Editor’s Note

Editor’s Note February 2014

Keen observers of the political process have long attributed Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s propensity to walk like a cowboy to his pre-dawn habit of sending the flint-stones flying on his bike. But increasingly he’s been talking the walk.

Last September, a week before the election, Abbott argued the situation in Syria was fraught because “it’s not goodies versus baddies, it’s baddies versus baddies”. Christopher Pyne, as ever Abbott’s wingman, defended this analysis as “extremely sophisticated”. Another Abbott amigo, the Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, wrote that the line was “almost technical in the precision of its accuracy”. Most people, though, deemed it language unbecoming a future PM. So jaws dropped when Abbott strode into the World Economic Forum in Davos last month to trot out the very same saloon talk. “The difficulty in Syria,” he told gathered journalists, “is that … it often seems like a case that involves baddies versus baddies. I guess the best way for all of them to demonstrate that at least some of them are goodies is to lay down their arms.”

All that was missing was John Wayne’s accent. The goodies-versus-baddies analysis resurfaced the very next day, still in Davos, when Abbott was asked what he made of reports that asylum seekers had been mistreated at sea. “Who do you believe?” he responded. “Do you believe Australian naval personnel or do you believe people who are attempting to break Australian law? I trust Australia’s naval personnel.”

It’s a similar simplistic story in the East China Sea, where, as Linda Jaivin reports, Abbott has decided Japan are the goodies and China the baddies. In the media, it’s Rupert Murdoch’s goodies versus the baddies in the ABC. In indigenous affairs, it’s Twiggy Forrest versus bludgers and truants. Abbott is likewise keen to be seen dispersing “injuns” in territories such as the national curriculum (multiculturalists), the commemoration of Anzac (historians) and global warming (Tim Flannery and the Climate Commission). “Who do you believe?” Abbott might well ask. “Do you believe 97% of the world’s climate scientists or do you believe Andrew Bolt? I believe Andrew Bolt.”

In preferring to see a two-dimensional world of baddies and goodies, of heroes and cowards, of ironmen and wimps, the prime minister may just be cynically speaking to his tabloid constituency. He may yet prove to be a man of ideas, as opposed to an antipodean incarnation of George “Dubya” Bush. But when something walks like a cowboy, talks like a cowboy and cavorts like a cowboy, the signs aren’t good.

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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