ANDREW P STREET The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott. Reviewed by Chris Maher
It’s been said that on the night Tony Abbott lost power, you could hear the sound of a thousand comedians crying.
And not only in Australia – tears were shed all over the globe, notably in the US, where John Oliver lamented that while Australia deserved thanks for providing the comic world with Tony Abbott, a good thing had finally come to an end.
So in some ways, Andrew P Street’s The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott could be seen as the swansong of the political commentators who rely on wit as much as fact as they try to sip the dregs from the Abbott comedy cup.
Street has made a name for himself on Fairfax websites and sometimes in print with often sarcastic columns of the type favoured by small-l liberals and others of the vaguely leftist, humanitarian and artsy crowd so despised by Abbott’s crusading conservatives. A quick perusal of his ‘View from the Street’ columns shows the usual right-wing villains copping a hiding. Admittedly, he has plenty of fodder, but he never makes an attempt to emulate Q&A and balance the ledger. Where’s the fun in that?
Of course, there is the assumed natural propensity for the central left to have the best sense of humour. The far left are so burdened by political correctness their punchlines are more like warm handshakes; while the righteousness of the right seems to suck the last skerrick of humour from their sour-faced standard bearers.
Where is the conservative equivalent who could come up with a humorous tome on a Labor identity? It’s not something you could imagine Andrew Bolt, Gerard Henderson, Alan Jones or any of their ilk penning, as they take themselves far too seriously.
The title of Street’s book gives the game away – this is no two-sided account of the political goings-on of the past two years. Died-in-the-wool conservatives should steer clear (but if they do brave it, they’d be well advised to have their GPs’ numbers handy in case their blood pressure reaches dangerously righteous levels).
No such worries for the residents of the cappuccino-scented suburbs of Sydney’s inner west; Street can’t hide from the fact he is in that demographic himself:
In the interests of full disclosure, the majority of this book was written on a Macbook in cafés in Sydney’s inner west (mainly Natty’s in Stanmore) by a bearded man with black-rimmed glasses, often while wearing a checked shirt. My bike however, has gears.
It’s not so much a case of preaching to the converted as the converted gathering around to watch a downed man get a good kicking.
Despite the flippant title, Street does make attempts to give some political background on a number of issues. This is both a strength and a weakness, in a way making it neither fish nor fowl. Is it a political commentary or a satirical ribbing of a comical political figure?
In the end, the balance probably falls to it being a relatively serious, one-sided account, with most of the witticisms restricted to chapter titles (such as ‘Putting the Coal Back into the Coalition’), chapter intros and footnotes.
Street’s observations and research can be very interesting, especially where he highlights often overlooked agendas. For example, he goes into great detail about the influence of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA):
… few people had noticed Abbott’s endorsement of the seventy-five-point plan presented by the Institute of Public Affairs, the staunchly neo-conservative think tank that had been instrumental in creating the modern Liberal Party in 1945 after the implosion of the United Australia Party, and had acted as the unofficial policy (and, historically, fundraising) arm of the Liberals ever since.
He goes on to list seven IPA agenda items successfully implemented by the Abbott government, nine partially implemented and another seven unsuccessfully attempted.
One of those that didn’t quite get over the line was the much discussed ‘Bigot’s Law’, otherwise known as the repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Few people would have read Section 18C and the accompanying 18D, which provides the exemptions to 18C. That lack of scrutiny offered politicians and commentators ample scope to overrate the liberty-depriving aspects of 18C. Street asks his readers to read 18C and 18D and includes them in the book. At just over a page, it’s hardly daunting and proves very worthwhile as it shows just how hard it is to actually get into legal trouble for being a bigot in the first place – which may explain why less than five per cent of claims ever get to court, let alone receive favourable judgements.
And so we come to Andrew Bolt, who was one of the unlucky few found to have breached 18C, setting in motion the series of events that would lead the IPA to call for bigots’ freedoms to be protected nationwide:
Given the wording of section 18D, in fact, it’s hard to see how any journalist could possibly get stung by 18C while plying their professional craft. Why, they’d have to do something silly – like, say, deliberately attempt to inflame public outrage by misrepresenting a situation with straight-up falsehoods.
While these topics are interesting, more vengeful readers will jump straight to the former PM’s headline acts: chomping on the onion; making Prince Philip a knight; and offering to ‘shirtfront’ the Russian president; as well as some of the funny-if-they-weren’t-true exploits from his team, such as the ‘poor people don’t drive’ assertion from his treasurer or the airborne exploits of his personally chosen Speaker of the House, his ‘political mother’ Bronwyn Bishop.
Abbott’s onion graces the front cover and of course the episode is covered in the book:
It was a small thing, but it sent a strong message. And that message was: ‘I don’t really know what you people do on this planet, but where I come from onions is what we eat, peel and all, and we don’t cry.’
The obvious implication of this book, as with all political eulogies, is that the subject isn’t coming back. But to the likely dismay of the large majority of voters (with the notable exception of comedians), the Murdoch press is running a campaign to see Tony Abbot reinstated, first to the Cabinet then, presumably, on a Rudd-like mission back to the helm of the ship.
If that eventuates, Street’s book may prove redundant. On the other hand, it may provide the opportunity for a sequel.
Andrew P Street The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott Allen & Unwin 2015 PB 320pp $29.99
Chris Maher is a Sydney writer and journalist who occasionally blogs at Not a Book Review.
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