A double disillusion election – part one
Tony Abbott is the symptom, not the cause of the Coalition’s woes

“What’s wrong with these people?” That was Prince Philip’s reported response to the 1999 Australian republic referendum result; also a question we can ask again now. (Savour this rare example of Mr Windsor’s remarks being relevant to the present day). Of course the Queensland election wasn’t about the knighthood, any more than it was about Alan Jones or any other of the causes that will be mistaken for effects in the weeks to come. But the honour bestowed on the Prince is still a valuable clue, partly because it shows us that Tony Abbott is not really a monarchist at all.

Instead he’s something much rarer – an ultra-royalist. In France there used to be a group of politicians nicknamed la Chambre introuvable – “the impossible chamber” – so called because they were more protective of the monarchy than even the king himself. That’s where Abbott is now, alone on a desert island, fighting a culture war that was surrendered years ago, on behalf of those no longer interested in it. It’s less a political position than a piece of creative anachronism, and also something telling. In his fruitless search for authority, Abbott has had to call on ancient spirits to transform his decaying form.

On Facebook, I saw conservatives make a compelling post-mortem of the knightmare. One (whose profile picture showed him wearing a top hat and morning coat) made this neat point: “Part of the problem is that the Order of Australia is treated as a sort of merit badge, whereas it is actually a traditional, formal instrument of the Australian state. Abbott’s formula for the award is pretty obvious to anyone who understands it. But the community doesn’t have an instinctive understanding of it any more, and no one has explained it properly to them.”

How would such an explanation start? A fireside chat? Abbott putting on the half-moon glasses and sermonising out of Debrett’s Peerage? It feels like Professor Barry Spurr territory. Not because Abbott is a crypto-racist, but because, like Spurr, he’s harking back to the same vanished Australia: The Argonauts Club, Tatersalls and Empire Day, things that seem as real to most people now as Hufflepuff or Mordor. But they’re still in some ways the vestigial organs of the Conservative Establishment. Last week, those decrepit organs finally failed.

All decade we’ve been hearing the Sharks and Jets story of Labor’s supporters, split between a dwindling union rump and flakey inner-city progressives. But the LNP’s traditional base has been riven as well, and by an even more complex series of fractures. You could feel the tension even with John Howard in power, sense it in a book like David Flint’s The Twilight of the Elites. Australia’s leading monarchist argued that a pompous, unelected upper-class was lording it over the rest of us (even Gerard Henderson could see what’s wrong with that line). Tony Abbott wrote the foreword, and today its ridiculous title is starting to look both like a piece of projection, and a piece of prophecy.

Importing American-style individualist rhetoric and right-wing populism (itself partly a product of anti-monarchism) was always going to be difficult for a Tory party, even more so for one in coalition with the bush. The Coalition is now made up of agrarian socialist free-marketeers, with rich/aspirational suburban/rural voters, seeking to end the entitlement mentality through a program of middle-class welfare (at least it was before it was abandoned, along with everything else). That’s not a big tent, it’s a circus. These contradictions could be held together in opposition, or with Labor in crisis. But as soon as this muddle cemented into anything as concrete as a policy, it all became a bad naked exam dream.

How deeply has the old Liberal-National Party base evaporated? So deeply that senior Liberals ask out loud where it went. So deeply that Joe Hockey complains that big business offers “weak” support for his pro-big business budget. So deeply that the Australian wonders if a barrister being killed in Martin Place might finally make lawyers sway to the government. Even being a member of the LNP doesn’t guarantee voting for it: a former MP helped Labor campaign. It’s true family members, even spouses, don’t always vote for each other. But poor David Crisafulli, the LNP’s man for Mundingburra, wound up with his own aunt and uncle on the phones for his Labor opponent, surely a bitter first.

To anyone paying attention, it’s been obvious for a while now that elected governments in Australia barely represent their constituents. Even an untrained member of the public picked pretty much at random (Ricky Muir) is more in touch, and arguably more competent. But what’s been fascinating in the Queensland election is watching the two central tactics used to cover this up – stealth and strength – stop working. Newman kept pulling the levers marked “law and order” and “debt and deficit”, but they no longer seemed to be attached to anything.

With their Cold War consensuses in ashes, both parties have had to ask a fundamental question: what it’s all about? Labor struggled to answer so much that Kevin Rudd once outsourced defining the ALP’s core belief to a focus group (a touching demonstration of the party’s real core belief). But eventually the wilderness year produced an answer, one never far from Bill Shorten’s lips. It’s something like “fairness”. That’s soggy, but it’s still a less abstract noun than the Coalition’s answer: “strength”. This is now most often expressed as strength through trolling.

That might be fun and fruitful in opposition, but it’s turning out nobody wants to live in the world’s first trollocracy. Not even Liberal voters.

 

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US Correspondent and Contributing Editor. He is also The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.

@rgcooke

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