First published August 2009
Politics in Australia bears all the Darwinian traits of having been
chastened by a cruel and unforgiving country. It tends toward the
visceral and agonistic. Moments of genuine inspiration are fleeting,
and it rarely reaches above the level of the soporific and outright
It is hardly surprising, then, that belief — not in the narrowly
religious sense, but in the sense of a clear conception of principles,
of something beyond one's own ambitions, of the ultimate purpose of
one's involvement in politics in the first place — has never been a conspicuous quality among its politicians.
This ambivalence toward belief is not peculiar to Australia, but in
Australia it has taken on a distinctly antipodean flavour. Australians
have a pathological aversion to sanctimony and cant, yet are suspicious
when politicians present as a little too earnest or believing too
deeply. They brand them as fanatical or, worse, ideological.
Australia has thus become a kind of politico-moral wasteland, in
which the public expects the cynical instrumentalisation of the
political process from their elected representatives, who in turn
deliver cautious, small-target performances that barely conceal wanton
ambition. Mutual cynicism, as Mark Latham bitterly observed, is'the gold standard of modern politics'.
But the ubiquity of cynicism in Australian politics, while making
democracy possible, has simultaneously bastardised the political
process. Just consider the erosion of the categories of Left and Right,
celebrated by many as an advance on the brutal partisanship of last
century. Isn't this merely the consequence of the subtraction of belief
And so, when the cynicism that pervades Australian politics is
combined with our compulsory voting system, elections are reduced to
the pendular swinging of public whimsy (the'It's Time' factor emptied of any consequence). Principled opposition becomes craven opportunism.
Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull are archetypal expressions of this
corruption of politics. They are, as it were, political doppelgängers.
Their colossal personae and fortunes in the polls have come to occupy
the place once held by a Party's platform. What results is the
anomalous existence of political parties without political properties,
which is to say, without binding narratives or 'ideologies'.
While the emptying-out of the political domain is currently to the
advantage of the incumbent government — particularly one that has
raised prevarication, spin and avoidance to an art form — it is
disastrous for the Opposition. After just two years, we have witnessed
the return of the Liberal Party to the dire situation that confronted
them after their defeat at the 1993 election.
In March of that same year, B. A. Santamaria lamented to Malcolm Fraser: 'The
country desperately needs a credible alternative to Labor. For years
the fact that the Liberal Party has lost its way has been apparent.
Today many conservatives believe it stands for nothing.'
But, as the 1996 election demonstrated, night is always darkest before
the dawn. Opposition presents the Liberal Party with a rare opportunity
to recover its conservative soul and thereby abandon Labor's vapid
brand of politics which has so bewitched the electorate for a time.
No politician has made this case more powerfully than Tony Abbott. His new book, Battlelines,
ought to be read as a kind of response to Santamaria's challenge.
Indeed, one often gets the impression that Abbott is picking a fight
not so much with Labor as with the libertarian and individualist
tendencies within his own Party.
Abbott's determination to restore charity, belief and
courage to their rightful place as the greatest of political virtues
distinguishes him as the antitype of both Rudd and Turnbull.
described this determination as 'a leader's willingness to wage war against the people's baser
instincts, to expand the public's moral imagination rather than simply
pander to avarice, to stare electoral oblivion in the face by defying
popular opinion, to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a
Replacing Turnbull with Abbott as Leader of the Opposition is the only
way forward for the Liberal Party, and yet it is an act which would
itself require a great deal of courage.
I contend that the electorate's
low regard for Abbott — demonstrated in successive opinion polls which
place his support consistently around 10 per cent — ought to be
dismissed as unenlightened electoral bigotry, as a throwback to the
anti-Catholic prejudice that bedevilled J. F. Kennedy in 1960s
Scott Stephens is the minister at Forest Lake Uniting Church in Brisbane and lecturer in theological ethics at Trinity Theological College.
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12 January 2010
"Darkest before the dawn", as in 1996.
By 1998, it appeared a false dawn for the nation.
By 2001, night had returned; the manner in which head of state Bill Deane was side-lined at the 2000 Olympic opening makes that clear. Participation in the neo-conmen's taxpayer-funded grab at Iraqi oil assets confirmed it, as did the craven and irresponsible acquiescence to the blandishments of the climate change deniers.
If Abbott can work with Greg Hunt and Bill Heffernan to meld economic liberalism with ecological sustainability and morally principled progress in societal development, then we have a fair dinkum alternative to the value-free management professionals managers who have taken over the ALP.
12 January 2010
Thanks Scott, this is an insightful and timely article. Definitely, in the 'best of 2009' I agree with your opinion about the emptying out of 'belief', which is reflected in how similar Labor and Liberal are on, for example, fiscal policy.
When will Labor address the housing affordability crisis? When will Liberals realise absolute free trade is actually bad for us... And who will amend that disastrous Family Law Act....no-fault divorce....Abbott?
12 January 2010
The Liberal Party will not stay with Abbott. It will replace him with Joe Hockey before the next election. Noone in their right mind would vote for Abbott as Prime Minister.Send the Oceanic Viking down to watch the whalers. OK, what then?
12 January 2010
Why bring bigotry and prejudice into it? As a protestant with friends in Catholic seminaries, I'd rank Abbott high on my list of theologians who can't see the topic through their ego.
13 January 2010
I don't think Abbott is a good leader for the Libs. He is engaging in scatter-fire unthought through flip-flop public comments which appear just to be anti-government. He rarely produces any evidence re his claims or proposes creative alternative ways to manage the issues he comments on. I think he is losing credibility fast. His party colleagues too are engaging in reactionary undisciplined comments verging on the ridiculous. Altogether the Libs are demonstrating Opposition in disarray.
26 January 2010
I questioned the argument in this article when it first appeared. The Opposition, or rather a bare majority of the Opposition has since shown its 'great deal of courage' and chosen Abbott. But nothing that Abbott has said or done since has changed my mind about his total unsuitability for the role of Prime Minister. And I suspect that the electorate's 'low regard' for Abbott has nothing to do with 'anti-Catholic prejudice' but everything to do with his own bigoted approach to social matters and his desire to force his own personal 'morality' on everyone else