The Politics    Tuesday, November 17, 2015


By Eleanor Robertson

Like an unquiet ghost, Tony Abbott is unable to accept his political death

There's a strange phenomenon in Australian politics whereby the most mediocre MP, the state premier who got nothing done, and even the prime minister we all agreed was rubbish will be celebrated months or years after their retirement. For observers with a prior affection for the object of veneration, including the politician themselves, this can seem like an acknowledgement that proper respect was denied during the term of office. Well, it took them long enough, but finally the public gets it! They get what I was trying to do, even though by all accounts I was a miserable failure!

On some level we all sort of know this is what they’re after, and through the soft fog of nostalgia we’re mostly happy to let them have their biscuit.

There are rules, though – a spell in the wilderness is mandatory. There must be a softening, an admission that the other mob weren't so bad back then either, and an implicit promise that they won’t try to resurrect themselves. Before they get treated like a fossilised uncle sitting in the leather armchair with pipe and slippers, they have to act like it, because ultimately what’s going on is a process of exchange. The political-media apparatus offers a pat on the head and some column spots; in return the retiree must support the reproduction of our current forms and institutions.

This process isn’t about recognition of service in any meaningful capacity, nor is it a form of belated approval. It’s a premature eulogy that transforms the politician from a living actor to a dead historical figure, whose legacy can then be invoked as part of the broadly non-partisan national ideology – Australian democracy is vibrant and healthy, the parties are representative, adversarial proceduralism gets the job done, etc. The system is working as intended. You could say they become the worshipped ancestor within cartel party mythology, if you were being really pessimistic.

Not all pollies follow the rules. Mark Latham stubbornly refuses to accept his own death. Instead he shuffles around like a zombie, demanding to be fed the brains of inner-city lefties so they might come to resemble his cherished archetype of the working-class simpleton. A compulsive provocateur animated by forces beyond human ken, he has no use for the simpering favour of the political classes. Instead he invents a downtrodden subject, “the people of Western Sydney”, on whose behalf he can stick it to the man by disrupting the national conversation with reactionary tirades against the PC police. Of course he doesn’t realise his raggedy, shambolic groaning is easily subsumed by the system, used to prove its efficacy in keeping people like him out of power.

And then we have Tony Abbott, a different kind of undead creature entirely. Just weeks after being knifed by Malcolm Turnbull – with most of the country’s support, if we believe the polls – he was up and about. He’s given the Margaret Thatcher lecture, spoken on the radio and written columns in the national broadsheet.

None of these appearances demonstrate a willingness to join the ranks of Australia’s loveable, functionally deceased pollies. Rather they show he’s a proper ghost. He has unfinished business in the realm he’s supposed to have left. Abbott saw the prime ministership as something due him by natural right, and perceives having been rolled as illegitimate no matter how strongly the public supports his successor. He won’t pass over to the other side unless he resolves this grievance.

But resolution, as we’ve seen, is not among Abbott’s strengths. He is a doer, a solider, someone who must at all times be enacting one side of an antagonism without much regard for justification or results. So he’ll haunt us indefinitely like a ghost in the attic, moaning about immigrants and death cults, unable to embrace the sweet release of political death or even understand why it might be desirable. Rest? In peace? No way.


Today’s links

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Eleanor Robertson

Eleanor Robertson is a freelance writer and comedian living in Sydney. She writes for Guardian Australia, SBS Comedy and Daily Life.


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