Abbott and Latham, the masters of delusion
Somewhere out there, in old piles of books and on dusty shelves, tucked between the Paulo Coelhos and Women Who Run with the Wolves, there’s a few neglected copies of a classic of Australian political humour. Not anything by the late John Clarke. This is Latham and Abbott of 2004, written by right-wing commentator and publisher Michael Duffy, with large photos on the cover of the imposing heads of the two figures, who would, according to Duffy, define Australian politics for the next generation.
It was worth a bet on that to look prescient in retrospect, but the book reads like a Tom Sharpe satire now. Duffy, drawn to both men because they were, in different ways, attacking the left, lovingly details their childhoods, the expectations built around them, the recognition from their peers in their 20s, and so on. This was “great man” stuff, a measure of the hunger in Australian politics for defining figures of the calibre of Gough Whitlam or John Howard, the latter believed to be on the way out at the time (and in 2001, 1998, 1994, 1990 and 1987 – the “rodent” has survived many a sinking ship).
Today, this tale of Mark and Tony, both worshipped as sons – Abbott “will either be the pope or prime minister” it was said over the breakfast table – is a laugh a page, a testament to the absurdity that haunts all ambitious and audacious plans. To the horror, too: horror that failure will work backwards through your life, making your achievements along the way – mayoralty at a young age in Latham’s case, ministries and a hard-charging opposition leadership in Abbott’s – seem mere props set up for a final humiliation. With both Abbott and Latham seemingly determined to alienate as many as possible who had supported or believed in them, the start and end points of their parabolic rise and fall neatly contain a period of Australian history in which we lost belief that our existing institutions and structures could produce the sort of movements and figures that had driven earlier political eras. Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Bob Brown – all except the last of these were regarded with a measure of cynicism at the time, but no one doubted they represented a coherent set of political ideas to which they were dedicated. None, also, fell apart when defeat hit (Brown the exception again, as he was never defeated).
To be fair, there are differences as well as similarities. Abbott, buoyed by the plaudits of a support base, now thinned somewhat, has decided to believe that he was not decisively rejected by the Australian people over two years of disastrous government, and that he could make a Kevin Rudd-style return to the prime ministership. Such thinking depends on two things: ignoring the fact that Rudd remained a popular leader with the public and was ditched by factional leaders who would rather lose an election than control of the ALP; and the belief that Australia is a nation of secret and silent social conservatives, not an enormous suburb of house-price-obsessed Game of Thrones enthusiasts with no strong feelings about politics at all. Abbott claims to be speaking out to protest the Turnbull government’s drift to the centre. Since Malcolm Turnbull has done double backflips to please the party’s right, it is far more likely that Abbott simply cannot accept, psychologically, that he has lost the destiny ordained for him, lost it through his own poor judgement and lack of political skills. Or he is approaching such acceptance through a series of intermediate steps that rely on the belief that he could get a second shot at doing it right. Politically disastrous though this may be, it may well be wise psychologically, a way of preventing the full trauma of staring into the abyss when the abyss is oneself.
For an example of that, Abbott need look no further than his twin destiny’s child, Latham, who has made a decision, at some level, to become the id of Australian political failure, its formless, unbounded ball of fury, going in all directions at once. Having never been able to accept that his 2004 defeat was contributed to by his political ineptitude – it takes anti-skill to get a division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union endorsing John Howard against you, three days before the poll – and having adopted a role as spoiler in the years hence, Latham has sabotaged every opportunity offered him to be a serious commentator in the name of an iconoclastic populism that is as much a fantasy as Abbott’s call on a silent conservative majority. Latham can’t help but turn reasonable critical takes on some of the absurdities of current-day social politics into personal attacks with an ugly edge, tending towards the bizarre and obsessive, Twitter sock-puppeting included. The effect is to exasperate even the people who would like to support him, and the aim, perhaps hidden from himself, is to punish us for his own failure. “Look what you made me do” was his rhetoric after abusing a schoolkid on the degenerate television program Outsiders. “See what you’ve made me become.”
In pre-internet days, Latham’s sacking from that program would have made him face a stark choice: wrap up the show, or do what former Labor deputy prime minister Jim Cairns did – start selling your books from a handcart outside train stations and student unions. There the comparison ends, because Cairns’s books, repetitive and undeveloped though they were, nevertheless had a serious point, stemming from his earlier politics: that existing civilisation could not continue with an uncontrolled and unexamined philosophy of “economic growth”. Latham’s sprays are an empty populism, defined by nothing other than what they oppose. But instead of haranguing people about the Illuminati on platform three of Central, he now has a Facebook Live “show”. As with all of Latham’s follies, it could not be done without the generous lifelong superannuation payments he receives from all of us. Ironically for someone who wants to slash or abolish the ABC, Latham is now our third public broadcaster. He is also that extraordinary thing, a man who is failing not merely twice, but squared: he is failing at failing. He makes Abbott look like Cincinnatus.
Neither man matters much as an individual. They were both confused about their status and abilities by the hopes and expectations projected onto them. But they serve as useful measures of the symptoms of the right-wing collapse in Australian politics, the hollowing out of anything resembling a mission, a belief, a strong sense of positive values. Supported by the News Corp complex, which provides a sort of lost dogs’ home for right-wing cultural warriors with nowhere else to go, they also serve as a megaphone for the Institute of Public Affairs, for whom right-wing politics is more important than the small government classical liberalism to which they pay lip-service. But all this support only exposes one thing – Australia’s right isn’t a movement, it’s a set of obsessive compulsions that form an entity only by overlapping for a while, like Venn diagrams. When one of the circles drifts away momentarily – as Alan Jones did on the question of coal seam gas prospecting and coalmine licences on rural land – the whole thing looks like coming apart.
Indeed, what’s truly funny is that the more people get to see of such three-R’s politics – right, reactionary, resentful – the less popular it becomes. Where John Howard understood the limits of his appeal, the post-Howard right has simply lost touch with the reality of life in a settler-capitalist multicultural society. Australia has many brutal and reactionary currents to its history, but it doesn’t have many genuine conservative ones, and there is nothing to draw on but outrage at the general public’s failure to honour a fantasy of who they are.
Hence this sort of right wing was more successful when it was obscure. The current plummeting polls of the Coalition have less to do with the limits of Turnbull’s ability, and more to do with the insistence by the reactionary right that they are still part of the outfit. Centre-left figures have been much better at managing their own delusions because they were more connected to reality. Rudd may have been treacherous and destructive, but it was a channelled and focused rage, oriented to one goal only – another shot. Abbott’s is a poor imitation of that and Latham’s antics are the acid-trip version. They are doing the work of all whom they oppose, tying political vision with delusion in the public’s mind, and helping persuade them to accept a politics that is routinised, uncreative, administrative and lacking in drive or audacity.
Labor’s benefit from all of this is as equally tenuous as the hold on reality of the faded glimmer twins, Tony and Mark. Should anyone manage to put together a coherent centre-right politics with a modicum of vision, then Labor will find its support rapidly drained. One could say that no one knows which of these two past rivals will “win” in such a race to the bottom, but of course we know it would always be Latham. He won the era, but not in the way it was imagined he would, or that he could have possibly hoped for.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 29, 2017 as "Masters of delusion". Subscribe here.