Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Bleeding out
Abbott and Turnbull are slowly destroying each other

The Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

As far as any former prime minister can claim to be having a successful time of driving the agenda after forfeiting the right to actually, as prime minister, drive the agenda, one could confidently say such a thing of Tony Abbott.

After all, the two areas dominating the political landscape – outside of the wildcard of dual citizenship – were ushered in by Abbott’s actions. One is the same-sex marriage postal survey, initially the product of an Abbott political scramble (and by the way, we’re now up to ten million votes). The second is the Coalition’s continuing quest for a plausible climate policy, which wouldn’t be happening if Abbott hadn’t scuppered the carbon price, and might have already been resolved if he wasn’t such a stick-in-the-mud about other sensible proposals such as emissions intensity schemes and clean energy targets.

But the word “success” is problematic for another reason, which is that Abbott isn’t actually getting what he wants, or at least not precisely.

Bear with me for a moment.

Phillip Coorey had one of those great lady-doth-protest-too-much quotes in a piece today [$], with senior government sources insisting its retreat on the clean energy target “was not a win for Tony Abbott”. The fact such points are having not just to be made but made well ahead of any decision actually being taken points you to just how embedded is the sense of Abbott’s outsized influence.

For a frontbencher with an eye on one day becoming prime minister – Peter Dutton, say, or Scott Morrison – such praise would be welcomed (off the record). It would cement the sense of how powerful they were. In politics, power often begets power. It would be a sign they were well on their way.

For Abbott, it’s still useful, in two ways. First, it keeps him relevant. It makes clear he can’t be ignored. For a man who often courts ridicule, whether by eating onions or contradicting himself [$], that is crucial.  Even more important, each time the government compromises in an effort to satisfy Abbott, it wounds Malcolm Turnbull. The impression of powerlessness would hurt any prime minister, but it hurts Turnbull more than most because he was viewed, before taking the job, as so much his own man, and has been viewed, since taking the job, as so much not that.

But the truth is that Abbott has been reaping those two benefits for a year now. By this point he desperately needs something else.

Abbott will keep on telling the government, via the media, what he wants it to do. But he doesn’t, actually, want the government to do what he says he wants it to do. What he wants is for the government – Turnbull’s government – to do the exact opposite, so that he can well and truly pick the fight that will finally put an end to Turnbull. Ideally, he would then take Turnbull’s place, allowing his government to do what he says he wants the government to do – but that is only a secondary aim. Forcing Turnbull into some kind of drastic action that might precipitate a crisis is the main game.

I’ve argued before that Turnbull, if he picked his moment correctly, could use such a crisis to establish dominance over Abbott once and for all. Turnbull has chosen a different strategy instead, taking a million flesh wounds rather than risking one big axe attack. It might kill him in the end, but in the meantime he’s still walking around.

Turnbull’s strategy has another advantage. Every time Turnbull does what Abbott says he should do, Abbott then has to find some new fight to pick. Every time Turnbull does what Abbott says is the genuinely conservative thing to do, Abbott has to find a new way to communicate to conservatives and the oft-cited “base” that only he is the One True Conservative.

And that’s why we are seeing Abbott advocate ever more extreme positions in public. That is how we get to Abbott delivering a speech in London [$] today in which he essentially calls belief in climate change a superstition, saying that people who want to act are akin to primitive people who “once killed goats to appease the volcano gods”. A speech in which he says “climate change itself is probably doing good; or at least, more good than harm”.

Sentiments like this make Abbott look ridiculous to the political establishment, and to many of his colleagues, but they strengthen – or at least he hopes they strengthen – his position with the conservative tribe.

And so we have Abbott, willing to become more and more absurd, and Turnbull, willing to disappoint and disappoint, with each hoping the other hits the limits of absurdity or disappointment first. If Abbott can’t force Turnbull to call on a spill, he can at least erode his support until a spill becomes inevitable.

It put me in mind of the Black Knight in Monty Python, declaring “It’s only a flesh wound” after losing both his arms in a duel, insisting on carrying on the fight (by kicking his opponent). Eventually, his opponent tires of him, saying, “What are you going to do, bleed on me?” Only in this scenario we have two Black Knights, each reduced to bleeding on the other, desperately hoping the other bleeds out first. 


In other news


This is not an opera house

Beautiful on the outside … the tragedy of Bennelong Point

Darryn King

On Saturday, 20 May, lavish Tchaikovskian chords rang out as the lights dimmed on the Opera Theatre stage for the grand finale of the Australian Ballet’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara. That night’s clean-up and bump-out was more comprehensive than most. As well as clearing the scenery, props, costumes and stage lights, a crew began emptying the theatre of its heritage-listed, hot orange–clad seats, to make room for scaffolding and equipment – a mighty exhalation worthy of La Stupenda herself. This was the first obvious sign of the Sydney Opera House’s $273 million renovation project, announced in 2015. It will be the building’s most extensive upgrade since its opening in 1973.” read on


Girls and the grotesque in ‘Sour Heart’

Jenny Zhang’s short-story collection offers complex, radical versions of immigrant girlhood

Jessica Au

“Thomas Mann once called the grotesque the ‘genuine anti-bourgeois style’, and Zhang’s use of it may arise, too, out of her fascination with the subaltern. All the girls in these stories are first- or second-generation Chinese–Americans, most living in poverty. Christina and her parents at one point share a room with several other families in a kind of immigrant halfway house in Washington Heights, sleeping on mattresses on the floor. They dream, of course, of upward mobility, but are caught instead in a seemingly never-ending downward grind, constantly broke or evicted or losing jobs. There is something tragic, and almost fabulist, to the relentlessness of this hardship and, indeed, Zhang cites Hans Christian Andersen as one of her favourite authors: Christina and the other narrators could all well be versions of the Little Match Girl, small and unnoticed and forever dying in the snow.” READ ON

‘Artists in Conversation’

Readers in Victoria can register for free tickets to artist conversations as part of Melbourne Festival, led by the editorial team of The Saturday Paper and the Monthly.

The conversations will feature Melbourne Festival’s artistic director, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from the festival program, to discuss their work and its place in the world. The conversations will take place at the Forum Theatre on Saturdays from 12.30 pm.

To register, simply click any of the two names below and enter your details in the form provided. More details on the conversations and terms and conditions can be found here.

Saturday, 14 October – Across Platforms

Hosted by Martin McKenzie-Murray, chief correspondent of The Saturday Paper, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Tree of Codes and A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol.

Saturday, 21 October – A Chronicle of Life

Hosted by Nick Feik, editor of the Monthly, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Germinal and EVER.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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