Latham, Hanson and Leyonhjelm are 'The Three Stooges' incarnate, but they are indicative of Australia's current dysfunctional phase of politics.
OUR OLDER READERS – the really old ones – may remember The Three Stooges: Larry, Curly and Moe.
These deliberately offensive American deplorables bumbled and bashed their way through a series of short movies designed to fill in the gaps at the newsreels, popular at the time.
They were supposed to be funny – and perhaps trans-Pacific audiences may have found them so – but, in Australia, they were more annoying than anything else — an irritation until the real cartoons, the authentic Looney Tunes, came around.
The Stooges were seriously unloved and unlovable, but they were hard to ignore — rather like their fresh incarnations as David, Pauline and Mark. The Australian Parliament has allowed them to be born again.
We are referring, of course, to Mark Latham and his two latter-day mentors — Senators David Leyonhjelm and Pauline Hanson, whose combined nastiness has recently devolved into a kind of 1950s cheap routine, which has elements of farce, certainly, but of the most distasteful kind.
Whether it is Leyonhjelm’s misogynist bravado, Hanson’s incoherent xenophobia or Latham’s serial vendettas, our modern Stooges are determined to keep their own slapstick melodrama in the public gaze, long after it has passed its used-by date.
And they are joined in the hip: having ratted on his Labor Party, Latham joined Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democrats, only to desert him to campaign for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, for which he is said to be contemplating a political comeback.
He is polishing his credentials by parroting PM Malcolm Turnbull on Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (liar, liar, pants on fire) and making as many other enemies as possible. Hanson and the publicly-shunned Leyonhjelm are apparently cool about that — after all, we Stooges have to stand together. But why they would want to do so is less clear.
Despite their blunders and brutalities, none of the three is irrevocably stupid. Latham was considered both a protégé and a prodigy by former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who promoted him as party leader; he overcame the reservations of admired elders like John Faulkner to persuade his colleagues that Latham could and should be prime minister. And there was a time – admittedly a fairly brief one – when it appeared Whitlam could be right; Latham looked smart, politically savvy and, above all, a rusted-on Laborite — until he self-immolated.
Leyonhjelm is clearly a well-educated and intelligent man, but his espousal of libertarianism has declined into convenient egocentricity and regular abuse. And even Hanson, apart from her undoubted resilience, must have something going for her: despite her serial failures, she keeps bobbing back up again and even attracts new supporters, including Latham.
So why have they chosen to become figures of derision and contempt? The easy answer is years of constant practice: having realised – perhaps belatedly – that they were never going to make it for the big prize, they decided that at least they would be noticed, if not widely admired. But beyond that, the times have suited them — the current phase of Australian politics is itself dysfunctional, so why should we expect better from the fringe dwellers? And we don’t.
There may still be a faint hope, but we all know it will end in tears. Larry will poke Moe in the eye with a burnt stick and the screen will go to black — until our Stooges return for the next exciting episode. At which point, we will leave the theatre and go to the pub.
Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.
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