Mungo MacCallum, Australian Story: Kevin Rudd and the lucky country (Quarterly Essay issue 36, 2009)
Mungo MacCallum is now, according to the blurb of this Quarterly Essay, one of Australia’s most influential political journalists. He was probably already influential all those years ago when he was telling Nation Review readers how well Prime Minister Gough Whitlam filled a pair of swimming trunks, but now he is an elder. Mercifully, he is also still a bit of a smart Aleck.
There are no hints here about Kevin Rudd’s physical endowments – the essay’s main interest is in the nature of his appeal to voters. The essay quotes poetry, mainly bush verse, including a savage parody of ‘Clancy of the Overflow’:
He was poisoning the water when he chanced upon a slaughter
So he joined in patriotically to massacre and rape
And he sees the vision splendid of the native problem ended
and a land made safe for cattle from Tasmania to the Cape.
The essay takes the odd potshot at contrarian right-wing columnists. It produces some fabulous quotes, including for example a definition of a modern progressive as ‘a fella that stumbles forward every time somebody shoves him’. (Sadly there are no footnotes, so we often don’t know what wits are being quoted – I’m guessing Mungo himself did the Paterson parody.)
That is to say, there’s a lot to enjoy in this essay. It also has substance – of an airy sort. It deals with policy, that’s true, and Kevin Rudd’s largely successful response of the GFC, but mainly it argues that he taps into some deeply held myths about what it means to be Australian – egalitarianism, fairness, the larrikin–dutiful citizen dichotomy, that reluctant progressiveness, ‘fervent, if understated, nationalism’. ‘For all his nerdiness and prolixity,’ he concludes,
there is something very Australian about him, and the voters recognise it. In a totally unexpected way, Rudd has given them back their Lucky Country – and this time not in a spirit of irony, but one of self-belief.
Hmmm … But I enjoyed the ride.
This issue also includes the 2009 Quarterly Essay Lecture, ‘Is Neo-Liberalism finished?’ a search for the meaning of what he calls the Great Recession by the chair of the editorial board, Robert Manne. The lecture isn’t as much fun as the title essay, covers some of the same ground, occasionally manages to be incomprehensible when explaining (yet again) how the Great Recession came about. Where MacCallum takes cheerfully bitter potshots, Manne eviscerates in earnest.
And then there’s correspondence about Noel Pearson’s Radical Hope. A number of the correspondents join in Pearson’s left-liberal bashing, and there’s a certain amount of jockeying for position from politicians and activists. Voices from the old Howard Government era talk of Pearson’s pre-eminence as an Aboriginal public voice on the national scene, without mentioning that the deliberate dismantling of ATSIC had destroyed any more organised and representative voice. Christine Nicholls, former principal of Lajamanu School in Yuendemu, is the only educationalist to write a substantial response, and she does a brilliant job of respectfully taking Pearson to task for his straw-man arguments against ideologically driven educationists. The only Aboriginal voice is that of Chris Sarra, who gently chides Pearson for dismissing elements of his own educational work without having ever visited it. Over all, the correspondence confirms that Pearson’s conversation is mainly with conservative white leaders, but it also shows him as eager to do more than simply pontificate as a lone voice.