Doctor Faustus and Malcolm Turnbull: Some Parallels

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16 August 2017           

In the late 16th century the English playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote an Elizabethan tragedy, most commonly referred to as Doctor Faustus. The play contained some memorable lines that have passed into common usage, often with the user being unaware of their literary origins. The tragic tale of Doctor Faustus has been likened to that of the Greek fable of Icarus, one whose hubris thought he could fly to the sun, only to have his waxen wings melt and for him to plummet to his death.

In watching the contemporary Australian political scene one is often reminded of the “tragical history” of Doctor Faustus as we play out a modern Elizabethan tragedy. In the play, the character of Faustus is approached by two Angels, one Good, the other Bad. Although initially torn between the two, he is eventually won over by the Bad angel, captivated by the possibilities such an alliance might bring. He strikes a bargain with Lucifer: in exchange for 24 more years on earth and magic powers he must give his body and soul to Lucifer as payment.

The time eventually comes when Faustus announces his intention to renounce magic and repent, but he is unable to do so. When his allotted 24 years have nearly expired he realizes that he gave up his soul for no good reason. He is dragged off to Hell where he is to forever remain.

An argument can be made that the present Prime Minister shows some remarkable parallels with Doctor Faustus. A man known for his cleverness, urbanity and eloquence, he espoused progressive views on a range of topics. They were argued with force, eloquence and passion. Too progressive, it would seem, for many of his own colleagues who replaced him as party leader with a man with almost no redeeming features, but with sufficient destructive negativity to win an election against a divided and demoralized foe.

What may make an effective Opposition leader does not necessarily translate into effective Prime Ministership, and so it proved. Turnbull staged a comeback after 30 successive negative opinion polls for the man who had replaced him. He came back to power with astronomically high ratings and a matching level of expectation from a public eager for a change both in tone and policy direction.

In order to regain the leadership however, promises had to be made, the details of which have never been disclosed, but the content of which can be inferred from the history of the nearly two years that have followed.

Where there had once been a progressive man of conviction, arguing for an imaginative and innovative government there remains but a hollow shell. On issue after issue there is overwhelming evidence that in order to recapture the leadership, Turnbull had made a Faustian bargain with a reactionary cabal whose policy stances make a mockery of any claim that they are “representatives” of the wider community in whose name they have claimed their place and their privileges. In the seat of Warringah for example, a recent poll suggests that 70% of its electors want marriage equality, yet their member espouses views shared by a small minority of the population.

We are now subjected to a charade masquerading as government. Any resemblance to evidence based policy is purely coincidental. There is continuing chaos, a refusal to make decisions on matters the public desperately want dealt with and overwhelmingly support in a manner different from what Ministers are proposing, and a pathetic litany of self-serving statements that convince no one.

This once principled and forceful advocate for progressive change now pleads that he is a “strong leader”, and one “joined at the hip” to a foreign power whose vital interests diverge radically from those of Australia, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, and who cannot even bring himself to campaign for an issue he professes to believe in.

Like Doctor Faustus he may eventually seek to repent selling his principled soul for the temporary gratification of prime ministerial power. The tragic irony is that in forfeiting his principles that power is no longer his to exercise. He is constantly the captive of an antediluvian rump who undoubtedly despise him. Only the absence of an electorally viable alternative within his own party enables him to hold onto what few crumbs of moral authority remain.

Like Faustus he will very soon be dragged off, if not to hell, then to electoral oblivion by an angry and deeply disillusioned populace. There will be no Good Angel to rescue him from the consequences of his own hubris. Like Faustus, he is blind to his own salvation. There is no sweet Helen to make him immortal with a kiss.

Again like Faustus, Turnbull was “ravished by magic” and turned to the dark arts of political survival at all costs when law, logic and science could no longer persuade him. His political epitaph may well echo that of Mephistopheles

“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God

And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,

Am not tormented by ten thousand hells

In being deprived of everlasting bliss?”

He has only himself to blame.

*Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at joneill@qldbar.asn.au

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