Malcolm Turnbull was off in Hamburg, schmoozing his fellow leaders in the hope of getting something – anything – done about North Korea, terrorism, trade, Donald Trump – something – anything.
And Bill Shorten has simply gone on holiday, secure in the knowledge that nothing much was going to happen on the domestic front while the prime minister was absent; well, Tony Abbott was, of course, but that was nothing to do with the ALP. The Liberals’ standard bearer of Her Majesty’s Disloyal Opposition would take care of any disruption needed.
So it may have been thought that when the top cats were away, the mice might play; but the majority of war weary backbenchers were too exhausted to care. Or perhaps they were too dispirited. They are not entirely resigned to the prospect of drifting into opposition, but they are increasingly aware that unless there is something like a political miracle in the next few months, Turnbull’s situation will become irretrievable.
A sense that it will be every man and woman for him or herself is developing, which will further erode whatever purpose and direction remains in a government that has already become hopelessly fragmented and divisive.
This does not mean they are planning to replace him; the available alternatives, Abbott, Julie Bishop, Peter Dutton and the others languishing even further back on the opinion polls are hardly regarded as winners either. But it does mean that they are starting to look at their own survival, which is not the grand, harmonious show of unity Turnbull envisages in his dysfunctional party room.
A sense that it will be every man and woman for him or herself is developing, which will further erode whatever purpose and direction remains in a government that has already become hopelessly fragmented and divisive. The ministers – at least those in secure seats – frankly admit that Abbott is out of control, there is nothing to do about it and it is best to ignore him – Turnbull refuses even to speak his name.
But those in the marginals, and if the polls are correct there are a lot of them these days, find such insouciance both defeatist and maddening. They want a resolution – bring him into the tent or smash him to pulp, but one way or another deal with the bastard. But since it is not going to happen under Turnbull’s watch, the only alternative to is to move on Turnbull himself, and that is still regarded as the unthinkable nuclear option.
So they bumble along in their unhappy electorates, increasingly distancing themselves from the party which is, in the end, their only hope of salvation. Fortunately the vacuum is being filled: the elitist politically envious class warriors of the lunar right media are, as ever, on the job and in the last week they have gone universal, metaphysical. Seizing on Donald Trump’s speech in Poland about the threat to Western civilisation (by which he presumably he means the necessity for Trumpian domination) the heavies in The Australian have taken it a step further. It is not just about civilisation as such: it is religion, specifically Christian religion and most particularly conservative Roman Catholicism.
As always the chief preacher is Paul Kelly, who appears to have abandoned his career as a political commentator to become an amateur theologian. His eye-glazing, sermonising ramble was replete with name dropping of course, but the most absurd summoning was that of Aristotle, to whom he attributes the success of the Christian political and cultural dominance of centuries.
The problem with this searching historical analysis is that Aristotle died in 322BC – that’s more than 300 years before Christ, and therefore before Christianity. His surviving works are wide-ranging treatises principally on science, philosophy, politics, the arts and other abstract ideas. They are essentially an analysis and critique of earlier Greek philosophers – Plato, Socrates and their numerous predecessors – with suggestions for improvements. They were studied widely in the ancient world, but when the fall of Rome brought in the obscurantist theocracy of the dark ages, they fell into disuse; the only serious Western science for centuries came from the Arabic scholars of Islam.
Aristotle was rediscovered by Christian clerics around 1300, chief among them Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, but they subverted his ideas from theories of philosophy to implacable dogma; a religiously and politically correct feudal regime was used to suppress ideas of which they and their papal successors disapproved. Thus scientists like Copernicus and Galileo were among many who were persecuted for their inquiries.
However for all their best (or worst) efforts science revived and eventually the 18th century brought in the Enlightenment, now beloved of Kelly and his cronies but at the time regarded as an attempt to wrest rational thought from the superstitions of the religious irrationalism Kelly now espouses. But the papacy did not give up, and even now Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is greeted as unproven: apparently more than half Americans reject it today. And of course much of the denial of climate change science comes from professed Christians, certainly in the Australian Liberal Party.
And as for the idea that the Catholic usurpation of Aristotle underpins democracy, it spent hundreds of years holding it back – it was only the 19th century and the rise of capitalism during the industrial revolution that brought Western regimes back some way to the pre-Christian ideals of Greece and Rome, before real reforms produced the modern world. But the churches – especially the hierarchical Catholics – continue to resist change. So much for democracy and so much for Paul Kelly.
However, when problems appear insuperable, ignorance and populism will flourish, which is no doubt why the evangelists of Newscorp have moved in. It is not a good sign. History shows that there are two infallible signs that a civilisation is teetering and neither of them is the loss of religious authority or a misguided and perverted version of Aristotle.
The first is an overreach for building pointless and extravagant monuments and the second is a flight from science and reason into the embrace of cult and superstition. An overview of Western civilisation would suggest that we are approaching a tipping point. The answer, according to Kelly and his missionary band, is to go back – all the way back to the dark ages, perhaps, when the priesthood ruled the world and the masses knew their place. Such is the vision splendid of the conservative right.
No wonder Malcolm Turnbull stays as far away from them as he can – half a world away, at present. But, like Cardinal Pell, he still has to come home to confront reality – if not ‘that gentleman whom you have described.’