Spartacus fiddles while policy roams...

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Monday, 29 March 2010 08:22 by Bushfire Bill



The arena is strewn with dead bodies. Howard, Costello, Downer, Vaile, Nelson, Turnbull, Joyce, Minchin, Brough are names that come to mind. Hockey, knocked over by his own weight in a friendly rugby match only groggily recovered from the impact. Their clarion caller, Glenn Milne has been sacked from his tabloid gig. All despatched since the election of the Rudd government. Their party a laughing stock, their brand a joke, their ranks diminishing, the Coalition is falling apart from the inside. So many have gone to Coalition Valhalla thinking they could hate Kevin Rudd to political death, and all have failed. You'd think they'd give up, or at least change tack, wouldn't you?

I had a theory before the last election that Howard had run out of time to develop new policies that would make him re-electable, so he went negative. I'm getting the same idea about the present Coalition. Both versions of the Coalition have wasted too much time asserting their right to rule, rather than establishing their fitness for doing so. All the ‘-gates’, the scandals, the cheap shots, forged documents and so on have led them basically nowhere. They are still wandering in the wilderness, searching for a messiah.

And now ‘Spartacus’ Abbott (as Arthur Sinodinos styles him in From Spartacus to PM in waiting) tries to wow us with the irrelevant by riding his bicycle around wearing a jock strap and Lycra.

The dividend of all this? About three percentage points in the polls, back to a mere disastrous electoral position instead of Armageddon. They still can't put up a decent opponent to the nerdy Rudd (the weakling with the glass jaw, remember him?) so they have to invent one, complete with his own wrongheaded legend.

Policies? There hasn't been enough time for any of those. They've been too busy slagging muck at the hated Rudd. In your most generous contemplation does anyone reading this have much of a clue about the Coalition policy on anything in particular? Abbott was against new taxes for, oh, about a fortnight, and then for them. He was against PPL and then in favour of it. He was for Climate Change action, before he opposed it, then for it again, so that now we don't really know the nature of what he described to Kerry O'Brien as his "considered opinion" on the subject. Work Choices was dead. Now it's alive again. Two weeks ago he felt "threatened" by gays, now some of his best friends are, and he loves them all. His views on gays have "mellowed" over time, in this case a whole fortnight. As to Health we have "local hospital boards" and that's about it. Is there anything that Abbott currently claims to believe in upon which he hasn't once held the opposite opinion, even quite recently?

So much of the Coalition's precious time has been wasted trying to trap Rudd Labor via cheap scandals and circus tricks. But the party's hours, weeks and months are not the only ones that have been frittered away going for the quick kill.

The public has lost a lot of time on Abbott too. He has been in our faces, begging to be noticed. He pleads for a debate on Health, taunts the PM with imputations of policy cowardice and then wastes more of everyone's time by arriving without any policy of his own to discuss. How insulting to those who attended or tuned in. Journalists, politicians, viewers: all were left with little in their memories but his braying, theatrical laugh and a seemingly permanent scowl of anger, more reminiscent of the schoolyard or a campus politics club than the first national debate on an important subject.

I wonder how long Abbott thinks he can get away with this serial, wilful contempt for his audience, his job and his party. Is Abbott a politician with pretensions to the highest office in the land or some kind of gay-icon gladiator in pink Lycra, sporting a man rug, wearing budgie smugglers? How long do we have to put up with these childish demonstrations? You can’t run Australia from Manly Surf Club or off the handlebars of a racing bike.

Much spin has been spun about Abbott’s drubbing at the Debate.  The hard-working opinionistas are trying to find a way of writing up all this madness so that it makes sense.

“The Worm was nobbled.”
“Rudd was cheesy and focus-group driven.”
“That nasty Mr. Rudd picked on Abbott just because he didn’t bring a policy to a policy debate. Apart from that, Tony did pretty well.”

These base apologetics won’t last long, perhaps another week or two, before some serious questions will – must – at last be asked of the Opposition Leader. What was macho and appealing to some at first is fast becoming comical. The voters are realizing that, whatever he's smuggling inside his Speedos, it isn't anything resembling a policy.

Used as a substitute for hard work and policy development, hatred of Rudd has delivered us, the voters, nothing. We don't have a clue - six months out from an election, no less - what the Liberal and National Coalition actually stands for on any subject. Does anyone in the real world believe they're not going to indulge themselves in yet another brain explosion sometime soon, ‘changing their minds’ yet again?

In their heart of hearts, to the Coalition hard men, Tony Abbott must be a terrible disappointment. Buoyed up by the slanted ravings of Murdoch journalists and a lazy, shallow commentariat with their fake scandals and twitter-brained analysis, he, and they, have apparently come to believe their own publicity. One wonders whether there are any sober thinkers remaining to the left of the Speaker. Perhaps Nick Minchin's announced exit from politics is a pointer to the current Coalition wisdom concerning Tony Abbott.

As he switches from audience to audience he flips his pronouncements from ‘yea’ to ‘nay’ on any number of subjects. The Orwellian attempts by the media to rationalize Abbott’s myriad positions on just about everything, to explain them away as actually being consistent, are stymied by the fact that the only thing consistent about Tony Abbott is his inconsistency. The solution is to tell a Big Lie, and then repeat it endlessly: Tony Abbott is a conviction politician.

I know many Labor supporters will say that Abbott is fine standing just where he is, for Labor's sake, and to a certain extent I share that view. On the other hand we pay these people out of our taxes. We deserve something a little more adult than their leader's current circus act.

To compensate for the opportunities lost, between now and the Spring (the most likely season for an election, just a few months away) it’ll need to be politics 24/7. I’m not too sure the public will appreciate the Coalition’s desperation and the coming ad infinitum onslaught of ‘taking the fight up to the government’, ‘Rudd and Abbott go head-to-head’, ‘as the political battlelines are drawn’ headlines and stories. I’m not convinced that Insulation and the much-appreciated Schools Stimulus have a lot of shelf-life left as winners for them, either. Just ask the Worm.

Political posturing is important to the political class and the amateur tragics, but not really to the general public. Sure, the public takes an interest, but faced with the misadventures of Lara Bingle, plus mortgage stress they may be feeling, their work and family life, it seems to me the voters will become heartily sick of anyone who is in their faces all day, every day, yelling slogans and spouting ridiculous talking points. In NSW, over the next 12 months we also have the promise of state politics competing with federal for the voters' attention.

There is too much that needs proper attention from the Coalition and too little time and space to attend to it all. This is exactly the fix Howard found himself in, except Howard at least had control of the timing of the election, and could delay it well into injury time. Abbott does not have this advantage over Rudd. The Coalition have frittered away almost any possibility of coming good before the Spring, through sheer self-indulgence.

Remember Rudd and Gillard in 2007? Conferences, meetings with stakeholders, policy committees, white papers, and documents as thick as telephone books were the hallmarks of their policy development. What has the present Opposition done to match it? Spartacus in Lycra, childish taunts, insults and bad language, negativism at every turn... while the Prime Minister waves cheerily and gets on with the job of governing.

Sinodinos waxes on about a romanticised Spartacus:

”If Spartacus is to come down from the hills and rule Rome, he must convince the punters that he is the prime minister in waiting.”

... but Sinodinos is wrong.

This is a misreading of the historical figure of Spartacus. The Spartacus episode was not a revolution. It was a jail-break. The slaves didn't want to come down from the hills to rule Rome. They wanted to escape it altogether. The slave army wandered Italy for years looking for a way out, fighting battles only when cornered.

Sure, a few hotheads, full of false hope, thought they could take on Rome itself, but look what happened to them! Spartacus and his followers claimed minor military victories on their way around Italy, but ultimately were beaten, crucified and mostly forgotten. Spartacus was doomed to be a footnote to Roman history until Kirk Douglas came along and gave him the Hollywood treatment, using a blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, to write the story up into an epic of political struggle that was more about the nineteen-fifties and sixties than ancient Rome. It is the Hollywood version that Sinodonis is referring to, not reality.

While Abbott wanders the continent, scoring the odd cheap victory, Rudd Labor only gets stronger. Rudd has suffered defeats in a couple of skirmishes with Abbott, true, but now seems to have the measure of the man and his party. As even Sinodinos admits, “Kevin Rudd has his mojo back.” And Rudd actually goes to work. That's always a plus.

The Coalition's subsistence on anger has left them without a policy basis from which to fight and win an election. Their laziness has sprung from their belief they are born to rule. Policies? Who needs 'em when you've got ‘angry’ and ‘entitled’? Their urgers and promoters think they can bootstrap an alternative universe based on gutter journalism, misunderstood legends and supposed Liberal ‘values’. Faced with multiple rebuttals of this idea, and the political cadavers to prove it, they go in harder, only now dressed in Lycra. However, even in the movie Spartacus ended up defeated and dead, his enterprise crushed. With precious few months left until the election, and no time remaining to do what needs to be done, the Coalition may well be joining the defeated slaves, politically crucified along the Appian Way. While their policies wander in the wilderness, the Coalition has not earned a better fate.

What do you think?