Whenever a party topples its leader, our first instinct is to go looking for the knife-wielders.
Who plotted this? Who landed the first blow? Who played the Brutus role, siding with the ousters despite being mates with the doomed leader?
We look behind the scenes. We wonder what was said in corridors at the dead of night. We try to piece together how the new factions were formed and the old ones were elbowed aside.
But we mustn’t lose sight of the other key ingredient of all polite, bloodless coups: how they come to be talked about in public; how they get mythologised.
It’s never enough only to look at who said what to whom in a smokeless committee room at midnight. No, to fully understand a party’s removal of its own head we must also look at what is happening in front of the scenes, in public discussion.
A coup has two parts: the hidden skulduggery and the public justifications for such skulduggery. It’s only by considering both that we may arrive at a clear-eyed understanding of what happened, and why. If we do this for the Malcolm Turnbull-Tony Abbott scrap, then something very interesting — and worrying — starts to emerge: a feeling that Abbott was dumped not because he was an ineffective leader but because his world view failed to conform with what political and media insiders consider to be proper and progressive.
There’s more to this than Liberal infighting; it also feels like a chattering-class coup, the exiling of a leader for daring to think things that opinion-shapers consider heretical.
If we look in front of the scenes of the Turnbull-Abbott drama, one consistent message takes shape: a key problem with Abbott was that he was “out of touch” on certain issues, most notably climate change and gay marriage.
This has shaped the coverage of the coup around the world. Virtually every news piece on the drama Down Under prominently tells us that Turnbull supports gay marriage (though he seems keen to stick with Abbott’s idea of having a plebiscite) and that he is “far better” on climate change.
London’s Daily Mail made a list of the battling leaders’ attitude to issues. Turnbull, the Mail said, was a “firm believer in climate change” and a “vocal supporter of gay marriage”, while Abbott “once said ‘climate change is crap’ ” and would not allow a “free vote on same-sex marriage”. The two men’s thinking on the economy and international affairs came much further down the article.
That the Mail referred to Turnbull as a “firm believer” in climate change confirms the pseudo-religiosity swirling around that issue.
In recent years, belief in climate change and support for gay marriage have become chattering-class litmus tests. These are secular gospel truths you must embrace to gain entrance to polite society. Fail to embrace them and you’re a “denier” and a “homophobe”, to be cast out.
The judgment of Turnbull and Abbott via the green-gay gospel was repeated across the media, from CNN to The Sydney Morning Herald. CNN ran a piece headlined “Five things to know about Australia’s new PM”. No 1 was that he had challenged Abbott before. Guess what No 2 and No 3 were? Yep, “He’s strong on climate change” and “He supports same-sex marriage”.
The implicit message of this global obsession with how Turnbull differs from Abbott on those two issues is that he’s someone we can do business with; he has embraced modern, PC orthodoxies.
The mantra of “He supports same-sex marriage” — uttered everywhere — is the new way of saying: “He goes to church every Sunday.” It marks him out as “one of us”, unlike Abbott.
Pink News, Britain’s most widely read gay magazine, went so far as to celebrate the “toppling” of Australia’s “anti-gay marriage leader”. Well, if he doesn’t support gay marriage he doesn’t deserve to run a country, right? Hound the heretic.
Whatever the internal Liberal machinations that led to the ousting of Abbott, the public mythologisation of his removal is revealing and terrifying.
It speaks to the new intolerance, where anyone who refuses to buy into chattering-class orthodoxies can expect ridicule, and maybe even the termination of their careers.
And the small matter that two years ago the Coalition got five million votes with Abbott as their leader, and with his views on climate change and same-sex marriage known? Never mind that. What does democracy matter in comparison with doing what the media and political elites consider to be right?
And so have the parameters of public debate shrunk even further. It isn’t only Abbott who has been given his marching orders. Through this coup we’re all warned that if we hold views that the elite considers foul, or old-fashioned, we’ll be marked “unfit for public life”.