In 2004 Michael Duffy, these days known better as an excellent crime journalist, published Latham and Abbott, focusing on what he termed “the two finest politicians of their generation”. Within months that description looked badly wrong — Latham had spectacularly flamed out in a blast of self-indulgence after being smashed by John Howard in the 2004 election. In just over three years, Howard himself would be out, and Tony Abbott — who’d had an awful election campaign in 2007 — would be mocked for a short-lived bid to succeed Howard as leader that memorably featured his claim to have “people skills”.
In the longer term, however, Duffy’s interest was justified, and not merely because Abbott eventually secured the leadership and rode over a dysfunctional Labor Party to victory in 2013. The men had some interesting, if not necessarily profound, similarities — particularly, both were centrist thinkers with a penchant for aggression. Abbott, to coin an oxymoron, was a neo-reactionary, carrying forward the agenda of the Democratic Labour Party, as well as a political and literal pugilist, prone to inviting disputants to step outside. Latham was a spruiker of a rather derivative, but then fashionable, Third Wayism, with anger management problems and a record of physical conflict.
In the end, both failed, but in very different ways. Latham’s lack of discipline lost him a highly winnable election that handed control of the Senate to the Coalition; Abbott took his party to victory but became Australia’s worst prime minister, kicked out by his own side significantly sooner than Labor turfed out Kevin Rudd. Abbott was the man who blew a landslide victory, electoral goodwill and the support of Rupert Murdoch for the ignominy of being dumped barely two years into the job.
While each man has proceeded along very different trajectories since 2004, they’ve both arrived now at the same point. Abbott’s warmed-over “agenda” for the Liberal Party — most of it things he failed to carry out while Prime Minister — is primarily social rather than economic. He claims removing renewable energy subsidies will cause power prices to fall (he knows perfectly well that will lead to power price rises due to lack of competition with gas-fired power) but in fact he is giving voice to a profound conservative antipathy to renewable energy; he wants to abolish “nanny state bureaucracies that persecute journalists but do nothing about Muslim extremists” (hilarious from the man who introduced mass surveillance laws to make hunting down journalists’ sources easier, and laws to jail journalists who reveal intelligence operations); he wants more patriotism, he wants to stop immigration, he wants to gut the Senate’s capacity to block legislation.
The closest Abbott comes to actually engaging with a contemporary economic issue is to suggest, seemingly, that new workers have lower wages and penalty rates than existing workers — the kind of award grandfathering that neither businesses nor the Fair Work Commission think is a smart idea.
Unlike Abbott, routinely derided as a lightweight on economics, Latham once penned such weighty tomes as Civilising Global Capital. But he has lost interest in economics and instead is obsessed with identity politics — though not in the way one suspects he imagines. He believes he is attacking identity politics, but in fact he is embodying them. Latham has become ever more focused on railing at what he sees as a conspiracy against white heterosexual males by women, by LGBTI communities, by Muslims, by “the Left”, in the process becoming an avatar of angry white males, railing at perceived threats to white male supremacy, demanding the restoration of an older society in which people like him held unquestioned authority. Latham celebrates his perceived victimhood, proclaiming an “outsider” status laughable for a white male ex-political leader enjoying a taxpayer-funded retirement who worked for a broadcaster owned by Murdoch.
Both men are driven by deep personal animosity. Abbott’s is toward the man who unseated him; much has been made of Abbott appearing to rule out a change of Prime Minister before the next election, but remember Kevin Rudd in February 2012 declared his support for Julia Gillard, even saying any challenger would have to go through him first. Latham’s is more nebulous, but no less personal — his animosity is particularly directed at what he sees as “middle class feminists”, domestic violence campaigners like Rosie Batty, female columnists, erstwhile television colleagues and radio presenters. Latham’s demonology is dominated by women.
But curiously, in both cases their emotional journeys have seen other, past animosities abandoned: Tony Abbott, who once labored and lied to destroy Pauline Hanson, has been happy to befriend her. And Latham is now happy to pander to the type of News Corp commentators he reviled in his political days; then again, Latham is a paid Murdoch columnist himself, so no surprise there.
Abbott, because he remains in parliament, and cherishes the idea of a return to the Prime Ministership, is more circumspect; his politics are more national and cultural, less personal. But deep down both men adhere to a conspiracy theory that their country has been stolen, or is being stolen, by a sinister collection of Others — for Abbott, the cultural Left, Muslims and LGBTI communities, for Latham, those groups plus uppity women who have forgotten their place. They represent different ways of working through the experience of failure, but ultimately both embody a bitter resentment that the world has changed, and in ways that mean people like them don’t get what they want quite as readily as they used to.