Were we trolled by Bernardi today?

There’s an episode of the politico-drama television series Boss where Chicago Mayor Tom Kane must deal with evidence of his involvement years before in the cover-up of a chemical spill. Kane’s political enemies have leaked the documents to link him with the cancer-riddled cluster of children living unknowingly near the spill site.

Kelsey Grammer, previously the master of grown-up tv sitcoms, deftly plays the deadly-serious, saurian Kane. He wields his political might like a grandmaster: strategically placing, threatening and if necessary sacrificing and removing his opponents, allies and even family members to maintain his dominant position.

Tim Dunlop aptly described Boss the other day on Twitter as being “unSorkin”, lacking as it does Sorkin’s “optimistic, uplifting approach to politics”.

Uplifting it’s not, but Boss is certainly mesmerising. And while it’s merely a dramatisation of the grubby political world, its depiction of that world is still close enough to make me uncomfortable, in the same way that The Hollow Men or The West Wing makes me cringe or laugh or sigh.

I was reminded of Kane today when I witnessed my corner of Twitter having a meltdown over Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi suggesting last night that marriage equality could lead to bestiality. Being the type who tends to suspect conspiracy over stuff-up, I wondered why Bernardi would say that at this particular point in time.

Sure, it was straightforward on the face of it: parliament would vote today on proposed same sex marriage laws, but Bernardi’s intervention would make no difference to the bills’ passage. There was little chance the bills would pass with the Coalition voting in a bloc against them and the Government’s vote being split through a conscience vote.

It was then I recalled the episode where Mayor Tom Kane managed to transform himself from a villain to a hero by playing sleight of hand with the media. Now, I know, television is not real but what occurred in that plotline was reasonably plausible.

The main objective of the Mayor’s team was to reframe media coverage of the chemical spill cover-up so that it no longer focussed on Kane but on the crisis being faced by the affected community. They provided individual journalists with various off-the-record leads that diverted attention from the Mayor to the local community’s (orchestrated) bottled water drought and (confected) housing value slump. The journos rushed to publish the stories, giving the details minimal scrutiny in the name of the all-important exclusive. Other media outlets were forced to play catch up and cover the same story. One by one, as each media organisation’s news cycle clicked over, Mayor Tom Kane’s role disappeared from the day’s headlines and lead stories.

Before long, the community and media had whipped themselves into a frenzy of outrage fed by powerlessness and fear. Mayor Tom Kane re-entered the fray as their leader and protector, offering clean water and a speedy restoration to the spill site. He went from villain to hero purely by exploiting the speed and ravenous nature of the media cycle.

Which brings me back to Cory Bernardi… well actually it brings me to Tony Abbott. Today was going to be the Leader of the Opposition’s first real public appearance (other than attending military funerals) since last week when Treasurer Wayne Swan accused him of “going the biff” and being a thug, on the back of David Marr’s wall-punch expose. Abbott has mostly avoided the media since then, minimising his safety-vest photo opportunities and sticking to interviews on soft news programs.

No doubt Swan’s jibes were an attempt to tap into the unease that voters felt about another pugilistic Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, almost a decade ago. It would seem Labor strategists are confident that if enough people say enough times that Abbott has a problem with women, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A possible return to the “Abbott is a thug” theme at Question Time today could well have been on the minds of the Opposition’s leadership team last night. While Abbott was given a period of grace during his funeral attendances, the Government could have generated considerable momentum between this morning’s early doorstops and Question Time – with the willing complicity of the drama hungry media – thereby preventing Abbott from regaining the political advantage he so desperately needs right now.

So I’m sure Abbott must have secretly been relieved when Cory Bernardi unleashed his inner Tea Party Animal in the Senate last night. The combined disgust and rage of free speech-loving tweeps, equality-loving MPs and scandal-seeking journalists created a torrent of condemnation that swept all mention of Abbott’s thuggery from our tweetstreams, RSS feeds and tv screens.

At the crescendo (and not coincidentally at exactly the same time Penny Wong was speaking on marriage equality in the Senate), Abbott re-entered the fray as the Liberal Party’s voice of reason and moderation. Abbott ameliorated our sensibilities by extracting Bernardi’s resignation from the Shadow Ministry as penance. While by most measures Abbott had been a villain for the past few weeks, at this moment he was the upholder of principles and morality. Like Kane, Abbott turned his own fortune around within a few short media cycles.  Whether Bernardi’s role in that turnaround was deliberate, we’ll never know.

Bernardi is nothing if not a loyal Liberal foot-soldier with one eye steadfastly locked on the main game: that is, the election of an Abbott Government in 2013. He’s lost nothing more than a fancy title in resigning as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary due to there being no additional staff or remuneration attached to the position. And now that he’s a backbencher, Bernardi is arguably less constrained to speak out than he was before today. Perhaps he’ll become Abbott’s equivalent of Howard-era henchman, Senator Bill Heffernan, whose controversial behaviour was privately considered to have more benefit than it had drawbacks.

For mine, I’m sure Bernardi deliberately trolled us last night to upset any momentum the Government hoped to gain with its “Abbott goes the biff” campaign. Today ended with Bernardi enjoying the pointy end of an international airplane, Abbott getting positive media coverage, and the marriage equality bill being soundly defeated in the Parliament.

All in all, not a bad day’s work if you’re a Tea Party Animal.

Postscript: This article notes that Bernardi has since been quietly appointed by the Coalition as a temporary Chairman of Committees, a role which attracts a 3% salary loading.