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The cult of rightwing illiberals

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Cult leader Tony Abbott (Image via Flickr)

The Liberal Party has been operating less like a political party and more like a cult with a hive mind, writes Nini Bien.

WHEN I WANT TO RELAX, I read the below-the-line comments on a number of news sites. It is here that you find sincerity, original viewpoints and rapier wit.

Today, I was reading the reactions to this sensible piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by former Liberal leader John Hewson, dissecting the aftermath of the not-so-shock loss of Malcolm Turnbull’s old seat. What was striking was the reaction of the rightwing commentators to Hewson’s analysis, in which he said basically what everyone else outside the Monkey Pod is thinking.

These people blamed the by-election result on a “proud” and “selfish” Turnbull, who was “too Left” and should never have joined the party. Feeling myself slipping into a mind-bending alternate universe, I had to ask: how can a private-school educated, luxury-loving, multi-millionaire lawyer-turned-banker become someone who does not belong in the Liberal Party?

What an intriguing question. Like the Trump supporters proudly wearing theI’d Rather Be A Russian Than A Democrat t-shirts, something far greater than the usual partisanship was going on. And then I got it — I had been mistaking Abbott supporters for members of a team.

Now, a team is a collection of varied individuals, because that is what a group of more than one person actually is. Each one brings different outlooks and different skills to their group. Sure, there will be rivalries and conflicts (hopefully sorted out in the dressing room, not on the field), but these will be put aside for the good of the team.

The fact is that the illiberals and their supporters are not like a team — they are, instead, like a cult.

Think about it. When someone joins a cult, they don’t try to align their thinking to that of the other members — they surrender it. Being a cult member is about relinquishing your critical faculties and instead embracing a single dominant story (the word “narrative” cannot be used in this instance, as it contains the possibility of complexity and nuance). People within a cult are no longer individuals, but instead part of a giant amoeba that functions with the same voice coming out of every mouth.

Inside a cult, there can be no challenge to the communal belief system. Science, rationality and common sense are abandoned, as those things draw the cult member relentlessly towards uncomfortable conclusions. And we’ve certainly seen within our own version of America’s Tea Party a real rejection of expertise.

His performance in office since 2013 was challenging for previous Abbott admirers and, perhaps, you’ll agree that all but the most fanatical have fallen away.

First, the down-to-Earth voters stuck with that preference for reality and realised he really wasn’t what they thought he was. Then, the team members started to wobble.

Who would better represent them, Abbott or Turnbull?

They switched over to the latter. And finally, any supporters with a lingering shred of balance were swept away by Abbott’s treacherous campaign of Definitely No Sniping, No Undermining and No Wrecking.

So, having lost the last of the even slightly independent thinkers, the noticeable thing about our current illiberals – in particular Abbott – is their seeming inability to even hear other viewpoints. These just don’t seem to penetrate, no matter how obvious. You can almost hear the gears turning in Abbott’s brain when presented with an opposing idea: “Yeah, yeah…nah. Nope. Nope. What did they say again?” It’s like the old oil-and-water mix, with facts and evidence, no matter how obvious, just rolling off his impervious mental processes.

The classic example is 2015’s infamous “empty chair spill” when 39 members of his party voted for opening up the leadership to other contenders. Despite describing it as a “near death experience”, when he was ousted by Turnbull after seven more months of abysmal polling, Abbott seemed blindsided.

Let’s examine this ongoing triumph of wishful cult-think over evidence.

It started with the low personal approval ratings of the then-Opposition Leader. Abbott knew, on some level, that his policy preferences were not popular. If they had been, he would not have felt compelled to make his infamous “no cuts” pledges. Think about it, there is no need to promise not to do something unless you realise that people don’t want you to do it. He (privately) knew his ideas stunk.

He had also been the lead aggressor in the relentless attacks on the Rudd/Gillard Government, so could hardly have been ignorant of how much on the nose the ALP were for the electorate.

However, with the combination of evidence that people voted against Labor rather than for the Coalition, they wouldn’t like what he wanted to do and didn’t like him much personally, he and his followers cunningly arrived at the conclusion that his 2013 victory was some sort of (almost divine) personal endorsement.

Then, as if to test his own realisation that his natural inclinations were anathema to the majority of voters, Abbott revealed the horror budget of 2014 and immediately launched his Government’s approval ratings on a downward trajectory. After that, the only spark of light for the Coalition was in Turnbull’s personal approval ratings.

Now, a smidgen of intelligence allows us to interpret these figures as the electorate not approving of Abbott’s direction, or that of his team, instead preferring the direction of his more moderate rival.

When Turnbull took over the leadership, what followed was a poll bounce. Yet more proof. Proof that danced up and down on a table in Canberra made of Monkey Pod timber, but somehow remained invisible to those seated at it, even when it started to do the can-can wearing nothing but a skirt made out of shredded Crosby Textor leaflets.

When it became obvious that Turnbull was embracing a number of the policy directions of his predecessor, Coalition approval ratings again went straight down. What didn’t change was that Turnbull kept tracking significantly higher than Abbott in the preferred leader stakes. Again, my name isn’t Sherlock, but it was pretty clear that the rightwing illiberals were a turn-off to most voters.

This has been a consistent pattern in opinion polls, stretching over years rather than months. But those facts are never enough for Camp Abbott. Despite evidence so overwhelming that it was practically wrapped around their faces and attempting to smother them, the squad kept going until they managed to get rid of the only thing they had that was popular. And so now we get to the current day and the recriminations being cast around after the loss of one of the safest Liberal seats in the country.

Camp Abbott recognise Turnbull’s superior approval ratings when they say he should have used his sway with voters to campaign for Sharma. But to them, his popularity and their unpopularity do not mean they should move their party even slightly to the centre. No, even though he was more popular and they admitted it via their demands for his efforts, the conclusion to be reached from that is that the priorities of their more popular ex-leader are to be avoided at all costs.

How’s that for illogic? In fact, it’s illiberal illogic.

It’s the kind of non-thinking you only get in cults.

One more thing. Another behaviour that we see from cults is the type of narcissism that drives the leader to insist his followers cannot go on without him. His death must lead to their death. The examples of Jonestown and Waco spring to mind.

This mindset, though horrific, does make twisted sense when we see the leader of the cult as the “brains” of the amoeba. If he is the one who “thinks” for all of them – part of the contract which followers enter into when choosing a dependency upon him – then when he goes, they must. It is simply inconceivable they could go on to have a life without him.

True to form, Abbott seems very comfortable with the idea of his party facing massive defeat. It is not for him to change. None of the other MPs matter and nor does the Coalition. No, instead it’s just a platform for the One True Thing, that amoebic overgrowth that is the worldview of Abbott and the other cells that make up this overwhelmingly undeveloped organism.

Nini Bien works with teenagers and sees the effect of social change every day. She continually ponders the effect marketing has on our culture.

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