The ABC’s first epic retrospective looking back at an Australian federal government was called Labor in Power (1993). The follow-up was the equally straightforward The Howard Years (2008). But after that, something got in the water at ABC News, and their examination of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government was given the far more lurid title of The Killing Season (2016). Now they’re back for the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison years with Nemesis. Presumably they’re saving Bloodbath at the House of Death for Albo.
Nemesis is running over three weeks, with the reign of each Liberal PM getting its own 90-minute episode. The big appeal with what is basically a history lesson covering events most of us remember all too well is that the politicians are supposedly giving their frank and uncensored opinions on events and their colleagues. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Malcolm Turnbull say ‘fuck’, here’s your big chance.
So there’s plenty of big names on-camera here, though the first episode is hamstrung by a lack of heavy hitters from Tony Abbott’s government. There’s no Abbott, no Joe Hockey, no Bronwyn Bishop, no Julie Bishop. Not even Peta Credlin (presumably her take is already available on Sky News), who’s so firmly established now as a right-wing media commentator it’s easy to forget she got her start as Abbott’s chief of staff.
Also missing from this series is a narrator. Rather, historical footage and reports are used to provide background and fill in the gaps. This leaves Nemesis feeling more like news than editorial, positioned as an impartial look at agreed on facts rather than the ABC giving their verdict on the recent past. Considering the somewhat browbeaten relationship the ABC’s had with the coalition government in the past decade, this ambivalent approach is less surprising than it should be.
That said, this is clearly designed to be a greatest hits collection of the LNP government’s public trips, stumbles and bungles (it’s not titled Steady As She Goes: A Decade of Good Government), and as such it definitely hits all the high notes.
With most of the main Abbott supporters absent, it’s up to Eric Abetz to wave the flag while the episode portrays Abbott as staggering from crisis to over-the-top reaction to blatant blunder. Even when he does right the ship after the first ’empty chair’ leadership spill, it’s only a matter of time.
Enter Scott Morrison, who is a ‘very professional political tactician’, according to Turnbull in a rare moment of understatement. Having Morrison turn up this early in the series is the closest this gets to a jump scare, especially as it rapidly becomes obvious – possibly the title of the series can be considered something of a giveaway – that the working thesis here is that Morrison was the real wrecker behind the scenes.
So while Abbott is trying to give a knighthood to Prince Phillip and sticking up for Bronwyn Bishop after her helicopter ride to Geelong, Morrison is using various proxies to manipulate the situation to his advantage. Turnbull believes Morrison’s initial plan was for him to challenge Abbott, fail (but with Abbott mortally wounded), and leave the door open for Morrison to present himself as saviour. Guess we’ll have to wait until episode three for that happy day.
Gathering all these power players is a big achievement, but there’s little real sense of the curtain being fully lifted here. It’s a retrospective, not a reveal; rather than any deep insights into the grand sweep of history, the best moments are gossip – political plotters scheming over pizza, Tony Abbott telling Malcolm Turnbull to ‘fuck off’ after being rolled for the leadership. There’s conniving and backbiting, but if you’ve looked at a news site in the last decade that’s not going to come as a surprise.
Highlights include the occasional fun moment when two diametrically opposed views are presented and someone has to be lying; many of these involve Turnbull, easily the most polished performer in a galaxy of rough-hewn stars who’ve clearly been workshopping their quips. It’s hard not to respect someone who says, when asked how he felt about leading a successful leadership spill, ‘I owed it to Australia … truth is, this was a terrible government’.
While this is designed to be crack for political junkies, we do get the occasional glimpse of how these power games affected the nation beyond Parliament House. Abbott’s ‘missionary approach’ to the Aboriginal people he was meant to be serving is touched upon; his backroom scheming to try and block same sex marriage was so obviously odious it managed to turn a number of backbenchers against him.
And in the background Morrison is made Minister for Social Services, pledging to make the department ‘a welfare cop on the beat’. Most of us know it better as Robodebt, a brutal and inhumane scheme built on accusing Centrelink recipients of fraud then reversing the onus of proof. Suicides followed. Nemesis features a brief interview with the mother of one of the victims, the only appearance from a non-politician here.
At one stage, Morrison is briefly asked about Robodebt. He blames a lack of legal advice against it; a quote from the Robodebt Royal Commission’s finding follows. Morrison rejects these findings … and with that, it’s back to the fun and games of politics.
Which don’t seem quite as much fun as before.
The first episode of Nemesis is now available on ABC iview; episodes two and three will air on the ABC at 8pm over the next two Monday nights.