Parliament House is nearly deserted this week, its long corridors so sepulchrally silent you can hear the drone of the vast air-conditioning system and occasionally a gust from the hot winds that raked the capital in recent days. Most of the building’s occupants have fled; those who remain are in the ministerial wing where the business of government still ticks over in a few offices, or watching the news cycle descend into summer torpor in the press gallery.
For the last two days, however, Tony Abbott has been in his office, in a far-flung corridor of the House of Representatives wing, receiving visitors amid the silence. He’s in there again today, two days before Christmas, thinking and mapping out the path back to the power for his government-in-exile.
These sort of end-of-year pieces are intended to draw out the underlying themes of the year, but there is no theme to what happened to Tony Abbott. There is only Abbott himself, and his staggering flaws that were revealed by the experience of power. Many of us predicted Abbott would flame out as opposition leader, but he was far more disciplined that anyone expected and simply brilliant at a style of hardball oppositional politics unseen since Malcolm Fraser destroyed the Whitlam government. The pressure of the prime ministership, however, badly exposed him. While his relentless negativity and inability to articulate the case for anything positive was well known before he became PM, 2015 shone a spotlight on something that had only been muttered about Abbott before – his complete, almost infantile reliance on his chief of staff, a reliance so great that Abbott was unable to function without her. Such was Abbott’s dependence on Peta Credlin that he couldn’t even take a break at the snow without her.
Kevin Rudd had staff issues, of course – he burned through them at a rate of knots, he lacked an experienced operator familiar with power – but nothing like this: Abbott’s own allies told him he needed to remove Credlin, warned him she would cost him his job, but he wouldn’t let her go. Probably he couldn’t let her go, so dependent was he, so dominant a part of his political personality had she become, although when her instincts were better than his – like on Sir Prince Phil, a blunder graciously admitted by Abbott as the one own-goal of his fortunately brief prime ministership – he found it easier to ignore her advice.
That moment was reflective of more than just Abbott’s weird monarchism (Abbott has not just a preference for existing constitutional arrangements, but that kind of creepy David Flint-style obsequiousness that ill becomes any proud Australian). It reflected Abbott’s abiding loathing of modernity, one that he shares with such rusted-on supporters as Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz – a sense that the world is badly out of kilter. Abbott is the man threatened by homosexuality, the man angry at the suggestion that humankind should not be given biblical licence to exploit all of creation (and especially the bits made of coal), the man uncomfortable with the counter-intuitive and often inconvenient truths of economics, the man convinced of the innate superiority of his own white Anglophone culture, the man given to seeing women as not quite as apt for statecraft as men. His government invariably reflected all those traits.
Abbott’s agenda was thus ideologically, not just tactically, always a negative one, about removing or preventing innovations that he felt didn’t fit with his 19th-century view of the world. His proudest boast was that he stopped the boats — a claim that, given Julia Gillard’s re-establishment of offshore processing and Kevin Rudd’s pivotal ban on maritime arrivals ever being allowed to settle in Australia, rather overstated his own role, but even if he could claim 100% credit, it became the entire rationale for his government. This was the man who answered an economic question by declaring he’d stopped the boats, who kept uttering the phrase even as Malcolm Turnbull, citing Abbott’s obsession with three-word slogans as one of his casus belli, overran his works on September 14 in a frontal assault straight from the political textbooks. “The PMO is ours,” Turnbull might have said in the spirit of Sherman, “and fairly won”.
The defeat left Abbott with, literally, no legacy. Rudd, at least, could look back on the work he did with Wayne Swan, Ken Henry, Terry Moran and Glenn Stevens in preventing the global financial crisis from smashing the economy. But Abbott exited the job with nothing: government spending was up on Labor’s years, not down (as Scott Morrison likes to remind us), taxation was up on Labor’s years, not down, the deficit was up on Labor’s years, not down, unemployment was up on Labor’s years, not down — by all the markers that matter, Abbott’s prime ministership was poor fiscally and economically. His pretensions to being the “infrastructure prime minister” crumbled amid a ruined NBN and a massive collapse in government infrastructure spending; his claims that Australia was “open for business” discredited by a rising tide of economic xenophobia from the Nationals toward Chinese investment. And his efforts on tax reform so rapidly turned into an exercise of attacking Labor that even his own colleagues were wrongfooted, although not before Treasury had released a discussion paper that, remarkably, proposed as a solution to the problem of multinational tax avoidance simply cutting corporate tax.
Beleaguered and trailing even the mediocre Bill Shorten, Abbott had turned to national security as his saviour. “Tranche” after “tranche” of national security reforms were rolled out, few of them ever justified with evidence or logic, designed not so much to protect Australians from the statistically trivial threat of terrorism as to convey a permanent sense of threat and crisis to a frightened electorate. A surveillance state was imposed on Australians; journalists — already regularly investigated by the Australian Federal Police for doing their job — threatened with jail, whistleblowers targeted.
At one point, visibly struggling to find yet more powers to give to security agencies, Abbott and his cretin of an offsider Peter Dutton hit upon the idea of an arbitrary, unreviewable power to strip Australians of their citizenship, an idea so wretched much of his own cabinet rebelled; even the version that eventually emerged from the government conjured a bizarre world in which unaccountable bureaucrats could virtually order the minister to decide an individual was a terrorist and could be stripped of their citizenship.
The unaccountable, unelected and secretive officials of the security bureaucracy had done well out of Abbott, hundreds of millions in extra resources and vast additional powers over the lives of ordinary Australians. The only price the security bureaucracy — agencies like ASIO, the AFP, Border Force and the vast suppurating tumour on public policy in Australia that is the Attorney-General’s Department — had to pay for this was co-operation with Abbott in his attempts to politicise national security. The AFP and ASIO dutifully opened their doors to the prime minister for media opportunities — including the debacle in June when Abbott was pictured being shown a year-old Washington Post map by the head of ASIO. In the end, they had the last laugh — Abbott packed up his dozens of flags and, with a surprising ungraciousness, exited office to contemplate the lessons of Rudd’s return. Politicians come and go, but the spies, spooks and civil servants of the deep state remain.
By year-end, Abbott’s government in exile were complaining about the politicisation of ASIO against them by Turnbull, lamenting that their free speech (specifically, the right to demonise Muslims) was being stifled by security agencies, a complaint they were curiously uninterested in when others made it about Abbott’s assault on basic freedoms in the name of stopping the “Daesh death cult”. The split is an interesting one, however: the small coterie of Abbott supporters are quite literally fascistic and normally reflexive supporters of security institutions, but suddenly they and their media supporters at News Corp turned on a dime to attack the head of ASIO.
Perhaps these disgruntled fascists will convert their unhappiness with ASIO into greater parliamentary scrutiny. Our security agencies face minimal parliamentary accountability for their actions, with Parliament’s inadequate and flawed Security and Intelligence Committee — chaired by a noted advocate of two of the tranches of security legislation — unable to fulfil expectations of genuinely independent and disinterested oversight of security agencies and the laws under which they operate. Otherwise, the power of Australia’s deep state is unchecked. Thanks to the brave work of lawyer Bernard Collaery and his client Witness K, we are clearer than ever, for example, that ASIS broke the law in its bugging of the East Timorese cabinet under the Howard government, but rather than the perpetrators being held to account, Collaery and K have been the subject of legal harassment by the government in plain sight.
Indeed it was a good year for shadowy, powerful bureaucrats. Yet again, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sold out Australia’s economic interests, signing us up to the intellectual property and investor-state dispute settlement provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which give yet more power to multinational companies. As the Productivity Commission, the Harper Competition Review and the ACCC all identified, the TPP is a significant risk to good policy in Australia — which is the key reason why the PC has been prevented from undertaking any genuinely independent assessment of it, just as no assessment was ever allowed of the AUSFTA, which is now conclusively shown to have been economically damaging to Australia.
While multinational corporations and US trade officials were gulling Australia’s trade diplomats, at home the Abbott government and the Turnbull government, in succession, were carrying out their donors’ orders on climate policy. The massive flow of funds from resources and energy companies to the Coalition was always going to complement Tony Abbott’s denialism; not content with repealing an effective, cheap carbon price, Abbott launched a full-on war on renewable energy, one that Malcolm Turnbull evidently viewed as unnecessarily obvious. His government, however, has the same unambitious targets as the Abbott government and the same failed policy intended to achieve it, even if the war on renewables has now been replaced with a charitable tolerance of wind and solar — although the government still scrambles to support the white elephant coal fantasies of the corrupt Adani corporation with a legislative assault on basic legal review processes.
If there’s an abiding theme of 2015, it’s the succession of insights into just how distant the forms of democractic government are from the exercise of real power in Australia: the big donors to the Liberal Party who get to shape climate policy, the Indian billionaire who gets special access to a PM, the DFAT bureaucrats handing ever more power to multinationals, the Treasury bureaucrats eager to cut what little tax any multinationals still pay, the unaccountable security bureaucrats happy to exploit desperate politicians to give themselves ever greater power and ever greater resources to use that power.
Australia is deep in secret state territory, despite the change in prime minister. The forms of democracy proceed, but they looks more and more like theatre every day while the real exercise of power takes place out of sight and scrutiny.