Politics

The view from Billinudgel

He who must not be named
Turnbull cannot ignore Abbott and hope the problem magically disappears

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The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once declared, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” And Malcolm Turnbull could not agree more.

The idea that if you don’t mention the unpleasant it will somehow go away, if not cease to exist entirely, has a long tradition in the history of superstition and magic.

Numerous authors have used it in modern times: those who may not be named include JRR Tolkien’s Sauron and JK Rowling’s Voldemort. But they were relying on legends from centuries – millennia even – old.

The Greek Furies, the Erinyes, implacable goddesses of vengeance, had names but they were seldom, if ever, used. Instead, the Greeks attempted to appease them with flattery: they were called the Eumenides, the kindly ones, which they were emphatically not. The same trick was used for the notorious, treacherous Black Sea, which was christened the Euxine – the welcoming one.

The Eumenides was the name the great playwright Aeschylus used as he sought to rehabilitate the Furies as the judges and protectors of the Athenians, in the final section of the tragedy of the matricidal Orestes. When the Peloponnesian wars broke out a few years later, we saw how well that worked.

Malcolm Turnbull is apparently trying the same magical solution to the Tony Abbott problem: last week he called his relentless opponent “the gentleman you describe” – not naming him or calling him “that bastard”, but offering an oh-so-polite euphemism. But it won’t work – it never has and it never will.

Sooner or later, the threat has to be faced, and, as so often, there is an Australian precedent. Back in 1952 the great Labor split was already gathering pace. The anti-communist industrial groups, overwhelmingly backed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, were making serious inroads into the federal Doc Evatt–led ALP.

The titular head of the movement was Melbourne’s archbishop Daniel Mannix, but the real work – the subversion, as Evatt and his allies called it – was run by the prelate’s acolyte, the shadowy, even sinister, figure Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria.

He engendered fear and paranoia within the caucus room. Clyde Cameron recalled that when he pronounced the dreaded name, Arthur Calwell called him out and berated him: “God almighty, don’t ever dare do that again! Don’t ever mention his name!”

So they didn’t, but of course it didn’t make any difference. The party split amid acrimony and resentment, and the resulting feuds and vendettas lasted for decades, leaving Labor in the political wilderness for 23 years.

This is not yet the prospect for the Liberals – at least not yet. But Pauline Hanson, Cory Bernardi and their like are waiting eagerly to embrace defectors, and Abbott, as has been repeatedly observed by his colleagues, is not helping.

It should be noted that the Abbott insurgency is not, at its heart, sectarian, but then, according to Santamaria himself, nor was the split of the 1950s. Nor, despite Abbott’s protestations, is the current showdown one of policy, ideology and belief. It is about power, revenge and vindication – very much the purview of the Erinyes.

So perhaps, to clear the air, we need to name the Erinyes, including the fourth: Alecto, Megaera, Tisiphone and Tony. There, that’s feels better – or at least more rational. It may not solve the problem, but we can at least talk about it without pretending it isn’t really there. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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