The revenger’s comedy


In early January, on a random scrap of paper on my desk, I wrote: ‘I just want it said, if there is any need to say it, that it seems blindingly obvious to me that Kevin Rudd is already wondering if he can do to Julia Gillard what she did to him; shaft her and become Prime Minister.’ Over New Year, Rudd had a kind of mini unofficial campaign launch at the Woodford Folk Festival, where he revisited the ‘I’m here to help’ slogan and played to an audience still hoping that someone will take action on climate change, stop treating refugees so criminally and start to act and think like a person with a soul not owned by flesh-eating aliens from the planet Zok.

Since then the bitter relationship between Rudd and Gillard has become more and more obvious, the family secret no-one dares to mention. Mum hates dad and dad hates mum, and they’d knife each other in an instant if the kids weren’t around, but in the meantime they continue to throw slick dinner parties for their golf club friends, flashing steely smiles and assuring everyone that their marriage was made to endure.

As if. When Gillard was busy shrieking her puritanical disapproval of the WikiLeaks cables, Rudd took a completely different tack, blaming the US for being lax with their database security, a sort of ‘Well, Duh!’ attitude that might have captured some of the derision people felt toward Gillard. During the recent Queensland floods, Gillard’s appearances with Anna Bligh were met with outright contempt. Rudd on the other hand, who seemed to be everywhere, had a much more reverential reception. And just a week or two ago Rudd slyly sabotaged Gillard’s embarrassing and creepy grovelling around the US by publicly supporting the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya.

So as federal Labor support continues to head south, I imagine that Kevin Eleven might possibly start to gain some creaking momentum this year. But apart from satisfying Rudd’s need for revenge, and desire to fulfil his omnipotent sense of his own destiny, what would be the point?

Hello to the rock and roll circus of politics in the twenty-first century. Not only does there seem to be a sense of things repeating themselves endlessly, but the gap between political rhetoric and mundane reality seems to be greater than ever. Political parties assume that we can effortlessly fuse together two contradictory realities in our minds at the same time: the glossy celebrity image they wish to promote of themselves and the completely unrelated sphere of action where they scarify our lives with whatever psychotic corporate-friendly regimes they like (for our own good). In other words, we are expected to accept that the cosy image and the contemptuous policy are one and the same. Locking children in detention camps, or flogging off public assets like discount fridges, or toadying up to bankers, or demonising the poor the traumatised and the dispossessed is actually benign, thoughtful, kind, paternally strong, compassionate and good for the planet to boot. This has been played out in the UK where David Cameron feverishly promoted the reborn Tories as green, socially-inclusive, empathic and so forth, prior to implementing the worst kind of punitive Thatcherite depredations on civil society. Cameron, and his henchman Clegg – ‘henchman’ seems like a good word for Clegg, and Clegg a good name for a henchman – continue to push their wide-eyed sincerity while simultaneously devastating the lives of millions. Political leaders have to be able to lie, relentlessly, openly, knowingly and without shame while being able to present themselves as utterly sincere. As the WikiLeaks cables revealed, modern political discourse is built entirely on this dynamic.

The last federal election campaign bore a creepy resemblance to reality TV, to Masterchef or Australian Idol. And one of the things about reality TV programs is that they repeat themselves in identical iterations, so that we seem to be stuck in time, where something terribly significant is about to happen but never does, and where voting becomes tied to a kind of weird mix of hate and narcissistic love, the desire to punish and the need to adore or reward. An election becomes a kind of frenzied competition with all kinds of bizarre agendas and set-pieces that provide measures of social and political intelligence in the way that a Miss Universe contest measures ‘personality’.

The NSW state election this weekend will undoubtedly see a landslide victory for the Liberals. A cactus could beat Kristina Kenneally and her asylum of thugs and weirdos, and everyone knows it. This is just as well for the Liberals’ leader Barry O’Farrell, whose presentation is frighteningly blank. He could be a suburban shopkeeper, a badly constructed android or a sociopath. Who can tell?

Rudd’s obvious desire to be PM again brings to mind of course John Howard, whose repeated campaigns to get into the Lodge had a terrifying fixity of purpose to them. Howard’s campaigns were the acts of a man who would do anything, say anything, to have that kind of power and couldn’t stand the thought that it may not be due to him. Howard seemed to have a kind of self that would collapse if he didn’t become PM and that would super-inflate to cosmic proportions when he did.

Should there indeed be a Rudd Mk II PM he will undoubtedly be little different from the Rudd Mk I PM. Anything other than the re-running of the past seems outside the comprehension of the party-political mind. Rudd is already running true to type promoting an idea of himself he has no intention of delivering, because he can’t, because the Rudd he conceives himself to be doesn’t exist.

The truth is that our political parties don’t want anything other than specific incarnations of power. At the centre of that power is an empty space, a kind of fascist mindset, that wants power because it’s powerful, and conceives of power as a hierarchical enterprise, a pyramid of privilege and narcissistic entitlement and control, a homage to itself.

As far as their political personas go, Rudd and Gillard are like creepy stage twins in some blood-soaked Jacobean drama of incest and assassination played out by people whose acting is comically awful on a third-rate stage pelted with peanut shells. One of the twins always reverse-mirrors the other. The more genial one of them becomes, the more po-faced and punitive the other. Back and forth they go. I find myself thinking that if Gillard and Rudd were to unite and produce offspring, the unfortunate bairn would bear a startling resemblance to John Howard.

Politicians are fond of talking of the ‘cut and thrust’ of political life, as though they were Captain Blood, prancing around with a rapier and a bared chest. Perhaps if they spoke of the ‘pratfalls and sleaze’ of political life, we might take them more seriously. Every thinking person in any democratic country you care to name knows that party politics is concerned almost entirely with institutional lying, with personal betrayal, with the protection of vested interests and with backroom deals that make a mockery of the process of democratic choice. Whatever social and institutional change we desperately and urgently require in this already mind-boggling century, it isn’t going to come from political parties. Where it might come from is another question entirely, but it will have to come, and soon, or ordinary life is going to suddenly nosedive into depths of weirdness we can only dimly imagine.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. ‘‘henchman’ seems like a good word for Clegg, and Clegg a good name for a henchman’

  2. “The truth is that our political parties don’t want anything other than specific incarnations of power. At the centre of that power is an empty space, a kind of fascist mindset, that wants power because it’s powerful, and conceives of power as a hierarchical enterprise, a pyramid of privilege and narcissistic entitlement and control, a homage to itself.”

    Dunno about this mate. Personally I reckon a jury-duty type of bestowing for government, 3 years, by raffle. Public servants keep the structure. Real people together, make the decisions. I wonder what would happen then? Suddenly we crucify our own because jim the plumber and sandra the personal asisstant or sam the businessperson want more money for hospitals and schools and a price on carbon? or perhaps people will actually understand them and agree… but what will certain media folk have to say then? will they make any money if there is good, real, grassroots leadership?

    some polly just cracked a can of coke and said ‘see these bubbles? that’s what you breathe out, and the government wants to tax it’ abc – 7:30

    There have to be some people in parliament that genuinely care about Australia and all the biodiversity in it. the problem is, as soon as they say it, they’re shafted by the media and the actual power mongers within and against their own party. because they are telling the truth and not conforming to the status quo of idiot policitians making stupid claims versus ‘truth uncovering’ and ridiculing media. how dare they? the world might fall apart!

    how many votes will the greens get out here in western NSW…? bugger all really.!? so if you want to make a difference, join the archaic group and try to have an impact. but how courageous are you? will anyone vote for you? how much energy will it sap from you? and will you compromise your values and ethics for it? how on earth will you become leader without pretending you think that certain things are ok? like all the culture that i see perpetuating in the house of ‘power’.

    rudd and gillard can be excellent together… is there a conflict and is it real? or should we just say they’re crap like everyone else?

    it made me very sad when my north-shore sydney cousin made jokes about gillard. she was really bagging her out, and she is 11!

    i hope she understands how great it is as a woman to have a woman prime minister and how it takes large groups and cultures to get things done or to ruin someone’s good intentions or policy.
    we can do the jury duty system and see how we go….

    oh, but no! we can’t do that! the world will fall to pieces!?

    keep structure. change dynamics
    —that can be the slogan for the new ‘elected/raffled’ party

    civil duty. awareness of public life and assets. anyone is qualified.

    any opposition?

    1. All blogs should manage at least one joke I think. I realise this was something of a rant, and hence not terribly constructive, and Rudd and Gillard are easy targets, but still conveying their weird awfulness is something of a stretch.

  3. Perhaps one decent joke per blog should be mandatory, even if it’s bitter irony. I realise this post is something of a rant, and hence not that constructive – for which apologies – and that Rudd, Gillard, Kenneally, O’Farrell are easy targets, but still it’s something of a stretch to convey their awful weirdness. And the scary picture of Rudd needs a jesters hat and stick and a rain of peanut shells I think

  4. Ranting is fine I think from time to time. But anyone can do it, so it’s always better to put in jokes so it looks better than it is.

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