Operation Shirtfront: the Abbott ‘legacy’

Tony_Abbott_being_interviewed_by_Master_of_Ceremonies,_Leigh_SpokesThis is the introduction to the book I stopped writing on 15 September 2015, when Malcolm Turnbull grabbed Tony Abbott by the pants and pulled him back down the greasy pole. It was to be called Operation Shirtfront: Tony Abbott and the Crisis of Australian Conservatism. I always knew it might not see the light of day, and was perfectly prepared to drop the project in the event that the former PM got rolled. But I thought I’d share it in any case; think of it as my contribution to Abbott’s ‘legacy’ …


‘R.I.P Carbon Tax’, ran the Daily Mail’s headline on 16 July 2014; ‘FINALLY some good news for Tony Abbott.’ The capitalised adverb said it all: it had been a hellish two months for the Prime Minister. Treasurer Joe Hockey’s mid May budget had broken faith with the electorate in spectacular style. Most of the Coalition’s promises – not to cut funding for health and education, for the age and disability pension, for the ABC and SBS – now lay in shreds on the Cabinet Room floor. The PM’s ‘small target’ strategy in opposition – his decision to restrict his attack on the government of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd to the three issues on which it was most vulnerable: the budget deficit, immigration and the carbon tax – was, in one crucial respect, self-defeating: on the first issue, it left him no room to move. Abbott’s line that the key responsibility of his government was to repair the budget deficit cut no ice with the electorate, whose egalitarian instincts were especially bruised by the proposal to impose a $7 GP co-payment. ‘The age of entitlement is over’ declared Hockey towards the beginning of his budget speech to Parliament. ‘Get bent!’ had been the public’s rough response.

As the PM continued to flat-bat questions about the Coalition’s broken promises, and as his Treasurer’s budget stalled in the Senate, other willy-willies of accusation swirled around his premiership. On the world stage, he looked incurious and incompetent. In June, on a visit to New York and Washington, he had cancelled meetings with the head of the IMF and the president of the World Bank, while in July he had offended the Chinese by paying tribute to the courage and conduct of Japanese submariners in the Second World War. On other issues he looked out of touch. The PM’s opposition to same-sex marriage was already a matter for concern amongst voters, while scepticism about the Coalition’s review of the Australian Curriculum wasn’t helped by the revelation that its co-chair, Kevin Donnelly, had no in-principle objection to corporal punishment in schools. Moreover, the PM’s own grasp of history and Australian culture left a lot to be desired. With the reintroduction of knighthoods and damehoods still fresh in the public’s mind, his comment in a speech in early July that Australia was ‘unsettled’ until the British arrived was more than a gaffe; it was a sign of his crustiness, of a piece with his Anglophilia. Just 10 months after assuming office, the PM’s numbers were in the ditch: a Newspoll published on 14 July had Abbott’s personal approval rating at its lowest point since 2009, when he rolled Malcolm Turnbull, and outmanoeuvred Hockey, to become the leader of the Liberal Party.

But all of these stories, and the budget too, were about to be driven from the public’s mind by events over 13,000 kilometres away. For one day at least in July 2014 Australians would be united – in horror.


The wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 spread over 10 square kilometres. The Boeing 777 had been travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – a route many Australians know well – when an explosion had caused it to disintegrate in midair. Pieces of the plane, and its human cargo, came down in agricultural land between the villages of Rozsypne and Hrabove in the Donetsk Oblast region of Eastern Ukraine, about 40 kilometres from the Russian border. Dozens of bodies – some unrecognisable as such, others intact, many of them half-naked – fell into the ripening sunflower fields, leaving local miners, their faces blackened from the day’s shift, to survey the terrible harvest. Some villagers passed out when they saw the dead. Others covered them with coats or sheets. Still others laid single flowers on their bodies.

All 283 passengers and 15 crew were killed. 193 of the dead were Dutch; 58 of them were Malaysian. 38 of them were Australian citizens and residents. 80 of the victims were under 18.

In the Donetsk region itself, the finger of blame was pointed at the Ukrainian military. A battle had started the day before – on 16 July – when the Ukrainian army had tried to cut supply lines to the pro-Russian rebels in the east. According to some of those rebels, a Ukrainian fighter jet had shot down MH17, possibly by mistake, possibly to discredit the pro-Russian cause. But the evidence was all to the contrary. Audio released the following day – a conversation between rebels at the scene of the crash and their base commanders – revealed that it was almost certainly the rebels, not the Ukraine military, who had downed the plane with a Russian-made self-propelled missile launcher. Despite President Vladimir Putin’s best efforts to shift responsibility onto the Ukraine government, the international community quickly formed the opinion that MH17 had been shot down by his proxies. It was a case of mistaken identity, and a crime.

In the days after the tragedy, Abbott spoke with the Russian President on the telephone. Putin, he revealed, had ‘said all the right things’, offering his condolences to the victims’ families and loved ones and to the Australian nation as a whole. The PM’s public statements were measured but firm. He demanded that Putin help Australia gain access to the crash site to determine the exact cause of the disaster and recover the victims’ bodies and effects. Meanwhile, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Liberal Deputy Leader Julie Bishop was dispatched to Washington and New York to press for a binding UN resolution that would ensure an independent investigation of the incident. Despite some wrangling over its wording from the Russians, the resolution was carried unanimously. On 21 July, Abbott announced that Retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston would head up the investigation from the Ukraine.

In opposition, Abbott and his team had characterised Kevin Rudd’s bid for a seat on the Security Council as a vanity project and a waste of money; so there was an element of irony involved in Bishop’s effective use of it. But for the great majority of commentators the irony was a welcome one. Writing in The Australian on the 22 July, Dennis Shanahan lauded the PM’s ‘early and hard call’ that Russia was to blame for the MH17 disaster and suggested that his handling of the issue was a turning point in his political journey. ‘Tony Abbott’s personality is beginning to emerge from behind a too-controlled façade’, wrote Shanahan; ‘Abbott started as prime minister too cautiously and appeared anodyne and weak. While the MH17 incident has been an unwelcome test, it has displayed the best aspects of Abbott’s strength of character and conviction as a leader, a human and a parent.’ In his Lowy Institute paper, The Adolescent Country, published in November 2014, Fairfax journalist Peter Hartcher would expand these sentiments into an entire thesis, remarking on the paradox that a politician with such parochial instincts should have found his feet in the international arena. Contrary to nearly everyone’s expectations, Abbott had discovered in foreign affairs an outlet for the ‘grown-up’ government he had promised in the lead up to the 2013 election.

And yet even in the midst of this tragedy and the government’s largely competent handling of it there were echoes and pre-echoes of Abbott’s strangeness, of his tendency, or determination, to see enemies where there are challenges and opportunities for aggressive posturing where there are problems in need of resolution. The decision to call the process of repatriation ‘Operation Bring Them Home’ – a name designed to echo, surely, ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, the Coalition’s cynically militaristic suite of immigration policies – was in this respect a discouraging sign, one that went largely uncommented at the time, no doubt because most journalists don’t want to believe that an Australian Prime Minister would link a national tragedy with a phoney war on unsolicited migrants, subconsciously or otherwise. But it was Abbott’s comments three months later that really pointed up the style – belligerent, lusty, ‘muscular’ – in which he and his team had resolved to govern.

In the aftermath of the MH17 disaster, Abbott had raised the possibility that if the Russian President proved obstructive or recalcitrant in the matter of the investigation he might be disinvited from the G20 meeting to be chaired by Australia in Brisbane in mid November. This would have been a difficult move, but it would not have been impossible. One option would have been for the Australian government to refuse to grant a visa to Putin; another would have been to build support amongst the other members of the G20 to exclude him from the summit. But both of these options would have undermined the integrity and future of the G20, which is, after all, an economic forum and not a geopolitical one. And so the proposal, or threat, was quietly dropped. Questions continued to be asked, however, about whether or not the Australian PM would raise the matter of MH17 with Putin, and, if so, what kind of message he would convey. One month out from the G20 meeting, in mid October, Abbott opened up:

Look I’m going to shirtfront Mr Putin. You bet you are. You bet I am. I am going to be saying to Mr Putin: ‘Australians were murdered. They were murdered by Russian-backed rebels using Russian-supplied equipment. We are very unhappy about this. We accept that you didn’t want this to happen, but we now demand that you fully cooperate with the criminal investigation; and if the criminal investigation identifies suspects that you have some influence over, they’ve got to be produced and justice has got to be done.’

The use of ‘shirtfront’ as a verb was confusing to some. Did Abbott mean to say that he would ‘front up’ up to Putin? Was ‘shirtfront’ a synonym for ‘buttonhole’? The footy fraternity cleared up the confusion: in AFL, a ‘shirtfront’ is a front-on challenge. It was, to say the least, an odd thing to say, and the fact that Abbott so mangled his pronouns suggests that he surprised himself when he said it. But say it he did, unfortunately; and unfortunately for him it was the kind of thing the Australian public could imagine him saying.

What the families and loved ones of those Australians killed in the Ukraine must have thought of the ensuing hilarity is almost too upsetting to contemplate. I don’t want to seem po-faced, but seriously. The Big Fight-style spreads in the newspapers – Putin on a hunting trip, naked to the waste; Abbott in his swimming cap and Speedos: the judo black-belt versus the boxing blue; the KGB goon versus the ‘junkyard dog’ – might have been funny in another context; but their effect in this one was to compound the PM’s error – to cheapen and trivialise a serious issue. With officials describing the PM’s comments as immature, such antics merely hastened the degeneration of the MH17 tragedy into farce and made the upcoming summit into a punchline. Nor did the G20 summit itself go well for the embattled PM. US President Barack Obama chewed him out on climate change; and when Abbott decided to open a meeting of G20 leaders with a lengthy whinge about his government’s inability to pass its GP co-payment through the Senate, even the bluntest tools in the shed began to glimpse in that muscular frame the lineaments of a political lightweight – a lightweight, moreover, whose most strenuous diplomacy was all with his own electorate. Perhaps that’s why his Russian nemesis decided to park 4 warships off the northeast coast of Australia: to show him how it’s really done.

In the context of Abbott’s premiership as a whole the ‘shirtfront’ controversy was a tiny matter: a silly, trivial, petty thing. But it is my belief that this ‘gaffe’ or ‘brain snap’ was not an aberration on the part of an otherwise sober politician. Contra Dennis Shanahan, I think that the ‘authentic’ Abbott was the one on show in that hullabaloo, not the man who for a week or so in July managed, just, not to cock things up. At every turn, he and his team sought to pick a fight with some ‘enemy’ or other in an effort, variously, to wedge their opponents, cover up for their lack of policy ideas, or just look tough and ‘in control’. Lacking any program for positive change, Team Abbott was defined by the arguments it started: with refugees and economic migrants; with Islamic State’s supposed Australian proxies; with the ABC; with the renewables sector … Its isolationist rhetoric on everything from climate change to immigration was at odds, not just with the realities of life in the early twenty-first century, but with its own understanding of Australian success as tied to the fate of other countries, while its liking for military imagery/metaphor and tendency to fall back on national security whenever it felt the political heat was not just cynical – it was sinister. Time and again it evinced a sham nationalism in the cause of, well, not very much at all, apart from its own political survival.

There is no doubt that much of this aggressive posturing can be traced to the personality of Abbott himself. Abbott is clearly a driven individual, brought up by his parents to believe that he is special, that he would one day be either the Prime Minister or the Pope. He is a fitness fanatic and an accomplished athlete. No sporting ‘tragic’ in the John Howard mould – you can’t imagine him sitting in the members’ section at Lords with a glass of red wine and a glum look on his face: not through choice, at any rate – his physical proficiency is the outward sign of his self-control and determination, in keeping with his political ambition. Indeed, and as David Marr has demonstrated in his portrait of Abbott Political Animal, his early forays into politics were characterised by the kind of thuggery more suited to the rugby pitch than the debating chamber. Nor did Abbott outgrow these tendencies. In 2011, a Channel 7 reporter asked the then opposition leader to say what he meant by comments made about the death of a digger in Afghanistan. ‘I guess sometimes, well, shit happens, doesn’t it’, Abbott had said to the dead man’s comrades – reasonably enough in the context of the discussion. But what should have been an easy point to make descended into an excruciating confrontation in which Abbott, his face barely half a metre from the reporter’s, fell aggressively silent in the face of his questions for what must have been nearly 30 seconds. He looked like a boxer giving his opponent the stare: ‘Touch gloves lads and go back to your corners.’ I don’t like personality politics; but there is no question that Abbott’s ironman style – the ‘crash-through’ strategy in opposition; the need to be seen to be doing something active/worthwhile/dangerous; the decision to discharge his Prime Ministerial duties from an AFP training centre in Canberra while The Lodge was being disinfested of possums – coloured his lurid administration.

Then of course there’s his political DNA. Much has been written on this subject: on the extent to which Abbott is influenced by the Catholic anti-communist activist and journalist B. A. Santamaria; on the question of whether he carries a torch for the Democratic Labor Party; on the extent to which his apprenticeship under John Howard overrides both of these influences … But as vital as this line of inquiry is, it is necessarily limited by the fact that Abbott kept two sets of books. Marr writes of ‘Values Abbott’ and ‘Politics Abbott’ and of the frequent confusion, or fusion, of the two. Sometimes the man of principle would emerge to oppose, say, access to an ‘abortion drug’; but at other times, and more often than not, he displayed a purely pragmatic tenacity, taking it up to the opposition for the sake of taking it up to them. And at times he did both things at once, voicing his opposition to a policy in private and then prosecuting the case for it in public with more vim than the rest of the Cabinet put together. Thus did the celebrated Santamarian find himself telling the Catholic Church to butt out of the debate on Howard’s WorkChoices – a policy Santa would have hated and he (Abbott) strongly opposed.

The known knowns, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, are that Abbott is a Roman Catholic and a social conservative to his fingernails; and to this extent, the question of his values is secondary to the fact that few Australians share them. A devout Catholic and an Anglophile, he was unpopular with female voters, who were chary of his macho rhetoric and ‘traditional’ views on family planning. Showing no particular interest either in foreign policy or in economics, Abbott was in public life to advance a moral social agenda and a traditionalist’s vision of Australia – an agenda from which most Australians have moved on and a vision that is far harder to sell than it was. Consequently he came across, not as a conservative in the tradition of Edmund Burke – as someone who accepts that change is inevitable but who believes that it needs to be managed in a way that doesn’t unduly discomfit the community – but as a nostalgist and a reactionary. Like the English novelist Evelyn Waugh, who complained that the British Conservative Party had failed to turn the clock back a single second, he was lugubriously aware that the principles he entered public life to uphold were not the values of the people he was elected to represent. The collective guffaw that went up from our island, and from many sections of Abbott’s own party, when he conferred a knighthood on Prince Phillip left him in no doubt at all about that.

That was a ‘captain’s pick’, of course, and it raises the question of why the Liberal Party allowed Abbott to be captain at all. Why, given ‘Mad Abbott’s’ ideological strangeness, would they put him in charge of the party of Menzies, let alone Team Australia? What use is a man of iron will with unintroducible principles?

I’m convinced that part of the answer lies in the fact that the Liberal Party no longer knows what it stands for. There have always been splits within the Liberal Party between its liberal and conservative factions, and splits within those factions too, but defeat in the 2007 election brought these disagreements to a head. Malcolm Turnbull’s support for an ETS led to a direct confrontation with the conservatives in his party, who opposed the policy for one of three reasons: because they regarded Australia’s participation in such a scheme as incommensurate with its overall carbon emissions; because they regarded climate change as a leftwing conspiracy cooked up to impose international socialism; or because they saw the political capital to be made in denying Kevin Rudd a win on a signature policy. A self-confessed ‘weathervane’ on the issue, Abbott adopted the third position and, as opposition leader, set about opposing Rudd’s government, not just on the ETS, but on everything. In doing so, he not only made Rudd’s life hell; he also stopped his party from imploding: simple opposition for political gain allowed the conservatives to have their day in the sun and the liberals to keep their powder dry. Yes, Abbott looked hopelessly out of touch when he stuck his head above the parapet and leered at the electorate. Yes, he could look like a troglodyte, a closet sexist in an open closet. But on the economy, and on much else besides, he could preach it round or he can preach it flat, and that was the source of his ‘strength’. A bit of libertarianism here, a touch of culture wars rhetoric there; classic liberalism on Monday, strong leader shtick on Friday; a ‘rationalist’ budget in 2014, a budget for battlers in 2015 … And so it went, on and on, all of it served up extra rare, with lashings of testosterone. The Abbott government was a style of politics, not a set of policies; it defined itself, so to speak, negatively – in opposition to the things it affected not to like: political correctness, uppity Muslims, ABC bias, the HRC, vexatious litigation from greenies. With no ideas that it could agree upon, and led by a man whose own ideas about the world are, as he might say himself, ‘dead, buried and cremated’, it lay about itself in frustration, like an ogre driven mad by its own stupidity. Not even the Sir Prince Phillip debacle, which came hard on the heels of a terrible period of publicity for the government, was enough to convince the Liberal Party that the Ahab at the helm of their media storm-tossed vessel was short of more than just a leg. Under Abbott the Liberal Party was a leader cult with a leader no one very much liked.


Abbott’s politics, then, were a coming together of a personal style and a political identity crisis. But the identity crisis was not – is not – peculiar to the Liberal Party of Australia; it is an aspect of a broader crisis on the liberal-conservative side of politics, one related to the uneasy marriage between ‘neoliberal’ economic policies and traditional conservative approaches to issues of nationhood and culture. As the globalising, socially transformative aspects of the first thing cut the ideological ground from under the second, and as pure economic liberalism, or ‘market fundamentalism’, is consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history, conservative parties across the West find themselves increasingly desperate for a ‘narrative’. The chaos of the Abbott government was in some ways a sign of that desperation. The Libs are being wedged by history.

Classical liberalism and conservatism are by no means irreconcilable doctrines. In fact they have one key thing in common: both are hostile to social engineering of the kind favoured by socialists and social democrats, liberalism because of its emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, conservatism because of its emphasis on continuity and ‘organic’ communities. ‘We took the name “Liberal” because we were determined to be a progressive party,’ wrote Robert Menzies in 1967, ‘willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea.’ The notion that the conservative side of politics is the natural home of the aristocrat – of inherited or landed privilege – is as outdated as the imperial moustache. Despite the fact that many people (Americans especially) use ‘liberal’ as a synonym for ‘progressive’, the conservative side of politics is now deeply, indisputably liberal.

What that means in practice is that you can expect conservatives to advocate for individual freedom and equality before the law, as well as for ‘rationalist’ economic policies such as deregulation, low taxation, free trade, and reward for individual enterprise. But whereas the first two things in this list sit quite comfortably in the conservative tradition, the last thing poses certain problems. Historically, more traditional conservatives have always been a little wary about economic (or market) ‘freedom’, which has the potential to undermine communities through unemployment, monopoly and relocation. While classical liberals like John Stuart Mill saw free trade as a force for peace and freedom, as a solvent upon regressive ideas of nationhood and sovereignty, conservatives, as the defenders of nationhood and sovereignty, regarded it askance. In Australia protectionists and free traders sunk their differences in the face of the threat from Labor, which is to say the threat from labour. But the tension could not be killed, only ignored, and only then under certain circumstances.

In the years immediately after the Second World War, conservatives in Britain and Australia saw an activist state as a crucial ingredient in the process of national reconstruction, agreeing with their socialist and social democratic opponents that the market could not bear such a responsibility on its own. But for one Austrian-born economist in particular, it was tolerance of the idea of the activist state that had led to the disaster of war in the first place. In The Road to Serfdom (1944) Friedrich Hayek set out his argument that central economic planning was inherently undemocratic and an incubator of totalitarian attitudes. The only proper role of the state was, he argued, to regulate the market to prevent such concentrations of wealth as might distort the political balance of society. Markets, thought Hayek, were the guarantors of freedom. More: they were freedom’s essential expression.

Though Hayek never used the term, these ideas would become associated with what we now call ‘neoliberalism’, which is to say policies of ‘economic liberalisation’ such as privatisation, deregulation, fiscal austerity and free trade. And, as the power of labour continued to grow throughout the 1960s and 1970s, it was precisely these policies that captured the imagination of conservatives around the world. For Ronald Reagan in the US, Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, neoliberalism would act as a battering ram to break down the doors of organised labour and storm the citadel of the over-mighty state. Through anti-union legislation, the offshoring of work from developed countries to cheaper foreign labour markets, privatisation, deregulation, and the defunding of the welfare state, they would reassert the primacy of the individual.

As conceived by the various intellectuals and politicians who popularised the idea, neoliberalism was a political project as much as an economic one. As such, and as Waleed Aly has suggested in his excellent essay What’s Right? (2009), neoliberalism is, in one crucial respect, at odds with the conservative ethos: it is an attempt to manufacture change rather than to manage it. More importantly, it is potentially corrosive of the very things most conservatives hold dear: continuity, tradition, a sense of place. That is why leaders like Reagan and Thatcher were at pains to play the patriotism card at every opportunity, Reagan with his folksy apple-pie rhetoric, Thatcher with her British bulldog shtick; both recognised, even if only subconsciously, that most people do not think of themselves merely as economic actors with rights but as members of a community, a family, a religion, a club – a nation. On its own, neoliberalism has no appeal, no poetry. It is as programmatic as Soviet communism.

Both conservatism and neoliberalism, then, got something out of this marriage of convenience. Conservatism got a way to renew its attack on statism and the labour movement, gift-wrapped in the highly attractive idea that even vast discrepancies in wealth reflected the great democracy of the market and not the perpetuation of inherited privilege; and neoliberalism got a way to circumvent its tendency to see human beings in the abstract. The modern citizen/subject was both a go-getting individualist and the contextualised creature of the conservative imagination. All highly agreeable! Unless, of course, you were poor, or unemployed, or elderly …

Having grown up in ‘Thatcher’s Britain’, my sense is that Australia can count itself lucky that the liberalisation of trade took place under Labor governments – governments that saw the inevitability of change but hadn’t drunk the neoliberal Kool-Aid. In a way, the approach those governments took was more in keeping with the original ‘neoliberal’ ethos than the approach taken elsewhere in the Anglosphere. (Hayek didn’t like conservatives, whom he suspected of being as transfixed by power as their socialist antagonists.) Paul Keating in particular saw that if Australia was going to open itself up to Asian capital then it ought to regard itself as part of Asia; the new world of economic globalisation should go hand in hand with a new vision for Australia, not some reheated version of Australian nationalism. For a while he won the argument. And then, just as Thatcher’s successor John Major and Major’s successor Tony Blair were finding out that a sense of national purpose was rather more difficult to engineer in the absence of a nuclear stand-off, there tottered on to the Prime Ministerial stage the stout little figure of John Winston Howard.

There is no need to revisit, here, Howard’s 11 years in government. Suffice it to say that his combination of liberal economic policy and patriotic posturing was the Australian descendant of Thatcherism and the direct ancestor of Abbott’s administration, and that one political manoeuvre in particular, in the lead up to the 2002 election, has influenced Liberal Party policy and thinking in a deeply troubling way. The Tampa controversy surrounds contemporary politics like radiation from the Big Bang, and when Abbott held forth on immigration you could sense the radiometer flicker into life. Australia’s current immigration regime was built by both of the major parties; it was Gillard, after all, who reopened Nauru. But no one, not even Howard himself, has exploited the issue of immigration, with all its attendant fears and prejudices, more ruthlessly than Tony Abbott. No, he is not alone in doing so: Bob Hawke was not above a swipe at ‘queue jumpers’, either as Prime Minister or as leader of the ACTU, and even Gough Whitlam told his cabinet he was ‘not having hundreds of fucking Vietnamese Balts coming into the country’. But when it came to whipping up hysteria about the issue, Abbott was in a class of his own. His claim to be discharging a humanitarian duty by stopping asylum seekers taking to ‘leaky boats’ was always subordinate to his charge that the Labor government had lost control of Australia’s borders; its aim was to mop up the few bleeding hearts unconvinced by an essentially heartless policy. Now it sounds almost quaint: a sentiment from the time before the men and women of the Australian Border Force pulled on their black jackets. ‘We will decide who comes here, and under what circumstances they come’ boomed Howard in 2001. It was the singular achievement of the Abbott government to raise that line to the level of an organising principle.

This brings us to the real ‘meaning’, and the real scandal, of the Abbott government. That Team Abbott tried to replicate Howard’s Tampa strategy is obvious; outfitted as they are in military kitsch, the ABF and Operation Sovereign Borders are designed to create a sense of emergency – to demonise unsolicited migrants in an effort to shore up political support amongst the gullible and the badly informed. But what may be less obvious is the extent to which these policies became a kind of template or paradigm for the Abbott administration in general. After the 2013 election, Abbott declared that Australia was ‘open for business’ once again, the economic centrists and nanny-staters having been vanquished at the ballot box. But that was all it was open to. If asylum seekers entered Australian waters, they would be towed back to Indonesia. If they chipped up on Australia’s shores they would be processed on Nauru or on Manus. If the UN criticised Australia’s treatment of refugees it would be told to mind its own business. Similarly with foreign aid, climate change, and many other issues: Australia would put itself first, thanks, and take no advice from those bureaucrats in the IPCC or, well, wherever. Thus the empty chair at the New York climate summit. Thus the cuts to child protection programs in India, Senegal and Lebanon, and to education projects in Sudan and Laos. Thus the thousands of detainees who will awake tomorrow to yet another day in contemplation of their mosquito bites and deteriorating children …

This was Abbott’s strategy: to draw a line around Team Australia, to attack those who turned up to training in the wrong kit, and to hope, in the meantime, that nobody would notice that Marx and Engels had it about right: that capitalism really does dissolve all the ‘motley ties’ of tradition and indenture. The neoliberal economy is utopian and delusional – a city built on sand, like Dubai. But its globalising power has swept all before it, including the very values and culture that conservatives like Abbott hold dear. What is a Tory to do, then, apart from pretend that the isle is full of voices and that only he can keep the monsters from the door? What a fruitless way to try to sate one’s ambition. And what a craven, shitty way to do politics.