Rewarding the politics of failure
“In crisis” is a relative term this week. America is deciding if its racial unrest will be the 1960 version or the 1860 version, so it’s hard to feel too het up about Barnaby Joyce. Still, the soft collapse of the Turnbull government is another kind of revenge of the lost cause. Fired, ousted, ineligible or disgraced, our politicians keep showing up to work anyway, George Costanza-style, barrowing doomed legislation and talking points that expired a decade ago. The Turnbull government has failed. If recent history is a guide, this means they now have jobs for life.
Last week, former British prime minister David Cameron popped up at a music festival, smoking and hugging Corbyn supporters. And because nothing can happen without a think-piece explaining it, there were attendant articles about middle-aged pop fans and big Dave’s Inner Monologue, and why no one should go to festivals anymore. To Australian eyes, though, it looked refreshing. Here was a former prime minister who had, you know, gone away.
He wasn’t sulking on the backbench, or leaking to the media, or undertaking a “destabilising campaign”, or backseat-driving his successor’s government. He was doing what you’re supposed to do – working on some bad golf and a worse memoir, licking wounds and making a painful transition to civilian life. Of our recent prime ministers, Julia Gillard is the only one who has made this step with any sort of grace. Tony Abbott has taken the opposite approach, not so much hampering his successors as haunting them.
It’s tempting to blame Abbott for the current fiasco surrounding marriage equality, and the ridiculous postal vote bears all of his hallmarks. It is anachronistic and discriminatory, hypocritical. But he is not its sole architect, and neither are the mummified religious conservatives and hayseed husky boys who make up the core of the Liberal and National futurephobes. This farce is the natural outcome of an Australian political culture that is failing, and it is failing because it is full of failures. We have created an environment that not only tolerates them, but fosters them. We seem unable to rid ourselves of failed individuals and failed ideas, no matter how much damage they cause.
Huge quantities of time, money and energy are expended pretending these failures are not what they are. Most Australians do not have a traditionalist view of marriage; that argument has been lost. The conservative cohort in the Coalition must pretend otherwise, though, searching for a silent majority that is silent because it doesn’t exist. The senate opposes this expensive fantasy, so they try again. They claim to seek a mandate but instead seek a means – the postal system – that speaks best to an elderly segment of the electorate. This thumb-on-the-scales cheat would be enough by itself. But if the mandate is not returned in their favour, they reserve the right to ignore it anyway.
Eric Abetz even explained that “all parliamentarians should be given a degree of leeway to adhere to how they can best represent those who elected them. If electors feel that their representative has not represented their views well, they can take action at the next election.” So why not apply this standard model of representative democracy – minus the patronising explanation – to a parliamentary vote? Because Abetz knows that vote would be lost. It’s tails I win, heads you lose.
The Coalition party room is not the only set for this role-playing game. Sky News has become an important part of the illusion, and it’s no coincidence it is also populated with also-rans. Imagine for a moment if our sports commentary worked the same way as our political commentary. Instead of John McEnroe calling Wimbledon, we’d have a former journeyman flame-out telling us that “Roger’s real problem is his refusal to use a wooden racquet”. Insane. But how is it different from what Peta Credlin does every day on Sky? Other putative experts can be excused their woulda-coulda-shouldas. They’ve never been able to translate their thoughts into action. But Credlin had a real live prime minister following her advice only two years ago. She was famous for her unusual degree of influence, and that influence resulted in catastrophic failure.
What has changed since then? What introspection or reflection has taken place? Apparently none. The advice is the same. Credlin is the same. All the problems are blamed on imaginary wreckers and saboteurs. And yet she is not only taken seriously as a font of advice, but prized for her perspicacity. How can this complete absence of consequences not create a moral hazard?
Put yourself in the shoes of Angelos Frangopoulos for a moment. Run your thumb through his multimillion-dollar budget. You can spend it any way you like, and on anyone you like. You know that you will be amplifying the views of whoever you choose. That in some small way you are helping shape the future of your country. And you choose… Graham Richardson, a man who has created nothing in his life apart from a culture of hackery, and will still be wheeled out to defend the Hawke–Keating Legacy Of Reform™.
At least Sky has entertainment as an excuse. What can the Labor Party say? Richardson is their choice to deliver a key address at next weekend’s NSW Labor conference. Four years ago I wrote an article about the party’s complete inability to learn from its mistakes. It mentioned the name Sam Dastyari, and how promoting people such as this would inevitably sustain and expand the kind of corrosive culture that had made NSW Labor so toxic. Quelle surprise.
I was at the launch of Mark Di Stefano’s book the day it was revealed Dastyari had taken money from Chinese interests. Dastyari was supposed to be launching the book, so his absence was an especially awkward one. Louise Adler, the head of Melbourne University press, stepped in. It was all a partisan witch-hunt, she said, and we should drink a toast to Dastyari to wish him well. This was a room full of people who know the political temperature. They have seen firsthand and sometimes face-to-face the rising rage, hatred and despair directed at the political class. None of this stopped them raising a glass to a freshly corrupt politician.
Dastyari has since unveiled a strategy to rehabilitate his reputation. This is it: “Look – a kebab!” His chummy memoir would have been laughed off as lizard-brain guile just a few years ago. But now it is working, not because the ruse is so clever but because it is so clumsy. The media are too weak to push back, and it turns out clickbait can’t create consequence. Instead, the people supposed to be holding Dastyari to account are helping him, with podcasts and stage shows and book endorsements and a fluffing on Australian Story. Perhaps the only person to take a real stand is Cory Bernardi, and I can’t think of a clearer indictment of the current state of play than that.
Why would Dastyari resign? Why would anyone? Not only can he come back, but he can come back positioning himself as the solution to the problem he caused. “I come at this from someone who wasn’t just part of the arms race,” he said. “I was one of the weapon suppliers in this arms race … and responsible for fundraising across the party. It needs to come to an end, and the time for that is now.” Most people managed not to participate, but who better to turn gamekeeper than a former poacher. How about literally anyone else at all?
This “O. J.’s hunt for the real killer”-style gall is everywhere. The serial promise-breaker Tony Abbott can aver: “Say what you mean and do what you say has to be the cardinal rule and is the only way to keep faith with the electorate.” Kevin Rudd can pop up on Twitter decrying the Coalition keeping refugees in Papua New Guinea and saying they should come to Australia instead. That is an option he ruled out himself, more than a dozen times. The public response is grumbling, and some tired outrage, but more and more a sense that this shamelessness is rewarded.
Look at the dual citizenship crisis as a study in incentives. Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters bowed out the moment they found they were ineligible. That dignity – a basic level of morality – already felt endangered, and what has happened since will imperil it further. Because Matt Canavan can blame the same issue on his mum, and nothing will happen to him. Barnaby Joyce can have the prime minister conduct his defence in a show trial of his own making. And Malcolm Roberts can lie and lie, and then go on Sky and sit with a buffoonish disk-jockey, the same way he does every week. And even though this show is all about accountability and representing the Australian people, and the host will riverdance across the set at the mention of political corruption, he will soothe and smooth and speak to your honesty. He won’t show the documents on air, though.
And if you do get fired or canned or voted out, who cares? That Sky spot will still be there, your pension will still be there, Louise Adler will be on hand to offer you a book contract, your ideas will be perpetuated in evermore fact-resistant strains. After all, who will stop you? Who will stop any of it?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 19, 2017 as "Beyond the gall of duty". Subscribe here.