August 2015


Method in the madness

By Don Watson
Tony Abbott’s surprises keep coming

“Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.” It’s possible that our prime minister riffs on some bowdlerised form of the Augustinian theory of illumination. If God alone can shine light on the truth, what is left to his poor parishioner but to have a stab in the dark on the TV? So Augustine said God and the truth were the same and knowable to those who conscientiously seek them; shit happens to a person, and there’s no time for perfection in the political gig. Of course, this Abbottonianism must not be confused with the bankrupt moral relativism of the postmodern. It’s more like faith-based relativism.

Shallow ideologues, we expect. Tabloid politics, we expect. The body image thing, the swagger, the narcissism, the belligerent undercurrents, the tribalism, the weirdness: all this we knew about and had no reason to think that it might change. Even a prime minister who behaves in ways more akin to Vladimir Putin than any Western democratic leader, we should have expected. (What is Putin if not the narcissistic, belligerent, tribal, tabloid politician par excellence, albeit with lethal force at his disposal?) Sophomore politics, we expected – the more so when he promised us a grown-up government: we imagined something like the overgrown bully in a dodgem car, and that’s what we have.

Knowing all this, the surprising thing is that we find ourselves so regularly surprised. Why wouldn’t a tabloid politician make decisions that satisfy the tabloid media? Why wouldn’t a rather weird man say and do rather weird things, like make Prince Philip a knight, or stay silent and unblinking for 19 seconds in response to a journalist’s question, or recommend his grocery code of conduct as a solution to the crisis in Greece? But of course we’re surprised: George W Bush was still surprising us – and amusing us – long after we knew he was not only loopy but also dangerous.

We should feel free to laugh and deride. But remember Dubya got two terms. They laughed at Reagan, too, and he’s now (laughably) on a pedestal not far below Lincoln. We laughed at Joh Bjelke-Petersen – for 19 years. Beware of seeming simpletons and crazies. They laughed at Claudius and he conquered Britain.

And as with Claudius, so with our prime minister: there’s surely a degree of method in the madness. Since his post–Sir Prince Philip crisis and that grim moment at the Press Club, he’s been like a bird with a broken wing: unable to take off, but furiously flapping and squawking to prove he’s still a force in the world and not carrion-in-waiting. And it has worked. He’s still alive and squawking. The noise he or his attendant ravens make most days contains little of substance or consistency, but it’s consistent with the media appetite for constantly breaking news, regardless of substance. And the more noise he and his little band make, the less room for critical judgement from the media or the public.

Once, a prima facie case of a minister misleading parliament might have led the news on and off for a month; now, it will be buried within hours by any one of dozens of stories, of which not a few will begin in the vicinity of the prime minister: the latest pasting of the ABC, for instance; a blast at Gillian Triggs, Sarah Hanson-Young, wind turbines, solar panels, trade union bosses, Bill Shorten; or the one about how the Coalition government has saved Australia from Greece’s fate, or how coal is the friend of humanity, or how the death cult is coming after us. “[I]t is in the power of every hand to destroy us, and we are beholden unto everyone we meet, who doth not kill us,” he might as well declaim. Except he’d miss the irony Thomas Browne intended.

Among the nauseating slogans, with Abbott there will be gaffes (“the suppository of all wisdom” must be ranked with Dubya’s “working hard to put food on your family”), and some that are called gaffes but are not, unless you take the word to mean (as half the press seems to) anything that goes wrong, from Abbott’s suppository to Hitler’s invasion of Russia. There will also be calculated expressions of ideological bent and hard political instinct, like the regular muggings staged in concert with the Murdoch tabloids. All of them, deliberately or not, will fill space in the way that shock-jocks and 24-hour news and social media fill space; and, in the name of debate, thoroughly debilitate it.

Meanwhile, “Nope, nope, nope.” Did someone write that for him? The line zipped around the world, and even turned up in the British Medical Journal, in a fierce article with the subheading “Australia sets a disgraceful example in its treatment of refugees”. Not everything the author said was fair or accurate: whatever the current policy is, it’s hardly “an extension of the historic White Australia policy by other means”. But then, hearing that the prime minister of Australia had said “Nope, nope, nope,” a Rohingya adrift at sea might reckon the difference is pretty academic.

Tony Windsor got it about right recently when he said it was an “atrocious” policy. What’s hard is to persuade anyone it’s no less atrocious because the one before it was atrocious too. That’s where the argument stalls. It’s where most arguments stall in modern politics – at the sharp end of the political wedge, which is never the same place as reality, including the reality of our little gulag.

So it was with that fateful Q&A. The show was one thing; the prime minister’s depiction of it was quite another. The show was fixed on video; in the political dimension it mutated. At first we thought Zaky Mallah’s words were the offending items, but no, it was the young man himself. He might have exploded. But by then the offender was not the one on trial: it was the ABC. The ABC was on the wrong side. It had “betrayed” Australia. Zaky Mallah had been on Channel 10, 3AW, SBS, the BBC and the pages of the Australian, not to mention the internet and no doubt in many streets and supermarkets, but only the ABC had betrayed Australia.

This was all piffle and grandstanding, of course. One could make a case to say that when parliamentary secretary Steve Ciobo said he’d be happy to be part of a government that revoked Zaky Mallah’s citizenship he betrayed Australia by betraying common sense and fundamental principles of democracy and justice. You don’t have to think about it for very long to realise the notion of stripping citizenship is plain mad: that is, unless you think Britain should have stripped it from George Orwell and Laurie Lee before they came back from fighting in Spanish republican militias. You wouldn’t have them on Q&A, that’s for sure.

The longer this circus continues the more likely it is to define the nation’s life: shallow, jingoistic, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific and, save for a few old slogans, uninterested in the future; coherent only in its fears. That Abbott is a formidable warrior there is no doubt. What he’s a warrior for is not so easy to establish, which is probably why even his supporters say he doesn’t communicate his ideas as well as Hawke, Keating or Howard did. It’s hard to communicate an idea if you don’t have one, or at least none as compelling as your need to satisfy the daily political addiction.

The American commentator Mark Greif once said that the presidency of George W Bush spoke of “a time of perfection, when even an idiot might rule. His ascension to the throne is the gesture of completed democracy.” Though it is true that we will follow any idiot the United States throws up, it’s yet to be seen if we will follow one of our own. It’s not that our prime minister is an idiot, but rather that he would have Australians as fearful and shallow, and just as assured of their own merits, as the Americans who elected Bush. The political culture that he goads into being leaves us no less dejected and vulnerable than we would be with a true idiot in charge.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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