Wit storm hits cap­tain’s calls and down­fall

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King Richard King is author of On Of­fence: The Pol­i­tics of In­dig­na­tion.

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

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