Character is destiny. Richard Nixon told Dr Hunter S. Thompson that one day when he gave him a lift to the airport. He was channelling Heraclitus of Ephesus, of course.
With a vengeance, character caught up with Nixon, who, hideously disgraced, became the only U.S. president to resign in office. And Thompson – who famously remarked, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me” – blew his brains out in 2005. Both were huge and expansive characters compared to Tony Abbott.
I can’t think of another Australian government where the character of its leading elements has derailed it faster, or more profoundly, than Tony Abbott’s. If Heraclitus were still around, he would no doubt point out that a character steeped in broad understanding, competence and wisdom – or even a healthy dose of rat-cunning – can reach a more satisfactory destiny than a narrow, sloganeering jerk.
And so here we are, not three months into the Abbott Government and its signature policy, stopping the boats, is in tatters, and relations with our nearest large neighbour have sunk to a low point not seen since the birth of East Timor as a nation.
Things got pretty bad then, but you’d have to say it was the end-run in a national liberation struggle – an issue where the Indonesians themselves privately felt, after years of guerilla warfare, embarrassment and international condemnation, that a retreat was in order.
This crisis is very, very different.
A whole raft of pundits have tried to pass off Australia tapping the mobile phones of the Indonesian president, his wife and his inner circle, by saying that all governments spy on each other, that the Indonesians therefore spy on us, and the only sin is getting caught.
That’s a trite truism. But in espionage, there are vast differences of degree and – even more importantly – of success. With the backing of British and US might and technology, our spooks have no doubt been very successful in spying on the Indonesian Government.
The Indonesians, by contrast, are without close, powerful allies and they’re starting from way behind. They’ve almost certainly had very little reward from spying on us, let alone the Yanks. The spooks in the Indonesian embassy would be lucky to pick up a half-baked rumour from one of their 19-year-old nationals doing a communications degree at UTS who got invited to a party at the home of an Aussie class-mate whose dad worked on Russell Hill. The Indonesians are really pissed off because in this game they’re clearly the underdogs.
The basic problem here is that the Liberal Party, in opposition, chose Abbott not because he was their best and brightest but because he was backward, dumb and macho and he’d switch on the worst instincts of the swinging vote they needed.
They hired Mark Textor as a strategist for the same reason. And to complete the effect they stuck Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop in the line-up. No John Howard-style dog-whistling for this mob: they broadcast fear, hatred, xenophobia and misogyny with a megaphone. In electoral terms they got what they paid for. They stole the election on the basis of mindless slogans, and now they’re stuck with the consequences.
Truth to tell, it’s not just the Indonesians loving this. Forty-something per cent of Australians are taking vast delight in Abbott’s discomfiture and the Indonesians know it.
For Abbott there are no good outcomes. Now, the only way of saving face with the bogans he courted to get into office is to posture as Ironman Abbott standing up to a bunch of slit-eyed Muslim darkies – but I doubt if the rest of the cabinet, or the Big End of Town, are going to let him go down that track.
In the meantime the Indonesians are going to make him sweat. They’re not just going to let the asylum seeker boats keep sailing; they’re going to positively encourage them. Not only can they destroy Abbott’s standing among the boat-haters, they can use the threat of the suspension of the beef trade to destroy his authority in the Liberal Party and with his National Party allies.
So Abbott had better watch his back. As the experience of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government demonstrated, prime ministers are nowadays dispensable. He was only elected as leader because he could command a small section of the electorate crucial to his party’s victory at the ballot box.
A few weeks on and he’s a disastrous liability. In a system like the United States’, where the supreme head honcho is like a short-term elected monarch, the only way out of this particular dilemma is assassination. But things are simpler here. All it takes is a party room vote.