If at times of great national drama book titles could be requisitioned and redeployed, like merchant ships on the eve of war, The Australian Ugliness might offer the neatest summation of the events of the last few months. With the elevation of the country's first female prime minister, the 40th anniversary of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch has clearly come to mind, but it is Robin Boyd's opus, now celebrating its golden jubilee, that provides a timely epithet, if not an entirely accurate thesis. Ruminating on the schizophrenic streak in the national character, Boyd described his fellow countrymen and women as "cruel but kind". When applied to Australian politics, his analysis is surely two words too long.
I'm actually in America, where the relatively few people who had heard or took much notice of Kevin Rudd appear to have been shocked by the speed and brutality of his departure. After all, he was President Obama's best pal on the world stage (although, alas, the best book on Obama's first year in charge, The Promise by Jonathan Alter, does not even mention Mr Rudd,).
Perhaps they might have read that the removal of Kevin Rudd was a bloodless coup. But it was bloodless in the same way that water-boarding is bloodless - a process that simulates drowning, and thus near death, which leaves the body unblemished but the mind riven with scars. When Kevin Rudd braved the cameras to haltingly bullet-point his legacy, its effects were plain to see. But I wonder what the nature of his abrupt departure, and indeed that of others like the former Liberal leaders Malcolm Turnbull and Brendan Nelson, says about the health of the nation's body politic?
Any audit of Australian politics right now surely takes on the feel and stench of a triage, a sifting of the wounded and slain. For to describe the bush capital as a killing field not only makes for an apt headline but half-decent analysis. Along with a once prodigiously popular prime minister, two opposition leaders have been dispensed with in a single parliamentary term. In the space of just forty months, Australia has seen four Liberal leaders, and three from Labor. In New South Wales, the spiritual home of the Australian political ugliness, there have been four different Labor premiers in the past five years and just one election.
If both major parties could boast more talent, this casualty rate would still be alarming but at least vaguely sustainable. But the ranks are thin already. The voluntary departure of Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, a well-liked politician of undoubtedly high calibre, depletes them even further. So, too, did the former Treasurer Peter Costello's decision to leave. By any normal reckoning, all of their careers ended prematurely.
To outside eyes, Australian political leaders are being held to a ludicrously high standard. It brings to mind that hoary old adage about Louisianan politicians: that they could survive anything apart from being found in bed with a dead woman or a live boy. All it takes in Australia, apparently, is to wake up on four consecutive Monday mornings with a lacklustre poll. Curiously, the headline in the Washington Post this morning was another slump in Barack Obama's approval ratings, with support for his economic stewardship at an all-time low. But it's hard to detect any great sense of crisis, for the polls ebb and flow.
Certainly, the brutopia of Rudd's departure adds to the sense that Australia is out of kilter with the rest of the political Anglo-sphere. Its cadres of professional politicians have become more tribalistic, clannish and intensely partisan at a time when office-holders in America and Britain are heading in the opposite direction. By design and through necessity, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are fashioning a new politics that is more ecumenical, less clannish and genuinely bipartisan. Australian politics is in danger of looking like a throwback. While lawmakers operate still within the Washminster system, the politics is Tammany Hall, right down to the faithful recreations of its bullying ward bosses and brutal machines. If ever the actress Tilda Swinton gets to play her doppelganger in the movie version, it will be a watch-from-behind-the-sofa affair. Animal Kingdom might have fitted as a working title, had it not already been purloined.
This has been an ugly phase in national and state politics, and I suspect we are on the verge of an ugly campaign. The messy debate over asylum seekers, which never arouses the nobler aspects of the Australian character, is a sign of what we will see over the coming weeks. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are political street-fighters, and the next few weeks will be a brawl,
To finish where we started, this year has already been cluttered with literary celebrations. The 50th anniversary of The Australian Ugliness, the 40th of The Female Eunuch. Yet it is also 60 years since A.A. Phillips first noticed that listeners of a programme called Incognito on the ABC tended to pick the outsider when asked to adjudicate between the performance of a foreigner and a home-grown musician. Nowadays, little remains of the cultural cringe, and it is easier to identify Australia's cultural creep. But what of its politics? Is it now possible to speak of Australia's political cringe?
UPDATE 07:23 UK time, Thursday 14 July 2010
The comments include some persuasive arguments about the impact of three-year terms, and how they lend themselves to perpetual politicking and thus fuel the sense of frenzy. Faced with a run of bad polls, there is not much time for an unpopular leader to turn them around, hence a sense of panic, which is commonly followed by putsch. I would also add the impact of continuous news, whether it be on radio, television or online. Concertinaed news cycles have led to concertinaed politics. And Camo makes a good point.
On the question of the US comparison, it would be daft to deny that American politics is a bruising and bare-knuckle business - which is why I chose my words carefully. I said that a new cadre of politicians was emerging, like Barack Obama, who find partisan politics rather tiresome, counter-productive and ugly. Obama told the American Sixty Minutes programme in September 2009 that he was worried about "a coarsening of our politics that I've been running against since I got into politics". I'd also suggest that American politics does not have the same cannibalistic fury that Australian politics has right now. In Washington, the knives tend to be aimed at partisan opponents rather than between the shoulder blades of their own. When a party moves against an unpopular senator or congressman, it usually happens in the primary process through which real-life voters get to choose which candidates will fight the election.