This was originally published on February 7, 2018.
There is a measure of the current relationship between politics, government and everyday life, and that is the rich varieties of contempt one now feels for our elected representatives. We’ve gone well beyond the stage of blanket “hate” for pollies we happen to dislike or disagree with. Virtually the entire crop of leading mainstream party politicians — after the cresting of John Howard and the demise of the Beazley-Crean Laurel and Hardy act — arouse in us rich and complex blends of pity, loathing, and disgust; each as distinct as the different notes and flavours in a variety of single malts.
Of our leaders of the last 15 years, only Julia Gillard escapes such judgement, due to her basic competence, rationality and having some consistent beliefs; ironic, in that she had to suffer the worst barrage of simple hatred while in office. What a goddamn golden age.
Now look at those who came before and after. Kevin Rudd floats across the political landscape like an escaped hot-air balloon with a face painted on. The practice of government that once tethered him to the ground awhile; now, bereft of that, the fantasy side of his nature has taken over, reconstructing the memory and account of his inspiring but shambolic time in office. The cocktail? A degree of remnant regard, contempt, a dash of pity, a garnish of schadenfreude.
Joe Hockey? Good old Wobbles, whatever job he’s employed in, he’s not up to it. If he ran a Mr Muffler in West Ryde, he’d do it badly. The mix? Vast amusement, exasperation at his time-wasting, contempt for his lack of self-awareness, his inability, offered great things, to rise to them. Mark Latham? Sheer catharsis. Pity and terror, at the place that any human can get to if they never find the strength to know and accept their own limitations. He failed, then he failed at failing. He’s a rubbish skip fire, but in Aleppo, Syria. We just look away.
Then there was Abbott. We thought he marked the end of this cycle — which I suspect had something to do with the early 2000s collapse of a politics/public/media relationship, which had been stable for many decades; there was simply now no external controls on the excess narcissism that many politicians carry with them. The boy wonder, feted to be either pope or prime minister, the right-wing rugger bugger, turned Santamaria student politics falangist, journalist, would-be priest, thinker, the leading conservative of his generation — and he turned out to be the most ridiculous figure of them all. Ridiculousness is it exact.
Abbott is contemptible, yes, in his hypocrisy as regards to politics — whining about left-wing bullying, while running thuggish media campaigns, playing the teary victim when he gets a drunken headbutt — and he generates that distinct embarrassment you feel when watching others flounder, but above all he is absurd. What looked, for a time, like gravitas, was simply the weight of expectations, weighing down a man who lacked the constitution to support them. He sounded like the last conservative, and he turned out to be nothing much more than one of those medieval re-enactment guys, who drink cider from their own pewter tankard at the office picnic.
But for all that, Mr Tony, well he believes in something beyond him, and he strives to serve it. There is a sense that the man has content, even if that content is the DVD extras of a season of Game of Thrones. Maybe it’s the nostalgia effect, but Mr Tony is absolutely thrown into relief by the abysmal horror that is Malcolm Turnbull. Sartre spoke of the nausea, the actual physical sickness one feels at the contingency of things, how everything could just as well be otherwise. Turnbull goes one better; he channels a sort of existential dry retching, a product of the vast disappointment with the politician, combined with a rich contempt for the man he has decided to be, or always was.
The latest trigger for that has been his pathetic handling of the Jim Molan mini-scandal, the new senator posting anti-Muslim dreck from a British far-right/neo-Nazi website. This ill-judged act is evidence of the further decomposition of the Australian right, in a Trumpian fashion, a series of obsessive preoccupations serving as a substitute for a political philosophy. The creep towards actual neo-Nazism, or the tolerance of such, is moral and political poison for any centre-right force that wants a long-term future. There’s no real upside in pandering to it, unless you believe News Corp’s fantasy of a vast Anglo silent majority out there, angry enough about 18C to make governments fall. The failure to find any judicious words to draw a line between that and his politics is failure afresh.
But it’s all like that isn’t it, with Turnbull? Everything he does now produces the sort of contempt one feels for someone living out an imaginary life on our time. Even his anodyne interview on last Sunday’s Insiders had that quality. What was it about his defensive, irritated short-tempered performance — his basic imputation that Barrie Cassidy was being impertinent for asking any questions at all — that seemed far, far worse than your usual grouchy interview? Ah yes, it was the open-necked white shirt! The collars sitting slightly too high above the jacket rim, consciously styled. “I’m relaxing at home,” it seemed to say. “I’m one of you too” — as if aliens were trying to infiltrate themselves among the humans by a careful study of our habits.
It was there in the despatch box speech after the same-sex marriage postal survey, the pretence that he had been the leader of a movement, rather than having been pushed forward by the press of the crowd. It’s the $4 billion boondoggle for the death industry, when we could spend it on the life industries of renewables. It’s not congratulating Sydney ICAN for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, whatever he thinks of their politics. The hits just keep on coming.
It is all awful to watch. The sheer horror of Malcolm Turnbull, of what he turned out to be, is that one might compare him to the boss in The Office — but not David Brent, from the UK version, a clumsy, excruciating man, but with some capacity for real feeling and need, beneath the bluster. Turnbull is Steve Carell’s Michael Scott from the US version: the smirking, giggling, twitching cartoon figure, who never misses a chance to advance his own interests, usually blunderingly, a man whose presence lingers, when he is gone, by the sour taste in one’s mouth.
Turnbull cannot shift the Coalition out of the 47/48-53/52 two-party-preferred zone, I suspect, because disgust is immovable, and disgust is what he provokes in a number of people. Cowardice, poor judgement, delusion, petty ambitions: Malcolm Turnbull manages to discredit not merely the life of politics, but human striving in general. Even at the end of this bum cycle of Australian politics, that is quite an anti-achievement.