A model of confection


Although labels are demeaning and dangerous, you might be able to discern two different kinds of politicians. There are conviction politicians. They believe in something and they stand for it. And then there are confection politicians. They do not believe in much and they stand for even less – they just follow the pack and the polls. A confection is a ‘making by mixture of ingredients’ – the advisers and pollsters just mix the ingredients up in a vessel that is close to empty, and lo! you have a confection politician straight off the shelf.

We do not see many conviction politicians now. Margaret Thatcher and Paul Keating believed in something and stood up for it, and I admired each of them greatly for doing just that. They disdained populism, and swimming against the tide was a badge of honour for them. You don’t see their kind now. The strength of Angela Markel is different – as someone remarked, she just takes the politics out of politics. Angela Merkel makes politics decent. That is a heroic achievement.

People generally, here and elsewhere, are sick of politicians who just keep turning out as if they were made up as actors in a show. They are talking heads who go through their unlovely routines in their unlovely parliaments with their unlovely accomplices in the press. The whole confected lot are neither liked nor respected by the voters, and that does not look like changing. The people of conviction are seen to be dangerous zealots who are electoral poison. It is a curio of history that these puritanical party-killers and vote-losers were mostly on the Left two generations ago, and now they sit exclusively on the Right. It is now the conservative side that can be infected by cranks.

Before going to the present Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, let me refer to two politicians that I see as models of decency. Lindsay Thompson and John Cain were Premiers of this State about thirty years ago. Each was incorruptible. We take that for granted in Victoria, but no other state can. Each was a loyal member of his party but each was aware of the limitations of himself and his party. Each had a sense of decency that kept him at a distance from the press. Each remained grounded, even in the top job. Neither was marked by apparent personal ambition; to the contrary, both appeared to accept that in its essence, their job was to be a servant of the public.

I suppose that that view might have become a little roseate with age, but it looks right. Each man is I think fondly remembered – and now, the type of each is badly missed. We do not see people with those solid but modest attributes trying to reach the top in the cess-pit of Canberra. Mr Thompson may be better remembered now as an economic manager, but Mr Cain was attended by fools, and an inept opposition was unable to terminate his rule after one term.

You do not see the attributes of a model politician in Tony Abbott. What you do see are the attributes of a model confection politician. This was immediately apparent to Mr Matthew Parris of The Times of London.

Muscled, tanned, sharpshooting, God-fearing, straight-talking, climate-change-mocking and tough on immigration.

He’s the Right’s dream: the kind of guy Tory-toddlers could paint by numbers, a politician who focus-groupers could have stitched together with canvas returns, polling data and steel wire.

Well, here’s news for them. There’s no need to dream. This populist paragon lives and breathes and was elected to lead in 2013. And, this weekend, after only 17 months, he’s tanking……

I sense….a conflicted man, but a man of immoderate ambition and only modest ability; a leader who wanted to be smiled on by the Deity and roared on by the people, and hoped he might marry the people’s instincts with his own….

The general lesson is this. You cannot construct winning positions simply by summing together the things voters tell pollsters they want.

Once you see Tony Abbott as a confection politician or made-up job, things become clear.

His weaknesses were concealed as Leader of the Opposition because all that he had to do was destroy, and his target was self-destructing in slow motion and in technicolour. Mr Abbott was a disaster in opposition. Doctor No. He was programmed by his minders and an all-powerful personal staff to block everything. It was close to an abuse of office – we see it in the US – but he never bothered to formulate positive policies, which is what oppositions are for, and he arrived in government without policies – and without women. He looked forlorn and irrelevant from the start.

Because he performed so badly and was so unloved, he did not win enough seats to implement such policies as he did have, and he has looked impotent ever since. This does not stop him abusing the word ‘mandate’ – he had hardly won one. All he can do is blame the Opposition – and make the hilarious claim that they are being unduly obstructive. It was not their fault or doing that he campaigned so badly that we let in real and not just make-believe galahs.

But even though he could not lose, he made promises that he knew he could not keep. This comes from his insecurity – I will come back to this.

Then he made two mistakes that you would expect from a confection politician. He failed to change his make-up between opposition and government. He thought that the Hit Squad that served him in opposition might run the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing. This is perhaps the biggest curse of his whole debacle. The failure to move from opposition mode was spotted immediately by a Liberal premier, and I don’t think that this man has ever grown into the job or seen his awful limitations in it.

This relates to his other great mistake at this time. Confection politicians thrive on praise and support – that is, after all, all that they have. Mr Abbott believed the bullshit coming from his own cheer squad in the press. He really did believe that he had not been a disaster – he thought that he and his team had been great, and he was happy to pose in the sun under his laurels. The Canberra press gallery has a lot to answer for in the uncomely circus of Canberra, but none more unsettling than this fevered anointing of the duffer named Tony Abbott. Most of them have recently dropped him like a hot scone, and pointed the bone at him in a most unattractive way, as if on cue, but that is another story. The damage to Mr Abbott and the country had been done.

Now, you can see why he clings so desperately to his advisers and his pollsters, and his personal team. They are part of him. They made him. This is why he is content to flout his personal association with confected front-men of the Right like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, in a manner precisely calculated to alienate the whole East Coast Establishment, and why he is prepared to embrace the program of the Institute of Public Affairs, in a manner designed to estrange his rank and file. The IPA is fast moving to the level of toxic electoral demonology for years claimed by the League of Rights. It is a good example of how the Looney Tunes of the Right have become the best allies of the Labor Party. Indeed, the Labor people now pray that Mr Abbott can hang on indefinitely.

Now you see why Mr Abbott promoted and clung on to a policy that his party loathed and that floated around him like a loaded jellyfish. He was trying to tell as that he could really stand for something.

Now you can see why Mr Abbott keeps saying things that are so silly. These mouthings do not come from deep or even personal conviction, apart from trivia, but from how the team says he should go the cameras with the day’s bon mot. These offerings are at best boring and banal, but too often they suffer in transition. Some, like the shirtfront, have passed into the lexicon, but it is embarrassing to go back.

I want to say that we have made a good start, that the adults are back in charge, and that strong, stable, methodical and purposeful government is once more the rule in our national capital.   Yes, we will speak when we need to speak. But we won’t speak for the sake of speaking, and we won’t bang on things for the purposes of a PR gesture….The Afghan War ends not with victory, not with defeat, but with hope…..Australian troops do not fight wars of conquest; we fight wars of freedom…..I regret to say that not every Australian is a monarchist, but today everyone feels like a monarchist…..You might expect with the ABC that it might show some basic affection for the home side….Australia is a land of droughts and flooding rains. Always has been. Always will be.Jesus knew that there was a place for everything, and it is not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.     We admired the skill and sense of honour that they [Japanese servicemen ] brought to their task, although we disagreed with what they did.   Gallipoli was a magnificent defeat.     World War I was in one sense a tragic waste but it was for a good cause…My position is that everyone has to be on Team Australia…..What the Scots do is a matter for the Scots…. I think the people who would like to see the break-up of the United Kingdom are not the friends of justice, not the friends of freedom….The arrival of the first fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent….Modern Australia has an important and indigenous multicultural character. Still, it’s British settlement that has most profoundly shaped the country that we are….There was a holocaust of jobs in defence industries under the members opposite….I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I withdraw…there was a decimation of jobs.

‘Decimation’ was wrong, too. Mr Abbott keeps making these appalling errors because under the confection, there is no conviction. It is as if he mocks himself, and he does. And he does it in front of the world. We just never know what he might say or do next. We should all go down on knees and thank God that we do not have the bomb.

Curiously, the want of bedrock, and this fixation with slogans, appears to be a reason that Mr Abbott also has the worst failure of a politician. He cannot negotiate. Before the last election, the absolutist said he would not negotiate with minority parties. Nowadays, that is political death. It was this disability or childishness of Mr Abbott that allowed Julia Gillard to form a minority government in the first place. She had what it took; he did not. It is curious that his claim to fame is that he killed off a PM who was only there because he dropped the ball. But, as ever, he would not see that.

And it is this absence of conviction that makes Mr Abbott look so insecure, looking as if his mum had done his hair, and sent a note for the teacher. This is how he always comes out programmed by his handlers and it is why Mr Turnbull looks ever so much more polished and urbane. And he is. It is why no one wants to listen to the PM any more. He is at best irrelevant, and he is so completely out of touch with his time and place.

And this lack of conviction and consequent insecurity are behind three of his worse failings. He does not understand how far behind he has got, and he still gets shocked to find that he has been left behind. Then, he fails under stress. We saw this when he went weak at the knees and made rash promises on election eve; he was at it again the other day when he started offering submarines for a vote, and when he got his mate Alan Jones to cold call the party. He was also making seriously wrong statements about our governance and refusing to back away, while taking cover under verbal sandbags like ‘distraction’ and ‘chaos’. It was like the Praetorian Guard auctioning the purple. Finally, and most damagingly for the country, this Prime Minister has put his own interests over those of the country by refusing to put the best man in the job of Treasurer. His Treasurer now commands as much confidence in the nation as the Prime Minister himself, and that is a disaster for all of us, who are being made to pay for the failings of others.

This confection man is not in the same league as the decent politicians I mentioned. He is manifestly not up to the job that he fell into by one vote, and the job now before us is to bring this simple truth home. In the meantime, we just wait for the make-up to fail again before the next mistake. In light of the croaks tweeted from the lonely old man in New York, it is just a matter of time, but that will be an ugly time that will not be good for any of us.

If it matters, I see no real prospect of anything better from Mr Shorten. He also stands for mannered insincerity, a kind of conviction deficit. This is not surprising, as neither party stands for anything that the other does not – with the possible exception that the Labor Party is not overtly Neanderthal about the environment and the Liberal Party favours capital over labour in what they call small business. Funnily enough, people do not see that is why our politics are so presidential – the leaders may be uninspiring, but their parties are no better. Just imagine if the bastards we get as leaders were footballers – you would not cross the road to watch either of them.