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Apr 1, 2010

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Let’s face it, Tony Abbott is 85% over, and everyone knows it. In the space of four months he has spectacularly, almost deliberately, sought to take the public’s willingness to give him a chance and consider him with an open mind – and turned the process into a narcissistic, undisciplined test of love.

He had three strikes, and he’s used them up with alarming profligacy. The first was the appointment of Barnaby Joyce to the finance ministry, the department most in need of cool rationality.

The second was the health care debate failure, in which he called Kevin out and then lost for easily avoidable reasons – lack of preparation, failure to develop a skeleton alternative policy that could be used as a positive message.

The third strike was….

accumulated concerns about character,  from the Mullah Omar-style concern with his daughters’ virginity, to his obsession with a hard-core fitness regime.

Crikey, it must be said, was the first to predict that Abbott’s oddness would become a key factor.  In early December, a few days after his elevation we noted:

“[Vanquishing Abbott] shouldn’t be too hard, if Labor maintains a positive message about modernity, hope and possibility, and what a weird little creep Abbott ultimately is, rather than a fear campaign about what he might do. They may be helped in that by the fact that… Abbott, like fast Eddy Felsen in The Hustler, like Guy Crouchback, has a deep and original desire to fail nobly, to be spared the burden of success. Labor has to find that desire and bring it to the surface, and Abbott will do the rest.”

This was not the view at the time, especially in the News Ltd propaganda machine, where Arthur Sinodos waxed ecstatically:

“TONY Abbott is the Spartacus of Australian politics. No longer content to be slaves in Kevin Rudd’s victory procession, the Liberal heartland has found its Spartacus and revolted. Most Liberals feel energised by the leadership change and dare to dream of winning the next election. So far the polls have not moved but that gives Abbott plenty of runway.
Abbott is not predictable and will deliver plenty of light and shade. One minute he will be ridiculing the Prime Minister and all his works. Next minute he will flick the switch to serious thinker….”

While Planet Janet developed a tilt in her orbit:

“there is no point avoiding the other thing that differentiates Abbott. Fit and50-something, the runner, cyclist and former boxer in a pair of Speedos with a “love rug” is also a rarity in politics. On that note, I’m counting on more than a few women agreeing with Nigella Lawson, the curvy kitchen guru, who said: “I like an animal. Hairy back, hair everywhere. I don’t understand why a woman would want a hairless man. If I was to go for smooth, I may as well be lesbian.” Be honest, girls. Abbott has caught your attention in a way that Rudd never did. Or will. Whether that translates into votes for Abbott is another matter. But watch that space too.”

On the disastrous employment of Barnaby Joyce, a finance minister who wanted to ban China, break up banks, and employed the term ‘usury’ we noted:

So Abbott has a big problem — trying for a gonzo, wild-west shadow cabinet, he’s allowed the League of Rights their greatest entryist triumph to date, even though Joyce isn’t a member of that group (or so we presume). Given what he’s said two weeks in, it seems unlikely that he’ll stop now. His belief in the things he talks about, and his conviction that he is representing the people from which he comes — both go far deeper than his affiliation to the National Party, much less the coalition.

Abbott will have to sack him eventually, which will seriously damage his leadership credentials, and the longer he keeps him in the centre of the shadow Cabinet, the more damage he can do to any sort of consistent message. Joyce’s elevation was an unbelievable screw-up, another gift to Labor from a leader whose neurological capacity for risk assessment has probably been damaged by his sustained endorphin addiction. If Abbott was lost in golden slumbers from his runner’s high, you can bet he’s awake and listening now.”

Meanwhile, the Oz editorialised:

“Tony Abbott has made a good start with his front bench
IT’S early days, but Tony Abbott is showing himself to be a disciplined and alert leader. Now he needs his front bench to follow suit. His shadow cabinet announced yesterday contains some real talent…”

While Surry Hills prize stooge Malcolm Colless noted:

“THE Rudd government is clearly determined to create a media image of the opposition’s finance spokesman, Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce, as totally compromised in his new frontbench role, the economic village idiot or a combination of both.
Unfortunately for Labor this spin isn’t working. In fact there are signs of growing public concern at the bully-boy tactics that Rudd and his cabinet colleagues have used to demonise anyone who dares to criticise the Prime Minister’s policies…”

Now Abbott has sacked Joyce, using the cover of a reshuffle, and probably saved himself more trouble ahead, at the expense of looking incompetent earlier. But can he recover from the double whammy of policy failure and character concern?

The question is the answer. The public tend to forgive one, but not both. With Abbott, the two are intertwined. He lost a debate he’d called Rudd out on, and then he went on an all-day endurance ride. You could call that physical toughness, but it looks like self-indulgence.

The public has come to the conclusion that Abbott does not possess the virtue that he himself knows he is deficient in – that of continence. It’s what steered him away from the priesthood (in part), and it’s what rings alarm bells in the public now.

It’s particulalry bad for a conservative leader, because conservatism as a political formation is defined by a set of virtues to which continence is central.

The core of conservatism, after all, is the notion that being, the objective world, can never be fully grasped by knowing, our subjective existence. Hence we pursue prudent and judicious stewardship by casting a cold eye on ‘triumph and disaster – and treat(ing) those two impostrs just the same’. Conservatism is as much a way of doing things as it is a set of discrete ideas about institutions and structures. The content of conservatism – a belief in the family as in some sense more important than the individual citizen – matches the form of conservatism, which suggests that we should think twice, three times before we mess with anything, and that in all our conduct we should take the aristotelian middle way.

Abbott’s particular genius/anti-genius has been to advance Conservative content in a manner – audacity, programmativity – usually associated with the left. The consequence is a programme one might call ‘ reactionary social engineering’ – steering your politics by a fixed idea of the social good, and employing highly statist moves to ensure it.

Paid parental leave is a good example of that. I support the idea absolutely – though in the Nordic fashion by which the number of days attaches to the child in question, not the parent, and the allotment can thus be shared out around 1,2 or 3 parents/carers – but coming from a right that has emphasised the family as a private sphere of action, within a market-state built on personal responsibility, it is plainly reconstructive, not conservative. It has a specific idea of how society should be, rather than cutting with the grain of what is, which would dictate a more piecemeal and gradual conservative approach.

So not much prudence or continence there, and coupled with the policy gap in health care, Abbott gives the impression to the public of a man wanting to reconstruct Australian society to fit his own personal imaginings, and unconcenred about the details involved in getting it done.

That necessarily connects the question of policy back to character, and there Abbott’s imprudent incontinence also wieghs against him. A concern for your daughters’ virginity is no longer a conservative value. A concern that they be happy and find loving relationships, not get drawn into the more nihilistic aspects of modern sexual culture would be – but that would build on the widespread belief that a guiltless, unashamed view of sex as a human joy is the genuinely conservative attitude. It’s the focus on the maidenhead that is cultish and creepy.

That’s especially so when the man saying it is indulging physical obsession with exercise going well beyond what we would see as proper for an adult with wide responsibilities. Everyone who works in an office knows someone like Abbott – the wiry bloke who jogs 30kms to work, showers in the bathroom and keeps live yeast and tofu in the fridge. Talks about his BMI, and measures his body fat with a pari of compasses in idle moments. Not mad but not management material either.

In Abbott’s case it goes to a failure of judgement not merely of means, but of ends. For a genuine leader exercise – in the manner of Obama’s jogging, or John Howard’s regular walking – is a mere means to the higher and more genuinely civilised ends he is pursuing. Aside from people who have made athletics the centre of their life, we don’t want to see people become that obsessed with repetitive physical training.

The type of activity goes to the heart of that, because Abbott isn’t a mad player of cricket or mountain climbing, or anything that engages the whole human being. He is addicted to glorified fat burning, the activity in service to the  body, and the maintenance of its rigid boundaries. Possibly Abbott developed his fitness obsession as a trainee priest, to suppress libido, and when semen beat seminary he just kept going.

But let’s face it, in recent photos he looks fucking alarming, a grinning skeletor in service to his body, not in government of it. And the camera adds ten pounds. In life he must come across as a hand-carved wooden souvenir of himself.

You could probably get away with any one of these features. Together, they add up to something that most people simply rule out of contention, as a section of the public ruled out Mark Latham.

Who knows whether the conservatoriat actually believe this nonsense about Abbott having an appeal that Rudd lacks? Possubly they do, because they always convinced themselves that large numbers of voters warmed to John Howard as a representative of their values and souls. They never did of course. A lot of them hated Little Johnny Howard – as many people called him – but they knew he could do the job, and they judged the competition – Crean, Beazley, Latham – as men wanting in key areas, fathers’ sons in the case of the first two, the last at least partly driven on by anger at not being such.

So no doubt Rudd strikes them as the mealy-mouthed spec-head they knew at school. But even at school they knew he’d run the joint some day. Now that’s happened, they’re cool with it. If your political tastes are progressive, Rudd’s your guy as regards the available choices. And, at the moment, he’s also the go-to for people who were attracted to Howard by conservative style, by a steady, dull captain, even if you hate all this education crap (hard knocks, me. what’s all this year 8 nonsense).

That Abbott kid? Yeah he was a mad riot. Weeping on the church floor one day, punching on all night the next. Good times. Prime Minister? Are you crazy?

The fact that conservatives, and the right more generally, are so willing to indulge these wild rides – the Abbotts, the Joyces – is an expression of the chaotic state of their politics, and their powerful nostalgia for the combustive mix of Thatcherism, its structurally revolutionary character combined with its confident belief in illusory cultural certainties. In trying to recreate that vanished moment they are willing to do anything but develop a rational and consistent politics for a hypermodern world. If Abbott can’t find a way to do that – and he yet may –  his three strikes will become party’s.

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