Another early start with 10–11 am: Barrie Cassidy & Friends: State of the Nation
Veteran journalist Barrie Cassidy has been a regular at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, but this is the first time I’ve been to one of his sessions. He was on stage with what the festival program calls ‘his hand-picked squad of the country’s sharpest pundits’: Amy Remeikis, Niki Savva and Laura Tingle. They’re all regulars on current affairs TV, but I don’t think I’d seen any of them in person before.
The subject was politics, that is to say mainly electoral politics and the state of the major parties. The most telling comment was towards the end when Barrie Cassidy said, ‘When there’s consensus between the major parties, the media doesn’t chase it up.’ This means that the press doesn’t do a lot of interrogating of the AUKUS deal – is it actually in Australia’s interest or is it a matter of us serving the interests of the UK and the US? Similarly, coverage of climate issues through a party-political lens can often miss the point.
Nikki Savva’s subject seems to be the Liberal party. She sees the current dominance of Labor in Federal parliament and in all mainland states is largely due to the decline of the Liberals as a fighting machine and also as representative of a population. They are ceasing to be an effective opposition, or even an opposition at all. Peter Dutton’s survival strategy depends on three things: the failure of teh referendum on the Voice; an economic crash; and the rise of intolerance. Hard to cheer for him, then, and she says many dyed in the wool Liberals can no longer bring themselves to vote for what the party has become since Howard.
Amy Remeikis, introduced by Barrie Cassidy as political correspondent for The Australian much to the amusement of the Guardian readers in the audience, thought Labor’s ascendancy had something to do with changing demographics. Millennials now outnumber boomers, and in addition to the tendency of people to be more progressive when young, there’s the fact that life is particularly tough for the young these days.
Laura Tingle added that politics tends to go in cycles. This is Labor’s time for dominance, it was at rock bottom in 2014.
All agreed that there is a growing disconnect between the political class – politicians, political journalists, people who turn up for panels like this one – and the rest of the community. People are doing it hard, inequality is bigger than it’s ever been, our sense of common life is being eroded (not as badly in the USA, yet). Things are better than they were before last year’s election. The people in charge now are there with good motives, but business as usual could lead to disaster. We need grown-up conversations about tax and climate policy, and we’ve got a way to go for that.
A non-party-political subject that got some airplay was the recent resignation of Stan Grant after he was subjected to vicious and sometimes racist attack for giving a Wiradjuri perspective on the British Crown. Laura Tingle, as recently elected member of the ABC’s Board, said she had been out of action for a couple of weeks because of a bereavement, but deeply regretted Stan’s lack of support from management and the Board.
I haven’t ever watched Insiders, which used to be Barrie Cassidy’s Sunday morning show on the ABC. I imagine this was a slightly generalised version of that. One of the questions at the end referred to the fact that over a number of years not one non-white panellist had appeared on that show (the questioner didn’t need to point out that all the panellists today were white). Barrie did the only thing he could do and said it had been a mistake.
11 am: Osman Faruqi on Australia’s War Against Hip Hop
I listened to this Curiosity Lecture almost by accident. I know almost nothing about hip hop, and I guess I skip over headlines saying that it has been banned in venues including Sydney’s Royal Easter Show.
Osman Faruqi’s exasperated plea could have been meant specifically for me: ‘For once, listen to some art that doesn’t come from Bondi or Balmain.’ (Though, to be honest, I don’t know when I last listened to music from either Bondi or Balmain.)
He told us that NSW Police have taken steps to ban particular hip hop performers saying, nonsensically, that their music is used to ‘procure’ members for criminal bikie gangs etc. This censorship, he said, is ‘the greatest example of artistic suppression in Australia’s history’. If Nick Cave, who is white and part of the music establishment, sings about murdering every woman he sees, no one bans his song as inciting murder. When Bill Henson’s photographs are taken down, there’s an outcry. But if a brown rapper uses violent imagery they are banned from performing and police have their videos removed from YouTube, and there is resounding silence from the art world, including from successful white rappers.
Showing my age: in the 1970s the campaign against censorship focused on erotic material, because the banning of material deemed pornographic (the famous example if Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam was also banned). You don’t have to love pornography or be a fan of drill-rap to be uneasy about what’s happening now
12–12.30 pm: Beginnings: Remembering Robert Adamson and Frank Moorhouse
There were a number of ‘Beginnings’ sessions. It’s a nice idea: people read the beginnings of their favourite books, or perhaps their own books, on the assumption that writers put a lot of attention to their opening paragraphs.
This short session used the format to honour Frank Moorhouse and Robert Adamson, who both died in the last 12 months. I wonder if it would be an idea to plan a couple of elegiac sessions along these lines for every Writers’ Festival. Spaces could be left blank for people who die too late to be included in advance publicity. John Tranter, who died on 21 April this year, might then have been honoured.
As it was, Annabel Crabb and Mark Mordue read to us.
Annabel read the opening pages of the first two ‘Edith’ books, the first line of the third, and then the final pages, Edith’s death scene, from Cold Light, the third book. It was shockingly good.
Mark Mordue opened with a letter found in Adamson’s papers in which Frank Moorhouse responded warmly to one of Adamson’s poems. He spoke briefly about Adamson’s life, including his time in prison, his drug addiction and the role of his wife Juno Gemes. He finished with a poem that Adamson wrote for her, ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul’, which Adamson himself read at at least one previous Sydney Writers’ Festival. It ends:
_________________________ the future awaits you. I stepped into the day, by following your gaze.
I want to make a final small observation about acknowledgements of country.
My initial prompt for this was an acknowledgement that was gobsmackingly perfunctory: the presenter didn’t look at us, but read hurriedly from a clipboard, stumbling slightly over the words. Disrespect may not have been intended, but it was certainly there.
I started to notice how other presenters made their acknowledgements personal. For example:
- Michael Williams spoke briefly of how the land was unceded and so the issue of sovereignty was unresolved
- Omar Sakr noted that some people object to the acknowledgements and responded that words – words like ‘genocide’ and ‘sovereignty’ – matter, that words give rise to actions
- Sisonke Msimang made acknowledgement first in her own mother tongue and then in English
- Felicity Plunkett quoted two lines about the power of country from First Nations poet Ellen van Neerven
- Barrie Cassidy drew our attention to the coming referendum on a First Nations Voice to Parliament.
I was born on Mamu land in what is now North Queensland, and my father remembered as a child hearing ceremony down at the river behind our place. I’m writing this on Gadigal-Wangal land. Both places make my heart sing.
And the Festival is over, bar the podcasting.