When Christopher Pyne called himself ‘The Fixer,’ on Sky TV, recently, audiences guffawed and fell about helplessly, hooting with derision as another of the Abbott government’s star performers seemed to attain new heights of comic absurdity and grandiose self-delusion.
Pyne’s performance eclipsed even Scott Morrison’s claims that indefinite detention of children was an act of mercy and that on Nauru, Save the Children staff had ‘coached’ detainees to stich their lips and falsely claim sexual assault, both now shown to be false in Philip Moss’s report. He almost outshone his master, Tony Abbott who has just said things happen and shrugged aside the report’s finding.
Pyne, more than any other clown in cabinet, has helped his Prime Minister elevate governing to a new level of absurdity. The surreal humour in David Speers’ interview on Sky lies partly in Pyne’s past failure to fix anything, let alone counselling cross-bench senators, such as Glenn Lazarus who appears about to take out a restraining order on him. But there is more to it than comic incongruity or the minister’s industrial-strength chutzpah.
Pyne’s inane grin signals some deep inner peace, if not pleasure, in challenging our expectations. Moreover, it tells Speers and his audiences exactly what he thinks of them; it is a gesture of contempt. And if his back-flip was bewildering; Pyne has learned well from Abbott his master.
Pyne’s gun-at-their-heads terrorist negotiation tactic had been dropped overnight. 177 researchers could continue to receive wages and feed their families. Universities would no longer be threatened with massive cuts to research funding unless enough cross-bench senators approved to pass the bill; another ideologically driven delusion of a tertiary sector where fees would rise and take standards and everything else up with them.
Everything was fixed. Pyne just was not going to say how. Like his boss, everything bad was behind him, we were moving forward, he promised, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
When Speers asked Pyne for details of his new-found funding fix, the Minister simply refused to tell. It was a watershed moment in his government’s history. It redefined and refined the doctrine of Westminster responsibility to a tissue of invisibility.
Pyne has taken government to a higher metaphysical plane. His non-interview with Speers was either pure Dadaist non-politics or a type of Zen mysticism. Commentators flocked in hordes to applaud the ensuing, absurdly surrealistic exchange, acclaiming it as worthy of comedic giants John Clarke and Brian Dawe.
‘I want it to be a surprise for you,” he told Speers. Asked again where the money was coming from he said, “That’s not really your concern.”
Laughter, of course, must not distract us from the hard facts. Pyne is a major contemporary political figure. Whilst he may entertain and divert us, he also busily refines the essential absurdity of his fantasy government, a surreal government which came to power in a puff of smoke, not by virtue of any real platform but by dint of simply not being Labor, a Dada government which took office with its feet permanently planted in the clouds, its head turned firmly away from Labor and the sordid, fallen world of the ordinary voter.
Pyne is chief custodian of the Abbott regime’s anti-government castle in the air. He embodies in word and deed an unreal government which bought office with a blizzard of false promises; a government which from inception created a trust deficit, which, together with its contempt for explaining itself, or being held to account, has ensured its future impotence and unpopularity. With the manifest arrogance of God’s anointed or the born to rule, it saw no real need to communicate, let alone negotiate, preferring instead to dictate the pace; act first and apologise afterwards; announce first and attack critics later enacting metadata retention laws to further frighten off dissent.
It is tempting to dismiss Pyne as a privileged Peter Pan whose plummy voice and arrested adolescence appeals to the old ladies of Sturt who receive signed birthday cards from him and who vote for him in droves. Yet that would be to overlook the consummate performance artist in him. Pyne’s stock in trade, his ‘shtick’ is serious self-parody. He is a kamikaze politician, like his gaffe-prone leader, Tony Abbott whose efforts more often get him into trouble than out. Yet like his master, he can grin and say sorry. Or just grin, turn around and dish up another serve of complete codswallop.
Thus Pyne continues at the wheel of the LNP vehicle, spinning the tyres, doing burnouts and sliding all over the track with boyish delight. That he gets nowhere is beside the point. It is Pyne’s deathless derring-do, his manic energy and single-minded determination to stay in the game – almost any game – at any price that is his vocation, his unique contribution. His plummy words are but puffery. Even he doesn’t expect us to really believe them.
By all conventional accounting, Pyne has a record of resounding defeat and underachievement in the Education portfolio and his latest nobbling of the government’s darkest horse in its privatisation stakes, Higher Education, fell at the first hurdle because he had not bothered to first make a case for change. Other Education Ministers would have negotiated or sought advice from experts such as Peter Dawkins, David Phillips or Bruce Chapman. Instead, it was easier for Pyne just to follow the same path that had led to power and make things up.
Lies are no substitute for building a case for reform, however liberally sprinkled, and Pyne’s two fundamental lies are whoppers. It is a lie to claim that there is a financial crisis in education funding and it is false to pretend that there is anything wrong with higher education. The government commits similar amounts of funding to private schools as it does to tertiary education yet never once has it proclaimed any crisis in funding parents’ right to choose their children’s (private) schooling. That would not be risky; it would be foolhardy.
Pyne will take risks to be Abbott’s fixer. Witness his role in the ‘fixing’ of Peter Slipper, a dangerous liaison which he cultivated for as long as it took to achieve a result. Although he maintains he promised Ashby no position or any other form of inducement to press charges against Slipper, it would be wise for him to hush this over as best he can.
As tempting as it may appear, however, it would be unwise to dismiss ‘The fixer’, as simply delusional. Pyne’s role in shaping the Abbott government’s style and direction is significant. In his voice is money, privilege and droit de seigneur; in his antic disposition appears his party’s flight from reason into blind faith in neocon ideology.
Pyne shares with Abbott the same sense of vocation. Each is a type of priest in the ritual adoration of the sacred free market life force and other assorted Tea Party received truths. Both worship the gods of small government, small business and the much-lauded, miracle-working capitalist entrepreneur who makes all things possible to all men whilst praying for lower wages, fewer conditions and other ‘flexibility,’ to be granted by a good and faithful servant government, amen. Yet Pyne is the acolyte; Abbott his adored master.
Pyne is the quintessential Abbott courtier who has given his all to his government’s abortive radical neoliberal ‘reform’ programme. As Leader of the House, he has also, moreover, made his mark on parliament, snubbing democracy as befits the truly anointed member of the elect, deploying tactics such as privileging the ‘Dorothy Dix’ in question time, elevating time-wasting to an art, presiding over a parliamentary theatre of ridicule and simultaneously prosecuting his party’s contempt for reasoned discourse, decorum and common sense.
Historically, every monarch’s court had its jester or fool but few have been gifted with a Christopher Pyne. Just his unstoppability and his commitment alone command our notice if not our admiration. Energiser-bunny Pyne has tirelessly, selflessly, devoted his phenomenal energy to being a clown. Time, then, we gave him due credit for his sensational performances, especially his gift for self-deprecating absurdity, and considered him in his own right.
So popular has Pyne become as a laughing stock that he almost upstages his Prime Minister whose back flips, onion eating and zany captain’s calls have the nation in stitches. Abbott’s one-liners are head and shoulders above any of Shorten’s zingers. Only last week he boasted that he ignored metadata when he was a journalist. Yet his brief abortive career as a scribbler was over well before the Internet was in use in Australia.
Abbott, like any good captain, sets the lunacy bar high. Yet Christopher Pyne is not about to give up. Undeterred, undaunted, the Pythonesque Black Knight is heroically resolved to fight on with his teeth if need be in the service of the surreal, fantastical, castle in the air that is the Abbott government.
Whilst some pragmatists see clowns merely as useful distractions, the role of the Education Minister is more complex, fashioned from the very essence of the fantastical yet fanatical neo-con theocracy that Abbott and his backers have installed to rule over us. Rather than dismiss him as some hopeless eccentric we should consider Pyne more thoughtfully for what he reveals of the workings of the Abbott government as a whole, a government which leans more towards performance art than politics, a government informed by an ideological fantasy of a neoliberal ‘hands-free’ approach to the very hands-on challenges of being a successful government.