At first thought, you could be forgiven for thinking that I’ve gone off the deep end if I’m going to attempt to make any meaningful comparison between the fall of Rome and the current state of Australian politics, and you’re probably right. After all, I’m no more than a passing watcher of Australian politics and a pretty ordinary scholar of Roman history. so in that case, consider this no more than an intellectual exercise to satisfy my curiosity, stirred out of my reading of the paper and listening to a podcast about the fall of the Roman Empire.
Something that leaps out at me from a brief examination of pre-imperial Rome is that it all started to slide when politicians (and military leaders, too, but they were effectively the same thing in Rome at that time, which is a point that might cause Abbott’s posturing with weapons and Morrison’s desperate desire to be seen with Angus Campbell to raise an eyebrow) felt that they had the right to effectively overrule the established practices. Essentially, they identified a loophole in the system, some strange little gap in the nexus between culture, custom and legislation, and they mercilessly screwed the life out of it. For the Romans, there are plenty of examples, but one might take the example of the Gracchi brothers establishing themselves as Tribunes of the People for more than a year consecutively. Of course, the better known example is Julius Caesar appointing himself as dictator for ever longer periods of time.
So what’s the corollary in Australia at this time? I think the government’s obsession with secrecy might be a similar point. Previously, governments would report when we had asylum seekers arrive in Australia, or when they were rescued, or if they reached Christmas Island. But when Abbott and the rest of the Tories came to power, suddenly such matters became state secrets, and hence couldn’t be discussed. And lo and behold, suddenly, everyone is congratulating the government on having stopped the ‘boat people’ – essentially they manufactured a problem, won an election on the back of it, and then made it disappear – all in one canny piece of politicking.
Of course, another feature of Rome’s fall from democracy (although you’re braver than me if you call The Senate of Rome anything other than an oligarchy) was the lack of tolerance for opposition points of view. In Rome, you would take your life in your own hands if you dared to speak out against the first dictators like Sulla or Marius – indeed, this is when prescription lists first began to be used. Gangs of armed men would hunt down dissenters or opposition supporters, killing them and taking their belongings. Abbott isn’t promising anything like that, thankfully, but he is promising to lock up people who speak out against the vile conditions on Nauru or Manus Island – even people who have a responsibility to do so. And of course, if you’re a public intellectual and you dare to disagree, like Gillian Triggs, then you can expect the attack dogs of the Tory frontbencher and the Murdoch rags to rip you apart – metaphorically, at least.