Banquo’s ghost, and his presence on the backbenches is going to be painful for all concerned. He not only failed at his life-appointed task, but he came to the end of it delusional about his progress, telling his cabinet to “not get complacent”. Last week, he was talking about the legacy he had handed on to his successors. Bolt and the chorus took that up. Bolt’s hilariously lachrymose celebration of “Tony Abbott, my friend” took the line that the six years of Labor had been a disaster, and Abbott had left a firm legacy of blah blah.
This nonsense is easily dealt with. The most senior person to acknowledge that there was a Rudd-Gillard legacy — mostly Gillard’s — was … Tony Abbott, because he ran on it in 2013. By doing so, by promising to continue it, he gained himself a stonking majority, which included a number of the MPs who led the charge to get him out. He could have run on a more principled position, pushing the need for serious cuts, and taken the risk of a smaller majority or a touch-and-go election. But instead he ran on his opponent’s program.
By contrast, not even his own party is going to run on Tony Abbott’s “legacy”. One policy on boat arrivals and a couple of repeals do not a legacy make. Nor does continuing negotiations already under way. Nor doing what we always do with the Americans as regards military adventures. None of that is a platform, an approach, a philosophy. It’s simply government. The rest of it, the failed budgets, the cancelled emergency, the muddled social policy — that’s not a platform, it’s a scaffold, which Turnbull will shove aside and put something new in place.
The whole legacy fantasy is one reason why Tony Abbott’s continued presence is going to be so grisly. For in this manner he exemplifies the right-wing fantasy of personhood and politics — that there is some virtue that extends from noble individuals, all of them on the right, who stand apart from the grubby world of politics. Abbott was supposed to have been this type above all. Instead, he was proof of the reverse — that such ideas are simply an illusion of ideal selfhood, always undermined by the muck and squalor of real humanity.
For these types, Abbott represented a figure from a past era, one grounded in British identity, and the notion of transcendent authority and value, God, King, Oxford and the rest, while combining it with an expression of Australianness in his manner and habits — the Speedos, the volunteer firefighting and the rest. For many of his cheer squad, Abbott provided a sense of self, of bearing, of certainty, that they could only aspire to. He was more than they could have hoped for. John Howard, yeah, he was alright, but it was always tough to make an idol out of the short, baldy, half-deaf son of a petrol station owner. Besides, Howard was Nixonian in his bearing, a man who was wholly given to politics, and appeared to get a perverse pleasure out of its most amoral demands. Abbott gave the impression that politics was the battle between Good and Evil by other means — having answered a false call to the priesthood, he had now entered his true vocation.
Central to that notion of character, of improving the politics of the country by his presence within it, was that of truthfulness. There would be no more lies, no more shiftiness, under this government by adults conducted by the “maestro”, to use the phrase of Chris Kenny. There was, of course, nothing but lies, from the 2014 election commitments onwards. Not only was Abbott not above the rest of us, or above politics, he functioned at a level below the one many of the muckiest Australian politicians would find acceptable. Government was continued as political war in every sphere, even as that came to mean members of his own party — or even his own cabinet, as briefings to The Daily Telegraph showed. All the time a noble bearing was sought. It has been the same on his departure — the more squalid it is, the more it seems to honour an ideal self in the breach.
That’s the right-wing way, the split in its overall politics, personified at an individual level. Free-market capitalism is brutal, nihilistic and atomising, served by greed and selfishness, and that’s where we’re at — but our “real” selves serve Queen, country, God, etc. Because this ideal self exists, your real self can do what it likes. As you go, you simply blank out all the crap you do and orient yourself to the ideal self, who is always just a little ahead, out of reach, not today, but tomorrow, tomorrow, you’ll be good.
That’s a neurotic way to live, but it’s the neurosis of our age. It sells every glossy magazine, and much more besides. It’s fine on the front line of showbiz — most people have to be high functioning neurotics to want to be (and stay) on camera — but fatal for politics. Abbott sought his ideal self in religiosity, in fine words, in honours systems, and in those endless runs and bike rides — thinking that if he went fast enough, he might catch up to the person he wanted to be. The fact that he seemed to have a better chance than many at doing it is one reason why so many people who had no chance at all of doing it — podgy university friends, hapless political tragics, chronically empty hack journalists — were so keen to fall in love with him. Now that he’s come apart, so did they, with a lot more sound and fury, at anyone but him. Abbott is neurotic but high-functioning. These guys aren’t high-functioning. So their dominant mode is hysteria.
There’s a left-right aspect to this too. For self-regarding rightists, people on the left are, in the Italian, sinistra — partial, subversive, undermining of values. Those on the right have right, are right. Indeed, this is the way that the right — groups like the Conservatives in the UK, or the old Nationalist Party (the pre-Liberal, pre-United Australia Party right) — in Australia managed to gain votes far beyond their class base. They represented us all, one nation, class co-operation, not conflict, and the lofty ideals of empire. Labor had small-minded people obsessing about drains and municipal improvement. There was a lot of that going on in the right-wing disdain for Gillard, together with the raw misogyny. Gillard’s modest centredness, her desire to improve the place without changing it, put them into a particular fury. Abbott, they felt, was someone who wanted to restore — well, they didn’t know what, couldn’t specify it, but it was a great and noble project. Now it has been brought down by grubby people and that man of trade, Malcolm Turnbull.The comments strings of Bolt, Devine et al all have this weepy lost-leader air, as if not merely a leader but a world had been torn from these poor angry, isolated souls.
What now for Abbott? Is the Hadley interview a one-off, or is this going to be a processional sadder than Mark Latham’s slow descent, ending as a 60 Minutes hack, following Gillard around, the woman who succeeded at what the man failed to achieve? For Abbott’s sake, ours too, I hope not. If I were a friend of Tony Abbott’s — rather than a sycophant living off his dying energy — I’d advise him to quit politics, renounce all but $80,000 a year of his parliamentary super, and go to whatever Aboriginal community will have him, and build houses, trowel in hand, for six months, a year, whatever it takes to sweat all this bullshit out and not care any more, and put enough distance between one’s present and the past chaos that a real human freedom can re-emerge. Then he might find the nobility others sought in him, and that he has sought in himself for so long.
The right say we hate the man. Hate him? We hated Howard, because Howard was gooooood. Abbott we are now starting to pass over, out of sheer pity. At this point his “friends”, urging him to stay on, are his true enemies. Pathetic quarter-people, they will carry him away like ants bear a dismembered praying mantis, limb by limb, as if they were carrying an ark, but really, for its raw glucose value. Abbott has nothing more to offer in politics. He is simply clinging to what he knows. This alleged Christian needs to find a dose of Nietzsche — and the big dose of Nietzsche that is in Christ — and embrace the nothingness of his current predicament, and the freedom that lives in that nothingness. Condemned to a life of pious enactment of destiny by his neurotic convert family, he has had one of the great gifts that life can offer, utter failure. That brings you, Zen slap style, face to face with the real, and gives you a chance at life. One recalls Light Sleeper, Paul Schrader’s great Calvinist meditation, centred around Willem Dafoe as a drug dealer, a man revealed as having nothing, attached to nothing, patiently writing a journal in exercise books, that he throws away as soon as they’re filled:
Dafoe (writing in journal): l feel my life turning. All it needed was direction. You drift from day to day, years go by. Then a change comes. l am able to change. l can be a good person. What a strange thing to happen halfway through your life.
Good god, what a ride it’s been. What a man he was, what a specimen, what a … symptom. We won’t see another show like this for a long while, and the man who gave it will live or die out of his ability to see that it was a show. What failure, what opportunity, what luck.