Obstinate Decency

[Trigger warning: Reader’s should be aware that this essay contains language feminists might find offensive! Be warned also that it contains doses of other unadulterated twaddle.]

It would be very easy in the light of recent political events to pontificate on the triumph of Malcolm Turnbull over Tony Abbott and map the details of the political processes that led to this outcome. But I am tired of writing about politics. It seems now a waste of time. My readers will remember the many occasions I have generously proffered advice of the sage and insightful kind in recent times to the recently removed Prime Minister – and unfortunately all to no avail. I could just as profitably write form guides or horoscopes!

It is time for me to eschew the politics and perhaps look a little closer at the fallible humans involved in the political fray. Most of Man’s* institutions have an inordinate tendency to create martyrs. Politics is little different.

(*For the politically correct I confess at my age I find the need to write devoid of gender rather tiresome. So if I use Man or Mankind occasionally please feel free to substitute a feminine or gender neutral equivalent of your choice! Alternatively you could stop reading and send me another offensive e-mail.)

It is difficult not to look at the course of Mankind over history without being overwhelmed by both the beauty and the horribleness of humans. I personally stand in awe of the courageous qualities of all the martyrs of history and then am immediately appalled by the lack of Man’s humanity to Man that resulted subsequently in their deaths.

Over the millennia men went to war and died gruesome deaths on battlefields for someone else’s beliefs and surprisingly they often did so voluntarily. We might say they were ignorant and that the things they died for were of no value or consequence in the greater scheme of things. But it was an innocent ignorance. They had done something horribly difficult in their innocent ignorance which was not for themselves. We might say, as is commonly said, “They meant well”.

Now this is an important point. In my essays on human behaviour which I have shared with you over the years, I have strived to convince you that most human behaviour is thoughtlessly plucked from a repertoire available to us, due to our biological history and social conditioning, without intent at all. But we tend to judge people on our assumptions of their intent, even where none existed. Most people don’t accept this proposition. Consequently it is usually an indication of some approval if, after a person has acted, we say, “They meant well”. It means we have attributed good intent.

History overflows with the stories of those who had stoically accepted sacrifice: learned men who had starved for the truth, religious zealots whose faith was stronger than their desire for life, and rabid nationalists whose love of country also corrupted their life instinct.

T H White, in his quaint, amusing but profound work, The Book of Merlyn, described the phenomenon. He had King Arthur looking back and contemplating those “who had been butchered for their stupidity – but who meant well.”

He continued, “That was it, to mean well! He caught a glimpse of that extraordinary faculty in man, that strange altruistic, rare and obstinate decency which will make writers or scientists maintain their truths at the risk of death.”

And thus, without his knowing, that fabulous king, foretold imaginary centuries beforehand, the demise of Tony Abbott. Indeed it was a death of the kind that would overtake Arthur himself, despite (or in White’s view, even because of) the ministrations of that worldly wizard, Merlyn.

Tony of course was mentored by a modern legend himself, in the person of John Howard, the most successful conservative prime minister since Menzies. I am sure that even Howard would concede that, apart from the magnificence of his eyebrows, he had little in common with Merlyn.


But there was another attribute that Howard shared with Arthur that he seemed unable to teach his apprentice.

As White described Arthur, “He could tell how the common people would feel about things, before he asked them. He was their king.”

(Let us pray, despite his elevated position in society, that Turnbull might develop the same capacity! He mightpick up some tips from his habitual use of public transport.)

Perhaps, this more than anything constituted Abbott’s hemlock –that led inevitably to his political death. Howard, on the other hand, was able to extend his career by winning over the “Howard’s battlers”, largely blue collar workers that would traditionally have been Labor voters. (It is not surprising that a Labor party, dominated as it is by union officials, Labor lawyers and university graduates that have only worked as party apparatchiks and have never had real jobs, has lost touch with its traditional base.) Howard is a monarchist, just as Abbott is. But with such attuned sensitivities you can’t imagine Howard ever bestowing a knighthood on Prince Philip! Mind you, if the opportunity arose he might have been tempted to gift Alan Border or Steve Waugh such an honour! Foolish as such a move may have been, it still would have been viewed more favourably with the general populace than Abbott’s indulgence.

But enough of politics! Let us go back to my principal thesis. Has there ever been a more decent (nor indeed a more humble) Prime Minister than Tony Abbott? You would struggle to convince me otherwise. Here is a man who has given unselfishly to the good of our society – a volunteer fireman; a surf lifesaver; someone dedicated to improving the lot of our indigenous peoples, a devoted family man. All in all, a very decent human being! But perhaps more than anything, his decency led to his failure. His rusted-on loyalty to those who supported him became the albatross around his neck. His loyalty to Joe Hockey was an impediment to the government’s financial performance. His loyalty to Peta Credlin was an impediment to putting good political processes in place. His loyalty to Bronwyn Bishop was an impediment to proper accountability. And his loyalty to his proposed paid parental leave policy was just obstinate and misplaced!

As White observed, like many before in history, Abbott was mired by “obstinate decency”. Despite being counselled by many to abandon his loyalty to those close to him in order to preserve his prime ministership, he steadfastly maintained his unswerving support. It is a trait we’d all like in our friends, but one that didn’t serve him well as prime minister.

King Arthur in the end gave up half his kingdom to his adversary, Mordred, but it wasn’t enough to appease him. Abbott, when the chips were down offered up Treasury, but that was never going to prove to be enough either.


Finally, after the initial fray, Arthur and Mordred called a truce. (Does that sound familiar?) Mordred’s knights and Arthur’s knights faced off against each other. It was commanded by Mordred and Arthur that none of them was to make a hostile move, but all must keep their swords in their sheaths. Only if there were signs of treachery might they be allowed to charge to the rescue. Arthur went forward across the field without his sword, merely carrying a staff to greet Mordred. Mordred approached in a similar fashion. A treaty was made with Arthur pledging to give up half his kingdom to Mordred. Peace now seemed a possibility.

But unfortunately for Arthur, although he had seemingly settled this feudal war he was now undone by Man’s natural instinct to slay that which threatens him. A grass snake slithered up to Mordred’s contingent. On seeing the creature one of Mordred’s officers stepped back and motioned to withdraw his sword to despatch the unwelcome intruder. Believing their king was about to be attacked Arthur’s men stormed down to his defence. Arthur turned to attempt to stop the rush, but to no avail. He was killed in the ensuing violent fray.

Now, in our usual fashion, rather than acknowledge Abbott’s legacy, we are trying to find the grass snake! (Probably unfairly, Scott Morrison has been mentioned.)

The legends of antiquity continue to enlighten us. Even so, I have strained the metaphor as far as it might go.

Let me salute Tony Abbott, who always seemed to me to be a basically good man. He has conventional religious beliefs, whereas I do not. He is much more conservative than I am. He seemed to lack the ability to communicate to the wider public but was adored by those who knew him personally. Perhaps he was slow to learn. But I am sure he could be described in the way I have mentioned above – “He meant well”. He lacked political nous but compensated for that with an extraordinary humanity. I wish him well.

Now it is up to Malcolm Turnbull to do his thing. There are new knights around the round table. I hope they know the route to Camelot!

In the wake of all that has transpired I am tempted to write a new book. Its tentative title is, (excuse my French), Le Morte d’Abbott.

4 Replies to “Obstinate Decency”

  1. Hi Ted
    What a lovey, lively and interesting piece, written beautifully in your deprecating manner.
    I particularly liked the interesting picture you painted of Tony Abbott’s character and principles, and how they fit in to the cauldron of political life.

  2. Gentle Readers, do not be bewitched by Ted’s beguiling prose and dubious use of historical precedents. The truth is that both Ted and Tony are members of a dangerous sect; the Secret Society of Left Handers!

  3. Ted – thank you for this blog – you are a decent man yourself! I have waited in vain for any meaningful and sincere commentary from the media on Tony Abbott’s demise. The predictable analysis has not acknowledged his fundamental decency (almost a boy scout at times!)at any stage but focussed on his shortcomings. Shades of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar .. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”. We are surrounded by good people in so many areas of life, but the conventional wisdom seems to be that we should revel in their shortcomings rather than acknowledge their contribution to the common good!!



  4. Hi Ted – I have become increasingly intrigued by the way the public judge leaders. In addition, I am also fascinated when alleged close allies and advisers quickly change their position of support to leaders as a result of the perception of public attitude. You have been able to use examples from history to suggest that these changing positions are not new, but rather a normal part of human behavior over time. In my discussions about the recent changes to the position of Prime Minister, I have not heard anybody denigrate Tony for his decency but comments such as some do not like the way he walks or talks dominate their view of him. What I still cannot understand is that the public still demand to want decent politicians who have integrity and honesty, but then when they do not perform to the public expectations of a politician, they are then abandoned. I have tried to hold back on any criticism of the Tony and Malcolm leadership issues at this point in time and will be interested to see how the public view Malcolm in 6 months time. Your intuitive insights into these issues provides me an understanding that we are following history where the public is “looking for the snake” rather than considering the key issues facing our leaders. Thanks again Ted.

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