Tag Archives: Judith Brett

Lech Blaine’s Top Blokes

Lech Blaine, Top Blokes: The larrikin myth, class and power (Quarterly Essay 83, 2021)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 84

About the time this Quarterly Essay was published (13 September 2021), two other books appeared on Scott Morrison: The Accidental Prime Minister (15 September 2021), a biography by Annika Smethurst; and The Game (1 November 2021) by Sean Kelly. Given that Quarterly Essay 79, The End of Certainty (September 2020) by Katharine Murphy, was in part a portrait of Morrison, no one could say Scott Morrison has avoided scrutiny. Judith Brett has a brief, elegant piece in the November issue of Australian Book Review discussing all four publications. It features on the ABR podcast, at this link.

The main thrust of this essay, as I read it, is that whereas in earlier times the ALP and unions were powerful voices to defend and promote the rights of working class people, they no longer serve that function, and working class voices in Australia – the voices of people involved in direct production and basic service work – have been marginalised. Instead, members of the political class take on cultural signifiers of working-class culture: there’s symbolic representation rather than participation. Memorably, the essay describes Matt Canavan’s selfies in soot-covered face and yellow jacket as the class equivalent of blackface. The argument is important, and urgent in its implications for the resistance to climate change action among mine workers: people who have the most at stake in the short term are unlikely to be persuaded by high moral argument, or even arguments about intergenerational justice, from people whose livelihoods and lifestyles aren’t obviously at immediate risk.

That argument is graphically presented in a history of the politics since Howard, interspersed with commentary from Blaine’s unreconstructed working-class friends and family on both sides of politics.

The issue is muddied by the whole larrikin thing. It’s one thing to describes Scott Morrison’s construction of an artificial persona that would appeal to a certain part of the electorate: ditching his love of Rugby Union and becoming a League fan, having his photo taken with a meat pie and a beer, etc. It’s quite another to say that this is larrikinism: on the contrary, the ‘daggy dad’, ‘ordinary bloke’ persona smacks of suburban conformity rather than nose-thumbing disruptiveness, which I would have thought was a defining feature of larrikinism.

I went back through the essay looking for Blaine’s definition of the term. I found this:

In the beginning, larrikins sinned on the streets of Australian cities. They lusted not after power but for moral condemnation from coppers. The capitalist class was trolled for sport. That didn’t mean the larrikin was impervious to the seduction of money and media spectacle. Life revolved around get-rich-quick schemes and dreams of widespread notoriety. ‘The term “larrikin” was used as a handy way for journalists and the authorities to label any apparently lowborn young person … who engaged in uncouth behaviour,’ wrote Melissa Ballanta in Larrikins: A History. ‘At all times larrikinism had a profound connection to unskilled labour.’

(page 13)

That seems clear enough, but once the essay moves away from definitions, the word seems to be applied to any person, usually a man, who is solidly working class, and possibly raised in poverty. The essay discusses a wide range of individuals as exemplifying aspects of the larrikin, real and fake, including: Melissa Lucashenko’s father, an itinerant Russian migrant who was ‘extremely violent’; John Willey, who grew up in an orphanage, fought in World War II, was a solid unionist and helped build the Railways Rugby League Club in Ipswich; Anthony Albanese, at least in his early life, who was raised in public housing by a single mother a disability pension; Bruce, a FIFO electrician on a gas mine; movie-star and tax evader Paul Hogan; First Nations senator Lidia Thorpe; poet Omar Sakr; artist Abdul Abdullah; Indigenous All Stars captain Joel Thompson. The term becomes wide enough to embrace anyone who is anti-authoritarian: Grace Tame, Behrouz Boochani and Adam Goodes. That is to say, the word becomes close to mea,

The muddled larrikinism discussion aside, the essay offers important insights into the One-Nation-voting working people who feel themselves, with justice, to be ignored and silenced by the mainstream media and politicians.


Six of the eight correspondents in Quarterly Essay 84 – Jess Hill’s The Reckoning – are women.

Rachel Nolan, a former Queensland MP, notes that Lech Blaine identifies strongly with his family’s Ipswich connections, and she gives a brief, fascinating political history of the town.

Bri Lee amplifies the essay’s description of the way people with university degrees condescend to those who don’t, the way some people on the left believe in ‘the stupidity and wholesale inferiority of the right’.

Economist Alison Pennington does a sterling job of outlining the origins of larrikinism in the success of enormous struggles by working people, and having done some of the work that was missing from the essay, she gives credit where it’s due, calling it ‘one of the most engaging analyses I’ve read of Australian contemporary class relations’.

Literary critic Shannon Burns offers some fascinating reflections on ‘authenticity’, and somehow includes a description of Bogan Bingo, an entertainment in which white-collar workers have fun pretending to be ‘bogans’. She draws attention to an element of larrikinism that is missing from Blaine’s account: ‘He knows how to have fun and invites you along for the ride. A larrikin is playful when she is serious and serious when she is playful.’

Of the men, historian David Hunt challenges the essay’s identification of solid unionists with larrikins – historically the two groups have loathed each other.

Lech Blaine’s response to the correspondence is brilliantly un-defensive – a textbook example of how to respond to disagreement and criticism. He writes:

Flicking someone flippantly between historical scenes was meant to convey the mess of Australian national identity, and the way we frequently use the same descriptions and categories for people who are spiritually and politically opposed. I definitely should have provided a more succinct definition of what it means to be a larrikin, then and now, especially in a positive sense

(Quarterly Essay 84, page 106)

November Verse 2 & Judith Brett’s Coal Curse

November verse 2: 
First a paddock, now a quarry.
Ride on sheepback, ride in coal-cart
all the way to– Well I'm sorry,
who knows where? It takes a cold heart
not to quake when science gives notice
not to quail when Trump is POTUS,
not to dump Adani's deal,
not to see shit just got real.
Impervious to rhyme and reason,
evidence and sound advice,
our governments have, for a price –
praise be, and Kyrie eleison –
bent the knee to fossil fuels
like autogenocidal tools.

Which is a response to:


Judith Brett, The Coal Curse: Resources, climate and Australia’s future (Quarterly Essay Nº 78, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 79

Judith Brett’s The Coal Curse is in part an update of Guy Pearse’s Quarterly Essay Nº 33, Quarry Vision (here’s a link to my recently-retrieved blog post about that). Much has changed in the decade between the two essays: the climate emergency has become more obviously pressing, community and business support for renewable energy has increased hugely, there’s much more scepticism about the future role of coal and gas in Australia’s economy in business circles (except, of course in the coal and gas industry). Dispiritingly, little has changed in the federal government’s hand in glove relationship with the fossil fuel industry, and the issue has become even more politicised, more enmeshed in culture wars.

This essay, Judith Brett writes in the introductory section, ‘is about the history of Australia as a commodity-exporting nation and its political consequences’:

Economic history is unfashionable nowadays. Economists focus on the modelling and management of the present and historians are more interested in stories and experience, and in uncovering diversity and neglected voices. Economic history is dry and hard to narrativise. But how a country makes its living can explain a lot.

(Page 8)

I didn’t find this essay dry at all. Judith Brett writes with wonderful clarity. Every now and then she throws in a wry aside, an amusing factoid or a startling anecdote, but you’re never at risk of getting lost in a welter of detail or a barrage of polemic.

Here’s her argument in brief:

  1. Australia is a trading nation. We have a small population, so exporting enables our companies to grow by reaching larger markets.
  2. There has always been a divide between the export of commodities – wool until the 1950s, minerals since then – and manufactured goods. The first makes a lot more profit but employs many fewer people.
  3. Because minerals export, especially coal and gas recently, is so profitable, it draws resources away from other exports and manufacturing.
  4. With the minerals boom, our manufacturing sector has pretty much collapsed.
  5. World markets for coal are decreasing dramatically as the rest of the world addresses climate change. Australian governments have been successfully captured by the fossil fuels lobby, and have not responded to the challenges of reality, as opposed to many in business and overwhelming public opinion.
  6. Paraphrasing wildly now, if something doesn’t change dramatically soon, we’d better kiss our backsides goodbye.

Actually, Brett isn’t as pessimistic as that. But when she quotes an LNP Senator from Queensland saying what an honour it has been ‘to represent the Australian mining sector’ (page 62), she leaves the reader in no doubt that some politicians forget that they are, as she puts it, ‘our risk managers of last resort’.


As we expect in the Quarterly Essay, the correspondence on The Coal Curse in QE 79 is civil, nuanced and challenging. Andy Lloyd, who worked for Rio Tinto for 23 years, offers the equivalent of a ‘not all men’ argument, which blurs some of the edges of Judith Brett’s argument but makes no substantial difference. The other correspondents tend to emphasise the hopeful elements of the essay, pointing to promising activist strategies, actual developments in the business sector that indicate fossil fuels are heading for oblivion and the Australian government are likely to be left floundering behind the main game.

Stephen Bell, professor of political economy at the University of Queensland, articulates a key question that always lurks behind discussions of this sort:

Who reads this kind of history? Mostly, people already agree that coal is causing environmental devastation and the coal lobby is far too powerful. And almost certainly not those who have drunk the Coal-Aid, unless their aim is to lampoon it and its author, as the Murdoch stable is wont to do. This is the crisis of Australia’s intellectual life: the apparent impossibility of generating a constructive rational dialogue about anything in general, and about coal in particular.

(QE 79 page 128)

Martin Luther King Junior said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ We’d better hope the arc isn’t too long.


The Coal Curse is the 19th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Quarterly Essay on the country and the city

Judith Brett, Fair Share: Country and city in Australia (Quarterly Essay 42)

Judith Brett has an admirable capacity for seeing beyond the surface of ugly or bizarre utterances to the valid concerns or at least genuine pain that has given rise to them. In this essay, for example, she resists (or perhaps doesn’t even feel) the pull to mock or repudiate Bob Katter’s extreme language when he’s arguing for his constituency. And she doesn’t indulge in the city dweller’s revulsion from book-burning when she discusses the farmers who burned copies of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s draft plan last year – no snide comment about people who condemn and burn documents they haven’t had time to read.  That is to say, she side-steps the kind of point-scoring that tends to pass for debate in the press these days. Instead, she addresses her subject seriously and respectfully. Even as she argues that ‘economic rationalism’ brought havoc to rural Australia, charts the rise and fall of the Country/National Party, or notes the impact of Pauline Hanson, she avoids cheap shots.

It’s an excellent, thoughtful essay. This paragraph comes close to encapsulating its argument :

City and country in Australia share a history, a long history both of interdependence and of watchful suspicion. The understanding of that interdependence was strong in the first two centuries of Australia’s European settlement, and the attempt to build a vibrant and self-sustaining countryside was a major political preoccupation. The country made claims on the city for support, and by and large the city attempted to meet them as part of a compact in which Australians shared the cost of living in a big country. This understanding has waned rapidly since the neoliberal 1980s. Since then the country has seemed to be in a perpetual state of crisis: dying towns, depressed and ageing farmers, unproductive farms carrying too much debt, environmentally unsustainable irrigation schemes, droughts and flooding rains, crisis-ridden marketing schemes like the wool stockpile and the Australian Wheat Board, and so on. The picture is of irreversible decline. Yet, as Tony Windsor reminds us, over 30 per cent of Australians live outside the big cities. What is their role in the nation? And what are we to do with all that land beyond the ranges and the thinly settled coastal strip?

My two cents worth: read it – you’ll see the world a little better!

As usual, this Quarterly Essay includes correspondence about the previous issue. The contributors here are all but unanimous in their appreciation of David Malouf’s The Happy Life, calling it variously ‘beguiling’, ‘characteristically delicate’, ‘elegant and humane’, ‘thoughtful and courteous’. They are also all but unanimous in finding that he didn’t say anything definitive about happiness. A Russian scholar argues that his reading of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is simplistic an uninformed. A psychiatrist invokes the academic literature about happiness. Several others push their respective barrows with varying degrees of elegance and insight.

David Malouf does not rejoin the conversation. I read his silence as signifying that he’s perfectly happy for other people to have their say, to correct him where needed, to have their own crack at the subject. After all his piece differed from most Quarterly Essays by being in the tradition of the essay as a crack at a subject rather than a tightly argued thesis. Sometimes the appropriate response to an essay is not to argue with it. Maybe Marieke Hardy got it right on the First Tuesday Book Club last night. She said she felt as she was reading The Happy Life that she was sitting on David Malouf’s lap resting her cheeks on his bald head and letting him read to her.

Quarterly Essays

[This post first appeared on my old blog on 2 October 2005. I’m making it public in this one in September 2021 because I want to link to it.]

John Hirst, Kangaroo Court’: Family Law in Australia (Quarterly Essay 17)
Gail Bell, The Worried Well: The Depression Epidemic and the Medicalisation of our Sorrows (Quarterly Essay 18)
Judith Brett, Relaxed & Comfortable: The Liberal Party’s Australia (Quarterly Essay 19)

Let me sing the praises of the Quarterly Essay. Published by Black Inc in Melbourne, it’s a series of substantial papers on matters of public interest, generally thoughtful, often polemical and, of the ones I’ve read, always readable. The last three have been historian John Hirst on the Family Law Court, writer and pharmacist Gail Bell on depression and pharmaceuticals, and political historian Judith Brett on the political success of John Howard and the Liberal Party. In a time when public discussion so often consists of sound bites or prolonged slanging matches (culture wars, history wars, poetry wars, not to mention the Latham diaries and the recent political and nearly personal destruction of John Brogden), this series stands out like a beacon.

Not only does each issue present a sustained piece of argument, it also includes correspondence on previous issues. So there have been replies from the people most fiercely criticised by John Hirst, as well as thoughtful additions and contextualisations of his argument; and responses to Gail Bell’s piece that range from defences of Big Pharma to two pieces that argue she didn’t go far enough in her critique.

The Art Student reckons that Judith Brett’s essay is the best thing she’s ever read about Australian political history, and that it should be made into a film or a comic book so as to have the widest possible readership. And QE20, due out in December, can reasonably be expected to have the very best that anyone can come up with by way of rebuttal, expansion, derision. I don’t suppose we’ll hear from John Howard himself, but I’m confident there’ll be something other than the lurid rantings of columnists like Andrew Bolt or Miranda Divine.

It gives one hope for something like a civil society.