Review: The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott

Tony_Abbott_being_interviewed_by_Master_of_Ceremonies,_Leigh_Spokes‘Events, dear boy, events,’ British Prime Minister 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 for myself on 14 September, when Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. At that time I was writing my own book on Abbott (Operation Shirtfront, for what it’s worth) and then suddenly, well, I wasn’t. At least I could draw some comfort from the fact that the former PM was having a worse day than I was.

And 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 entitled The Inexplicably Long and Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott and scheduled for release in December. Happily his publishers proved equal to the challenge. A few adjustments to the title – it is now called 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 circumstances, and may even serve as an inoculant against the all-too-understandable desire to repress the trauma of the last 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: still potent enough to make you shudder, but not so alarming that it puts you off your eggs. A lively and well organised account of what may well prove a hinge event on 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 two key ingredients are facts and sarcasm, and Street proves a competent manager of both. He isn’t short of material of course; Team Abbott framed and articulated policy with all the grace and competence of Laurel and Hardy trying to deliver a grand piano. As such, it was often self-satirising, and there are times in his book where Street seems to appreciate that with policies and statements this ludicrous the best thing is simply to underline them; that for the truly plonking instances of dissimulation a bit of parallel sentence structure is enough: ‘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-storm-tossed 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 …’ Okay 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 that most misdiagnosed of quantities. Still I think he misses a trick here and there. In his chapter on section 18c, for example, he concludes with an account of Abbott’s ignominious climb-down (or ‘leadership call’, as the PM preferred) but barely mentions the relevant press conference in which he said, effectively, that the government’s plans to extend our liberties were getting in the road of the unity that would be needed in order 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 rightwing; 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 subject. Save for a homily on the natural cooperativeness of human beings in its last chapter, The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott is not an analytical book. It is a piece of political portraiture shot through with an antic, larrikin spirit. And it should, to reiterate, plug an important gap between the current, slightly surreal juncture and the point at which the real analysis of what the hell just happened can begin in earnest.

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First published in The Weekend Australian