Classic Ellis: The Usual Suspects, August, 2010

Mark Arbib thought assassins get honeymoons, but history shows otherwise.

Keating when he took out Hawke was immediately very unpopular. Peacock when he brought down Howard went on to be smashed in a campaign thought incompetent by most observers, like this one, by the ‘real Julia’. And John Kerr, most notably, was after the Whitlam sacking instantly detested by all shades of party loyalty and died reviled, alcoholic and friendless.

Arbib was wrong about this, as he was about Rudd versus Beazley (how good Kim looks now) and Sartor versus Rees (Frank didn’t even win) and one finds it odd that this charmless droid was ever thought gifted in any field (a Julia honeymoon indeed; a Women’s Weekly spread indeed; a debate-free zone indeed; a ‘small target’ campaign indeed; an unscalded quietly-campaigning Rudd indeed; a silent unvengeful Mark Latham indeed) or his track-record of frequent mountainous failure (he even managed to lose Wollongong) was not thought significant in his appointment as chief party strategist, and the locking-out of Hawker, Wedderburn, Rann and Carr, the Party’s most successful field marshals, from the daily deliberations he (and Julia) kept getting wrong. Historians will be divided only on whether he was a dolt or a moron, and his ‘name is writ upon water’ as the poet sighed.

That being said (and it does me a power of good to say it) it is likely now that Julia will win and it is worthwhile asking why, after a campaign of such badly acted changeability (I’m real, I’m not real, I’ll debate, I won’t, I’m an atheist MacKillopite, peekaboo) this turnaround has occurred.

There were a number of battlefronts she quietly - and sometimes accidentally - did well on, and they are worth enumerating.

One was the economy, and the interest rates not going up, and the trade figures being so propitious, and inflation unexpectedly stalling, and the aura of cautious, humble, honest success Wayne Swan ably brings to every triumphant announcement. Always Labor’s least appreciated secret weapon (he beat even Peter Costello in the Economy Debate in ’07 when Costello was still the Treasurer) he brings mild-mannered unboastful decency to this great stage of fools and pretty much always brings home the fiscal bacon. He, plus Costello’s view that Abbott cared not a whit for economics (or words to that effect) and Fraser’s lofty dismissive ‘no’ when asked if the Opposition was ‘ready for government’ won back a good few small-business males that had gone a-glimmering after the old-new debacle and the testy Ruddite leaks of Cabinet business.

Another was the reappearance of John Howard, ruddier and uglier and screechier than heretofore fore, as Abbott’s hero, mentor and cheerleader. This reminded males and females alike of a mendacious, prattling fool and bore so roundly detested by a surly nation he lost his own seat, and the things he was famed for - GST, AWB, never ever, children overboard, the Tampa kidnapees who came via Nauru to Australia after massive cost and needless traumatisation - and Abbott’s boyish admiration of him when a step back, surely, from the Howard slaughterhouse would have been more advisable. How wise was Abbott, the Maxine fans asked, to hail such an anti-hero?

Another was Rudd’s interview with Phillip Adams. It showed, however improbably, a man more sinned against than sinning who nonetheless was Labor still and would vote for even his own destroyer for his country’s good. More than the photo shoot with Julia where his rancour, remorse and self-pity could not be disguised for long, it got, I think, some pious Queenslanders, not too many, trickling back to the fold, and more will follow as he campaigns with cheer and self-mockery, something he does very well, in the marginal boondock seats of his fellow vapid Christians.

Another was Mark Latham’s bizarre intervention. Like Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, swinging in on a bell thickly mumbling ‘She made me deaf, but I love her’, he summoned up in a targeted handshake the primal fear in women of stalkers and pushed some votes back Julia’s way. It is widely thought Mark’s vigorous handshake with Howard cost him office in ’04 when appalled female sympathy went to the handshakee, and this if true will occur again if the word gets out, as it has already, that Latham, discarder of Whitlam, assaulter of cabbies, betrayer of secrets and overall Party-pooper, is not only aggrieved but unstable.

Another, surprisingly, was Abbott’s Brisbane campaign launch. It pinned him back in his place as a member of a reviled, rejected and bilious bunch of crocks - Howard, Bronwyn, Ruddock, Minchin, Andrews - bringers of war and horse flu and high interest rates and the kind of raggedy-arsed rhetoric (‘The worst government in our history.’ The recession-busters? Really?) and third-rate satire (‘How about The Vain and the Ruthless?’) that impresses few but the septuagenarian lamington-scoffing party faithful. Abbott had been running as a kind of hairy-chested Independent up till that point, and this acclamatory event (and its dated Mojo echoes of ‘It’s Time’) reminded us of where he came from and the dues he owed to a waxwork museum of iniquitous precursors and role models.

The final factor, and thanks be to GetUp for it, was the restoration of a hundred thousand disallowed voters, eighty thousand of whom will prefer or vote for Labor, enough to save a seat or two or three which this dud campaign sorely needs. Fifty thousand of these will be young and left-leaning, a not inconsequential addition to electoral rolls that have seen these past three years 480,000 rusted-on Liberal voters by my estimate die and 600,000 Labor voters come of age.

It could well be this democratic shift, this populational attrition of Menzies’ grey nomads, dementia sufferers and last-ditch hospice loyalists is what, more than even gender loyalty, does it for Julia in the end.

Abbott may have peaked too soon. An always-evident suspicion of his wayward cauliflower-eared spontaneity has time to grow in the days that remain. And he has erred, I think, in presenting himself as ‘grown-up’ and Gillard’s mob as therefore childish. It was his boyish eagerness, his shirt-off-and-go-for-anything breeziness and adolescent muscles that won those votes he won in what will now be seen as his honeymoon.

And there’s something else as well, I think, that goes to character and leadership. It’s best expressed in an email to me by the acclaimed dramatist Nick Parsons who wrote Dead Heart. And it’s this:

“Tony Abbott is Australia’s George Bush, a likeable dope who knows what he believes but doesn’t know what he thinks, and will take Australia on a series of expensive and disastrous adventures. Like Bush he makes decisions based on a religiously-based conviction rather than logic. Like Bush he’s charming and personable. Like Bush he’s a fitness fanatic with little interest in financial matters or the economy. Like Bush he comes from a privileged background, with a private education, and has little understanding of the needs and ambitions of the common man. Like Bush he may just squeak through to claim the election. And like Bush, at the end of his term of office we’ll look out at the rubble and ask ourselves what we were thinking. Likeable and personable people can still wreak great evil on the world.”

This was worth saying, I think, however unfairly, of a man surely smarter - and less alcoholic and wayward of mind - than America’s worst President. But George Bush is John Howard’s hero, and John Howard is Tony’s hero, and the logic of this weird mind-mulching campaign may as well take us there as to Julia’s hair roots and Rudd’s gall bladder and Latham’s manly handshake.

Twelve days remain, and the weirdness may increase.

Or am I wrong?

  1. Abbott a “likeable dope”?


    This is a very complex and contrived PR botoxing of a rather unlikeable individual- he doesn’t spontaneously turn up wearing fireman’s hats or garish bathers, these “events” are all quite intricately planned, meant to create a boofy image at odds with a reality known full well through focus groups, that is in diametric opposition to the idealised image proffered.

    • I agree that this is a moving piece of writing. At the risk of breaking the mood, might I say that THIS is the writing BOb should do more of.

      Australian stories need to be told well.

    • This was for you, you jerk.

      Read the fire article by Bob and then give yourself an uppercut.

      Until he became opposition leader and had to scale back, Tony Abbott was like any of those volunteers in Bob’s piece about Ash Wednesday. And his volunteer work was kept completely quiet by him for years and years until exposed by others wanting him to receive appropriate recognition. A bit like his secret volunteering to work and teach Aborigines in far NQ. When he worked at a fire all night and slept through a parliamentary vote he got bagged left, right and centre and never said na word at the time.

      I understand that ‘anything goes’ when the automatons get some bad political news but you are going to get the facts and like it when you do so publicly.

  2. Very good, Phill.

    Physically fit perhaps. One wonders about the state of the brain :

    Football and concussions, yes, but the improvements in gloves and the wearing of headgear in amateur boxing ironically have the potential to increase hits to the head. It is not the actual impact but the sloshing around the brain sustains in such activities.

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