Features Australia

End of McTernanism

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

Last weekend in Canberra a murder took place. It was no ordinary killing. In fact, it involved a horribly painful but decisive act of self-mutilation. At some point in the cool, wee hours of Sunday, as the kookaburras laughed in the early morning light, Tony Abbott took the fateful decision to commit the heinous crime with skill, precision and utter ruthlessness. Whether the death occurred through strangulation with his bare hands or merely via suffocation with a pillow is a moot point that the coroner will have to determine, but by breakfast time the corpse lay at his feet. During the first moments of December, within the confines of the AFP college no less, the Prime Minister of Australia committed a bloody and unprecedented act of political homicide — he killed his own inner spin doctor.

All politicians are born with their own in-built self-serving spinning mechanism; their own mini-McTernan that lurks deep within, guiding their movements, massaging their vocal chords, redirecting their thought processes. Not to be confused with the soul, the morals, the beliefs or even the ideology of the politician, the mini-McTernan is more akin to a parasite that enters the bloodstream at some point during the early days of pre-selection and then gradually, over years of parliamentary abuse, infects the entire body; invading organs such as the heart and the brain, feeding off a lust for power, until it can no longer separate good from evil, truth from lies.

Eventually, the parasite lodges itself deep within the aural canals of the host, gorging itself on words and promises, distorting what the politician can hear and subverting how it should speak.

Before too long, if left untreated, no thought, no action, no commitment can be uttered without first consulting the seductive inner voice that whispers insistently in the victim’s ear: ‘Say it like this, don’t say it like that. Put a “maybe” in. Phrase it in the negative. Turn it into a hypothetical question. Use hyperbole. Blame it on somebody else. Rephrase the question.’

All political leaders of the modern era have suffered such imaginary voices whispering sweet nothings in their shell-like; the siren voices of spin.

John Howard, famously hard of hearing in one ear, came up with the original post-rationalisation of ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ promises. Was this an early manifestation of inner McTernan?


Julia Gillard was said to have a tin ear. Nonsense. What she suffered from was a heavy build-up of a waxy substance (known to doctors as McTinnitus) that had blocked her aural canals to the extent that by the time she seized the top job she was stone deaf to all suggestions other than those of her own inner spin merchant. Thus, our first female Prime Minister began to genuinely believe even the most outrageous self-justifications and post-rationalisations. The carbon tax lie? Not a lie, merely a misuse of the word ‘tax’. Gay marriage? It’s not the word ‘gay’ she had a problem with, it was the whole institution of marriage. Setting up a dodgy ‘slush’ fund? I did nothing wrong. Being turfed out of power? It was all because I’m a woman.

Kevin Rudd, a chronic McTinnitus sufferer, was caught on camera desperately trying to dislodge a large chunk of spin from his own earhole, only to succumb at the last moment and re-ingest it, thereby offering succour and nourishment to his own voracious inner spin doctor.

What is now clear is that throughout the last week of November, our current Prime Minister was, slowly but surely, being troubled by such siren voices. First came the insistent and bizarre use of ‘quantum’, a term normally reserved for James Bond films or HSC Science classes. Then came the hair-splitting distinction between the singular and plural use of the word ‘school’ itself. To the expert eye, it was evident that Mr Abbott’s inner mini-McTernan had been let loose on Gonski, as eager to make trouble as a toolie at schoolies.

Finally, on Sunday, Mr Abbott’s inner spin doctor seized control of the host body, live on national TV. ‘We are going to keep our promise,’ he hesitantly informed a baffled Andrew Bolt, regarding his (foolish) pre-election commitment to match Labor’s funding plan. But then came this: ‘We are going to keep the promise that we actually made, not the promise that some people thought we made or the promise that some people might have liked us to make.’

What a sublime twisting of meaning, what an exquisite tree-falls-in-the-forest existential argument. Suddenly, it was not what you promised, but how that promise was perceived that was in play. The worm had turned. Mr Abbott’s inner McTernan had triumphed.

Or had it? Tossing and turning in the dark, as November changed to December, spring shifted over into summer, our Prime Minister awoke in a cold sweat. Something was wrong. Admittedly, his bed in the Australian Federal Police College in Canberra, where he is currently domiciled awaiting the refurbishment of the Lodge, is not exactly the pinnacle of five star luxury. But that wasn’t what was keeping him awake, eating away at him.

It was the nibbling sound of his own spin in his ear. The sound of his credibility being gnawed away by his inner McTernan.

Although the Coalition and the electorate had been duped by Labor and Bill Shorten to the tune of $1.2 billion in the dying days of the election, the perception was that it was the Abbott government that was being dishonest. Now, the Prime Minister was breaking his word and trying to hide behind weasel words and obfuscation, just like his two predecessors had done so often.

What happened in that darkened room in the early hours of Monday morning we will never know. Did he gouge his inner McTernan out with a biro? Did he bury his head in his pillow till the siren voice finally gasped its last?

By noon when he fronted up to the TV cameras to confirm the Gonski funding would be in accordance with his and Christopher Pyne’s election commitments, Abbott’s inner spin doctor had been bludgeoned to death.

Hopefully.

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