Vertigo and nausea in Canberra

abbott-upside-down

Whether Malcolm Turnbull will be a better Prime Minister for Australia than the outgoing Tony Abbott is highly questionable, given the constraints of Byzantine Coalition infighting and allegiances tied to murky patronage. But he is the worst sort of news for Bill Shorten’s Australian Labor Party.

Right now there is no one who more closely resembles Abbott in style and popularity than Shorten. The latter is secure only because he’s irrelevant; the Australian public is not focused on a potentially better leader of an opposition that is little more than a cut-rate Liberal party these days.

Why and how did Abbott become arguably Australia’s most despised and unpopular PM?

Within his own party he had long been known as an ‘attack dog’, apparently savouring his reputation as a rabid beast, and ruling his party like it was a street gang in which the most psychotic streetfighter is always the leader.

Much of his crudeness in the regard was hidden from the public eye. But other tell-tale signs were not. Abbott’s stubborn, and likely theological refusal to liberalise same sex marriage, and his crude dismissal of climate change did not go over well in the theoretical ‘middle Australia’ that determines political consensus outside the profession itself. He also did nothing at all to curry favour by legislating to destroy universal healthcare, or to treat all people receiving any form of welfare as presumptive criminals. Even these measures, however, were not enough in themselves to create the odium for Abbott that he never seemed to recognise.

It was that he was both arrogant and stupid. Allowing his adviser, Peta Credlin, to ever become an issue, and then not sacking her, was widely regarded as the kind of imperiousness you expect from feudal lords, not politicians who rely on popular votes.

If there was a high point to Abbott’s unrestrained and willful demonstration that he is a simple-minded thug, it was the events surrounding the G20 summit in Brisbane during November 2014. In the preparatory stages, President Obama had requested that Abbott put climate change on the agenda, and Abbott refused, demonstrating he either failed to understand that Obama intended to speak to the issue no matter what, or he set out to deliberately snub the US president. Given there was no political upside to such a snub, it became clear that it was an indescribably stupid decision by an Australian PM, made on an international stage. Matters were not improved when the PM had no comeback for being lectured about being too close to China. I remember being embarrassed by my leader shouting at the world with his actions that all Australians are backward hillbilly white trash.

Finally, though, Abbott was deposed by his own party for treating it like a personal fiefdom, and putting many seats at risk by refusing to even consider embracing settled social consensus positions. For example, I know that the member for Brisbane, Theresa Gambaro, a bit of a streetfighter herself, was consistently frustrated in her aims to back marriage equality by Abbott’s Catholic objections (backed by other theocrats like Tasmania’s mediaevalist Eric Abetz), and faced serious threats to any prospect for re-election from the significant LGBT minority and a large population of young, cosmopolitan professionals in her seat. Abbott seemed entirely oblivious to this reality, and its analogues in many Liberal seats across the country.

The Liberal party room deposed Abbott in a vote of 54 to 44 against, which is convincing enough. With a majority of ten, Turnbull can claim consensus authority, though it isn’t transparent just how much of that authority rests on votes from the back-bench, which may not save him from party machinations in the long run. Many longer-serving, more prominent party figures owe a great deal to people like Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart, who are crude underwriters, expecting to own and operate bought and paid for representatives like personal property.

Turnbull has many enemies among conservatives, not least for his leadership of the republican movement in the 1990s, but also for exactly the transgression that undid Abbott: an arrogant, aloof, and elitist approach to exercising executive power. He acknowledged exactly this mistake during his last stint as Liberal leader in 2008-2009, declaring emphatically, in his victory speech, that the prime ministership is not a presidency, meaning it does not come with the expectation of executive privilege attached to the American presidency.

If I were advising Turnbull right now, the way he could cement himself into history would be to do what he says on economic reform, albeit without punishing the poor as mercilessly as seems to be the intention of the party patrons. He needs to become a contemporary version of Paul Keating, making necessary changes, but not simply following the obviously failed Berlin-Washington consensus on handing economic control to corporate cartels. He needs to use his merchant banking nous to develop an alternate but sustainable economic direction for Australia that embraces China without unnecessarily alienating the USA, but is beholden to neither.

Turnbull should certainly read the signals about popular exhaustion with neo-conservative dishonesty, reflected by the unexpected events surrounding the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in England, and Bernie Sanders in America. By all means maintain a market orientation, but recognise that the biggest market distortions are those manufactured by corporations, not those occurring by state regulation. It should never be forgotten that Australia was spared the worst of the global financial crisis because Paul Keating’s reforms, largely maintained by John Howard, did not hand to banks, brokers, and corporate cartels quite the same power to legitimise criminal misbehaviour as that granted by a continuity of presidents from Reagan to the last Bush, and UK PMs from Thatcher to Cameron.

As communications minister, Turnbull appears to have been happy to allow a duopoly in telecommunications to exercise largely unchecked price gouging for substandard services, making significant profits without a parallel investment to ensure national infrastructure is at least aimed at world’s best. If that is a measure of his economic credentials, he will fail to inject the vitality he says he intends to when it comes to economic policy.

Who can forget Turnbull, posing in Abbott's office with a tape measure, February 2015.
Who can forget Turnbull, posing in Abbott’s office with a tape measure, February 2015.

Turnbull is no Abbott. He may be smart enough to have learnt that he has to consider and act on political triggers contrary to his own instincts and reflexes. No PM can be successful without the capacity to act in wider interests than those personally conceived.

This morning the news media is quite happy to pursue every last non-existent factor in a leadership spill that was inevitable. But one of the most telling insights was relegated to banter: Australian politics is no longer conducted only in smoky back rooms, corporate offices, and staid tabloid newspapers. It is now just as affected by the lynchmob mentality of Twitter, and the orthodoxy of Australian social media pundits, who have been, and likely will remain, relentlessly hostile to conservatism.

It’s not that the local hipsters and ‘progressives’ (what an ugly terms that is) are actually Left-inclined. They are what used to be called moderate conservatives. But they live in a less isolated world than do politicians and journalists, who are closeted away in the unhealthily stuffy environment of Canberra, a city in which there’s pretty much nothing else to do but pursue politics, bureaucracy, and a narrow group-think that has characterised political coverage since the 1960s, but whose relevance in shaping public opinion has fallen away with the rise of internet communications. It probably counts that so few conservatives who venture into cyberspace are articulate or able to string together independent thoughts coherently, instead coming across as trailer park trash mouthing slogans they don’t understand. It’s not that the vast majority of anti-conservatives are more articulate or intelligent, but they have the numbers to drown out the palaeo-conservatives.

Social media mob rule and echo chambers are also the answer to the silly catcalling by mainstream media talking heads about the rising incidence since 2009 of parties voting out sitting leaders. Instead of this being evidence of instability, traditional commentators need to acknowledge they have lost their once cartel power to dictate popular opinion via undemocratic media corporations. That power is now shared, and will eventually be replaced by more immediate and democratic channels, at least if it is rerally about gauging actual as opposed to fabricated popular sentiments. This is not a good thing, because mob mentality doesn’t make for good government, but it is no worse than the farce that has been made of journalism in Australia by Rupert Murdoch and the ABC.

Last night, when the challenge had been announced but not consummated, there was a point in flipping between TV channels to catch news rather than gossip, when I just turned it all off and went to bed with my Portable Machiavelli, reading some of his personal and political letters. Now here was a man anchored in his times.

At around eleven I looked up the latest online news, saw the result, and went to sleep.

This morning, when I tuned in the news I learnt nothing I didn’t know last night, and nothing that wasn’t in the fine print of the writing on the wall in February.

The only thing I wonder about now is how long the ALP will dither in moving against Shorten, who is unelectable opposite Turnbull.

Postscript

There is no way to describe that moment of truth when you see the character of a man exposed by his own words. After all that has happened, outgoing Prime Minister Tony Abbott chose as his own epitaph a biblical psalm, 116:12-13, as chosen for the first official sermon uttered in 1786 by English colonial priest, the Reverend Richard Johnson, chaplain of the Botany Bay prison colony.

In his formal concession speech, past noon on the day falling the coup, he said it was a prayer he offered in his maiden speech, and he repeated at the end:

What shall I render unto the Lord
for all his benefits towards me?

He improvised the ending, to say his response today is:

I have rendered, oh Lord, and I’m proud of my service.

It is overpoweringly tempting to locate in Abbott’s vexatious brutishness his religious convictions, and in his disregard for Australia and its people an unreconstructed, antiquated view of the nation as a penal colony.

Australia, as a nation, makes a mistake every time it elects representatives who allow religious ideas to cloud their duties as representatives. A mistake that has in the past been ameliorated somewhat by slightly less rude, bumptious characters who were able to relegate their personal views more elegantly.

Having said that, I have just watched Malcolm Turnbull take the oath of office in the governor general’s residence. The first time I have seen such an event televised. And Malcolm Turnbull ended his oath with the words ‘so help me god’.

There’s an irony here that the former leader of the republican movement was sworn into the nation’s highest office with an oath that reflects reality so long as the British monarchy remains the source of Australian heads of state, because British monarchs are also the heads of the Anglican Church.

The American example, though, makes it plain that anyone who serves god first, serves the people very poorly.