Polo is my life.

Hunter S Thompson

News that one of the people that Peter Dutton may have done visa favours for was an Argentine polo buddy of the AFL CEO will come as no surprise … well, actually, it comes as a surprise to almost all of us. One knows that polo is a thing in Australia, but one keeps forgetting.

Kerry Packer didn’t introduce it to this country, but he popularised it when he took it up as a way to deal with his chronic boredom and unhappiness, unrelieved by power, losing at roulette, and hiring high-class escorts to watch him lose at roulette.

Packer took it up in part to get more exercise, a strategy he perhaps hadn’t thought through fully. Nevertheless, it reminds you that there is a strata of the super-rich in Australia who will occasionally play to the idea of being just average blokes, but who form a tight, self-policed class. ‘Twas always thus. The pages of Australian newspapers, until the 1950s, were filled with society listings. The notion of a working man’s paradise was never taken, even by those whose believed in it, that there were not social orders, and that they had some legitimacy.

Years ago, Don Arthur dug out the first bulletins of the IPA, issued in 1943. They were all about the hardships of the upper middle-class, due to the servant shortage created by the war. The continuous existence and smooth reproduction of an Anglo wealthy elite, and its shadowy character, is one explanation for the persistent disjuncture of Malcolm Turnbull in the prime ministership – both his performance and the view of him.

Because his history included a high-profile stint challenging, and mocking, the British establishment in the Spycatcher trial, and then leading the establishment side of the republican movement, it was easy to think of him as a certain Australian type: the larrikin made good, and rich, as a QC.

In fact, of course, he was born to the silk. His dad was a pub broker, at a time when that was a lucrative business. His mother was a Lansbury, an impeccable Bloomsbury family. Turnbull, sent to the apex-elite Sydney Grammar school, inherited $2 million, quite a sum in the ’80s.

He should have been the ideal Liberal leader: acceptable to the shadowy super-wealthy, while also capable of presenting himself as the average bloke in a weekend leather jacket. Instead he was despised by the former for his failure to protect their interests, and by the latter for his failure to stand up to the former. It was a sequence of play they call, to use a technical polo term, falling off.

Nothing unusual about the Liberal Party dumping a leader, but the internal hatred for Turnbull was of a level usually reserved for Labor in-fights. Those occurred because, unlike the Libs, Labor was really two parties sutured together — a Catholic social movement party which, under other circumstances, might have become a corporatist and/or fascist major party, and an industrial socialist party. The confrontation has been, at times, lethal.

The Libs haven’t got to the point of beatings and killings yet, but they have become two parties in the Labor model, and done so at the worst possible time — when all parties except the Greens have lost a represented social base, and become, instead, clients of funding sources. Thus the Liberals now have a “centre”-right section, misleadingly known as the moderates, who tend to be “value-congruent” with their base, even if not from them.

Scott Morrison isn’t a travel agent, for example; he’s a lifelong bureaucrat, in government and industry travel bodies — in many ways the small business travel agent’s mortal enemy. But he looks like the people he represents: daggy dad, suburban happy-clappy rather than Da Vinci Code Catholic, etc.

Like most of the centre-right, he gives an impression of not knowing — in terms of the politics-culture wars — what the fuss is all about. Live your life, do a job, buy a house then another, mow the lawn, holiday in Queensland and Disneyland once, watch MasterChef, and check your bits for lumps in the shower in the morning.

I’ve got a cousin in her 40s. She and her husband are planning their next house move to be near a golf course, for retirement. They returned to the Liberal fold when Abbott went. They have no fomo, just ScoMo. The other party in the party sees these moderates as blind sheep, sated on grass, wandering towards the cliff-edge of civilisational destruction.

The party’s right is not now a mere quantitative tendency, it has an entirely different, and more tortured conception of human existence. No coincidence that it is led by an apocalyptic Catholic in Tony Abbott, and the follower of a puritan protestant sect, Eric Abetz.

With little grassroots support for, or identification with, their belief that western civilisation is being destroyed by feminism, secularism, socialism etc — which they now see as coming as much from within their party as without — this party has cast around for a funding body to provide the funds to continue their guerrilla war, the long Thermopylae, until the armies of God rise again.

They’ve found it in the resources industry. It involves engineering a de-Christed Christianity — Jesus, as the gospels indicate, was a Green communist, content to live off the earth’s spontaneous output and crashing weddings — and channeling the Old Testament notion that the earth is there to be worked. The right have been applying this political theology since the environmental movement rose in the 1980s.

Hugh Morgan, whose Western Mining Corporation poured money into Quadrant for decades, used to arrange for priests to bless mining equipment up in WA and the NT. The sense that extractive
brown fuel industries are a representation of the Western tradition makes good cultural cover for the fact that they no longer make a blind bit of economic sense, and their continued support is now actively damaging to the Australian economy.

In pursuing this source of funding and ideology, what I’m now calling the “brown right” — coals and camps — has come to define itself almost wholly by one sector of one industry, that of coal. This clientelism — in a party of such denuded footsoldier membership as to be reliant on funding — has become so distorting as to cause uncontainable mayhem to the party’s internal organs.

It is one thing for a party to be a client of capital, or of a particular social power. It’s quite another for one section of the party to be wholly owned by one particular subset of one industry, and one that has been rejected by other parts of that sector (metals mining, etc) as they seek to modernise.

When that is combined with the purist belief that those you share a party, and some political beliefs, with, are the very worst for not being totally on board with you, then, effectively, a party is not. It is a thing of several parts, disorganised at a fundamental level.

Further evidence of this is the leaking against Peter Dutton, of the sort that really tamps down the dirt on the burial of electoral hopes, and the party’s descent into internal lawfare around bullying. Many on the Libs were smug when this sort of stuff began to afflict the Greens, believing themselves to be made of sterner stuff.

Nope, the Greens were just ahead of the trend, as always. Bullying lawfare — whose claims may well be legitimate — is a feature of atomised modernity, which becomes weaponised when enough people stop caring about, or identifying with, the larger political body they’re part of.

The polo players and au-pair-havers still run the party behind the scenes, as they still run Australia. And this is the most remarkable thing about the collapse of Malcolm Turnbull. He was not only a good bourgeois gentilhomme, gratified to find that he could govern in prose; he is just about the most bourgeois Australian alive. His vanishing, bohemian mother was a radio soap opera writer who became an academic expert in Victorian novels, particularly those of Anthony Trollope. Turnbull became a character from one.

His downfall, at the hands of party colleagues who not merely disagreed with him, but loathed him as a personification of everything they hated, is a measure of the way we are livid now. If a bourgeois party does not feel represented by the leadership of the ultimate bourgeois then it has become so unmoored from its class being as to be in deep trouble.

The quote is so grievously overused as to be sworn off, but man, when you’ve got polo players and au pairs running across the stage, you can be pretty sure you’re not in a tragedy but a farce. Malcolm was wise to chukka it in. I’ll see myself out, as did he.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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