For much of my life, I was something of a political animal, tempered by social requirements, but eventually tamed and then driven into apathy by circumstance. However, given a chance this week to watch a series of brilliant documentaries about Australian politics with a Tokyo connection, I felt stirrings of an old flame.
Mark Willacy, a journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who was based in Tokyo as its North Asia correspondent from 2008 to 2013, interviewed more than 60 current and former Australian politicians for the three-part documentary series, Nemesis, that aired over the past couple of weeks and told the story of Australia’s three Liberal Party of Australia prime ministers from 2013 to 2022. The multi-winner of Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism, the Australian equivalent of the Pulitzers, has done an incredible job in creating a captivating, enthralling series out of the usually bland and colorless world of Australian right-wing politics.
As a bit of background, Australia is a deeply conservative country and has been ruled by right-leaning governments for most of its 123-year history as an independent nation. Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, formed the Liberal Party in 1944. The party first won government in 1949 and has ruled over Australia for most of the time since, with the exception of the periods from 1983 to 1996, 2007 to 2013 and from 2022 onward.
Although “liberal,” the party is far from being progressive as the term connotes in other English-speaking countries and is more neo-liberal, favoring little government intervention in the economy and traditional, WASP-dominated social values. Ruling in coalition with the right-wing National Party (and its predecessor the Country Party), the Liberals have lurched increasingly further rightward over the past few decades, similarly to most mainstream political parties in the Anglosphere.
In the 21st century, the Liberal Party, particularly under the leadership of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, the influence of theism has had a noticeably tighter stronghold over the party. As with many right-wing parties, the Liberals are not powerful advocates of addressing climate change, with many joining the majority of the Nationals as outright denialists.
As someone with extreme left wing, atheistic political beliefs, I despise Australia’s current opposition party. Nonetheless, I take my hat off to the many politicians who took part in the Nemesis series, the bulk of them coming from the Liberal and National parties. To a person they were frank, bold and open in a manner rarely seen from politicians, and it made for gripping viewing of a story of much of the 2010s, a period notable because the Liberals had never deposed a leader while in government, yet within a few years of a landslide electoral victory in 2014 party maneuvering removed Abbott, then Turnbull and Morrison was staring down internal deposition when he was finally voted out. Interestingly, all three rate among the worst of Australia’s 31 prime ministers.
Nonetheless, I take my hat off to the Liberals who took part, especially former PMs Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull, who spoke with seeming sincerity (you can never be sure with politicians, especially those with backgrounds in marketing, law and journalism) about incidents that must have been insanely painful. It was refreshing and gave me a respect for them that I had not previously held.
Abbott refused to take part in the documentaries, which also spoke a lot about his character. Also notably absent among the interviewees was Julie Bishop, the deputy prime minister for Abbott and Turnbull who retired from politics after being defeated in a leadership vote by Morrison. She was one of Australia’s most popular politicians, but seems to have chosen discretion in her approach to the program. Willacy wrote about who and how participants were gathered in another interesting article about the series.
The ABC presented the era superbly and without bias or judgement, which was a magnificent effort considering what a divisive period it had been at times.
Part one of Nemesis focused on the Abbott government from September 2013, when the staunch Catholic monarchist swept into office with a landslide win, until September 2015, when his mates made him the first Liberal prime minister to be deposed while in office.
Turnbull led a government initially viewed in Messianic terms as he took revenge on Abbott removing him from the party leadership in 2009, but the blue-blood who had also spearheaded a disastrous campaign to make Australia a republic, was gone from office by August 2018.
Somehow, probably as a comprise candidate to avoid putting the borderline fascist (and current Liberal leader) Peter Dutton into The Lodge, the Liberals made a leader of Morrison, whose record until then was notable for the disastrously incomprehensible So, Where the Bloody Hell Are Ya? tourism campaign and a cruel policy that confined asylum seekers in offshore concentration camps. The Morrison government is probably one of the worst in Australia’s history, the only doubts being raised by his colleagues and other 21st century prime ministerships.