Tag Archives: Quarterly Essay

Don Watson’s Enemy Within

Don Watson,  Enemy Within: American politics in the time of Trump (Quarterly Essay 63, September 2016)


This Quarterly Essay is closer in form to the classic essays of Addison and Lamb than to the engaged argument of most issues. It doesn’t so much push a thesis as offer a series of ruminations and perspectives.

Don Watson is a lugubrious bemoaner of abuses of the English language, so visiting a US election campaign must have been a melancholy experience for him. One of the joys of this essay is the attention it pays to language – my favourite moment being this comment on Bernie Sanders’ repeated use of the word ‘incomprehensible’:

An election processes reality into platitudes. Even the images become platitudes. It grinds all the tendons and marrow and flesh of history, and all the cultural overlays of Los Angeles, and the ukuleles and ‘You bets’ of Janesville, into something universally digestible. Hearing a word like ‘incomprehensible’ in the middle of it is like finding a bone in a fish finger.

More substantially, Watson is also a historian. Rather than give us a blow-by-blow account of Donald Trump’s tweets and other provocations or Hillary Clinton’s emails, he turns to the past for perspective. He likes Hillary Clinton best when she delivers a history lesson rather than a stump speech at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund meeting. He sees Bernie Sanders’ popularity as a resurgence of ‘a much assailed and greatly debilitated, but unbroken American tradition of democratic socialism’, which he presents to us by way of a sketch of the history of Wisconsin, where Fighting Bob La Follette ‘took on the elites for forty years’ and the current mayor, Paul Soglin, continues in his footsteps. He discusses Trump in the context of twentieth century fascism,  concluding somewhat reassuringly:

[Were] he to win the presidency in ways resembling Hitler’s or Mussolini’s, it’s inconceivable that Trump’s next steps would resemble theirs. His brutish and ingenious destruction of the country club Republicans, and the capitulation of most of the remainder, are shameful and concerning, but even if this means the end of the Republican Party, that is not the same as the end of UIS democracy. The Germans of 1933 had had a decade of democracy. The Americans have had a a lot more than that.

Then, less reassuringly, he asks:

And if Trump doesn’t win, will he walk away? Will his followers? He is telling them if he loses it means the vote was rigged. He doesn’t need to be an actual fascist for the day after election day to be a worrying prospect.

What oft was thought but is here so well expressed.

I’m glad to report that most of the essay is about the US rather than specifically about Trump. Not that Watson is reluctant to repeat witty take-downs of either main candidate, but the ‘time’ of the title was also the moment of Muhammad Ali’s death, of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, of Bernie Sanders’ speaking – about all of which he writes beautifully.

Roughly two thirds of this QE is devoted to correspondence on the previous issue, in which James Brown put a case for greater public engagement and debate in Australia’s approach to the possibility of war. Two elder historians lament young Brown’s apparent historical ignorance, other correspondents take exception to aspects of his argument. But there’s a general consensus that more thought and discussion is needed. Brown acknowledges some criticisms as ‘bracing, but useful’, and utterly rejects others. It couldn’t be more different from the way argument is too often conducted in the social media.

James Brown’s Firing Line

James Brown, Quarterly Essay 62: Firing Line: Australia’s path to war (Black Inc 2016)

qe62.jpgThis Quarterly Essay could easily be read as an grim expansion on David Kilkullen’s quote from Trotsky in QE No 59: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ James Brown, former Australian Army officer who has been on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, laments the lack of serious attention in Australia to possible scenarios for war, writing that we have been seriously unwilling to learn the lessons of the invasion of Iraq and so are very likely to make the same mistakes again:

Our military colleges are not yet universities for the study of war and our universities still view war as a morally tainted activity. (p 57)

But, I hear you cry (or is that just me?), war is of its nature a morally tainted activity. It involves the systematic killing of large numbers of people, and in our times those people inevitably include noncombatants. There’s nothing much more morally tainted than killing lots of children. To be fair to the author, it may be the study of war rather than war itself whose moral taint he questions: a few pages later he says, ‘to fight the cancer of war, we must know it, discuss it, think the malady through to its worst outcomes, understand and chart the darkest of possibilities’. The main burden of the essay is that this is not happening:

Australia’s oversight of national security is underdone and weak: one joint standing committee covers foreign affairs, defence and trade in toto. …  It is extraordinary that so little infrastructure is dedicated to parsing the issues of war. The national Disability Insurance Scheme, on which the government spends $15 billion each year, has an entire committee dedicated to its oversight. The national security apparatus, which accounts for more than 100 000 commonwealth employees and will soon absorb more than $45 billion each year, is entirely underscrutinised, and it shows. (p 57)

What this means, among other things:

The danger of the current system is that the main checks on the power of the prime minister to take Australia to war are his or her own intellect and character. (p 49)

Mercifully, that word ‘main’ carries a lot of weight here. Without even hinting that Tony Abbott is lacking in intellect and character, Brown lists a number of cases where Abbott was gung-ho for military action but was talked down by military advisers and others. But the essay argues convincingly for the establishment of a formal national security adviser. Without it, we will continue to respond to threats and challenges in a reactive way, or simply follow the US lead into war (Brown is too young for Harold Holt’s formulation ‘All the way with LBJ’ to spring to his typing fingers – I’m not).

Meanwhile, in the absence of scrutiny or study, or public debate in this country, tensions between China and the US are building. The probability of war is small, but it exists and, Brown argues, its implications should be thought through. Instead, a string of governments have taken initiatives – the US forces stationed in Darwin, the expanded submarine fleet – without any serious attempt to tell the rest of us what broader strategic thinking, if any, underpins them.

In the halls of the defence headquarters clustered by Canberra’s lake Burley Griffin, on bases spread from Perth to Puckapunyal, amid the Gold Coast hinterland, in shipyards and on the high seas, and in the clean rooms of advanced factories in northern Adelaide, a new ADF [Australian Defence Force] is being built. Across the Commonwealth the effort is consuming the attentions of more than 100 000 employees; it is exercising Australia’s diplomatic corps, stretching the decision-making capabilities of the federal government, vexing the most senior leaders in Canberra …

The build-up of the Australian Defence Force is well under way; the government has backed up its judgment that war could be a possibility within the next two decades with many billions of dollars. But Australians have barely begun to think through the consequences of all this, nor thought seriously about the circumstances that might bring our nation to the point of conflict. [pp 40, 44]

I expect the essay will be confronting to most readers – those like me who marched against the invasion of Iraq (OK, so Howard didn’t lie, but he didn’t interrogate what many people thought at the time was dodgy intelligence); those who are  gung-ho for military adventure; and plenty in between.

Laura Tingle’s Political Amnesia

Laura Tingle, Political Amnesia: How we forgot how to govern (Quarterly Essay Nº 60, Black Ink 2015)

qe60.jpgAs always with the Quarterly Essay I turned to the back section of this issue for the correspondence on the previous one. The responses to David Marr’s profile of Bill Shorten aren’t argumentative – they mostly praise, summarise, amplify and contextualise. My favourite paragraph is from Michael Bachelard:

The dilemma is that, though fascinating to insiders, the grindings of Labor’s factional machine – at once impenetrable, distasteful and apparently crucial – are to outside observers dull to the point of stupor. But without understanding and accounting for the networks of influence and patronage that bind the union bosses, the branches (more accurately, the branch-stackers), the ethnic warlords and the parliamentarians, there is no explaining the Labor Party and how it identifies and promotes talent.

Marr’s ‘Response to Correspondence’ doesn’t actually respond, but reflects on the timing of the essay’s publication. Its portrait of Bill Shorten as the man who might beat Tony Abbott for the Prime Ministership lost a lot of topicality when Malcolm Turnbull did the job on the eve of publication – but, Marr says, ‘Anything can happen between now and the uncertain date at which Australia will go to an election.’

Political Amnesia asks us to turn aside for a moment from politics as soap opera or contest of personalities, and look instead for structural changes underlying our current political malaise. She argues, convincingly, that there is a growing loss of institutional memory in Australian public life. ‘Without memory,’ she argues

there is no context or continuity for the making of new decisions. We have little choice but to take these decisions at face value, as the inevitable outcome of current circumstance. The perils of this are manifest. Decisions are taken not as informed by knowledge of what has worked, or not worked, in the past, or even by a conscious analysis of what might have changed since the issue was last considered. … Rational debate about the pros and cons of an issue becomes too hard for both advocates and audience. We slip into the habit of conducting our debates in the present tense.

Or worse, three word slogans. The rot has been a long time coming, she argues, and has had complex causes, including the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, where the media beast must always be fed something new (am I the only one who finds it unnerving that even on the ABC news bulletins often tell us about announcements that will be made the next day?), the politicisation of the public service (beginning in a big way when John w Howard sacked department heads he considered politically unacceptable), the blurring of the roles of political advisers and policy advisers (perhaps beginning as early as the Whitlam government, but reaching the heights with Peta Credlin’s role in the Abbott government). She sums up the extent of the problem:

[The] institutions which have made Australia’s political system so vibrant and successful have been changing profoundly over the past few decades. These changes include the rise of unstable executive government (because it has lost the capacity to build institutional memory) at the cost of the parliament (which has also lost its memory as it struggles for relevance); the decline in the influence of the public sector (as a result of a range of forces which have robbed it of much of its institutional memory); the relative rise of the national security establishment (which retains its influence and its memory); and the transformation of the media into a channel for present-tense information, rather than a reliable repository of the historical record. In the background there has also been a nibbling away at our civil rights, as relentless incremental change has left many of us unaware how far the law has moved in the last couple of decades.

The essay has a refreshing focus on systems and structures rather than personality. It ends on a tentative note of hope, and some general suggestions for how the erosion of memory could be slowed or even reversed. Though she can’t be much more than 50, it’s clear that Laura Tingle is one of the precious vessels of memory, a journalist auntie. Much of what she describes if familiar to anyone who has worked in the public service, or really to anyone who has been paying attention. We can hope that this essay contributes towards a change for the better.

AWW2016.jpgPolitical Amnesia is the first of hopefully ten books by Australian women that I will read this year as part of the Australian Women Writers 2016 Challenge.

If not for the challenge, I might not have noticed an element of the essay that would have been unlikely to been there if the essay had been written by a man. The essay pretty much begins with a quote from the ancient Roman historian Tacitus, which describes the Roman people as seduced by Augustus Caesar into preferring ‘the safety of the present to the dangerous past’. That could easily have been done by a man, but Tingle frames the quote in a story about helping her daughter study for an Ancient History exam: so the quote slips into the reader’s mind as something that anyone’s teenage child might know, with none of the elitist baggage that quotes from the ancients – and by extension arguments about institutional memory – might otherwise carry.

David Marr’s Faction Man

David Marr, Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power (Quarterly Essay 59)


Some trivia to start with: Timothy Conigreve, whose memoir Holding the Man has been made into a deeply affecting film, attended the same secondary school as Bill Shorten: the Jesuits’ Xavier College in Melbourne. Congreve performed in a school production of Romeo and Juliet in the late 1970s; Shorten staffed the box office for a Romeo and Juliet in the mid 1980s.

David Marr’s Quarterly Essay doesn’t mention Tim Conigreve or Romeo and Juliet, but it paints a portrait of a man who, having functioned brilliantly behind the scenes, now stands centre stage. It also reminds us that Tony Abbott is another Jesuit old boy, and invokes the Jesuit ideal of ‘a man for others’ of Shorten, a phrase that is at the heart of a brilliant piece on Abbott by Katherine Murphy. A Jesuit education can clearly lead to very different outcomes.

Marr asks about Bill Shorten the same question he has asked about Kevin Rudd, George Pell and Tony Abbott in previous essays: who is he? The question has a particular flavour in Shorten’s case because, as Marr says, he is ‘a man from nowhere’: ‘Where Tony Abbott is disliked quite viscerally now that he is known, Shorten is suspect because he isn’t.’ One of Andrew Denton’s cartoons in the fabulous Going Down Swinging Longbox (which I’ll blog about soon, and which I assume it’s OK to quote here), makes a similar point:


To treat politics as if it is all about personalities is to debase the public discourse. But it really does help to know something about the people who are vying for the top political job, about where they come from and – now that politicians are so intent on telling voters in marginal seats what they want to hear – what we can figure out about their agendas.

Marr’s essay gives the background – one of twins, the son of a university lecturer mother and a sailor turned small businessman father, Shorten educated in Catholic schools, including Xavier, joined the ALP while at school and threw himself into student politics at university. The story gets interesting – and incredibly intricate – when young Bill becomes an organiser for the AWU and enters what Marr calls ‘the dark world of Victorian politics’. Shorten quickly mastered the politics of the ALP right, proved to be a brilliant recruiter who, as he took on leadership, reanimated the ‘shot duck’ union.

The history is interspersed with vignettes that are closer to the present moment: Shorten’s successful management of potentially rancorous differences at the ALP National Conference this year; Shaun Micallef’s skewering of his sub-Keating wit, his ‘zingers’; his time in the witness box in Tony Abbott’s politically motivated Royal Commission; a list of his nicknames, from Lot’s Wife‘s Bill ‘Career Move’ Shorten in 1987 to Tony Abbott’s Barnacle Bill in 2014.

The picture that emerges is a man who has a phenomenal talent for union politics. Bill Shorten has been a master of the deal – all the hard work, sweet talk and hard-man tactics, betrayal and compromise happen behind the scenes. His role in the manoeuvring to replace Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister with Julia Gillard and then to replace Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd was in that same mode, though more visible and not a good look (Marr doesn’t mention it, but the captions of newspaper photographs of him at that time called him, paradoxically, a ‘faceless man’.) Now that he is seeking to become Prime Minister, he is in new territory: this competition has to happen in the open – out of the box office and onto the stage, perhaps. When the essay was written, Tony Abbott was his opponent. With the infinitely more personable Malcolm Turnbull in the other corner, Shorten’s challenge remains much the same. This essay helps us to see who he is and the world that he comes from: he needs to find a way to show himself in a way that the electorate will take to him.

Speaking at Gleebooks last night, David Marr said this was the hardest writing assignment of his life, because ‘the terrain is so unspectacular’. Maybe, but there will be a federal election in the next 15 months, and Bill Shorten’s conservative Labor style and substance will be part of some interesting times.


Up the back there are 40 pages of correspondence about the previous Quarterly Essay – that is to say, some discussion of IS, Iraq and Syria that doesn’t bristle with terms like ‘death cult’, ‘baddies and baddies’ or even ‘evil’, but is all about military strategy. I’m a pacifist, but I love the way these people can argue their cases.

David Kilkullen’s Blood Year

David Kilkullen, Quarterly Essay 57: Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State (Black Inc May 2015)


I think most people would agree that war is a major failure of human rationality. But the question of what to do once a war is under way is not so easily agreed on. When the subject of possible intervention against ISIS came up at a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel on the weekend, Nick Davies of the Guardian and Dan Mori, David Hicks’s defence lawyer, came close to calling each other stupid and arrogant respectively. This Quarterly Essay brings much more light than heat to the debate.

David Kilkullen was a senior adviser to General David Petraeus in 2007 and 2008, when he helped to design and monitor the Iraq War coalition troop ‘Surge’. This ‘insider’ status may mean that the essay will have some influence with those in power, so one doesn’t read it with the background despair one often feels when reading brilliant analyses by writers who can be dismissed as latte-sipping etceteras. His privileged insider perspective means that the essay is full of small and large revelations. For instance, he describes a meeting at which George W. Bush spoke in his familiar, ‘folksy, shallow and upbeat’ manner about how well the war in Iraq was progressing but then, once the TV cameras had left the room, ‘he began to talk to talk in a concrete, specific, realistic way’. Who knew?

The essay tells the story of the development of the Islamic State in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the ‘Surge’, the botched withdrawal of coalition forces, Obama’s policy of targeted drone strikes, the failure of the Arab Spring, and the rise of ‘a host of insurgent groups’. It gives a clear account of the contending terrorist groups, explaining in simple enough terms the role of Sunni–Shi’a conflict, and the way Iranian loyalties play out in that context. It outlines the thinking behind changing US strategy over the last decade or more, noting successes, shortcomings and outright failures. It’s hard to imagine a discussion further removed from our Prime Minister’s discourse of Good Guys vs Bad Guys, ‘Death Cult Death Cult Death Cult’ (could it be that behind closed doors he too becomes concrete, specific and realistic?). Arguing that the Surge was not a failure, Kilkullen writes:

Counterinsurgency (in fact, warfare generally) is a complex discipline, like medicine or architecture. if your building fails, it doesn’t mean ‘architecture doesn’t work’ – it means you built a bad structure. If violence drops when you apply a given approach, then returns when you stop, it doesn’t mean the approach doesn’t work; it means it does work, and you shouldn’t have stopped.

Forgetting for the moment that a defining feature of warfare (including counterinsurgency) is that people kill people, which makes comparison to architecture or medicine seem grotesque, this is a fair indication of the approach the essay takes to its subject: discipline rather than rhetoric, a search for solutions rather than a replay of grievances, assessment rather than blame. Blame isn’t a concept it avoids altogether:

President Bush conflated enemies, defaulted to attacking states rather than thinking about how to deal with non-state actors, and – mother of errors – invaded Iraq, and then botched the occupation. … President Obama compounded Bush’s errors – pulling out of Iraq without putting in enough effort to cement the gains of the Surge, indulging in a dangerous addiction to drones and special ops, acting opportunistically in Libya, remaining passive in the face of massacre in Syria … Allies, too – the United Kingdom, other NATO countries, Australia – went along with whatever was asked of them, made only limited efforts to influence the strategy, and then (in many cases) ran for cover when things went wrong … This is a multi-sided, multi-national, bipartisan screw-up, for which we all bear some responsibility, and the task now is to figure out what to do next: what a viable strategy might look like.

Having outlined the history, the essay goes on to offer a definition of the threat. Acknowledging that his view is not universally accepted, Kilkullen argues that ISIS is no longer an insurgent organisation but in fact a state, just as Nazi Germany was a state, so should be met with appropriate strategies – including non-military ones, though the essay focuses on the military, that is, conventional warfare. The current prioritising of countering the threat from unorganised individuals inspired by ISIS brings ‘boomerang effects’  – such the increased erosion of our privacy, or the militarisation of police that has contributed to recent clashes in the USA – that are on the way to turning our societies into police states, a response that is far worse than what it seeks to prevent.

This is an essay that casts light in a very murky area. I’m grateful for it, and recommend it. Kilkullen quotes something attributed to Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

Black Inc have put an extract from Blood Year up on The Monthly website.
A number of people have tweeted that every Australian should read the previous Quarterly Essay, Karen Hitchcock’s essay on the treatment of elderly people, Dear Life. This issue includes 40 pages of robust correspondence about it, which should also be required reading.

It begins with word from an elderly resident of a nursing home. Given that Hitchcock’s concern is that ‘the elderly’ need to be treated with respect, it’s a healthy jolt to ageist assumptions that this elderly contributor happens to be national treasure Inga Clendinnen, and that the other self-identified octogenarian correspondent, Ian Maddocks, speaks as a palliative care provider of many decades.

Apart from one snarky piece that makes Hitchcock in her reply wonder if the writer had actually read the essay, all the correspondence is worth reading. In particular, more than one correspondent (most tellingly economist Peter Martin) takes a swipe at the recent Intergenerational Report’s shonky portrait of a future burdened by old people.

Quarterly Essay 57: Dear Life

Karen Hitchcock, Quarterly Essay 57: Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly (Black Inc February 2015)

qe57Like every Quarterly Essay, this one includes lively correspondence on the previous one. Guy Rundle’s Clivosaurus drew thoughtful responses from a number of writers of the left, defensive missives from representatives of The Australian, fascinating psephology from Malcolm Mackerras, and more. Much of it was too technical for my pay grade, but one thing is clear to me: if you get into an argument with Guy Rundle, it would be unwise to let him have the last word – he’s very good at the devastating rebuttal.

A number of people have already tweeted that every Australian should read Karen Hitchcock’s essay on the treatment of elderly people in our health system. She is a general physician who has worked in large hospitals in several Australian states, and so has extensive hands-on experience in working with frail and/or demented elderly people. As she says:

There are two strong narratives in our culture about the ageing population and death. The first is that medicine is keeping elderly patients alive against their will – medicine is denying a death the patient desires. The second is that elderly patients are seeking to stay alive unreasonably – the patient (or their family) is denying an unavoidable death.

The essay takes these narratives on fiercely, and does a brilliant job of unpicking the ageist assumptions and fanciful versions of sickness and hospitals on which they are built. She marshals her own personal and professional experience as well as current research to mount a convincing counter-narrative.

She describes the way modern medicine is fragmented into specialities, a situation that makes it hard to treat elderly people with multiple conditions.

She explores the concept of futility: is treatment futile if it extends a person’s life for just a few days but those few days allow them to say goodbye to family? can a hospital specialist who is as drenched in ageism as the rest of us and has no personal knowledge of a patient be trusted to make a sound judgement about the futility or otherwise of treatment?

She savagely rips into the often heard argument that the increasingly aged population will make the health care system unsustainable.  ‘Sustainable’, she argues, ‘is just a word for “what we are willing to pay”.’ And the real challenge to the health system comes not from the aged but from ‘a population of increasingly poor, obese, diabetic, sedentary young and middle-aged who are the multi-morbid patients of the future and who will require many drugs, doctors, operations (joint replacements, bariatic surgery, amputations, coronary vessel interventions) and hospitalisations’.

Advanced medical directives, documents that spell out ahead of time conditions that are not to be treated if a person is incapable of making their wishes known, are singled out for special opprobrium. Hitchcock is an excellent storyteller, and her story of 84-year-old Fred who came to hospital begging to be allowed to die is enough to win her case without any further discussion: he was wretched, and didn’t want to be a burden (an often heard an internalised version of the message with which older people are too often bombarded); she listened to him, encouraged him, treated him, and followed up some time after he was discharged:

I said, ‘Fred , you told me you didn’t ever want to come back to hospital.’
He said, ‘Of course I want to come back if I get sick. I get silly when I’m sick. I hate everything. I say silly things.’

Not all her stories have such cheerful endings. Death does happen. But if we are to have a national electronic system where people’s advanced care directives are recorded, then these directives, she argues, should be reviewed regularly, even monthly, by the people whose lives they concern.

The essay discusses the isolation that is the lot of many elderly people, including those who are placed in nursing homes when their families can no longer care for them. It argues that this is an issue that should be taken up by the society as a whole – ‘if we are to attend to the social needs of our elderly citizens both inside and out of institutions, then we need government interventions and funding, along with the community’s engagement and help’. What is needed, and what is beginning to happen in some places is

a shift in perspective: the elderly are not a growing cost to be managed or a burden to be shifted or a horror to be hidden away, but people whose needs require us to change our society. They are those for whom we are responsible and to whom we owe real care.

Another sacred cow the essay takes head-on is the idea that it is better to die at home than in hospital. My own father had himself discharged from hospital in Townsville when he knew he was dying, and was flown and driven the 500 miles to Innisfail because he wanted to die at home. I have no doubt that that was a good decision: he spent his last days surrounded by friends and family, being visited by a doctor he’d known most of his life and a nurse he’d known all hers. He died in bed beside my mother, his wife of more than 50 years. But Hitchcock makes it very clear that his situation was exceptional in the western world today. A hospital death can be a good death.

In short, this Quarterly Essay is a call to arms against the oppressive attitudes and practices which we have insinuated their way into our minds and practices around older people. I’m 68, not yet in the frail and/or demented group that Hitchcock is talking about. I hope I never will be. But reading her essay, I wonder if my GP’s slightly disturbing lack of interest in my symptoms on my most recent visit, which I put down to his having had a long day or perhaps the lack of drama in my presentation, might have grown from an assumption that once you’re past a certain age you just have to put up with a certain amount of suffering. And that’s partly Karen Hitchcock’s point: if the problems she writes about are chickens, then we are all roosts waiting to happen.
aww-badge-2015This is the fourth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.

Guy Rundle’s Clivosaurus

Guy Rundle, Clivosaurus (Quarterly Essay 55)

1863957014Since I first met Guy Rundle’s writing in the late 1980s I’ve thought of him as two writers in one. He wrote brilliant scripts for Max Gillies’ stage and TV satires, and at the same time wrote formidably, even impenetrably, abstract prose for the Marxist periodical Arena. In Clivosaurus those two Rundles are working well together: the essay is bitingly funny where it needs to be, and provides much-needed serious analysis of its subject. Its prose, happily, is far from impenetrable.

The essay begins with an episode from the familiar Clive Palmer narrative, the epic weekend at Palmer’s Coolum resort just before the first Senate sitting of 2014.

‘I donnn’t wannnnn’t to see any more dinosaurs,’ said a small girl. ‘We’re going to see the dinosaurs,’ said her dad, pulling her along. The weekend was rich in analogy.
Over at the Coolum rooms, other big beasts were gathering. The PUP’s Queensland senator, Glenn Lazarus, the ‘brick with eyes’, rolled in with a posse of good ol’ boys, enormous men in male bling, tapping on BlackBerries as they walked. Palmer’s other media guy, Andrew Crook – improbably but inevitably trading as Crook Media – buzzed around, harassed and bothered. Then a golf cart pulled up, and Crook imposed himself in front of the two camera crews as His Cliveness struggled  out.

In general, the press has focused on the comedy of Clive Palmer, treating his entry into federal politics as if it was akin to his animatronic dinosaurs or his plan to launch a new Titanic, needing no further explanation than naked economic self-interest and his vendetta against the conservative parties of Queensland. This essay relishes the comedy, going so far as to include some of Palmer’s eminently mockable poetry. It also goes into the swashbuckling history of the Gold Coast and Queensland conservative politics, in which Palmer has been a player. But it goes on to argue that behind the twerks and twaddle is a consistent political outlook rooted in Palmer’s Catholic centre right background:

Palmer has been completely consistent in doing what he said he’d do – vote to abolish the carbon and mining taxes – and completely in accord with his stated beliefs in developing a set of policies in response to the surprise budget. For six months he has said he and his party would not agree to the Medicare co-payment, the harsh new arrangements for unemployed youth, an increase in university fees or ‘assets recycling’, and he hasn’t. Much of what he was willing to compromise on with the government involved issues and policies peripheral to his philosophy. His rapid deal-making, a legacy of his real-estate and mining-lease years, and his ability to package and repackage sets of options at a rapid pace seemed to bamboozle people, to convince them that anything was up for grabs. Yet this was nothing more than the horse-trading that is a necessary part of politics everywhere else, but that has been lessened by the lock-step nature of the Australian party system.

Perhaps the essay’s final movement is its most interesting. ‘It is not Clive Palmer per se,’ Rundle writes, ‘ that is the source of this merry dance we have been on in the past six months.’ He goes on to discuss what he calls ‘the now sclerotic apparatus of Australian government’, by which candidates who receive a tiny fraction of the primary vote can gain seats on the Senate, and the way the major parties and the media have vested interests in not challenging that system. People may be upset at the disruptive effect of Clive Palmer and the PUPs wielding such power, but just imagine if it had been Gina Reinhart or someone similarly lacking in Palmer’s social concerns (such as they are) had bought their way into parliament the way he did! What’s more, we have

a Treasurer whose family fortune is constituted by his wife’s skills as a banker, and whose family’s future fortune will be considerably affected by the general decisions the Treasurer and his party make on taxes, interest rates, deductibility and the like. The party system masks the latter set of interests – Palmer’s, at least, are right out there where we can see them. … [In] the longer term we will only have come out of this period successfully if we are pointed towards an era when big beasts no longer, with such impunity, stalk the land.

So this started out looking like one of the Quarterly Essays that probe the personality of a public figure, or explore the way they appeal to some generalised Australian national psyche, but it turns out to be a call to action on a serious problem with our ‘democracy’.

Responses to Noel Pearson

As I’m sure I’ve said before, one of the best things about Black Inc’s Quarterly Essay is that substantial responses to each issue are published in the next one. I’ll write about Guy Rundle’s essay on Clive Palmer in QE 56 some time soon. For now I just want to draw your attention to the Correspondence section.

There’s a plan for a referendum in 2017 on changing the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This referendum has been postponed a number of times, at least partly because the subject doesn’t seem to be hitting any kind of nerve with most Australians, and partly because there’s no agreement on what proposal should be put to us.

You might think you know enough now to know how you’ll vote. Well, maybe you’re wrong about that. You really should read Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay 55, A Rightful Place and then you should read the responses in No 56. (If you’re pressed for time you could skip John Hirst, who has said elsewhere that Aboriginal matters are out of his comfort zone and demonstrates the truth of that here by creating and then dismissing as unpersuasive a breathtakingly simplistic summary of Pearson’s argument. You might also skip Paul Kelly – definitely not the songwriter – who seems intent on offering advice to Tony Abbott rather than talking to you and me.)

Here are some snippets.

From Megan Davis, professor of law at University of NSW:

Even before the Quarterly Essay went on sale, Pearson’s potentially complementary proposal was dismissed as ‘grandstanding’ and ‘unhelpful’. Having served on the prime minister’s expert panel on constitutional recognition alongside Pearson, I found this an exasperating reminder that although black leaders regularly chant ‘leaders are readers’ to our young mob, Australia’s political leaders are in fact, on the whole, not readers.

From Rachel Perkins, filmmaker and activist:

Noel’s notion of tethering cultural survival to constitutional reform is intriguing. When I grasped the potential of his idea, I realised it may be our best hope – in the short term – of attracting national interest on this issue. It lit a spark for me and gave me hope, for we have only to look back on our history to understand the trajectory we are on. The question is: will our people be able to put their differences aside and unite, as they did in 1967, towards this possibility?

From Celeste Liddle, Arrente woman and trade union organiser:

As a trade unionist, I support a hearty process of negotiation between parties wishing to work together to achieve outcomes. There has never been a negotiated agreement between First Peoples and the government in this country and I feel that it is integral to achieve this before we look at amending the constitution to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

From Henry Reynolds, historian:

Noel Pearson’s powerful advocacy notwithstanding, Australia has regressed on indigenous matters– a generation ago the question of a treaty was seriously discussed, as was the status of traditional law. And this leaves us far behind comparable societies such as New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the Scandinavian countries. Noel argues that we cannot expect any more because, unlike the Maoris, indigenous Australians are only a very small minority. But this carefully avoids comparison with the much higher status of the Native Americans in North America and the Sami in Scandinavia.

From Robert Manne:

During the 1990s, under Paul Keating and Patrick Dodson, there existed an atmosphere of intense hopefulness about the role reconciliation might play in the creation of a better nation. In May 2000, at its climax, hundreds of thousands of Australians walked across the bridges of Australia in support of a reconciliation ceremony at the centenary of federation, an idea which, unforgivably, the Howard government quickly killed. The mood of hope was still not altogether extinguished, as the passions stirred by Kevin Rudd’s February 2008 apology to the stolen generations demonstrated. However, in recent years that atmosphere has faded. Somehow, if the referendum is to succeed it will now have to be rediscovered. Pearson it probably right to believe that unless the movement for indigenous constitutional recognition is led by a rock-solid conservative it is unlikely to succeed. The problem is that a rock-solid conservative is the least likely kind of political leader capable of reigniting the social-justice passions of Australians.

From Fred Chaney:

It is helpful to read this essay alongside a viewing of Noel’s address at Garma this year, published on YouTube. There you get the force of presentation as well as intellect. Following reference to the destruction of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, he posed the question ‘we are still grappling with today’: ‘will European settlement of Australia enable a different people with a different heritage to have space in it?’ He poses it as a question still unresolved. He says that in the 1820s in Tasmania we answered the question by our actions. Then in stark terms he suggests, ‘If we don’t come to a just answer to that question today, that same answer will come about for benign reasons.’ If he is correct in this, and I think he is, it is a matter of great seriousness for all of us.

Really, I recommend you to read the whole thing.

Noel Pearson’s Rightful Place (and Andrew Charlton’s correspondence)

Noel Pearson, A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth (Quarterly Essay 55)

qe55 ‘In this essay,’ Noel Pearson writes, ‘I seek to make a case for constitutional reform recognising indigenous [sic] Australians.’

In case some of my readers need it (as I did), let me start with a couple of paragraphs of background.

Beginning of background. A referendum will happen in the next couple of years on recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution. In June last year, the responsible parliamentary committee published a Progress Report, which is well worth reading. There have been animated public meetings around the country. There’s a T-shirt, a well resourced people’s movement and a decorated Qantas plane. There have been bizarre arguments against change from the likes of Andrew Bolt and – less bizarrely and with much less media prominence – from some Indigenous people. Celeste Liddle’s recent article in the Guardian, ‘Indigenous Recognition’ is a good place to go for some of the latter.

In brief, it looks as if we will be voting on whether to repeal two references to race, and on some form of explicit recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The race references are in sections 25 and 51 (xxvi):

25. … if by the law of any State all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of the race resident in that State shall not be counted.


51.The Parliament shall … have power to make laws … with respect to: – … (xxvi.) The people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws

It’s hard to imagine a reasonable argument against repealing those clauses, given how direly anachronistic they are. The real debate comes with the committee’s other recommendations, which include adding sections recognising the special status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, empowering Parliament to make laws for the ‘peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’, prohibiting discrimination ‘on the grounds of race, colour or ethnic or national origin’, and recognising that the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original Australian languages, a part of our national heritage’.

End of background

The reason I needed the background, even if you didn’t, is that Noel Pearson isn’t concerned here with those details, but his essay needs at least some of it to be understood. His concern, as I understand it, is to lay out general principles that will appeal to a broad audience of thoughtful Australians, including crucially those who identify as conservative. He brings his lawyerly training and extraordinarily wide reading to the task.

The goal of appealing to conservatives has some unfortunate by-products. Readers of delicate constitution might skip a rhapsodic paean to Rupert Murdoch and Chris Mitchell’s Australian on pages 53–54 without missing much, and likewise page 57 where he sprays someone he calls ‘the left’ with intemperate sarcasm (elsewhere the sarcasm is more muted, but ‘the left’ remains mostly unspecified and beneath argument). It would be a shame if these moments were taken to represent the essay as a whole.

I won’t try to summarise his arguments, except to say that he makes a case for calling what has happened in Australia genocide; he points out that contrary to Captain Cook’s orders, this continent was not taken possession of ‘with the Consent of the Natives’ – there was no consent – which leaves the question of sovereignty politically if not legally unresolved; he explores the implications of parliamentary democracy for a group that is an ‘extreme minority’; he lays out a nuanced concept of multiple, layered identities; he makes some broad brush stroke structural proposals for how Indigenous voices can be heard in political decisions made about Indigenous people; he lays out ‘an agenda for the classical culture of ancient Australia’. The essay is passionate, questing and challenging, and transcends any political stoushes that may surround it.

Pearson begins with an invocation of Yolngu Petition submitted to Kevin Rudd in 2008, and goes on to quote Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s Monthly article from the end of that year, which he describes as ‘an existential prayer’. He then lists a number of Aboriginal people who have, like Yunupingu, agitated for inclusion in the Australian Commonwealth over many decades. It’s a profoundly respectful acknowledgement of those who have gone before him.

Curiously, from that point on the essay barely refers to other Indigenous Australian contributions to the current discussion. Exceptions are a one line quote from Michael Mansell – ‘the British had more impact on Aborigines than the Holocaust had on the Jews’ – and the description of a cultural preservation project being taken on by Rachel Perkins. He mentions his colleagues on the Expert Panel on Constitutional cognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples, but doesn’t name them.

Instead, the essay engages primarily with European and settler viewpoints, at times drawing on their insights at others differing sharply. Pearson quotes H G Wells (whose War of the Worlds was inspired by the invasion of Tasmania), Trollope, Darwin and Dickens consigning Australian Aboriginal peoples to inevitable extinction. He quotes WEH Stanner’s famous passage about Australia’s ‘cult of forgetfulness’. He differs from Inga Clendinnen, Henry Reynolds, Bain Attwood on whether there has been genocide in Australia, basing his argument on English historian Tom Lawson’s The Last Man. German philosopher Johann Herder (1744–1803), Indian economist Amartya Sen, British contrarian conservative Roger Scruton (recently a guest of the  Institute of Public Affairs), and anthropologist Peter Ucko get guernseys. Keith Windschuttle and Andrew Bolt are accorded something approaching respect, and a ‘felicitous phrase’ is quoted from George W Bush.

I don’t know how convincing the hard-line conservative echelons will find Pearson’s arguments. Very, I hope. I also hope that his slanting the argument towards that readership won’t deter readers not committed to the culture wars, or at least not to the ‘conservative’ side, from reading and engaging with this essay.
And then there’s the correspondence on the previous Quarterly Essay, Andrew Charlton’s The Dragon’s Tail, which was given extra bite by recent consumer activity in my house. Just before the September issue arrived, the Art Student and I had finally been persuaded to ditch our seven year old 27 inch LCD television set and buy a bigger, smarter, more environment-friendly LED TV. As it happened, we gave the old set and its four year old set top box away on Freecycle, so they will still be consuming energy, just not in our house. As I was throwing out the receipts for the old gear, I saw that its combined cost was nearly three times that of the new. Which brought to mind Andrew Charlton:

ten years ago, a shipload of iron ore exported to China was worth about the same as 2200 flat-screen televisions imported from China. Today the same shipment of ore is worth 22 000 flat-screen televisions!

A striking enough illustration of his point in June had become personal by September. None of the 30 odd pages of correspondence this quarter is personal in quite that way, though it seems that many of these people know each other from working together as advisers to Labor politicians, or as ALP parliamentarians themselves. The main take-home I got from the correspondence is that John Edwards’s Beyond the Boom, published at about the same time as Charlton’s essay, challenges of the received wisdom about the boom that preceded the global financial crisis of 2008, arguing that while – as is generally acknowledged – the Howard government frittered away the benefits on tax cuts, people in general were smarter than the government so that domestic savings increased with healthy results for the economy. There’s quite a bit of argie-bargie among economists, who find fault with each other’s charts and sampling methods so that in the end one is confirmed in one’s suspicion that economics is largely about obfuscation.

Among the correspondence there’s a curious moment in a piece from former banker Satyajit Das. The ‘reply’, which barely mentions Charlton’s essay and is in effect its own lecture on the state of the Australian economy, cites the comparison of iron ore and TV sets, but attributes it differently:

On 29 November 2010 … the governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens [said]: ‘[In 2005], a shipload of iron ore was worth about the same as about 2,200 flat-screen television sets. [In 2010] it is worth around 22,000 flat-screen TV sets.’ In a Freudian slip, the governor had identified the fundamental issue with Australia’s economic model. Australia may have substantially wasted the proceeds of its mineral boom, with the proceeds channelled into consumption.

Is Das tacitly accusing Charlton of plagiarism, or quietly reproaching him for not naming his sources? Has Charlton repeated Stevens’s ‘Freudian slip’? (The invocation of Freud makes no sense to me, and after a quick look at the Glenn Stevens speech, it makes it even less sense.) Perhaps Charlton’s failure to mention Das in his ‘Response to Correspondence’ was a bit of tit for tat.

Andrew Charlton’s Dragon’s Tail

Andrew Charlton, Dragon’s Tail: The lucky country after the China boom (Quarterly Essay 54, Black Inc July 2014)

9781863956567As with every Quarterly Essay, I turned first to the back of this issue for correspondence on the previous one, Paul Toohey’s essay on asylum seekers, That Sinking Feeling (which I blogged about here). The correspondence is excellent, with contributions from asylum seeker advocates (a lawyer, the caseworker and adviser who was responsible for the TV show Go Back to Where You Came From, a Jesuit detention centre chaplain), a journalist and – the one I was particularly struck by – Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defence Association. I just looked up the Australian Defence Association, and see from their recent tweets that their military-focused point of view may be impervious to evidence on at least some issues, but here James puts his case in a way that invites reasoned debate rather than the flinging of books across rooms. As Toohey remarks in his ‘Response to Correspondence’, the discussion manages ‘a rare achievement in this particular debate: that those who took issue did so without hostility’. Partly this is because for once party politics is laid aside. That Rudd and Gillard stuffed up seems to be generally agreed, but no voice is raised in defence of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison’s opportunistic and hypocritical cruelty.

As for Andrew Charlton’s essay, which accounts for the previous 71 pages, I had to overcome a knee-jerk aversion to reading about economic matters to tackle it at all. But though it is indeed one more lecture on how important China is to the Australian economy, and although it does use words like leveragedistortion and correction in ways that have nothing to do with engineering, funhouse mirrors or blue pencils,  the essay is mostly very readable, with engaging anecdotes, carefully structured argument, and at least one arresting chart. Here’s the chart:

Charlton graph

In case that print is too hard to read:
‘In the 19th Century Australia was the world’s richest country by 1885.’
‘In the 20th Century Australia fell down the list of the world’s richest countries, falling to 21st in 1988.’
‘In the 21st Century Australia has rebounded.’

Australia’s prosperity in the 1880s came from its great success as a supplier of resources – wool and gold – to a leading economic power – England. It was followed by a devastating Depression in the 1890s. Our current prosperity, Charlton argues, has a similar genesis – vast amounts of Australian iron ore has fuelled China’s phenomenal growth over the last 20 years. China’s industrialisation, he writes,

is perhaps the most significant economic event since the Industrial Revolution that transformed Britain in the eighteenth century and laid the framework for the modern world. And China’s industrialisation has occurred 100 times more quickly and on a scale 1000 times larger than Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

The essay builds to a cogently argued warning: China’s growth, which has brought 100 million people out of poverty, is built on an unsustainable model, and the Chinese economy is heading for a crash unless the government’s current attempts to change course succeed. Either way, Australia risks being a goose laying golden eggs that no one wants – that is to say, just a goose. (Blame me for the goose metaphor: Charlton wouldn’t stop so low.)

The essay ranges back in time, travels to many parts of the globe, draws the connections between a café owner in Cairns and global economic abstractions. I look forward to the correspondence on this one, hoping we won’t be treated to someone dismissing it as Labor Party propaganda because a) Charlton used to work for Kevin Rudd, and b) it doesn’t praise the brilliance of John Howard (the Australian Spectator has indeed published such a piece).

What I particularly appreciate is the broader perspective the essay brings to Australian affairs, striking a blow against the resolute insularity of much discussion (about the economy, but also – shockingly – about asylum seekers and climate change). Here’s a paragraph from early in the essay:

Our national debates are frequently partisan and parochial. For example, if you are on the right, you know that the budget is now in deficit because Labor wasted money; if you are on the left, you know that a deficit was necessary to save hundreds of thousands of jobs. On the right, you know that Australian manufacturing jobs are disappearing because we are uncompetitive with our Asian neighbours; on the left, it’s because Australian industry doesn’t receive the same subsidies that those of other countries enjoy. On the left, you would argue that  the global financial crisis was caused by greed and lax regulation of financial markets; on the right, you might point the finger at excessive government debt. If you are on the right, you know that Australia pulled through the financial crisis because John Howard left Australia with a strong surplus; on the left, it was because of Kevin Rudd’s economic stimulus. On the right, you know that productivity growth is low because powerful unions disrupt workplace efficiency; on the left, it is because Australia hasn’t invested sufficiently in skills and infrastructure.
These positions are easily digestible and often self-serving, but they are all either wholly wrong or drastically incomplete because they overlook the events beyond our borders that have shaped us.

Charlton’s account of the global financial crisis refreshingly avoids the other pitfall of writing about these matters: he doesn’t go into the technicalities of dodgy financial instruments and manoeuvres, but sticks to the big picture, and as a result remains comprehensible.