Tag Archives: George Megalogenis

SWF: My Day 3

Circumstances made me miss Friday morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Emerging Artist, however, got two sessions under her belt.

10:00–11:00 am: Sri Lanka: This Divided Island. She said this was marvellous. Samanth Subramanian, an Indian Tamil journalist, spoke with Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Quite apart from its main thrust, an account of the recent three-decade war and its aftermath, the conversation helped her think about the ethics of her own current art project, which involves many people making small terracottta hearts.

11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Jonathan Franzen: My Reading Life. The main things she reported was that he enjoyed the famous German sense of humour, and was influenced by a number of women writers.

At 3 o’clock the Emerging Artist went to Migration: A World Without Borders? and pretty much fell in love with Aleksandar Hemon. She bought two of his books, even overcoming her vehement dislike of zombie stories to buy his novel, The Making of Zombie Wars.

At 4:30 she went to hear Starlee Kine: From This American Life to Mystery Show and discovered a new podcast to subscribe to, dealing in ‘mysteries that can’t be solved by Google’.

Meanwhile, apart from sitting and chatting over lunch, my Festival day began at 3 with The New Australian Poetry. Unlike previously, this year’s poetry events are in largish rooms and mostly aren’t free. This one was a book launch – of an issue of the US journal Poetry devoted to Australian poets.

As we queued in the scorching afternoon sun (yes, scorching in mid- May), we were regaled by the booming opinions of a youngish man who had evidently been all over the world (perhaps his time in the US accounted for his LOUDNESS) and wanted the world to know that poetry is held in lower esteem in Australia than anywhere else.

The room was filled to capacity. After brief remarks from Don Share, soft-spoken editor of Poetry, and Robert Adamson, guest editor of this issue, we were read to by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Lisa Gorton, Michael Farrell and Robbie Coburn. In response to an audience request, some of them read poems by other people that appear in the anthology. Then two poets – Susan Fealy and Petra White – were drafted from the audience. Taking a cue from David Malouf the previous day, I asked if any of them would read the same poem a second time – I named Lionel Fogarty and he obliged.

There were two questions, both from the same person, one for each of the Indigenous poets. Don Share made that’s-a-wrap noises, and we were gathering up our stuff when Lionel Fogarty stepped up to his mic again and called on us to break out of our individualism and think in terms of community.

Ali Cobby Eckermann took a turn at the mic and told us, shockingly, that when she was at an international gathering of poets recently some Syrians had asked her how come she writes war poetry. They recognised in her poetry about Aboriginal Australia striking similarities to their own war-torn lives, and she realised that, however deep and strong the denial, the Australian war of dispossession is still going on.

Don Share rose beautifully to the occasion: ‘The difficulty we have in understanding a poem,’ he said, ‘is the same as the difficulty in hearing another person.’

I went home to deal with various animals, then rejoined the EA in the evening for Magda Szubanski and George Megalogenis: Rated PG (Polish and Greek), an entertaining conversation between two children of immigrants.

SWF 2011: A Good Leader is Hard to Find

The reason I am not a politician is that I want to understand.

That’s what the French political scientist Raymond Aron said when asked why he hadn’t gone into politics. The remark came to mind when I saw the number of politicians and ex-politicians in this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival line-up. Maybe there’s room for a separate Sydney Politicians’ Festival, or a Sydney Politicians’ and Political Journalists’ Festival.

Whatever misgivings I might have had, I turned up with 1600 or so others at the Town Hall last night to hear Lenore Taylor, Bob Ellis, George Megalogenis, Bob Carr, Barrie Cassidy and Kerry O’Brien chat under the heading, ‘A Good Leader Is Hard to Find’. Kerry O’B was moderator, and the first thing he did, whether deliberately or not, was to reframe the discussion. He announced the title as ‘Good Leadership Is Hard to Find’. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief, as the shift away from the personal made it a bit less likely that we’d be treated to misogyny-flavoured wit at Julia Gillard’s expense.

The composition of the panel – four political journalists, five if you count Bob ‘Sui Generis’ Ellis, and a former politician who was also once a journalist – made it inevitable that the discussion would focus on the relationship between politicians and the media. There seemed to be consensus that we lack effective or convincing leadership in the Australian parliament, that the interplay between the politicians and the relentless 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame, and that the attention both of them pay to opinion polls adds toxin to the brew. Our leaders are so busy feeding the media beast they don’t have time to think. They’re reduced to selling a message rather than advocating a case, performing rather than communicating. Political coverage is dominated by opinion polls, leadership challenges and early election speculation, with not a lot of room forin depth analytic conversation. Gone are the days when the Prime Minister would chat with journalists at the end of a long day and explain his/her thinking about proposed legislation – when Paul Keating would say to Lenore Taylor, ‘Love, this is what you need to know. The discussion was refreshingly free of blame: the way the media works has changed, and neither the politicians nor the journalists have figured out how to deal with the new reality.

There were no revelatory insights, but it was an interesting evening. Ellis and Carr stood out as phrase-makers, Carr describing himself as an amateur historian, Ellis enacting his familiar contrarian persona. For example, Carr:

In a democracy the normal relationship between people and their elected representatives is mistrust and dissatisfaction. It’s the job of the people to be disillusioned. It’s the job of politicians to disillusion.

Ellis, when asked why the ALP doesn’t adopt what he had just described as an obvious strategy

They do research instead of thinking.

It’s not that the others lacked flair, but as working journalists perhaps they were a little more willing to let the facts get in the way of a good story. So after Bob C made his fourth or fifth remark on the theme that things may be bad but they’ve been ever thus, George M said, ‘I’ve followed many election campaigns but this was the first one where the main candidates feared the electorate.’ And when Ellis spoke of the minority government as ushering in a new era of negotiation and persuasion in parliament, Lenore challenged him: ‘And you’ve seen this happen with which piece of legislation?’

The journoes have their own unrealities. George M told us how his faith in the electorate had been restored when ‘they’ decided to choose neither side of politics at the last election, but to have a hung parliament. No one on the panel said, ‘George, you’re talking nonsense. No one made that decision. All the millions of actual deciders chose one or the other. There was no “Neither” option on the ballot paper.’

There was half an hour of questions. Only one person mistook the microphone for a soapbox.

Trivial Pursuit

The new Quarterly Essay, Trivial Pursuit by George Megalogenis, has this quote in bold type on the back cover:

Rudd, Gillard and Abbott sought power in 2010 on the same dangerous premise, that no sacrifice is required to secure our future. Government on this basis is never worth it because the promise of painless change can never be kept. The voters knew it, which is why they spared themselves the inevitable let-down by hanging the parliament.

Um, George, that’s not how this kind of democracy works. The ‘voters’ didn’t get together to thrash out the issues and arrive at a consensus, or even a majority vote, to hang the parliament. No one decided to hang the parliament. A certain number of voters decided they wanted their local representative to come from one side of politics. Another certain number decided they preferred the other side. And again a number of voters decided to call down a plague on both their houses. The aggregate entity known as ‘the voters’ doesn’t have motives, or make decisions. It’s like fate, or the hidden hand of the market, or God. Its ways are not human ways.

Given that the essay was capable of such theologising, I decided not to read it.