Sir Tony Abbott and the City of God

Today, dour and overcast, is the day after the night before.  The 2013 federal election in Australia has been fought and won by the conservatives again and us as a family watched the strange posthumous battle of vote-counting develop to see most of the Labor marginal seats fall to the Liberal National Party.  Still the grave former Defence Minister Stephen Smith said he would be pleased to see any number of Labor seats ‘with a five in front of it’, and they got there, with 54 confirmed seats so far.

But as Kevin Rudd’s cheerful defeat gives over to Tony Abbott’s strained rictus-grin of victory, I am reminded of an observation the journalist David Marr makes of the victor: ‘What makes next week, let alone next year, so peculiarly hard to predict, is this romantic notion that a better person will emerge once he gets there: a Tony Abbott that resolves the old contradictions between the principled Catholic and the ruthless populist who has got him where he will be tonight.’

But where does Tony Abbott, with all his scholarly acumen, get the idea that somehow the alchemy of public office will magically transform him into some sort of divinity?  Isn’t it up to himself to resolve what moral dilemmas come his way, for instance whether to take action on Syria or not?  Or yet see the moral turpitude of incarcerating wretched asylum seekers trying to reach our shores in concentration camps?  Surely the idea that the very fact of being in power will somehow enforce a discipline to the soul and thus take him to the City of God is utterly naive?

Didn’t a certain British historian, politician and writer, Lord Acton remark that ‘all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’? It’s interesting that he himself was a Catholic.

As accounts of his personal life go, Tony Abbott seems to have veered between the pleasures of the flesh and the sanctity of chaste priesthood – and turned out to his apparent disappointment a Sir Lancelot rather than the saintly and irreproachable Sir Galahad, who did find the Holy Grail and died a very holy death.  Maybe it’s not so surprising that Sir Abbott’s journey consists of such a longing for the redemption that he imagines the demands of political power to bring, as if Parliament House was the City of God and that celestial virtue (which was never his own) will descend accordingly and settle itself on his shoulders like a royal cloak.

‘The ancient world found an end to anarchy in the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire was a brute fact, not an idea.’  Writes the philosopher Bertrand Russell as a preface to his chapters on modern philosophy in his ‘A History of Western Philosophy’.  ‘

‘The Catholic world sought an end to anarchy in the Church, which was an idea, but was never adequately embodied in fact.  Neither the ancient nor the medieval solution was satisfactory – the one because it could not be idealized, the other because it could not be actualized.  The modern world, at present, seems to be moving towards a solution like that of antiquity: a social order imposed by force, representing the will of the powerful rather than the hopes of common men.  The problem of a durable and satisfactory social order can only be solved by combining the solidity of the Roman Empire with the idealism of St. Augustine’s City of God.  To achieve this a new philosophy will be needed’.

The ‘will of the powerful’ verses ‘the hopes of common men’.  Already Tony Abbott is enmeshed in the demands of the will of powerful men.  The media magnate Rupert Murdoch, whose phone-hacking scandals have disgraced him to the world, has supported the LNP with a vociferous campaign of some of the most ethically challenged journalistic bias in media history.  Abbott may quite rightly claim that he owes the old fox Murdoch nothing, but he also said nothing in protest about his unconscionable media juggernaut.

Abbott says he will govern for all Australians, but what does he know about the hopes of common men?  His main appeal to common people is to their individualistic material aspirations, of taking away superannuation for low income earners to fund parental leave for upper middle-class women.  He spurns anything to do with unions and their historic, hard-fought campaigns for a better way of life for everybody.  In fact he was heavily involved in the ill-fated ‘Work Choices’ campaign of a previous conservative government to take those rights away.  In a working world of term-contracts, casual work and imported labour, workers in the future may have to fight for better pay and conditions all over again.

It is all so easy in the City of God to propound on what is right and what is good in the imagination of the exalted ecstasy of faith.  But Middle-Earth, a place where the struggle for survival against circumstance and uncertainty is perpetual, has a way of muddying and obscuring such gems of ideals under clods of earth, whereby what seems fine on a mountain means foul to those who live beneath its shadow.

I will be watching Sir Abbott’s journey as Prime Minister with interest.  Is he aware, or is he blind?

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