On Friday, Tony Abbott, whom I have already spotted as a serial confessor of sins, made another confession. It was startling in its frankness. To quote the ABC online story:
“Mr Abbott ... told the Examiner he disliked the ‘Captain Catholic tag’ that had been ascribed to him.
‘The only one of the Ten Commandments that I am confident that I have not broken is the one about killing, and that's because I haven't had the opportunity yet,’ he said.”
He lacks only the ‘opportunity’ to kill a fellow human being? Otherwise that would be on his list of sins? Can Abbott be serious thinking that this utterance won’t be taken and pulverized by a hostile media?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be, ‘Yes’.
Go back a few months to Kevin Rudd’s ‘Fair shake of the sauce bottle’ episode. AA wrote a good piece on it: The sauce bottle saga with lots of links. Journalists went on about The Sauce Bottle Saga for a month or so. George Megalogenis, in an article entitled This bloke act is doing our head in was terribly upset:
“PM, mate, you made your name in two sets of lounge rooms: the everyday and the elite. You looked like a cheery quiz show contestant on Seven’s Sunrise and a brainiac on the ABC’s Lateline. Between those two men is the real Kevin.
Sometime soon you will have to find that person, or risk becoming the punchline to a national joke. You know, the one about the nerd who pretended he was a bloke.”
So, for uttering a fairly commonplace saying, the Australian College of Political Opinionistas went to town on Kevin Rudd, hammer and tongs. The clincher in all this was that most of the coverage was derisory, or outright derogatory.
By contrast almost every word of Tony Abbott’s recent pithyisms and off-the-cuff verbal spoutings are accepted as showing that he is ‘the real deal’, someone who ‘tells it like it is’, speaking in plain terms that Everyman can understand.
Abbott, playing up to this depiction of him, has been getting bolder of late. He has accused the government of bribing free-to-air TV stations (only to refuse to elaborate the next day). He gave the women of Australia fatherly advice on maintaining their virginity, but was not quizzed at all on his own forays into the virginity (and unmarried pregnancy) business when he was a university student. He has accused Peter Garrett of ‘industrial manslaughter’ (a crime which Abbott believes should never have made it into law on moral and economic grounds). And now, as if his accusations against Peter Garrett were a dress rehearsal for The Big One, in his zeal to confess his sins Abbott’s brought out the 5th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not murder’. His stated attitude towards this prohibition is, ‘There but for the opportunity go I.’
I accept that Abbott was probably a little pumped up by the excitement of the campaign trail. The compulsive confessor of sins waxed broadly on sex, on penance, and on the Ten Commandments during the same interview. He quoted his Jesuit mentor, one Father Costello, as telling him that Lent didn’t have to be all gloom and doom. It was ‘much better to do something positive in Lent than to give something up.’ All good stuff. I suppose then the mood took him over, leading him to go the whole hog and make his homicide statement.
I believe it’s fairly certain that if Kevin Rudd had said he’d broken all the Commandments, except the one against killing a fellow human being (and that only for lack of opportunity) it would signal the end of his political career, and rapidly. He would be vilified for either the bare words themselves, or for being flippant about murder. We would be told that such statements were un-Prime Ministerial, that they showed ‘a lack of judgement going to character’, that he was feeling the strain, that he was overworking himself. Victims of crime would be produced, tearfully denouncing the Prime Minister for saying what he said. Correlations between his words and our policies regarding Afghanistan and the Bali-9 would be exposed. Sniggering jokes would be made about the four deaths under the insulation stimulus plan. We would be reminded in detail of Rudd’s allegedly foul temper. He would be depicted as unstable, a bomb ready to go off. Dennis Shanahan’s tut-tutting from his Sydney office would be heard in Melbourne. If Rudd could be condemned by Dennis for not playing Abbott’s traffic accident near miss correctly, then what would he do with a Rudd statement on not having the opportunity yet to kill people? By contrast, we would be reminded that Tony Abbott was the Genuine Article, waiting in the wings for his chance. There might even be a call or two for an early election.
In fact, if Rudd had said any one of a dozen things that have come out of Abbott’s mouth in the past few weeks, he would have been roasted alive by the media. Abbott can’t claim (like Milne does) that he ‘doesn’t want to be the Prime Minister’ in this case, as an excuse, because that’s exactly his goal. So why are Abbott’s casual pronouncements reported almost universally positively, or at worst neutrally, and Rudd’s reported almost universally negatively? Do the media think they are so strong and in control of the national agenda that they can spin any utterance any way they like, according to their political agenda?
The history of the past three years in Australian political life has revolved around the public studiously ignoring the most vehement anti-Rudd messages produced by the media. You will all know the long list of ‘Get Rudd’ schemes – the supposed ‘myth’ of his hard-done childhood, Scores-gate, Ute-gate, Long Tan-gate, The Weeping Flight Attendant, the hypocrisy of his wealth, Fair Shake Of The Sauce Bottle-gate, the Stimulus ‘Debacle’, and many, many more. Yet Rudd and Labor have soared in the polls. The last poll Labor lost was in August 2006. Before that it was June 2006. There never has been a run of polling popularity like it, and all of this in defiance of the media’s best attempts to turn public opinion around.
But just recently we have seen a slight trending down in Labor’s figures and those of the Prime Minister. There has been a slight trending up of the Coalition’s figures and an approval rate for their latest leader that is at last not in the teens. A whole legend is being spun around these paltry, few statistics. Rudd has lost the plot. His government is on the way out, a oncer.
Abbott has produced only bullet points and thought bubbles, un-costed wish lists masquerading as ‘policies’. His Finance spokesperson, Barnaby Joyce has arguably been damaging to both the Coalition cause and to the nation’s fiscal reputation. He persists in plugging the line that we cannot repay our debts, yet he is given the merest slap on the wrists by an adoring media (they tell us he needs a little more discipline only). Joe Hockey waxes and wanes between ‘The Rudd Recession’ and ‘The Recession We Never Had’. Greg Hunt excruciatingly tries to sell a dog of a Climate policy that we know he doesn’t believe in. Julie Bishop is the Invisible Woman, rousing from her Shadow Foreign Affairs torpor only to try to scuttle relations between Australia and China.
The media seem to believe that, at last, this is a triumphant return to the status quo, where they tell us what to think and how to vote. The tactic of wall-to-wall Abbott and 24/7 Good News about the Coalition has finally paid a dividend. They’re going in harder and harder, even resorting to boot-strapper interviews with each other! Rudd is depicted as embattled, tense, making mistakes. These all go to his fitness to be Prime Minister. His ministers are shown up as either bumbling machine men, troglodytes, or trophy ministers, unsuited – any of them, without exception – to their high offices.
An alternative theory - mine - is that the public have built up an immunity to the media's increasingly bizarre attempts to justify both their own antics and those of conservative politicians; that this is the media’s (and particularly the Murdoch media’s) Last Hurrah - and that the media know it. It may well be that what we are seeing now in the polls is just a blip, a minor victory in a backwoods battlefield, bought at high cost both to the media's credibility and to the nation’s political sanity.
In a political world where the seriousness of Climate Change can be passed off as ‘just politics’, where cheap stunts involving pink tou-tous, acres of lycra, hairy ‘man rug’ chests, ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’ statements, and undersized budgie smugglers are depicted as serious indications of the ‘genuineness’ of the Coalition’s senior personnel and their message, where opportunistic TV coverage of a near-fatal traffic incident is presented as ‘proof’ the Prime Minister is disconnected from the people, and where the media are indulging in a witch hunt for yet more youthful corpses to prove that the most successful GFC response in the world was actually an abysmal failure, they have squeezed out just a couple of in-house polling percentage points from a distracted public.
An outdated media losing its grip has been an ugly thing to watch. If this is truly a battle for influence, a final battle for the ascendency of the Old Media over the minds of what it sees as its bovine readers and viewers, then expect no prisoners to be taken. Things will only get worse. More and more stunts will be played out. We will be gravely informed of the ‘political symbolism’ of Abbott shenanigans and of the ‘ineptness’ of the Prime Minister and his government. My feeling is that it can’t go on too long, because even now some of the edges are starting to come off the edifice as our media’s Fonzi Fonzarellis prepare to jump the shark.
We’ve had allegations of ‘industrial manslaughter’, the Shadow Treasurer in a ballet dress, the Shadow Finance Minister talking down our nation’s ability to pay its sovereign debts, near-miss traffic incidents blown up to national significance, Coalition moles in the Public Service giving false evidence (which was then further faked by the Daily Telegraph), the rantings of Ackerman and Bolt on Insiders, a sexually disgraced Shock Jock brought back onto the air to lecture Rudd on morals, and a seemingly endless series of derogatory analytical articles on the Prime Minister’s every uttered syllable. And now we have the Ten Commandments brought into play (but don’t call Tony ‘Captain Catholic’).
The circus has truly come to town. But, what do you think... is it really a Triumphant Return, or just The Last Hurrah?