Wit storm hits captain’s calls and downfall
The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott By Andrew P. Street Allen & Unwin, 304pp, $29.99
“Events, dear boy, events,’’ Harold Macmillan is said to have replied when asked what was most likely to blow his government off course. What goes for politicians goes for writers too, as I discovered on September 14 when Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as prime minister. At the time I was writing a book on Abbott (Operation Shirtfront was the working title) and then suddenly, well, I wasn’t.
At least I was only two chapters in. Not so Fairfax columnist Andrew P. Street, whose book on the Abbott administration was at that point titled The Inexplicably Long and Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott, and due for release in December. Happily his publishers proved equal to the challenge. A few adjustments to the title — it is now The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott — plus some nifty rescheduling, and here it is: not an intervention but an obituary.
It holds up remarkably well in the circum- stances, and may even serve as an inoculant against the understandable desire to repress the trauma of the past two years. As David Marr noted a day or two after the coup, there was a sense in which the Abbott farrago had already retreated into unreality, like an episode in a feverish dream. A lively and well organised account of what may well prove a hinge event for the liberal-conservative side of politics, Street’s book stands as a bulwark against such amnesia, and does so in the best satirical tradition — beloved since Horace — of taking the piss.
Its key ingredients are facts and sarcasm, and Street is a competent manager of both. He isn’t short of material, of course: Team Abbott’s policy-making often had all the grace and competence of Laurel and Hardy delivering a grand piano. As such, it was often self-satirising, and Street works with this, simply underlining some policies and statements, or using a bit of parallel sentence structure to expose dissimulation: “Immigration minister Scott Morrison insisted that people were making assumptions about a situation ‘not based on any primary knowledge of the event or the circumstances’, which was correct — principally because he was assiduously preventing independent access to any information on the event and the circumstances.’’
Elsewhere, Street lays the mockery on thick, taking Captain Abbott and his media stormtossed shipmates to task with a savage and intelligent wit. His bag of tricks includes a folksy turn of phrase, a penchant for the ludicrous conceit and a (commendable) determination to lower the tone. ‘‘The nineteen-strong ministry was immediately controversial, principally for containing exactly one person without a penis.” OK, it’s not subtle. But it’s not wrong either.
It is impossible to write a book on the Abbott government without a strong appreciation of irony, and Street has a good ear for it. Still, I think he misses a trick here and there. In his chapter on section 18C, for example, he con- cludes with an account of Abbott’s ignominious climbdown but barely mentions the press conference in which he said, effectively, that the government’s plans to extend our liberties were undermining the unity that would be needed to push through a national security bill that most people agreed would erode our liberties.
This is not a marginal point. The Abbott government is often painted as determinedly and programmatically right-wing, but it was a lot more chaotic than this would suggest: ideologically it was all over the shop. Abbott is in public life to advance values he knows most Australians don’t share. His behaviour in office was as much a symptom of his frustration and lack of a real political program as it was a sign of his narrow brand of conservatism.
But I accept this isn’t Street’s core subject. Save for a homily on the natural co-operativeness of human beings in the last chapter, this is not an analytical book. It is a piece of political portraiture shot through with an antic, larrikin spirit. And it should plug an important gap between the present, slightly surreal juncture and the point at which the real analysis of what the hell just happened can begin in earnest.
Then prime minister Tony Abbott with Wallabies captain Stephen Moore