Tag Archives: Quarterly Essay

Margaret Simons’s Cry Me a River

Margaret Simons, Cry Me a River: The tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin (Quarterly Essay 77, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78)

I came to this Quarterly Essay with dramatic images in my mind: outraged farmers making a bonfire of the newly published guide to the Murray–Darling Basin Plan in 2010; millions of dead fish near the Menindee Lakes the summer before last; die-back by the Murray and great stretches of parched river-bed in the Darling. There was also video, of water flowing down the Darling in February and finally reaching the Murray in May, for the first time in two years.

This Quarterly Essay was written before and during the fires that ended 2019 and began 2020. As Margaret Simons was finishing it there was rain over most of the Murray–Darling Basin and the renewed flow of the Darling was approaching Burke. The political environment was also shifting: in February David Littleproud was replaced as the relevant Federal minister by Keith Pitt.

The Murray–Darling river system covers more than a million square kilometres. It’s one of the largest drainage areas in the world. It’s of huge cultural significance to First Nations peoples. A huge amount of Australia’s food is produced by farmers who use water from the Murray–Darling to irrigate their crops. More than three million people rely on it for their drinking water. ‘But,’ Simons writes,

we are all in trouble. Over the latter part of the last century, it became clear that the river system was at breaking point. It could die. All that went with it – money, livelihoods, sense of nation – was at risk.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan was developed by the Commonwealth government as ‘the first attempt to manage the Basin as a whole, and to make its use sustainable’.

The Plan is beset by what one man calls ‘politics gone feral’: the Commonwealth vs the states, state vs state (New South Wales being the stand-out non-cooperation), Barnaby Joyce, the National Party vs the Hunters and Fishers while Labor, after initially making progress, is missing in action, bureaucracy vs the people on the ground, cotton growers vs family farms, almonds vs everything else, upstream irrigators vs downstream irrigators, environmental scientists vs vested interests, accusations of theft and corruption, ‘pervasive lack of trust in governments of all complexions’, the South Australian Royal Commission giving everyone ‘a terrible pasting’. There is an alarming degree mutual incomprehension between people who live in the large cities of the south-east and those who live and work on the land.

Margaret Simons went on a road trip through all this with the aim of putting flesh on the bones of the abstract arguments. She interviewed people who were keen to have their point of view herd, and people who didn’t believe a journalist would ever represent them accurately. At one point, a companion asked her which of her interviewees would be most unhappy with the essay:

 I replied that I thought everyone would be unhappy. That is the nature of the issue, of the failure of governance, dating back more than a century, that the Murray-Darling Basin represents.

I hope she’s wrong. Many voices are heard through this essay, from Badger Bates, a Barkandji elder, to Philip Glyde, one of the bureaucrats most responsible for the implementation of the Plan. Simons doesn’t pretend to the ‘he said she said’ brand of journalistic objectivity, but she leaves room for the reader’s judgements. The result isn’t a coherent argument, but the picture that emerges is that the difficulties caused by drought have been made worse, to the point of calamity, by mismanagement and poor governance, by making water into a commodity to be traded. At the same time, she makes clear the size and complexity of the challenge of bringing the river system back from the brink.

In the last couple of pages, Simons talks about climate change. She met only one denier, she said, but when she raised the subject with farmers, mostly the response was ‘a million-mile stare’. Reading the essay I could feel my own million-mile stare coming on: if the challenge of saving one river system from devastation under capitalism and electoral democracy is so overwhelming, what will it take to stave off the impending multi-faceted disaster from climate change?

And on that note, I turned to the correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78 (itself about another climate change pressure point, Australia’s coal addiction).

With the exception of an academic whose scholarly critics were given voce in the essay, and the acting chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, the correspondents confirm my sense that the essay presents a dependable account of the situation. A number of them expand on the theme of climate change. Some discuss the way Covid-19 changes the context by making it more problematic to import food, at least in the short run. A number of people who feature in the essay spell out their arguments more fully. Maybe I can finish by quoting the final paragraphs from Maryanne Slattery, who was a director of the Murray–Darling for more than decade, then senior water researcher for the Australia Institute, and now a director of an independent water consultancy:

The Plan is a relic of a time and a system that no longer exist. Change will be forced upon us, probably by a changing climate and the changes to society it brings about. Covid-19 has brought into the present many things we thought we could put off.

If we want two irrigated monocultures in the Basin, hollowed-put regions and reliance on other countries for our food, then the water reforms are a success. If we want a diverse agricultural sector, vibrant communities and to grow what we eat, we need new water policies, as well as policies for regional economic development. To achieve this we need to allow an honest and inclusive public debate and banish the binary rhetoric.

May this essay be widely read as a substantial contribution to public debate that doesn’t fall into for-the-Plan/against-the-Plan and other binaries.


Cry Me a River is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Peter Hartcher’s Red Flag

Peter Hartcher, Red Flag: Waking Up to China’s Challenge (Quarterly Essay 76, 2019) – and correspondence in Quarterly essay 77)

My usual practice is to delay reading each Quarterly Essay until the next one arrives in my letterbox. Peter Hartcher’s essay on Australia’s response to China’s growing economic strength and political influence, published at the end of 2019, in pre-rona days, feels as if it comes from a past era. Of course, that feeling doesn’t completely reflect the reality, but the essay is looking at the China–Australia connection through a different lens from the one that tends to obsess us at the moment.

In a prescient moment, arguing that it’s unwise for Australian businesses to put all their export eggs in the China basket, Hartcher writes, ‘The thermal coal market is highly diversified globally. Other industries would have a harder time. Universities come to mind.’ However, he’s not talking about a possible crisis in which the Australian government bans flights from China. His concern is with the risk of the risk of a Chinese economic slump or, more central to the argument of his essay, the risk of Beijing using the trade connection as an instrument of political coercion.

The essay’s argument is easily summarised. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party is in effect on a war footing with the rest of the world, using economic leverage and cyber weapons rather than military means, and with motives that are seen in China as defensive but by the rest of the world as aggressive. Australia has become increasingly dependent on trade with China and is still largely complacent about any threat. It’s not a matter of choosing China over the increasingly unreliable USA. ‘Whenever Australia is asked to choose between China and America, the ultimate answer must be that we choose Australia.’

The red flag of the essay’s title is both the Chinese national flag and the red flag of warning that Hartcher is raising.

Hartcher tells of a number of Australians who have been hit by the realisation that the Chinese government and its representatives seek to influence politics in Australia. In six of his cases, five – Joe Hockey in 2013, Stephen Conroy in 2016, Penny Wong, Bill Shorten and Richard Marles in 2017, Professor Feng Chongyi in 2016, and journalist John Garnaut in 2009 – resisted the Chinese overtures. The sixth case is Sam Dastyari, who famously fell from grace by departing from party policy on China’s actions in the South China Sea. In his response to correcspondence in QE 77, Hartcher clarifies his point: we know about these cases because the Chinese attempts to influence Australian policy were unsuccessful: we just don’t know about the successful ones.

He lists cases when China has used economic heft to influence the policies of other countries. ‘In the past ten years,’ he writes (p 43), ‘Beijing has imposed economic punishment on at least eleven countries. for a wide range of perceived offences.’ The connection between the crime and the punishment is often not made explicit, but a pattern has emerged. He lists countries ranging from tiny Palau and Mongolia to Canada and, finally, Australia.

He makes a number of recommendations, on immigration, on vetting politicians, on diversifying our trade relations, on defending our democracy. I’m in no position to comment on the rightness or wrongness of his analysis or his proposals, but I can accept his general argument that it’s not a good idea to be complacent.

Sadly the 35 pages of correspondence published in Quarterly Essay 77, Margaret Simons’s Cry Me a River, also predate Covid, apart from Peter Hartcher’s response, and that was clearly written before the serious economic consequences were becoming clear.

The correspondents all take issue with Hartcher’s argument. He relies too heavily on the words of a previous head of ASIO; his proposal to have ASIO vet potential MPs and senators is terrible – Hartcher agreed, but argues for a new parliamentary body to vet candidates; he mistakes Xi Jinping’s statements of intentions for inevitable achievements; he doesn’t allow for the disruptions to China and the rest of the world that climate change will wreak; he underestimates the strength of resistance as it stands; he misunderstands the complexity and diversity of Chinese-heritage and Chinese-born Australian citizens. One response, by Caroline Rosenberg, is a personal testimony from someone who came to Australia from China in her teens: she wishes she had been given this essay as a teen (though if she had been she wouldn’t have read it), because she was totally unprepared for the way the West saw China, and her, and this would have helped. I think, but I can’t be positive, that that is an incredibly subtle and polite way of calling bullshit.

Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work

Annabel Crabb, Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap (Quarterly Essay 75, 2019) – and correspondence in Quarterly essay 76

Women’s surge into the workplace has been profound over the last century. But it hasn’t been matched by movement in the other direction: while the entrances have been opened to women, the exits are still significantly blocked to men. And if women have benefited from the sentiment that ‘girls can do anything’, then don’t we similarly owe it to the fathers, mothers and children of the future to ensure that ‘boys can do anything’ means everything from home to work?

Men at Work, page 65

In this Quarterly Essay Annabel Crabb addresses the ‘baked-on’ cultural assumption that mothers must be the ones who do the real parenting while fathers are meant to help and support, and the economic, political, social and industrial structures that hold that assumption in place, and to some extent enforce it. She points to a number of examples of departures from this norm, harbingers of change: apologising for the predictability, she describes parental leave regimes in Norse nations, but also to developing policies closer to home in For example, at Medibank, in the context of general flexible working provisions, the notion of primary and secondary parents has been shelved and parental leave and other possibilities have been implemented – and are turning out to be good business practice.

Like some of the correspondents published in the subsequent Quarterly Essay (Peter Hartcher’s Red Flag), the essay led me to reflect on my own experience as a parent. I’ve been a father for nearly 42 years and belong to what Annabel Crabb says – and I have no reason to doubt her – is a tiny minority of men who have spent time as ‘stay at home dads’. My sons were born in 1978 and 1983, and with the exception of the Maternity Leave (Australian Government Employees) Act passed by the Whitlam government in 1973, none of the legislation, policies or studies referred to in the essay existed yet. Because the ways the Emerging Artist (then the Community Worker) and I dealt with the challenges of parenthood differ so radically from the norm described by Annabel Crabb, I hope it will be OK to spend the rest of this blog post telling part of that story. (Some of my readers were there – please correct any errors and feel free to add to the story.)

The EA/CW was a feminist who had been in consciousness-raising groups, worn overalls, worked in women’s collectives and, significantly for this story, shared money and futures (that’s how they expressed it) with another woman. I’d been thrilled by the emergence of Women’s Liberation at Sydney University in the late 60s, and had taken to heart the words of a teacher of mine: ‘If as a man you want to counter domestic sexism you have to decide you’re going to do all the work in the home; that way you may end up doing a fair share.’ He’d also said, ‘Fathers can do everything that mothers can do except breast feed.’ So from the beginning we thought of ourselves as a parenting team – I got up when the baby cried in the night, and brought him to his mother. I was still at work in those first notoriously exhausting weeks, and I’d slip away to the toilet to snatch a couple of minutes sleep with my forehead resting on the roll of toilet paper.

The EA/CW had no maternity leave, so went back to work three months after the birth. My workplace – in the NSW public service – was flexible enough that I could take three days a week unpaid leave for an extended period to look after our baby. We lived a quarter of an hour from the EA/CW’s workplace; for the first couple of months when he gave signs of needing a feed I’d bundle him into the car and take him to the breast, usually arriving before he was desperate. While his mother fed him I’d sit on the verandah of the centre – often with a group of women talking animatedly in Italian at the other end. I was able to reassure them, ‘Non capisco niente.’

I looked after the baby three days a week. We weren’t well off, but the times and our circumstances (see mention above about sharing money and futures) were such that we could afford to pay friends the going rate to look after him the other two days. I don’t remember them doing the breast-feed dash, so some bottles of formula must have been involved.

As a man looking after a baby in public, I was a rarity. At the local playgroup I was treated as something rich and strange, and congratulated for looking after my own child. I don’t think I was ever rude in response, but I was nonplussed. Once, long haired and – I guess – not obviously male from behind, I was struggling with baby, stroller and nappy bag up a flight of stairs at a railway station. A burly chap helpfully grabbed the stroller, and was obviously a bit shocked to realise he was being gallant to a bloke.

As there was virtually no accessible childcare at the time, a number of parents in the inner west of Sydney banded together to form what we called the Kids Co-op. We took over an abandoned house with an empty lot next door belonging to the Princess Alexandra Children’s Hospital, and they were eventually happy to let us have it for a peppercorn rent. For every child, the ‘parental unit’ had to do two half-day shifts a week, and there was a very small fee. We were a mixed bunch, and men were well represented: a couple of tradies, a baker, a Qantas steward, a drop-out lawyer, a telephone exchange operator, an editor who managed some casual work (that’s me). The women were equally varied. What we had in common was an openness to finding collective solutions to the collective problem.

The Co-op was often chaotic. The weekly meetings ranged from tedious to hilarious. Some people would come to one meeting or do one shift and then never be seen again. The food was basic, and maybe that’s praising it too highly. But the young ones formed strong bonds: at the end of the day, our two-year-old son would plead to go home with one of his friends, or vice versa. And as the parents had generally worked with each other on shifts, their pleas were often enough successful. This little constellation of families meant there was rarely any difficulty finding babysitters.

As the young ones turned three and four, we started a ‘co-op preschool’. Here there was one paid early-childhood educator, and once again parents did shifts as assistants.

In later years, the EA/SW and I lived for a time with former Co-op members, and many friendships that began there – among both generations – are alive and thriving.

I don’t think the Co-op could happen today. Health and safety regulations would be an obstacle, and new parents are much more isolated. The pressure to work long hours is more intense, and the neo-liberal worldview’s emphasis on individualism is still a powerful force in the culture.

Annabel Crabb gives a string of examples of men whose lives have been enriched by the opportunity to be actively engaged with their children, as full-time or part-time ‘stay-at-home dads’, sometimes sharing the joy with the ‘stay-at-home’ mum. She also writes of ‘a storm-cloud of resentment building among millennial men’, who see themselves as ‘lumped with the transgressions of an older generation, while missing out on entitlements that should reasonably be theirs’. The park playground near our flat is full of fathers and small children on sunny weekends, something that we just didn’t see 40 years ago: the men are willing, but the system, though it has softened, is tight.

Men at Work is the third book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Erik Jensen’s Prosperity Gospel

Erik Jensen, The Prosperity Gospe: How Scott Morrison Won and Bill Shorten Lost (Quarterly Essay 74), plus correspondence from QE 75

I approached this Quarterly Essay with reluctance. Did I really need another inside-baseball, after-the-event reading of the tea-leaves about the May federal election? That’s how I felt when the essay came out, and my already-faint enthusiasm has only waned since. But I did read it, three months after the event as has become my custom..

It’s mercifully short. It consists mainly of finely crafted snapshots, mainly of the party leaders in action, from both sides of the election campaign with occasional snippets of commentary, and no sustained argument as such. An essay for the distractible perhaps. Or one that met an impossible deadline, to be published within weeks of the events it deals with. That’s not to say it lacks insight (‘Bill Shorten’s gamble is that you can replace popularity with policy’). But it’s impressionistic rather than discursive, and narrative rather than analytical. It was written on the campaign trail. Bill Shorten gave a generous interview; Scott Morrison refused to be interviewed. There’s no doubt which of the two men emerges as the more likeable, but he is the one who is accorded the most devastating summing-up:

The great truth of Bill Shorten is that he doesn’t know himself. He hasn’t settled his character.

Morrison on the other hand, though his religious belief and his deep commitment to his family are noted, is described in the essay’s final words as ‘a hardman who says everything is simple and some of you will be okay’. Both those summations are beautifully concise, and they’re far from stupid, but neither is justified by the essay that precedes them.

It’s a strange essay, reading sometimes like diary notes from the campaign trail: along with the oft-seen moments like Morrison’s Easter observance, speeches are summarised, mostly without comment; we’re told what books people carry in their luggage; there’s a scattering of off-the-cuff witticisms from staffers; the behaviour of the wives of both candidates is described; sometimes unrelated passers-by are mentioned.

Much of the narrative simply sits on the page, without resonance or further implication that I could discern. An outstanding example is in the account of Morrison emerging from a Healthy Harold igloo (part of a program of health education for children):

Morrison rolls his shoulders when he stands. The tail of his tie not quite to his sternum. He has taken off his jacket: his paunch is oversatisfied and his nipples are erect

(page 48)

This reminded me of a piece by Mungo MacCallum in the Nation Review some time in the early 1970s. Describing Gough Whitlam emerging from a swimming pool, he commented that the honourable gentleman appeared to be very well endowed. That was funny in a transgressively adolescent way, and it chimed with the writer’s clear view that Gough was an attractive big man in other ways as well. Here, the point of mentioning the state of Morrison’s nipples, if there is one, seems to be to tell us that the writer was very close to the action and noticing details, however meaningless. The length of his tie doesn’t even have that, and what does the personification of Morrison’s paunch even mean?

In fact, as a guide to understanding what happened in the election, the essay is eclipsed by the 25 pages of correspondence about the previous Quarterly Essay, Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (my blog post here), which offer a number of interesting and plausible hypotheses about how the progressive-leaning population described so convincingly by Huntley could have delivered the result when it acted as an electorate.

And now perhaps the existence of Jensen’s essay is justified by what turns out to be an excellent correspondence about it at the back of QE 75 (Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work, which I look forward to reading in three months’ time).

Shorten’s speech writer, James Newton, gives an unrepentant insider’s account of Shorten’s campaign, including his now-near-forgotten town hall meetings. Journalist David Marr and scholar Judith Brett offer their analyses. Barry Jones offers the perspective of a grand old man of the ALP. Elizabeth Flux tells us what she learned from being ’employed as a subeditor with a focus on Australian politics’ throughout the campaign, Kristina Keneally writes interestingly about the possible role of religious background. Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson offer historians’ insights. Lawyer Russell Marks gestures towards ‘the deep structures operating through Australia’s political and electoral systems’.

These contributions mostly include evidence that they have read Jensen’s essay. Some of them actually grapple with it, as distinct from using it as a launching pad for their own commentary. Here are some quotes to balance my own underwhelmed response:

James Newton: ‘Instead of wasting words on pseudo-psephology, Erik Jensen gives us telling sketches of the two major-party leaders, their campaigns and the choices Australians faced and made.’

David Marr: ‘The drift of the press is to cut everything short. This guts argument. … The great pleasure of The Prosperity Gospel is to be immersed in the language of the campaign and reconsider the state of politics in this country knowing that what was dismissed as blather in those weeks worked so well on election day.’

Elizabeth Flux: ‘The Prosperity Gospel helped me understand why I found the election result so difficult to come to grips with. It wasn’t that “my team” didn’t win. Or that I liked Shorten more. It’s because it wasn’t a case of one side’s policies winning over the other’s. People were happy to vote for no policies at all, because we’d rather have a strong man selling nothing than a quiet one trying to make changes which he truly believed were for the better.’

Kristina Keneally actually engages critically with the essay, finding it unsatisfying in three areas: ‘First, while Jensen introduces the distinctly different religious foundations for each leader’s policy and political approach, he does not wrestle with what it means that Australia voted for one over the other. … Second, Jensen’s profiles of Morrison and Shorten are incomplete, or at least unbalanced. … Third, he could have explored the role religious affiliation and identity played in the election.’

Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson wonder on paper if people will still go to this essay for insight in the future, say in the lead-up to the 2019 election. They argue (unconvincingly in my opinion) that they should.

Russell Marks laments that while the essay’s subtitle promises an explanation for the election result, ‘Jensen never really expands beyond what is mostly a literary answer.’ He goes on to speak, not quite disparagingly, of political journalists making ‘literary attempts to match leaders’ characters to the nation’s and to find in the intersections why publics endorse one leader and not another’, and then speaks quite disparagingly of ‘armchair psychoanalysis’, though he doesn’t accuse Jensen directly of that.

Tellingly, Jensen’s ‘Response to Correspondents’ ignores them all and makes some observations on what has happened in the months since the election.

Rebecca Huntley’s Advance Australia

Rebecca Huntley, Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation (Quarterly essay 73)

This Quarterly Essay confirms me in my decision to delay reading each QE until the following issue has appeared. That way I get to read the correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind. With this issue, it has an extra advantage. Rebecca wrote Australia Fair in the lead-up to the recent Federal election, challenging Bill Shorten and his team – who she expected to win – to be bold enough to revivify Australian social democracy. The ALP lost, emphatically, and no one expects a Scott Morrison government to be interested in social democracy. So I read the essay shorn of its immediate persuasive goal, and it turns out to be a very interesting argument about where the majority of Australians stand on a number of key issues

Rebecca Huntley is a social and market researcher, involved, as she says, ‘in the “dark arts” of focus groups, polling, surveys, and strangers who ring you in the middle of dinner’. Her husband, when asked what his wife does for a living, replies, ‘She’s an expert in the opinions of people who don’t know what they are talking about.’ She’s been at it for many years, and can speak with some authority about general community attitudes on a number of topics.

She argues in this essay that the mainstream Australian population is much more progressive than our politicians. After some pages discussing the term ‘social democracy’, and research from many sources into community understandings of the role of government in a democracy, she comes to the conclusion that fairness – both for individuals and the collective – matters more to Australians than freedom (the reverse of what we generally believe to be the case in, say, the USA):

The point of democratic government is to do things for people, not to prevent government from doing things to people

(page 17)

She goes onto some detail on housing and homelessness; the environment and climate change (‘the defining issue for voters judging a prime minister’s leadership skills and character’); immigration, refugees and asylum seekers. On each of these subjects she demonstrates – though less clearly on the last mentioned than the others – that the majority of us, as in the case of the postal survey on same-sex marriage, want change for the better in ways that our political leaders simply don’t represent. And politicians are held in very low regard, seen as in thrall to their donors and not committed to the public good.

She pleads with Bill Shorten to step up boldly and restore a robust social democracy, wining back our respect for the parliament i the process. Who knows if he would have done it? On the strength of Anthony Albanese’s recent caving in on the Morrison government’s tax legislation, it seems unlikely. What emerges from the essay, then, is an optimistic view about the Australian population in general, and a deep pessimism about the current state of our democracy.

The correspondence is all dated post election. None of the correspondents takes a pot shot at the pollsters for getting it so wrong, but they all grapple with the paradox of a generally progressive population having voted in a nakedly reactionary government. They are all interesting. I’ll just mention James Walker’s final point. He cites Walter Lippmann (‘one of the pioneers of opinion research’) who warned that we should be wary of ‘the phantom public’. There is no single public out there, but any number of emergent entities, ‘continually evolving in response to political action and representation’. Walker goes on to quote one of Tony Abbott’s most striking pieces of feral poetry

Thus Tony Abbott, always ready with simplifying binaries, articulates the crucial factor in how belief around climate change was mobilised in the 2019 campaign: ‘Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But where climate change is an economic issue the Liberals do well.’ The responses Huntley records might well be construed as answers to a normative question: ‘What should we do?’ But the actions of voters on the day can be thought of as an evaluation of economic interests. The Coalition, in successfully mobilising climate action as an economic issue, created a countervailing ‘public’ to that which Huntley and others thought representative of the zeitgeist.

(Page 80)

Rebecca Huntley’s response to corespondents is elegant, a little mea-culpa-ish but unbowed. ‘The conclusion to draw,’ she writes.

is not that Australia is no longer progressive or no longer cares about equality or is becoming like America, or that all social research lacks credibility. The conclusion is that the lack of trust the electorate has in politicians has undermined its belief that structural reform – whether that be economic, social or environmental – is something that can be delivered by the politicians running the show …
The challenge is to take what the majority of Australians want and connect that with a government they feel comfortable electing. The alternative is a race to the bottom.

‘I remain,’ she concludes, ‘a defiant optimist. Just one who now recognises the scale of the challenge ahead.’

Australia Fair is the thirtieth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss

Sebastian Smee, Net Loss: The inner life in the digital age (Quarterly Essay 72), plus correspondence from Quarterly Essay Nº 73

The cover of the quarterly essay, which includes a small inset image of the  Mona Lisa's smile.

I postponed reading this Quarterly Essay for months for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t think I’d be able to stand the guilt if I read one more well articulated argument about the dangers of social media. And second, I’ve discovered that I prefer to read a Quarterly Essay after its successor has arrived, so that I can read the follow-up correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind.

The guilt factor decreased when I quit Twitter a couple of weeks ago (I haven’t missed it), and then Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (to be read in a couple of months’ time) arrived in my letterbox. So there was no need for further delay. Sebastian Smee’s essay turned out to be a delightful read. If, for reasons of your own, you haven’t read it, it’s not too late for you too to change your mind.

Like many of us, Smee is attached to his fruit-based or other device and a constant user of social media, and feels uneasy about it, not just because of the emergence of what Shoshana Zuboff has called surveillance capitalism, though that looms large in the essay, but also because of how it affects his sense of himself, and his relationships to other people and to the world – what he calls his inner life. ‘Can we protect ourselves,’ he asks

from corporate incursions into our private life by telling ourselves we have some hidden, impregnable inner life to which the algorithms can never gain access? Is this even realistic? It’s very hard to say. One thing we do know is that individual reality is beyond quantification. And cause and effect are always more complex than we like to think. That’ in part because perception itself is almost infinitely fluid.

(page 24)

In a nutshell, that’s the question the essay addresses and the response it comes up with.

The most startling single phrase in the essay is ‘the commodification of our attention’. It’s not Smee’s coinage – a quick web search finds the phrase cropping up in many places. But it encapsulates the way we are being influenced and exploited to contribute to the unimaginably large profits of Facebook, Google and the like.

What Smee does is to embody the kind of attention that has not been whittled down and shaped by social media. He’s a self-described arty type, and here he elucidates the subtleties of passages from Chekhov, explains how a particular painting by Cézanne represents a revolution in ways of seeing, describes and spells out the implications of video works by contemporary artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. He uses language in a way that invites thoughtful consideration, and stands as a living contradiction to his argument that we have entered an age of distraction.

The correspondence up the back of QE73 is, as always, excellent. The closest thing to a disagreement is a beautiful piece of writing by Fiona Wright, a string of cameos illustrating how her life is enriched by social media. There’s some heavy-duty philosophy from Raimond Gaita. Imre Salusinszky indulges some high-level nostalgia for, of all things, John Hughes’s movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Smee responds with the same grace and generosity that permeates the essay itself.

Added 18 April 2019: I’ve just listened to the podcast of David Gillespie talking with Richard Fidler the effects of iPhone and social media on especially teenage brains. It amplifies and makes urgent the gist of Sebastian Smee’s essay. You can get it here.

Laura Tingle’s Follow the Leader

Laura Tingle, Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman (Quarterly Essay 71, Black Inc 2018)

qe71.jpg

Follow the Leader is Laura Tingle’s third Quarterly Essay, a third instalment in a loose trilogy. Great Expectations (QE 46 2012) dealt with Australian expectations of government, Political Amnesia (QE 60 2016) with failing institutional memory, and now Follow the Leader with political leadership in the modern world (links are to my blog posts). ‘For,’ Laura Tingle writes, ‘whatever our expectations of government, whatever the state of our institutions and institutional memory, it is leadership that helps to settle those things, and change them.’

She might have added that the ills of political leadership looms large in the age of Trump, Duterte, Putin, Rudd–Gillard–Rudd–Shorten and Abbott–Turnbull–Dutton–Morrison.

The tagline on Laura Tingle’s website is ‘Reporting on politics from Canberra’. This essay is very high level reporting, and not just about Canberra, offering incisive accounts of political developments in the years since Howard’s prime ministership and invoking the insights of  historians, political scientists, politicians (from Kim Beazley to Barack Obama), speechwriters, military leaders, philosophers, other journalists and more.

The essay takes a key idea from Ronald Heifetz’s 1994 book Leadership Without Easy Answers that ‘leadership, power and formal authority too often get confused and need to be carefully distinguished’, and offers his definition of leadership as ‘helping a community embrace change’ as a touchstone against which to judge the functioning of our elected leaders. (incidentally, her account of Heifetz’s discussion of Lyndon Johnson’s  handling of the US war in Vietnnam – big fail – and Civil Rights – big win – is enlightening.)

The reality is that elected leaders in Australia and elsewhere are much more committed to their own survival in office, treating their rivals as enemies or pushing their ideological agendas as ‘would-be strong men’ (I love the way that phrase punctures postures) than to leading in the Heifetz sense, and in the face of global warming, mass displacement of people, stunning unequal distribution of wealth, and increasingly dangerous  international politics, that is just plain terrifying. Laura Tingle gives an account of how we have come to this dire situation, and perhaps reassuringly sketches alternatives, mainly in the leadership style of Angela Merkel, who is masterly at building consensus, and giving her opponents room that allows compromise.

I’ll give Laura Tingle the final word in this sketchy account of the essay. Her closing words, which I wish could appear in letters of fire over the entrance to parliament House (notice the eleg:

We need our leaders to be wary of simple solutions built on scapegoating and hatred, and to resist succumbing to those who relentlessly conjure up reasons for  intolerance. We should expect our leaders to help rebuild the national debate and protect other voices within it. We should be looking for strong leaders to follow, not a strongman.

Follow the Leader is the sixteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Richard Denniss’s Dead Right

Richard Denniss, Dead Right: How neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next (Quarterly Essay 70, 2018)

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If, like me, you expect an essay on economics to be dry and jargon-ridden, you will be relieved to find that this Quarterly Essay is witty, passionate and accessible. On the 2018 Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast of Richard Denniss discussing his previous book, Curing Affluenza, there are a number of Anna Russell ‘I’m not making this up’ moments: the audience laughs at a piece of snark about the workings of capitalism and right-wing politics, and Denniss protests that what he has just said is the simple truth. These pages bristle with the written equivalents of those moments. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t real

The main thesis:

Neoliberalism, the catch-all term for all things small government, has been the ideal cloak behind which to conceal enormous shifts in Australia’s wealth and culture. It has provided powerful people with the perfect language in which to dress up their self-interest as the national interest.

Neoliberalism pretends to be a coherent theory of economics that says the market should be allowed to function without government interference – hence deregulation and privatisation are always the way to go. But as preached and practised in Australia it is really a rhetoric to disguise greed and self-interest. Denniss multiplies examples of places where the proponents of ‘small government’ are all for government subsidy and regulation, so long as it goes to them or helps causes close to their hearts. The Murdoch media empire and Adani coal mine are only the most egregious instances.

Since I started drafting this blog post, Australia’s Prime Minister has dismissed the ALP’s policy emphasis on welfare, health and education as being about ‘More taxes, more taxes, more taxes, more taxes and more taxes’. He has also described the Sydney Opera House as ‘Sydney’s biggest billboard’. I could almost hear Richard Denniss’s pen scratching these utterances into his notes for future articles.

But yelling at the absurdities and cruelties of neoliberalism is a game we all play in front of our televisions every night. Denniss offers analysis and some steps towards remedy. The real power of neoliberalism, he writes,

has been to convince the media and large swathes of the public that … debates about the shape of our communities and the design of our institutions are somehow a ‘distraction’ from the main game of further tax cuts and industrial relations reform. Neoliberalism has produced the bizarre result that serious politicians and serious political parties define themselves by their ‘economic agenda’, while declaring simultaneously that it is individual choice, not government policy, that creates jobs and prosperity.

Faith in our democratic institutions, he argues persuasively, has been eroded:

The opposite of the narrow economic agenda of neoliberalism isn’t a progressive economic reform agenda; it is the re-establishment of a broad debate about the national interest. After thirty years of hearing that politicians, government and taxes are the things that ruin the economy, it is time for the public to hear and see that politicians, government and taxes are the foundations on which prosperous democratic nations are built.

The essay ends with a list of five new institutions that might help restore a vibrant democracy – institutions that Denniss would like to see introduced only if citizens are consulted at the beginning, the middle and the end of the process of their creation. The institutions, none of which are either left or right propositions, are:

A charter of rights – to place our collective vision of our fundamental rights above any attempts to limit such rights based on the politics of the day. This would have protected us from the recent ‘robot-debt’ debacle, and would curb the current expansion of Peter Dutton’s powers.

• A National Interest Commission – to replace the Productivity Commission and provide ‘broad advice on the kind of advantages (as opposed to benefits) and disadvantages (as opposed to costs) that m=a major project like … an enormous new mine … might entail’.

• A federal corruption watchdog – hardly needs arguing for.

• Democratic education – that is, education in the workings of our democratic system, especially perhaps in the nature of the Senate and how Senate voting works.

• A sovereign wealth fund – ‘imagine if all tax collected from the mining industry went into the same fund from which all [mining] subsidies were drawn. Not only would there be much greater transparency and accountability concerning the subsidies, the revenue collected from the sale of our scarce resources also could not be squandered on short-term vote-buying.’

This QE was published in June. An advantage of coming to it late is that the next in the series has been published, with 47 pages of correspondence about Dead Right up the back (not bad for a 77 page essay). As always, the correspondence sheds new and interesting light on the essay’s subject. This is particularly true of John Quiggin’s account of how Tony Abbott’s prime-ministership dealt the death blow to Australian neoliberalism’s credibility. Interesting in a different way is John McTiernan’s attack, which is a brilliant example of a kind of political writing that distorts the writer’s enemy’s position and then tramples all over the straw man it has created: this is apparently quite effective in the opinion columns of the Australian, when readers of the attack can be assumed not to have read the thing being attacked – here it just makes Mr McTiernan look illiterate. On the other hand, The Australian‘s economics editor, Adam Creighton, is one of several economists who criticise  Denniss’s essay trenchantly without grossly misrepresenting it.

Denniss uses his right of reply deftly and with more courtesy than sarcasm. He says in his concluding paragraph:

It is a privilege to have my arguments tested by such diverse voices. The conclusion of Dead Right is that the opposite of neoliberal economics isn’t progressive economics, but engaged democracy. And engaged democracy requires exactly the sort of well-meaning debate contained in these pages.

Mark McKenna’s Moment of Truth

Mark McKenna, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (Quarterly Essay 69, 2019)

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We’ve been talking a bit in my house about Jean-Léon Gerôme’s fabulous 1896 painting La Vérité sortant du puits armée de son martinet pour châtier l’humanité (Truth coming from the well armed with her whip to chastise humankind). I don’t know what Gerôme had in mind when he painted it, but if it had been painted this year one would be tempted to think it referred to either the #metoo movement or the subject of this Quarterly Essay. Mark McKenna’s essay argues strongly that now is the moment for Truth to rise from The Great Australian Silence about the history of First Nations of the Australian continent. There may be no whip in the essay, and McKenna doesn’t scream in rage – he’s a serious, evidence-based historian. But Gerôme’s passionately urgent Truth is surely more appropriate to the occasion than the serene Truths of other painters of his time..

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McKenna begins his essay by quoting in full the Uluru Statement_From_The_Heart (link is to a PDF). If you haven’t read the full statement, please do. I think it’s worth reading many times, in full, and I hope that enough of us will take it to heart that the Prime Minister’s apparently offhand and certainly duplicitous rejection of its recommendations – for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution, and for a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history – will turn out to have been a bump in the road.

McKenna continues to quote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals throughout the essay, but his own voice is clear, cogent and eloquent. Here he is, a historian, on the importance of listening to Aboriginal people’s stories of massacres and dispossession:

[Mainstream] Australians have yet to accept that they live in a country with two ways of knowing the past. Our hierarchies of storytelling dictate what we can and can’t see. Documentary sources are accorded more authority and power, Indigenous testimony is more likely to be questioned and interrogated, its findings cast in doubt. This is another reason to hold a truth-telling commission: to hear and understand another way of knowing how Australia was founded and created. For Indigenous Australians, these things are not ‘past’. Taken as one living body of story, they form a mosaic that binds the historical experience of all Aboriginal people from all parts of the continent. It is not the only tie, but it is the one they want other Australians to hear more than any other. And it binds us all. Not as a vehicle for blame or guilt or a means to recoil in moral disgust and denounce the past. In order to understand what happened we have to step outside our own moral universe. History is not a trial of earlier generations, or of the present. The past matters because  we give it life; because we seek to understand both its difference from the present and the traces of commonality that bind us to the lives of those who have gone before us. Until we listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians, we will continue to see the history of the country we share through European eyes.

There’s a lot in that paragraph, and the essay as a whole could be seen as unpacking it. Because, unlike in New Zealand or Canada, the British didn’t make a treaty with the people who were already here when they arrived, Australia’s history has no redemptive moment. So, bizarrely, we are offered as a sacred foundational narrative the story of a losing battle on the other side of the planet, and our leaders say it’s a fascist rewriting of history to want public monuments to acknowledge the undeniable genocidal implications of ‘discovery’.

McKenna gives a fascinating account of his own intellectual shifts, in particular through his 2002 book, Looking for Blackfellas’ Point, and responds to recent hoo-ha about colonial monuments be removed with an account of a visit to Kurnell, the site of Cook’s first Australian landing.

The latter struck a chord with me because I recently went for a walk around Kurnell with a couple of friends. Mark McKenna went there in September, we went in November. You can read my blog entry here. Like McKenna, we were struck by the weather-beaten sign on an old metal post: ‘Welcome to Kurnell, the Birthplace of Modern Australia.’ He explores the history of that sign in a gently comic chronicle of bureaucrats trying to get it right. We were taken with the way Aboriginal perspectives are everywhere around the place of Cook’s actual landing.  As one of my friends put it:

Love the Kurnell monument: ‘Which bit of Piss Off don’t you whiteys get?’

McKenna – presumably because of word limits – doesn’t go into detail about the place, but he does tell the story of how at the local level the understanding of that event and its regular celebration have morphed to include significant input from the Gweagal people. Locally, it’s no longer a story of discovery or birthplaces, but of the meeting of two cultures. This whole discussion puts egg all over the faces of those politicians who insist that to alter monuments would be ‘stalinist interference’ (Malcolm Turnbull’s words):

For as long as we refuse to relinquish the triumphalist and monovocal view of our past, we seal ourselves off from understanding history as anything other than a crude choice between shame and pride.

When this Quarterly Essay was published, in March this year, I was in London. I was there again when the brilliantly multivocal exhibition James Cook: The Voyages opened at the British Library St Pancras. It’s heartening to see that in the British Library Indigenous voices are heard and more than one perspective is given respectful attention.

As I was about to publish this post, the June 2018 Quarterly Essay arrived in the mail, with 50 pages of correspondence about Moment of Truth. There’s the usual mix of interesting additions, observations from different perspectives, civil differences of opinion on some matters, a bit of mudslinging at a straw man, and an intelligent response from McKenna (‘I’ve learnt as much from speaking about my Quarterly essay as I did from writing it’). There’s also a brilliant contribution from Megan Davis, one of the creators of the Statement from the Heart, which brings home both the huge significance of the Statement and the devastation brought about by its offhand dismissal. She tells us to do ourselves a favour:

don’t just read McKenna’s fine essay, go and read the referendum Council’s report.

A PDF of the report is available for download here.

Benjamin Law’s Moral Panic 101

Benjamin Law, Moral Panic 101: Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal (Quarterly Essay 67, 2017)

qe67.jpgIn conversation with David Marr about this Quarterly Essay at the Seymour Centre in Sydney recently, Benjamin Law produced a wad of A4 paper at least 4 centimetres thick printed on both sides. It was a print-out of articles published in the Australian covering, or at least mentioning, the Safe Schools program over a single year, roughly one every two days. The stories, he says in this essay, ‘were at best inadequate or misleading, at worst simply false’.

The essay summarises the Australian‘s campaign and its effects. It attempts to correct the record about the nature of Safe Schools, which was not a vile, child-corrupting Gay Marxist propaganda program, but a well-thought out, minimalist initiative to help schools counter bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer children, launched by the Abbott government in 2014, having been committed to by the Gillard government in its last weeks. The essay lays out much-needed information about where the medical profession and the law in Australian stand in relation to young people who identify as transgender, about queer theory, about the significance of same-sex marriage in combatting the systemic oppression of LGBTIQ people. Perhaps most tellingly, it reports on conversations with some of the young people whose wellbeing Safe Schools sought to protect (and still seeks, though not in all states and without federal funding) – something not done by any of the Australian‘s 200 or more articles.

Moral Panic 101 could be a sequel to Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay 43, Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation (2011), which provided an epigraph for one of its sections:

In these campaigns, [the Australian‘s] assigned journalists appear to begin with their editorially determined conclusion and then seek out evidence to support it.

Here, extracted from Law’s essay, is a dishonour roll of journalists who, either as right-wing culture warriors or as uncritical relayers of the RWCWs’ ‘facts’, contributed to the News Corp’s campaign:

  • Miranda Devine, ‘the Daily Telegraph‘s resident prophet of doom’
  • Rita Panahi, ‘Herald Sun columnist and Twitter firebrand’
  • Natasha Bita, ‘a Walkley Award–winning journalist who has worked across News Corp’s mastheads since the 1990s’
  • the Herald Sun‘s Susie O’Brien
  • The Australian‘s Rebecca Urban, who wrote thirty-one stories and 17 thousand words about Roz Ward and Safe Schools in one year, ‘all of which were critical’
  • Andrew Burrell, who co-wrote at least one of Rebecca Urban’s articles.

No one was surprised when News Corp went after Benjamin Law the week this essay was published. Given that he’s such a sweet presence they had to search, but they found an ugly tweet, misinterpreted it to make it infinitely uglier, and banged on about it for days, to the extent that Lyle Shelton could give him as an example of the ugliness of the Yes campaign (few reasonable people would see the goodlooking, charming, witty and intelligent Mr Law as in any way ugly). The most astonishing moment in the Marr–Law conversation at the Seymour Centre was that both men revealed that they still subscribe to the Australian.

It’s easy to become fascinated by the illogic, hypocrisy and dishonesty of some commentators, journalists and public figures (I don’t follow @realdonaldtrump on Twitter but I regularly go looking to see what he’s tweeted). What Law has done in this essay, in carefully documenting, analysing and refuting the misrepresentations, goes well beyond that fascination, and has earned our gratitude.

We can also be grateful for his discussion of transgender issues, based mainly on interviews with young transgender people and with Dr Elizabeth Riley, who has worked with gender-variant young people for about a decade. Contrary to what some parts of the press might imply, for example, medical experts in Australia will not prescribe irreversible hormone treatment before puberty. And no Australian minor can commence irreversible hormone treatment without a determination from the Family Court that ‘the child had sufficient intellectual sophistication to understand what was involved, and all the possible consequences’.

Few things can trigger emotional responses more than the accusation of harm to children, especially harm that involves sex. It’s an extraordinary achievement of this essay that, while it leaves you in no doubt where it stands, it remains judicious, calm, reasonable and open to complexity. It doesn’t feel like the last word on the subject, but it’s a good one.
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A final note. Like  most current or retired editors or proofreaders, I tend to be distracted by my own pedantry. If I hadn’t been a fan of Benjamin Law and editor Chris Feik before, I would have been when I read this sentence, talking about queer theory, which says ‘discomfort’ where far too many people would have ‘discomfit’, thereby depriving us of the other useful, but now dying meaning of ‘discomfit’:

After all, one of its central tenets is that it’s supposed to discomfort people by upending how we perceive norms, and by interrogating the social scaffolding around gender and sexuality we take for granted.