The Japanese are in Johore
It isn’t funny any more
— James McAuley*
Fidelity is an important value that comes to politics from Catholicism. Fidelity in politics means that you take the religious spirit of faith — that it persists in the absence of evidence, that it fills that absence — and you apply it to your politics at its darkest moments, when all seems lost. Fidelity is not necessarily consistency, honour, application. It is a determination to stick to your politics.
Whatever else Tony Abbott has or has not, fidelity he’s got. But what is it fidelity to? The man appeared in our national politics as a graduate of the Santamaria school of insurgents, championing a form of social conservatism more inflected with continental Catholic European reaction than most.
In 2009, this writer noted that those who sought to assimilate Abbott’s politics to an Anglo-American Burkean conservative tradition had it hopelessly wrong: Abbott’s social imagination was in the spirit of “The Executioner”, De Maistre’s key text of European conservatism. Nothing since has served to prove that wrong. Abbott’s final, fatal screw-up — offering a knighthood to Sir Prince Philip — was in De Maistre’s spirit.
Society, in this conspectus, must have transcendent institutions, created in a spirit of fidelity to the ideal, defending it from all comers. Absurdity is no disqualification; quite the contrary. “I believe it because it is absurd,” the early church father Tertullian noted of faith in the Trinity. Devotion to the ideal of Sir Prince Philip is simply the milk-and-water earthly reflection of that for a Catholic knight stuck in an Anglican polity, and making the best of it.
But the question raised by recent events is: what is Tony Abbott faithful to? One answer, I suspect, in the wake of the Monash Forum fiasco is that beyond all concrete and particular beliefs, Tony Abbott is devoted to the beau idéal of failure. Failure has been his political muse for decades, coming to the fore once he gained power. Failure, in politics, is a form of secular martyrdom. Success? That would mean administration and governance, mingling your soul with the muck of the world. Failure preserves the soul’s integrity.
No one who is not seeking failure would start a political ginger group without sounding out the family of the man it is named after. This is not simply incompetence; it is a form of self-sabotage of the sort Abbott has displayed since he won the premiership in 2013. Since he was executed by an exasperated party room, failure has become pretty much the sole focus of Tony Abbott’s activity. He has created an entirely new thing, Beckettian Westminster politics: fail often, fail better, fail again. His collected stuff-ups should be gathered in a single volume, as a sequel to Battlelines.
Will the Monash Forum fiasco finally finish the right-wing fantasy that Abbott could ride back to the Liberal leadership, as the paladin of Christian civilisation? Abbott has been a would-be Pope Julius II, Savonarola, De Maistre, a Guy Crouchback, latterly an Iago, of which Australian politics has no shortage. But now one has to raid popular culture for a register: he is Gareth/Dwight Schrute from The Office, the awkward, perpetual work-around man, fantasising secret missions in the reserve army that will not have him.
The truth is, that beneath the religious sanctity, the purity of spirit that Abbott seeks through serial failure, is a less creditable motive: pure, modern, secular narcissism. Abbott perhaps believed that he could go to the backbench and be some sort of austere presence of principle, a Jack Lang, throwing a long shadow. But he is the exact opposite: a joke, a gargoyle hanging among the buttresses of the backbenches, a jester whose outsize features are redolent of Mr Punch. To call Abbott and his new companion Barnaby Joyce “Statler and Waldorf” is an insult to muppets. At least the muppets can keep a show on the road. Time to move on Tone, for our sake and yours. It isn’t funny any more.
* From a song written by McAuley for a Sydney Uni revue in 1942, renouncing his youthful anti-war anarchism, as the Japanese army surged southward.