Playing dumb
Maybe Abbott government ministers know exactly what they’re doing

Education minister Christopher Pyne has a history of playing the pantomime villain. Well before his rise to the front bench, he was wheeled out once a week by Lateline to play Wicked Witch to Tanya Plibersek’s Dorothy. Even then, there was a sense he delighted in the boos and hisses he was no doubt eliciting from ABC viewers. Long-time love-to-haters will have been impressed by this week’s turn on Sky News, in which Pyne revelled in a grinning contempt of interviewer David Speers and his audience.

“I’m the fixer,” Pyne declared, announcing he had found the $150 million needed to fund the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. (As some Twitter wags noted, it sounded very much like he was revealing a hitherto secret identity as Batman’s weediest villain.) The previous day, Pyne had insisted the money would be dependent on his pushing through his university fee regulation. Yesterday’s “inextricably linked” had become today’s “up for negotiation”.

When Speers pushed Pyne on where this extra cash had been found, the minister didn’t so much sidestep the question as trample all over it. “I want it to be a surprise for you,” he told Speers. Asked again where the money was coming from he said, “That’s not really your concern.”

Pundits, including Labor’s Tony Burke, were quick to liken the exchange to a satirical sketch from John Clarke and Bryan Dawe. During the following day’s question time, Opposition leader Bill Shorten suggested Pyne had become a “parody of himself”.

Pyne’s daftness is indeed so obviously loopy it’s worth considering whether there’s method in it. This most recent bout of self-parody is the latest in a long line of government gaffes that seem intended to leave satirists redundant. It’s hard to poke fun at a cabinet that appears so determined to make itself look ridiculous.

Certainly, the Abbott government has established itself as one at war with reality. This is evident from its systematic shutting down of reporting mechanisms and the vehemence with which leaks and whistleblowers have been pursued. Not for nothing did the PM take aim at the ABC Fact Check unit. Facts and their purveyors — scientists, journalists, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the UN — are dismissed by his government as partisan or, more pertinently, spoilsports. “We’re sick of being lectured to by the United Nations,” Abbott said last week, with the petulant air of a teenager asked to keep the noise down.

Capitalising on a Labor Party stricken by squabbling, Abbott rode into power promising “grown-up” government. After the apparently shambolic (and yet surprisingly efficient) Gillard government, his would be a parliament run by the professionals.

Some 18 months on, we can see a government that has given up pretending it is competent, in favour of playing up to the nonsense it’s spouting. Joe Hockey might insist we’re facing a “budget emergency”, but will admit this isn’t true once he’s offstage – as he did during a visit to New Zealand in July last year. When Pyne tells Speers his funding arrangements are “a surprise”, he acknowledges the audience doesn’t believe him, but encourages us to enter into the spirit of this new, reality-free age – it’s all just a laugh, isn’t it?

In this world, it doesn’t matter what 2 + 2 adds up to. Providing nobody reports the findings, Pyne knows he is on safe ground insisting he was right both before and after he changed his mind. Rather than explaining away the cognitive dissonance, he appears to be revelling in it. The odd thing is, this blatant disingenuity reads as a weird kind of honesty, acknowledging a silent contract between minister and voter to infer the real meaning behind whatever words are being said. Wink wink, nudge nudge.

As a political strategy, self-satirising is not unprecedented. London mayor Boris Johnson has long been a darling of the British media, affecting a jolly, somewhat buffoonish, achingly posh but utterly harmless persona. As a comic character, Johnson’s knack for putting his foot in his mouth reads as being endearing and everyman, rather than a privileged toff distanced from reality. In inviting voters not to take him seriously, Johnson has achieved widespread popularity without having to blunt his conservative agenda.

The trick of not being taken seriously, it might be argued, is one that makes it easier for a struggling government to deliver serious damage. The now-familiar Abbott government doublespeak and backflips can be viewed as conscious attempts to dissuade voters from expecting a coherent argument. By consistently lowering expectations and openly demonstrating that they can’t be taken seriously, they avoid serious analysis and deflect public scrutiny.

The Abbott government’s performance of incompetence shouldn’t be mistaken for proof that its nonsense-spouting ministers don’t know exactly what they’re doing.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The AgeOverland, The New DailyThe Big Issue and The Weekly Review. His children’s novel, Fire in the Sea, won the 2011 Text Prize.

@mykebartlett

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