Tony Abbott is a clod and a throwback. As a Prime Minister, he was always a placeholder: a flunkey on a short-term contract, whose lack of nous and nuance amounted to an in-built term limit. He was not elected, so much as washed into government on a wave of despair and resentment at his opponents’ risible internecine antics, and with nary a murmur of enquiry from the press as to what he planned to do for/to the country. Naturally, his government’s policy agenda turned out to be your classic neoliberal nightmare, and his uber-gaffes on all manner of subjects, most notably climate science and women, make his recent knighting of Prince Phillip – the straw that broke the backbench’s back – look less like an act of lunacy, and more a touching tribute to a kindred spirit. In the 2013 poll, far from fêting the victor in a keenly fought battle of ideas, the electorate simply opted for a cymbal-bashing toy monkey on lithium batteries, whose every strike triggered one of three pre-recorded slogans. Unfortunately, the ALP had managed to make this look like a superior alternative.
So no, I won’t miss Tony. He is the sneeze to my macaroni, the clot in my coffee and the bramble of my eye. But should we really be feeling so ecstatic and replete with schadenfreude about his leadership woes, if they mean that our federal politics continues to resemble a cut-price circus? Has Kevin Rudd’s first term knifing at the hands of the faceless men ushered in a new era of chronic instability, where the PM’s job is on the line from Newspoll to Newspoll?
And where is the locus of this instability? Generally, the push for regime change is said to come from skittish backbenchers “panicked” by “terrifying internal polling”. But where is the cause for panic? Isn’t panic something that should follow from existential threat? These people could well lose their seats at the next election due to Tony Abbott’s performance as Prime Minister, but should we be looking at their plight in such catastrophic terms? Is it understandable that they’re now considering what was once an extreme move – sacking a Prime Minister in his first term – to try and save their jobs? More crucially, should we be viewing politics as a “job” at all? Should we be looking at politicians through the same lens as manufacturing workers who are laid off, or company employees who are downsized? I would argue not, yet this is how the language of the media tends to frame our elected representatives. And until we divorce politics from the idea of professionalism, and somehow rebirth it as a public service, then the absurd cycle in which we find ourselves seems doomed to keep repeating.
A lot of this comes down to getting better candidates into parliament – “better” meaning those who wouldn’t see losing their seat as a fate worse than death. For the last decade, reams of newsprint have been devoted to how the ALP should be encouraging people other than union hacks to run for office, so as to scrub clean the nepotistic, jobs-for-the-boys culture that turned the NSW Government into the biggest nest of corruption outside of sub-Saharan Africa. The party is now taking steps to remedy this through their public pre-selection process. But when we look at the nucleus of LNP backbenchers currently agitating for change, it’s not hard to see why they’re terrified of losing their gigs. Rough winds now shake the snarling duds – Dennis Jensen, Warren Entsch and Mal Brough – all of whom, despite their protestations that they’re fomenting rebellion based on policy convictions, must be terrified of losing the best, most perk-filled job they’re ever likely to have. Entsch, a former toilet cleaner from Mareeba in Queensland, proudly declared in his maiden speech to Parliament in 1996:
“I am a member with very few academic qualifications. I spent considerable time as a wild bull catcher and crocodile trapper… These occupations, I am sure will assist me greatly in dealing with the political process in Canberra.”
Jensen, a former CSIRO physicist and one of the few scientists in the world who rejects the science of climate change, has always had a very tenuous grip on his own seat, twice having to desperately beg Liberal Party heavies (including John Howard) to reinstate him after he was kicked out by his local branch. SMH journalist Heath Aston made the point in a recent story that:
“Perhaps his tenuous grip on his own seat inspired Dr Jensen to go public against Mr Abbott, insisting he was acting on behalf of constituents, who, he said, are all demanding a change of prime minister.”
And as for Mal Brough, the former Howard Government minister found to have been up to his neck in the grubby James Ashby-Peter Slipper affair, he is a low-grade political intriguer of long standing, whose naked ambition, New Matilda’s Chris Graham recently wrote, more than makes up for his lack of credibility, at least in his own mind.
I’m not suggesting that the solution to the current farcical paradigm is a parliament full of millionaire merchant bankers, as that would be far from a representative democracy. But it surely couldn’t hurt to have a few more backbenchers that wouldn’t see losing their seat as an existential crisis. I’m loath to leave the last word to The Daily Telegraph, but Simon Benson says it best, in tabloid:
So the Coalition of the crazy has pushed the button on a challenge to Tony Abbott’s leadership … (a) motley crew of disaffected backbenchers … who feel they deserve to be in the ministry … If these are the people who get to decide who the Prime Minister will be, then God help Australia.