ANYONE who has endured the anguish of a prolonged deathbed vigil will know how the mind takes refuge in a grim relativism. There is no hope and you know as much, fully aware that sooner or later (and most likely sooner), the loved one laid low will heave the final breath, that the loss will be forever, and why no prayer or medical miracle can alter the coming end. Yet somehow, despite all the evidence of eye and experience, the mood adjusts. As the former Mrs Bunyip’s mum went to her reward via an awful final month of wasting and shrinking, there was even a little laughter amongst the tubes and monitors. It wasn’t a callous jocularity so much as the product of that mental adjustment by which, with chuckles and kisses and by creeping degrees, one begins to accept the loss before it has yet happened. The news that the disease was terminal came as a shock, but once assimilated there was some room for light and shade. True, the visitors’ eruptions of good humour brought comfort to the dying, but it was those gathered ’round who drew the greatest benefit from distraction and delusion. She had a good day, you might say when pain briefly receded, and you would be fortified with good cheer to overlook for just a moment the certainty of its return.
Something very similar is underway amongst those friends and lovers gathering at the Gillard government’s deathbed. There are bouts of denial, of silencing the grim certainty by shushing the realists who speak so tactlessly of the cancers that are eating it. Ask 2UE’s Michael Smith about that. For two weeks he has been off air, silenced by Fairfax until he agrees not to speak of our PM’s intimate relationship with a swindler. It is a valid matter for discussion, not least because it raises the issue of Gillard’s judgment, the connections that elevated her political career and, in her claim that she was “young and naïve at the time”, the ongoing willingness to fudge and mislead. For the record, Gillard was 35 and a rising lawyer when her then-bedmate was robbing union members blind.
Same thing with those troublesome refugees. Not so long ago, when a government of another stripe was in power, the Fairfax press and ABC could not write enough of conservative Australia’s racist inhumanity. A boat dubbed SIEV-X went down with horrendous loss of life and no charge against John Howard, not even of murder, was too spurious or obscene to be withheld. And where are they now, those outraged accusers, as more boats sink and Gillard clings to the wreckage of her flint-hearted “Malaysian solution”? Apart from a few activists who demonstrated their moral consistency by chasing Immigration Minister Christopher Bowen down the street, the rest of the posse has disbanded. No books or breathless broadsheet exposes of a heartless butcher in The Lodge. Wouldn’t do to be so frank, not at this time, not with a dearly beloved on life support.
Instead we get, well, just read Misha Shubert in this morning’s Sunday Age and observe the latest source of comfort for our PM’s soon-to-be mourners. It’s not that Gillard’s crew is inept, incompetent and ideological incoherent, nor is that Australia’s voters have noticed as much. Yes, Gillard is perhaps a little awkward on the stump, Shubert concedes in passing, but the problem – the real problem – is that Tony Abbott has “torn up the rule book”, as the headline puts it.
“Abbott's success as an opposition leader is that he simply shrugs off the expectation for consistency," Shubert writes. "He is adept and swift at rationalising shifts in position. And, let's face it, he is not often held to sustained account to explain such anomalies.”
Forget Gillard’s inconsistency – from cash-for-clunkers to her stillborn citizens’ assembly and, of course, the no-carbon-tax bill of goods – it is all about Abbott and his Teflon coat. It is a perspective that would have been at home beside the bed in which the ex-Mrs Bunyip’s mum expired. Out of the dying woman’s earshot, the cancer took flesh in her family’s imagination. It was no longer a disease, but a near-human entity, one whose advances and retreats were evidence of the evil her well-wishers projected upon it. Didn’t bother the cancer, of course, but having something to blame did ease the burdens of those following its progress.
Shubert might well enjoy casting Abbott as Tony the Tumour, and while her summation of the opposition leader’s astute tactics as a violation of political fair play would rile the sensible rest of us, leave the poor woman to mop the patient’s brow and see her off with words of blameless comfort.
Gillard's condition is terminal and this government with her. So don't begrudge the Shuberts, Hartchers and Marrs the consolation of pointing the impotent finger at the coming coalition ascendancy. Just be ready to make sure Tony Abbott cleans up her legacy of decay.