Sometimes doing nothing is the best course of action. Sometimes it’s the move not made, the fashion left un-embraced, or the bold idea rejected that works out best for everybody in the end. Sometimes the push for change is unnecessary and to be resisted, and sometimes venerable institutions require guarding against gratuitous interference from well-meaning but misguided actors, lest these institutions be diminished in their effectiveness. Sometimes, very occasionally, we need conservatism. But the life’s work of a conservative politician can often make pretty shitty material for a panegyric, or poor quality grist to the eulogy mill.
So pity Tony Abbott at Gough Whitlam’s state funeral in Sydney on Wednesday. Having to sit and listen to three hours of impassioned tributes to an icon of the Left, delivered by famous actresses and the Aboriginal answer to Dr Martin Luther King Jr, whilst simultaneously having your government potted in front of a lusty crowd of away supporters, must’ve been unpleasant enough. But to have to endure repeated recitations of a litany of progressive achievement – the creation of Medibank and the foundation of universal healthcare, free university education, the birth of indigenous land rights, the extrication of Australia from Vietnam and the abolition of conscription, beating Nixon to China, and setting the nation on a path to gender pay parity, to give but a partial account of the Whitlam CV – all to rapturous acclaim, must’ve given Tony pause for thought, or at least an intimation of his own political mortality. Whilst not presuming to have insight into the full horrors of his mind, particularly at that moment, I believe he must surely have wondered what a posthumous register of his political achievements might look like. And perhaps, in a guiltier moment, he might even have ruminated on whether inspiring national figures would be called upon to pay tribute to his legacy.
The Liberal Party’s progenitor and most celebrated leader, Sir Robert Menzies, despite being in power for 17 years, is remembered for little more than his longevity in office, his love of cricket, and for publicly masturbating in front of visiting royalty. Even the Liberal Party’s own website struggles to make his list of achievements sound impressive. “Free milk to school children” jostles for position with the signing of the ANZUS treaty and some eye-glazing economic stats. It is unquestionably true that Australia enjoyed a period of great stability and economic prosperity under his long stewardship. However historians of all stripes now acknowledge that the country was comatose during those years, asleep atop the sheep’s back, wandering aimlessly in a back paddock of the globe.
Lulling the nation into a relaxed and comfortable state, which a latter day Liberal hero made his explicit mission, does not make for an inspirational legacy, or great testimonial oratory. And yet, that is an uncomfortable fact of life for most conservative politicians: nobody really misses them when they’re gone, or at least not in the same way that progressives are mourned. This is perhaps a bit unfair, as not every conservative leader gets to fight Hitler, or help bring down the Berlin Wall. And great advances in social policy are not generally their aim, or frankly even within their ken. They genuinely don’t see changing people’s lives as being part of their brief, or feel that the role of government should be transformative. Rather, their most cherished goals are centered on maintaining a calm status quo, balancing budgets and, like a skilled divorce lawyer with a minor in macroeconomics, keeping their client in the state to which they’ve become accustomed. Indeed, as the ABC’s cameras cut to various former Prime Ministers seated in the crowd at Whitlam’s service, lingering long on figures like Keating, Hawke and even Malcolm Fraser, one began to feel preemptively embarrassed for John Howard, and what his send-off might look like in comparison. Howard’s long tenure in the job will necessitate a public memorial, but one blanches at the material the convenors will have to work with.
You’d hope that Whitlam’s service gave some contemporary Labor figures food for thought as well. Bill Shorten’s recent performance on Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet program was like watching a human soufflé fail to rise. The incumbent Opposition Leader’s awkward, bumbling attempts at bonhomie were almost as cringe-worthy as his colourless, defensive statements on policy. He is the archetypal stopgap Opposition Leader, lacking in charisma, clout and conviction. And despite having been elected under the new caucus rules introduced by Kevin Rudd, Shorten remains the embodiment of the party’s stasis. A figure from the Right steeped in the traditions and thinking of a dwindling union movement, he appears to have no vision for how the party should reposition itself in order to win back its disaffected natural constituency, which stands appalled at how indistinguishable the ALP has become from Menzies’ creation. The level of vitriol directed at The Greens over their cheeky appropriation of Whitlam’s image and legacy in a recent advertisement merely betrayed Labor’s own feelings of impotence and self-loathing. The Greens, for better or worse, are now the standard bearers of progressive thought in Australian politics, and the fact that this mantle has been ceded to a protest party irks the fuck out of those in the Labor movement who were weened on the heroic deeds of E.G. Whitlam.
In his much-lauded tribute, Noel Pearson described the Whitlam Government as “a textbook case of reform trumping management”. But good management is all that traditional conservatism aspires to, so the implicit comparison is somewhat self-serving. Likewise, the Fairfax press’ gleeful reporting of Tony Abbott being loudly booed whilst entering the Sydney Town Hall must rank as one of the great dog-bites-man non-stories of recent times. If a serving Liberal Prime Minister hadn’t been heckled at such an event, then that might’ve warranted a headline splash on their websites. But you’d like to think that what happened inside the event made Abbott think again about the possibilities of government. Or at least, from an egotistical place, consider the kind of legacy he’d like to have celebrated. But this is perhaps the height of naivety, considering that Abbott once famously described himself as the political lovechild of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop. WorkChoices was to be Howard’s crowning accomplishment, which he mercifully failed to accomplish. Let us all hope that recent events haven’t inspired Abbott to try and surpass the dreams of the father.