A foot high in poster paint

It is possible that when Tony Abbott stood on the lawns of Parliament House in 2011, in front of a sea of cardboard signs and conspiracy theories, he changed the Liberal Party forever. At that No Carbon Tax Rally, he welcomed into the party a kind of madness.

This would be the end of expertise, the end of consensus and the end of public good. It would be the beginning of a new conservatism that was reactionary and nothing else.

Abbott stood in front of a brace of Coalition members and said: “As I look out on this crowd of fine Australians I want to say that I do not see scientific heretics. I do not see environmental vandals. I see people who want honest government.”

In the crowd were members of the League of Rights and the National Civic Council. They were calling for an end to multiculturalism and the punishment of “illegals”. Politicians were “fraudulent criminals”. Taxes belonged up their “ass”. These views weren’t concealed from Abbott: they were written in poster paint, a foot high in front of him.

Later, the then opposition leader called the group “a representative snapshot of middle Australia”. This is the lie at the heart of the contemporary Liberal Party: the pretence that the fringe has become the centre. One of the protest promoters, a Sydney broadcaster, had previously been sacked for showing his penis to colleagues. The rally had a similar feel.

“I want the protest to be civil,” Abbott said in a subsequent press release, in which he regretted the abusive language of a few. “I want it to be entirely in keeping with the Australian tradition. But let’s not get too precious about these things.”

A straightish line can be drawn between that March day and Craig Kelly’s campaigning for hydroxychloroquine, against all medical advice. Kelly, the member for Hughes, is part of the wing of the Liberal Party that believes expert consensus is a cause for doubt. He accuses medical officers of having “misled the Australian public” on the treatment of Covid-19.

As on climate change, ideology has rotted the brains of these people. The lens they have through which to interpret the world is curved by culture wars that can make no sense of health emergencies or environmental catastrophe.

Kelly has become a small celebrity in the internet’s out-country. He has reached the conspiracy theorists of QAnon, via the bleached teeth of Pete Evans. He has undermined the public health of the country, and no one in his party has spoken against him.

“There are many sides of this parliament who express individual views,” the Health minister, Greg Hunt, says, missing the point or deliberately avoiding it. “We see that in relation to all parties at all times, that’s one of the democratic freedoms, but our medical decisions are based on medical advice.”

In London this week, Tony Abbott was musing again. He thought it was time for individuals to determine how they approach the virus. He complained that we have let fear keep us from being fully alive, forgetting that the alternative for some is being dead.

This shouldn’t be mistaken for intellectual curiosity. With Abbott and Kelly, that’s no great risk. This is a question of mischief and irrelevance – and it is one that puts in danger the community response required to combat the pandemic.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 4, 2020 as "A foot high in poster paint".

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