A little aloofness, please

When I watched Jean-Claude Juncker address the European Parliament on refugees the other night, I was looking at a room full of people who were almost visibly looking for leadership.  Making allowances for differences in style, I thought that they got some.

That body itself reflects the crisis affecting representative democracy across the West, and in two-party democracies in particular.  People everywhere are sick of place-fillers and time-servers and parties that stand for nothing except themselves.  Voters are repudiating all of them and looking for a way out – so making way for crooks and weirdoes.

As a result, one major party in each of the UK and the US is looking at blowing itself up to kingdom come.  In Australia, the disenchantment has meant that parties have become forced to sack leaders who fall out with the voters.  This show of party power does nothing for faith in the party system.  What is to be done?

The answer is for governments to stop doing the bad things that have put their people offside.  They need the sense to formulate policies and the nerve to implement them – even if they are in the short term unpopular.  Mr Abbott did not have enough sense or nerve.

I think that Mr Turnbull does.  Most of his parliamentary party agree.  The dissidents are the mediocrity that got us into this trouble in the first place.  If you want to see the prescription set out above in action, just have a look at Mr Baird in New South Wales.  He is not just popular because he has shown sense and nerve – he is even respected, something that we have not seen here for a generation.

I doubt that Mr Turnbull presently has much to worry about.  Mr Shorten looks to be a shifty little piece of work.  He has now lost his main prop.  A friend of mine, an artist from a country that knows despair, and who has the gift of getting to the heart of the matter, said: ‘I think Shorten has some character fault.  Really dislike him.  He said he wanted to get into politics, because he wants to be the Prime Minister.  I want to be the Queen of Sheba.’

Mr Shorten looks like Hillary Clinton to me – raw ambition uninspired by any need to serve others.  Every single thing that he does is calculated for its effect.  I wonder if he ever did one sincere thing in all his life.  If this were the season to mow down mediocrities, this talking head should be next.  If he is not, it is only because his party has no alternative.

The other party did have one, and the necessary change was made.  But whatever else may be said of Mr Abbott, he was not in the same mindless blank paper class as Mr Shorten.  If nothing else, Mr Abbott has done more hands on and shown more commitment for our indigenous people than any other Australian politician that I can recall.  There is no basis for saying that this politician was there only for himself.

Mr Abbott’s background was journalism, and it showed.  The press are a large part of the cancer in Canberra.  They see themselves as part of the game, and the results have been awful for government in general, and Mr Abbott in particular.  He was held up by and got in hock to cheer squads on Sky News and The Australian – and two of the more loathsome shock jocks.  Many people felt that this was conduct desperately unbecoming a Prime Minister.  The shock jocks live off the earnings of those who pander to the deprived and depraved just as surely as do pimps for tarts in white boots.  They, however, see themselves as the tribunes of the people.  If you want to know just how sanctimonious tribunes can be, have another look at Coriolanus.

If you want to see the teams that play these blood sports in action, tune into Sky News and watch them spit the dummy if their favourite takes a hit – as happened on Monday night.  Or look at some of the vaporising in today’s Australian (that includes a verbal of Her Majesty)Most of these players in the press make no effort to hide their revulsion at the other side.  If you want to come to grips with the word sordid, tune into a show called Richo + Jones. 

It was, frankly, silly of the outgoing PM to lecture the press on their role in his fall, or to disclaim ever having played the game himself.  But it was not at all surprising that a member of ‘the team’ should have advised Mr Turnbull to make peace with a shock jock.

That is the last thing we want of our PM.  Any leader has to be aloof at times.  If you look up that word, which has now sadly got a bad feel to it, you will see that it had a nautical origin, of the order to keep the ship’s head to the wind.  It came to mean generally standing at or keeping to a distance.  Any captain or coach of a footy team, much less the captain of a ship, will tell you that a lot of the time, you have to do just that.

One of the reasons that I think that Mr Turnbull is up to the job is that some time ago, he shirtfronted – yes, shirtfronted is the word – that awful twerp they call the Parrot.  If I could offer our new PM some advice, it would be to tell the Parrot and all his ilk to stand behind him, and to banish themselves to that wilderness that overlooks the old town of Jericho.  There is a good precedent for this.

And do not be surprised if there is an election before year’s end, and some surgery at the top of the other party shortly before or after that election.  The roundabout may have one more turn to come, but then I think things will settle down, and then we can all go back to sleep.

Sorry my dear – from bad to worse

Four things over the weekend reflected my disgust with our current politics in Canberra.

The AFR had a luncheon interview with the Sydney silk, Bret Walker, S C.  I do not know the man, but he is reputed to be extremely able, and at the highest level.  I have admired the strength and dignity of his opposition to the latest vote-chasing excess of our Prime Minister about citizenship – as if some twerp like him could deny me my Australian-hood or my rights.  The interview concluded: ‘I remain behind in Hunter Street’s Mini-Gotham City, drinking the remnants of the wine, trying to work out why his presence makes feel better to be an Australian.’  What a remarkably fine compliment this was for a barrister!  It put me instantly in mind of the silk played by Budd Tingwell in the movie The Castle, whose campaign for the rights of man actually made us look not only useful, but good.  And one thing is so clear – it will never be said of any of those frightful bastards currently infesting Canberra that they make us feel better to be Australian.

The horror of it all was brought home by the headline on page four of the same paper: PM seizes on Labor terror division.  This brings home the complicity of our press in our national disgrace.  Our Prime Minister was quoted as saying that the problem with allowing the court to decide was that ‘the terror suspects could get off.’  In the sweet name of the son of the carpenter, is there anyone out there – anyone – who falls for this kind of bullshit – from a serial idiot who only thrives on conflict?  Well, the paper said that a poll shows 80% of Australians is in favour of the idea, and that is more than enough for our Prime Minister.

Mr Abbott glories in sending out the Royal Australian Navy against unarmed refugees who could not afford the air fare, and he is currently deploying the Royal Australian Air Force to kill Muslims in a sectarian war on the other side of the word to improve our security against Muslims on this side of the world   There are arguments either way on these conflicts, from anyone but the ludicrously named Opposition, just as there were about the role of the Vatican in the Crusades in the Middle Ages, but not about the sense of this idiot’s child-like mantras – ‘people smugglers’ and ‘death cults’.

And what does the vapid obscurantism of Mr Shorten have to offer against this arrant pugilism of Mr Abbott?  He leaves the fight to those libertarian heroes like Christopher Pyne and Doctor Death (who wants to hand out instruction on Ideal Marriage at my expense).  So, we have a man with no brains against a man with no guts.  A man who believes in nothing against a man who stands for nothing.  Two silly bad boys behind the shelter shed, daring each other to flash their willies.  It really is too awful to contemplate.

It is a condition that is caught by a phrase of George Eliot in Middlemarch that I read on Sunday.  A frightful cleric (Mr Casaubon, for those who know the novel) marries the belle of the village, to the disgust of at least one admirer.

But the idea of this dried up pedant, this elaborator of small explanations about as important as the surplus stock of false antiquities kept in a vendor’s back chamber, having first got this adorable young creature to marry him, and then passing his honeymoon away from her, groping after his mouldy futilities….this sudden picture stirred him with a sort of comic disgust: he was divided between the impulse to laugh aloud and the equally unseasonable impulse to burst into scornful invective.

A sort of comic disgust.  There you have it – exactly!  You do not know whether to laugh or cry.  That is what Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten do to you.  But I fear that the first may be worse because he has no idea of just how stupid and dangerous he is.  And his camp followers may be worse, because they are all the quicker to take offence, as if there were something there in the first place.  In the name of heaven, this clown cannot even change his own tie.

Then I was listening to Frank Sinatra over Sunday dinner, in the glow of a rare Demons’ win (and another predicted loss by the Storm at Origin time).  Sinatra’s 1976 recording of Send in the clowns by Stephen Sondheim with a solo piano is a remarkable distillation of anger and despair presented with a sombre but lyrical force.  The last two verses speak directly to our condition.

Don’t you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want.
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer,
Losing my timing this late
In my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

Finally, fuelled by the music and the roast and the red, there came back to me the recollection of the cause of death of Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet who was gone on booze and drugs – or at least the cause of death asserted on his death certificate, because medical science knows no such condition: Insult to the brain. 

Canberra may not kill us, but it is doing nothing for our life.

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.