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Lessons in humanity from the Turnbull coup



The most interesting feature of the events that led to the defeat of Malcolm Turnbull was how diminished the actors were. They seemed more like children squabbling and back-stabbing for leadership of their in-group than adults about serious business.

Painting of Caesar's deathThat lack of gravity, displayed in the rhetoric, the promises broken, the lies, the resignations not carried through, the public commentary on the event and the rhetoric of the main actors deserves reflection.

Many will ask why we should expect anything else? After all, Australians have always called politicians bludgers. That is true, but even the abusive rhetoric shows that they expect something more of their political leaders, more gravity in their dealings with one another.

It is instructive to set these events against Shakespeare's treatment of the deposition of a ruler. For him it is a momentous event: 'There's such a divinity that doth hedge a king.' The actors may have flaws that prove fatal, but their fall gains tragic weight because they rule a nation that places on them great responsibilities with cosmic dimensions and divine endorsement. Witches, prophecies, portents and dreams emphasise the seriousness of taking out a ruler.

As the plot to kill Julius Caesar gets underway the portents lead Casca to remark: 'Either there is a civil strife in heaven, or else the world, too saucy with the Gods, incenses them to send destruction.'

We may be grateful for the more mundane atmosphere of Australian politics — it guarantees that even if prime ministers lose the throne they keep their heads. Nevertheless, the public diminishment of people who exercise power evident in the deposition of Malcolm Turnbull is concerning. It is yet another sign that those entrusted with political and financial responsibility do not take their position with due seriousness.

We should set last week's events alongside the revelation provided by the royal commissions into the financial industry. There the senior leaders and boards of financial institutions and their regulators who were once hedged, if not with a divinity but at least with a dignity and solidity, appeared as helpless and hopeless.


"These assumptions shape the language of politics and inevitably diminish the way in which politicians and financial leaders act and come to see themselves."


It is now a commonplace to blame the lords of government and of the economy for neglecting their responsibility to the nation and its people, for not focusing on policy and on good governance, and for pursuing individual or sectional gain to the neglect of the national good. It should lead us, though, to move beyond denunciation to ask why they have come to be so diminished and what would need to change if they are to do what we expect of them.

The answer to both questions is to be sought in the received assumptions about the scope of government in institutions and in government itself. These presuppositions inevitably lead to diminishment of the people who work in them. Governments, financial institutions and most commentators on them accept that their priority is to serve economic growth, and that this is best achieved by the working of a free and as far as possible unregulated market. Of itself economic growth will then shape a better society.

These assumptions shape the language of politics and inevitably diminish the way in which politicians and financial leaders act and come to see themselves. Once they accept a diminished view of their role as stokers of the economic engine, they no longer need to reflect on the human qualities of their policies or their actions. The most telling phrase in public reflection on the deposition of the prime minister was its 'transactional cost'. The scope of the enterprise was stripped of solemnity and human significance. It became an accounting entry.

In this diminished view of politics and of governance, policies are effectively reduced to labels and slogans. They have no intrinsic connection with human values and the common good.  Some slogans are designed to conceal the human costs of economic settings designed to increase inequality. Excluding people who are disadvantaged from participating in society by cutting benefits, for example, is called self-reliance. In other areas where human relationships are central, such as education, governance is based on gathering quantifiable evidence. Understandably, the diversion from teaching to harvesting numbers is unsuccessful.

If human beings are diminished, they usually respond badly. When politicians are not engaged with shaping a better society they quarrel about slogans that are detached from any larger goals, or about goals that they have abandoned in pursuit of economic purity. Where they veer from competition to endorse cooperation, as in the case of climate change, they are met with blind fury. Then they turn on one another or splash out on initiatives that defy their principles. The animus and inconstancy evident in parliamentary conduct should be seen as an index of human frustration rather than of malice.

To call for policies in the national interest, for respect in parliament, for stability of government and for public trust, is proper, but there is little chance that will come from change in Liberal leadership. The obstacle is that the leaders of the party, and perhaps of the Opposition, are still wedded to principles that have magnified inequality, and are governing in a time when the effects of inequality on prosperity have become clear. They build snowploughs for a land turned into a desert.

The path to a proper esteem for leaders of government and of financial institutions is to act as adults responsible for their enterprise, and to measure their performance by directing the economy to shaping a humane and sustainable world.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull



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Existing comments

Informative article ... thank you. Yes, we do need a different king of discussion about where we are going. 'Economic management' doesn't cut it. BTW, the word is 'diminution' ... not 'diminishment'. Just saying.

Graeme Parsons | 29 August 2018  

An excellent discussion of these issues, Andrew. Do you think any of our political leaders will read it and take the messages to heart? Probably not, so maybe we need you as PM.

Brian Finlayson | 30 August 2018  

Thank you , Andrew. There is more dignity and gravitas in this one page than we saw for the whole week in the parliament.

Kim Miller | 30 August 2018  

As I read Andrew's article (with frequent nods of approval, I might add), I was reminded of his article last week, "When religious language turns public". In that article he wrote of his concern "to interpret Christian faith for a public audience in a public language." In this article he postulates the hypothesis: "If human beings are diminished, they usually respond badly". That to me sounds a bit like applying Newton's theory of universal gravitation to human behaviour. In the drama of The Week That Was there were many Dramatis Personae. Some knowledge of the rise and fall of Great Men in the course of the evolution of Western Civilisation helped various actors and commentators (some in shared roles) describe and explain what was going on. However what was missing was a Numbers Cruncher Does anyone remember The Toe Cutter? Would anyone hazard a guess as to who might be the current Liberal Party Toe Cutter? Or Toe Cutters? The basic language for discussing politics is Mathematics. For those of us brought up on the use of Fractions we are quite familiar with their flexibility. Not so the current faction men brought up on Decimals.

Uncle Pat | 30 August 2018  

I love the metaphor "They build snowploughs for a land turned into a desert." Sad as it is, I hope it becomes part of our language.

Sheelah Egan | 30 August 2018  

Re- my reference to The Toe Cutter in my previous comment I was referring to WA Senator Reg Withers, who was a numbers man for Malcolm Fraser at the time of the Whitlam dismissal. Despite leaving federal politics in disgrace he ended up being Lord Mayor of Perth and lived to the grand old age of 90. His life is a cautionary tale for all those contemplating an honourable life in Australian politics.

Uncle Pat | 30 August 2018  

Oh Andrew. Why can't they see it?

Mahdi | 30 August 2018  

Well written Andrew. I have just completed reading Jacqui Lambie's autobiography. Her time as a Senator provided very informative reading about the goings on in politics. Sadly our political leaders seem more interested in a set of economic indicators charting the so-called progress of the Australian economy , then they are about the people who make up those statistics. Last week's brawl and the fall out from it , combined with earlier historical implosions in all three major political parties, only serves to make voters more cynical and apathetic about this country's leadership. We urgently need leaders who are genuinely concerned for the majority of the population who are now basically "the battlers".

Gavin O'Brien | 31 August 2018  

"You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things" (Marullus in 'Julius Caesar', Act 1 Scene I). Andrew, I have run out of superlatives to commend your writing ! And, BTW, Graeme Parsons, 'diminishment', like 'dissentient', is perfectly acceptable and absolutely suits the stunning fervorino of this faith-filled priest.

Dr Michael Furtado | 31 August 2018  

Andy, here's a curly one. Not so long ago you defended the rationale for publishing Eureka Street as deliberately non-theological. Reading this article, I am struck by its underpinning foundations in papal social teaching - a unique contribution of the Catholic Church to Christian social thought, which otherwise begins and ends with appeals to Scripture. In my Jesuit school, Fr Lewis, an English Jesuit on mission to the Bengal Province, often remarked that Catholics in the British Isles were more attuned to Catholic Social Teaching because of their status as outsiders in the British social order. Since emigrating to Australia I have not found that to be the case here and, instead, that Catholics are fairly evenly distributed throughout all segments of society. Your condemnation in this article of economistic ways of treating human beings would make no sense to Catholics and others brought up entirely on Scriptural injunctions to 'love thy neighbour'. Such persons would have no knowledge, other than through a deliberate and conscious effort on the part of Jesuits and similar others, of the endorsement by the social encyclicals of welfare economics as well as collectivist economic remedies. Why do you not reference these when you write?

Michael Furtado | 31 August 2018  

Thank you for your question about Eureka Street and my own writing, Michael. It is one that we constantly ask ourselves. You are right that I am indebted to Catholic Social Teaching in whatever I write on public issues, and that this teaching is grounded in Christian faith, and so can be called theological. The reason for not referring to it explicitly in Eureka Street is that our audience is a public without defined religious faith. This means that if theological terms are used they need to be explained in public language, and commend themselves by the argument and not by the authority of the source. If the translation is done well, it does not require reference to Catholic doctrine. Personally, too, I think that when drawing on authoritative sources in spirituality, public issues and teaching, it is always best to translate the original terminology into contemporary language. It makes you wonder if you understood them properly yourself, and it ensures that you will engage in conversation about them and not in a monologue.

Andy Hamilton | 02 September 2018  

That is some answer, Fr Andy! A beautiful exposition of how meaningless theological language is in a secular world.

john frawley | 03 September 2018  

Thanks, Andy. Had John Frawley not entered the debate to support your explanation, I would have let the matter rest, although unhappily so, as your disinclination to cite your sources means that those conservatives who invariably regard papal authority as sacrosanct, would appear to feel free to otherwise ignore all arguments devoid of magisterial language for the view that the popes say nothing about politics. By way of illustration: Dr Frawley himself is on record in ES as stating that the Church strongly condemns socialism, without reference to any similar critique of capitalism. My point, as one versed in Catholic Social Teaching, is that Australian Catholicism still suffers from an intensely reined-in approach to social policy, as marked by the closure of the Catholic Commission for Justice & Peace and the neo-fascist influence of Catholic Action in this country over very many years. Added to that, the influx of many anti-communists fleeing the pernicious persecution of Stalinists in post-War Eastern Europe has meant that anything associated with welfarism is still regarded by many Australian Catholics as 'communist'. In a postcommunist world, it is imperative to contest this dead hand of history, even if it requires resorting to the social encyclicals.

Michael Furtado | 07 September 2018  

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