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The case for Abbott as Opposition leader

  • 25 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 banal.

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 from politics?

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.