Spit into a milkshake

Sometimes people end up where they belong. This is not how Tony Abbott became prime minister but it is how he found himself working at the Institute of Public Affairs.

That a man can go from leading the country to making Facebook videos for a right-wing think tank is evidence of the great lack in our politics. The space between these two callings is the gap in which almost everything wrong with Australia lives.

This is the space in which one might hope to find talent or vision or decency. That it can be bridged by a man whose principal concern now is whether he can sit in the front seat of a taxi or not says much about what is missing. The same is true of Mark Latham, who almost was prime minister but whose proper place is in a racist fringe party in the second chamber of a second-tier parliament.

The IPA feeds people into politics and now they return as backwash, like spit into a milkshake. Before he became prime minister, Abbott spoke at a dinner celebrating the organisation’s 70th anniversary. He said the body had given him a “great deal of advice” and that he would give them a “big yes” in office.

He told the room he would abolish the department of climate change and the Clean Energy Fund. He would repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, cut the public service, privatise Medibank, end the tax on mining super profits, and abolish health and environmental bureaucracies. Each of these policies was on an IPA wish list.

After his folly in The Lodge, Abbott joins the institute promising to fight “virus hysteria and health despotism”. He complains about a lack of respect for James Cook in school curricula. He says we shouldn’t deconstruct our history or our heroes and asks: “How can there be anything fundamentally wrong with a country that is admired and even envied all around the world?”

Like Blues Point Tower, he can’t see the eyesore because he’s standing in it. From this vantage, he quotes long-dead historians and wonders why Australia can’t be more like it used to be.

It is telling that Abbott’s prime ministership did not change the country as significantly as his time in opposition did. He is a wrecker, not a builder. Yet the damage he wrought is impressive and lasting.

The same week as he joined the IPA, the Labor Party dropped its Climate spokesman. These events are connected. Australian politics is built of glib symbols.

It was Abbott’s lie about a carbon tax, knowing it was a lie, that made him prime minister. That lie more than any other has shaped the politics of the past decade.

That same, crooked lie is the reason Anthony Albanese has handed climate change back to the right of his party. The view persists that a country’s emissions policy should be built around a few hundred votes outside Cessnock.

The tragedy here is not that Tony Abbott has ended up where he belongs, working for cranks at an institute that opposes Indigenous rights and advocates selling off the ABC. The tragedy is that no one much better was waiting in the parliament to replace him, and that what he does now is not much different to what he was doing in government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 30, 2021 as "Spit into a milkshake".

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