Tag Archives: Quarterly Essay

Hugh White’s Sleepwalk to War

Hugh White, Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s unthinking alliance with America (Quarterly Essay 86, 2022)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 87

The title of this Quarterly Essay says it all: Australia’s foreign policy has had us in lockstep with the USA, and we’re heading for an inevitable war with China if the USA continues on its current trajectory and we stay blindly following. The people making key policy decisions, the title implies and indeed the essay states explicitly, are not living in the real world.

Specifically, our governments talk and act as if the USA is an unchallengeable world power both generally and in our region. In reality, China’s GDP is now greater than that of the USA (one of many assertions challenged by correspondents in Nº 87); it is a nuclear power intent on establishing a sphere of influence in the India Pacific; the USA has no compelling reason to challenge that intention, and there’s no way it will go to war, let alone risk a nuclear war, to do so. Australia and the USA should stop pretending they will defend Taiwan should China decide to retake it – which it inevitably will do. We should be working out how reconcile ourselves to living within a Chinese sphere of influence in a multipolar world where the USA and China are only two of several great powers.

Hugh White presents his argument cogently, and when he is dealing with the absurd sabre-rattling of Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison, his thesis looks like sweet reason. Nancy Pelosi’s weirdly provocative visit to Taiwan happened after the essay and its follow-up correspondence were published, making it very timely indeed in retrospect.

As usual, I delayed reading this Quarterly Essay until the next one came out so that I could read it along with whatever responses the series editor (still Chris Feik) chooses to publish. Unusually this time, politicians criticised in the essay have a say. Not Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton – it’s hard to image either of them meeting argument with argument rather than bluster. But Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd turn up to defend their records. They and other correspondents take issue with White’s thesis just about as vigorously as possible within the bounds of civil discourse.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull:

White has strayed into sweeping generalisations and, frankly, ‘alternative facts’ to embellish his argument. I was disappointed that a scholar of his standing would do so.
White’s description of Australian foreign policy is simply wrong

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

A skilled political operator, White adduces selective facts and little reason in reaching [his] conclusion, but happily smears as ‘unthinking’ anyone who challenges his word as self-appointed prophet of both the anti-American far left and the ‘never upset Beijing’ Rio Tinto far right.

Michael J. Green, formerly the senior Asia policy official on the National Security Council in the White House:

Kudos to Hugh for shaking things up as always. There is urgency, as he notes. There are also many big and hard decisions ahead. But the basic consensus behind current Australian and American grand strategy is founded on a more nuanced and realistic assessment of the international system and the relative balance of power than offered in the polemical pages of Sleepwalk to War.

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University:

I’ve admired my ANU colleague Professor Hugh White for decades: his singular intellectual style, public profile (such that many mistakenly assume he speaks for Australia), unorthodox career, generous mentorship of next-generation thinkers, sharp good humour, even his zeal. He is a past master of the strategic analysis game. But he insists on playing it just one narrow way – his own, derived from his training in philosophy and winner-takes-all Oxford debating. And, sadly, his new Quarterly Essay maintains the cage.

Not all the correspondents take issue with the essay as sharply as those, but Rory Medcalf’s gibe about Oxford debating rings true when Hugh White emerges bloody but unbowed to reply to correspondents, barely acknowledging the many instances where he allegedly got the facts wrong.

In the end, the discussion hasn’t left me any wiser about Australia’s relationships with the USA and China. My evaluation of Dutton and Morrison’s provocations has been endorsed. My sense that things are complicated has been strengthened. My anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war in my lifetime remains on a low simmer. I’m glad there are people who can think about these issues and are taking about them. I hope cool and wise heads prevail on all sides.

Sarah Krasnostein’s Not Waving, Drowning

Sarah Krasnostein, Not Waving, Drowning: Mental illness and vulnerability in Australia (Quarterly Essay 85, 2022)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 86

Sarah Krasnostein doesn’t explain the title of this Quarterly Essay. It may be a straightforward inversion of the name of a Melbourne band, but I read it as referring to Stevie Smith’s most famous poem, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’, which begins:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.

You can read the whole short poem at this link.

The essay centres around the harrowing stories of three young people whose behaviour no one could have mistaken for cheerful waving, but who received attention from public institutions that left them immeasurably worse off. It’s pretty much a catalogue of horrors, with some glimmering hope to be found in the Victorian government’s commitment to act on the recommendations of the recent Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

Krasnostein avoids defining what she means by mental illness. It’s a bit like what a US supreme court justice said about pornography: ‘I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.’ As well as diagnoses like schizophrenia or – predominantly – various personality disorders, her use of the term comes close to encompassing homelessness, addiction, racism, marginalisation, responses to climate change, and suicide, or even simply vulnerability to the prison and mental health systems. This imprecision may be a feature rather than a bug. The essay is concerned to discuss mental illness from wider perspectives than the purely clinical, and boundaries between it and other forms of oppression are in their nature fluid.

She speaks of the profoundly destructive and destabilising effect of colonisation on the minds of settlers as well as First Nations people. She relies on Erving Goffman’s theory of stigma. She draws on Jung and Freud, and on recent thinking about systems change. She goes into some detail about the interface of criminal law and mental illness diagnoses. And in the middle of it there is the terrible vision of young people’s lives being ruined.

It’s a powerful and timely essay, but I found much of Krasnostein’s argument hard to follow. For example, I didn’t understand the logic by which a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder meant that a person who burned down a lot of buildings wasn’t an arsonist (though I get that punitiveness isn’t a reasonable response). Elsewhere, in an apparent non sequitur, a section begins, ‘I am thinking what it means to remember,’ and goes on to talk about stigmatisation of marginalised groups. Or there’s a beautifully written paragraph about a Trumpian demonstrations in Melbourne that seems to be there because the demo happened while the essay was being written.

More than any other Quarterly Essay, I’m glad of Black Inc’s practice of including correspondence in the following issue. This correspondence helped me understand what the essay was saying.

There are responses from journalists, historians, a psychiatrist, a criminal defence lawyer, and people who have worked in prisons and mental health institutions. Several of them mention their own experience as clients of the mental health system, as Krasnostein does in the essay. Taken as a whole, along with Krasnostein’s generous response, they illuminate the essay beautifully and extend its reach. To finish, here’s a quote from Joo-Inn Chew whose bio tells us she ‘works in general practice and refugee health in Canberra’, that gets to the heart of the essay (I like the way Joo-In Chew writes of wounds, addictions and diagnoses rather than conditions or illnesses):

Behind each wound, each addiction, each diagnosis is a person and a story, and beyond that a web of cultural and economic power which shapes everything, from the start people get in life, to how they express distress and whether they seek help, to how they are treated by front-line services and social institutions. Not everyone knows what it is like to feel safe and free in Australia. Every one of us can take stock of where we are in the web, how we use the power we have and how we recognise the common humanity of people around us. We can normalise our own vulnerabilities and use our power well. I thank Sarah Krasnostein for an essay which invites us to do just that.

(QE 86, Sleepwalk to War, page 123)

The Reckoning by Jess Hill

Jess Hill, The Reckoning: How #MeToo is changing Australia (Quarterly Essay 84)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 85

Given the dominance of the 24-hour news cycle and a federal government that seems to expect us not to remember anything that happened before last Tuesday, we can be grateful to the Quarterly Essay team for bringing us a history of the #MeToo movement in Australia. Jess Hill, author of the monumental account of domestic abuse, See What You Made Me Do (my blog post at this link), was an obvious choice to write that history.

She opens with a brief account of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s press conference in March 2021, at which he began by calling ‘sincerely’ for an end to mistreatment of women in Parliament House, and then quickly descended into veiled and unfounded accusations against a woman journalist who had exposed the things he was deploring. This is an emblematic moment: political spin, Hill says, has no power against the rage unleashed by #MeToo.

The history follows, and it’s more complex and interesting than most of us remember, with a regular interplay between gesture and substance pretty much as foreshadowed in that opening scene.

It begins with Tarana Burke, who started a movement – not a hashtag – called ‘me too.’ in the USA 2005. It was ‘an activist group promoting solidarity, healing, education and community’ among Black women who had been sexually assaulted or harassed. #MeToo the hashtag burst on the world twelve years later on 14 October 2017, when actor and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted: ‘If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.’ The response to the tweet, with the revelations about Harvey Weinstein as background, was explosive. Milano did recognise Burke’s earlier work, but Jess Hill tells us that the distinction between the two movements was obscured:

The cultural revolution triggered by #MeToo was, at least in its initial phase, not in line with Burke’s vision of healing and structural change: it was about rage and retribution.

(Page 10)

The essay reminds us that impetus had been building before the Weinstein case. It goes into some detail about cases ranging from the Boston Globe‘s revelations about child sex abuse in the Catholic Church (as in the movie Spotlight) in the early 2000s to the 2016 case of Chanel Miller, whose rapist received a two month sentence because the judge feared for his career prospects when her victim impact statement, published online, had made it vividly clear that he had damaged much more than career prospects for her. The election of Donald Trump after boasting about sexually assaulting women completed the tinder pile. No wonder #MeToo exploded in 2017 and, as Jess Hill says, ‘powerful men across the United States started dropping like flies’.

In Australia, ‘extraordinary energy and heat [was] generated in the first twenty-four hours of #MeToo’. Here a small number of high-profile predators, most prominently Don Burke, were exposed by painstaking work by journalists including Kate McClymont and Lorna Knowles. But the building momentum was savagely undermined when The Daily Telegraph went public with a complaint against an actor without seeking permission of the complainant. When the actor sued for defamation and won, thanks partly to Australia’s ‘monstrous’ defamation laws, but mainly to the unethical behaviour of the Daily Telegraph, #MeToo faltered.

In 2018, the #MeToo movement rolled on in many parts of the world. In Australia its main front became the organisation NOW Australia, with Tracy Spicer as ‘talking head of choice’. This fizzled out: not only did NOW Australia present as ‘glaringly white and middle class’ (the phrase is from Darug woman and writer Laura La Rosa), but it lacked grassroots consultation, and ‘was wedging a collectivist movement into the prism of corporate feminism’ (that’s Jess Hill’s phrasing). So in spite of the massive impact that #MeToo had, and continues to have, on individual lives, it stalled as an organised movement.

Worse, in Australia most of the women whose stories went public did not give their consent: Hill gives four examples in some detail. In each of these cases the revelation brought unwanted negative attention on the women, described in one case as ‘not only brutalising, but dehumanising’, with the result that they could easily be seen by other women as warnings not to come forward.

Just the same, it seemed that Malcolm Turnbull’s government was responding. In mid 2018, Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer, initiated a national enquiry into sexual harassment, headed by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins. Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education, was preparing to announce a taskforce to oversee how universities responded to complaints of sexual harassment and assault.

Then Scott Morrison became Prime Minister, and Dan Tehan became Minister for Education: the universities task force was shelved. The national enquiry went ahead, but its report, Respect@Work, delivered in March 2020, was shelved by the government. Hill’s discussion of the report ends:

Respect@Work found the safety laws did impose a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment.
Clearly, this wasn’t enough. Why shouldn’t employers have a responsibility to protect their workers from it under the Sex Discrimination Act as well? That’s what Respect @Work is asking the government to legislate. It is simple – and it’s revolutionary.

(Page 79)

The essay traces the impact of #MeToo in the private sector, the finance services sector, and the legal profession. The latter was racked by The International Bar Association’s report, Us Too?, which named Oceania as the worst region in the world for bullying and sexual harassment. Then former High Court Judge Dyson Heydon was revealed as a serial sexual harasser of young female associates. Instead of speaking of him as a ‘bad apple’, Chief Justice Susan Kiefel did what would have been unlikely a couple of years earlier, and apologised to the complainants on behalf of the High Court.

The movement had a massive resurgence in early 2021 brought about by the rape allegations against Christian Porter (which, Hill is careful to note, he denies), Grace Tame’s time as Australian of the Year, and Brittany Higgins’s story of rape in Parliament House. It’s a masterly telling of all three stories, including the dedicated work of journalists including Nina Funnell, Louise Milligan and Samantha Maiden, and the inadequate-to-hostile response of Scott Morrison, his government, and his allies in the press.

A final section is titled ‘Men’. Hill asks, ‘Is there a backlash against #MeToo fomenting among young men?’ and offers some chilling evidence that it may be so, including the existence of ‘well-oiled grooming machines capitalising on algorithms and social media platforms to radicalise young men into hatred of women’.

She also cites men who are energetic supporters of #MeToo and do powerful educational work among young men. She offers an interesting account of the conditioning that turns ‘those vulnerable, loving little boys’ into perpetrators of sexual violence, abuse and harassment. She revisits some of the analysis in See What You Made Me Do, and acknowledges that her husband, psychotherapist David Hollier, helped in the writing of this chapter. I found it quite wonderful, not least in its discussion of ‘the Australian virtue of mateship’, which includes this:

The thing #MeToo demands we confront is that mateship isn’t just about loyalty: it is also about protection, impunity and, following its perpetration, the erasure of sexual violence.

(Page 114)

Given that sections of the media are currently making much of the ‘mean girls’ trope in federal politics, in a fairly transparent attempt to claim an equivalency with the allegations of sexual misbehaviour and alleged criminality elsewhere in our parliaments, this essay is extremely timely. There is no equivalency.


The correspondents in Quarterly Essay 85, Not Drowning, Waving by Sarah Krasnostein, mostly enlarge on elements of Jess Hill’s essay. Journalists Hannah Ryan and Gina Rushton’s short essay seems to be there mainly to point out that they broke a number of important news stories, and to lend their weight to Hill’s negative account of Tracy Spicer’s moment in the limelight. Amber Schultz, and separately Sara Dowse, pick up on the party-political dimension, easy to do given Hill’s account of the Morrison government’s failure to raise to the occasion. (Sara Dowse has a beautiful paragraph listing the gains women have made since the Whitlam years.) Kieren Pender, who has led the International Bar Association’s efforts to address sexual harassment in the legal profession, picks up on the essay’s implication that focusing on the big-name offenders has limited effectiveness:

In individual workplaces, and in civil and criminal law, clear accountability mechanisms exist for serious forms of sexual harassment (even if too many workplaces still wish to conceal rather than address incidents). But what of the grey areas – the sexual joke in the elevator, the possibly suggestive text from a boss to their staff member, the colleague leaning in for an unreciprocated kiss at after-work drinks? In these contexts, right and wrong are not always as clearly distinguished – subtle cues, power dynamics and subjective interpretation can be everything.
     It is in these contexts that the million Australian perpetrators can mainly be found – not committing Weinstein-esque behaviour, but making inappropriate comments, or being ‘too friendly’.

(Quarterly Essay 85, page 137)

Journalist and novelist Malcolm Knox speaks for many men when he says that his ‘instinctive response, in the face of white-hot female rage, is silence and submission’. He rejects that instinct, and joind Jess Hill’s implied challenge to us men to stop being too passive around ‘our Christian Porters’. Nareen Young, Darug woman and writer who is quoted in the essay, stresses the importance of the Respect@Work report, and writes that

there are so many issues we need to track and continue to fight for collectively. And that’s long after the mainstream media band moves on, or white corporate feminists who claim ‘the movement’ as their own, then gate-keep and co-opt it for their own ends (activism is collective, not part of anyone’s ‘brand’), lose interest.

(Quarterly Essay 85, page 144)

Uncharacteristically, there’s a response from a culture warrior. Janet Albrechtsen appreciates the ‘excellent timeline’ and ‘sensible analysis of the need to focus on the long game of embedding cultural change’. She says some stuff that leads Jess Hill in her reply to wonder if she read the whole essay.

And the correspondence ends where the essay began, with Scott Morrison. Some time this year we will see if women are sufficiently disgusted with this government to change their vote. ‘How many women? we’ll have the answer by the time the next Quarterly Essay is published.’

Lech Blaine’s Top Blokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(page 13)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Quarterly Essay 84, page 106)

George Megalogenis’ Exit Strategy

George Megalogenis, Exit Strategy: Politics after the Pandemic (Quarterly Essay 82, 2021) – plus correspondence in QE 83

In the opening pages of this Quarterly Essay, George Megalogenis, veteran of the Canberra press gallery, describes the way trust in the Australian government was eroded over the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd–Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison years. The key question for the essay, he writes, is:

Can Australia restore faith in good government? Are we doomed to repeat the farce of the last decade, when we avoided the worst of the GFC only to succumb to policy gridlock and American-style electoral polarisation in the recovery? Or will the visceral experience of the pandemic allow us to reconceive the political economy of the nation?

(Page 4)

It may be the key question, but as far as I can tell the essay makes no real attempt to answer it.

What it does do, with considerable flair, is spell out the history that defines the present moment. Megalogenis compares the Covid recession with previous recessions, and describes the way relationships between governments and the heads of treasury have changed and developed over the decades since World War Two. He also describes the way the economists advising governments finally learned that government spending worked better than restraint as a response to economic recession.

The essay revisits, among other things, the Global Financial Crisis and the pink batts beat-up. It covers familiar ground, such as the way Prime Minister Morrison was slammed for taking a secret holiday during the 2019-2020 bushfires meant that he was less cavalier about the Covid crisis. It discusses the way universities were left out of Covid rescue packages.

It tells these stories in prose that makes us uninitiated readers feel as if we’re understanding something afresh, with the kind of gossipy personal touches that remind us that government decisions are made by fallible human beings, who are advised by other fallible human beings, but that fallibility is substantially decreased if public servants aren’t sacked wholesale by incoming governments, as they were by Tony Abbott.

The essay is dated 7 June 2021. By the time it was published a couple of weeks later, the next Covid-19 outbreak had begun. By the time I got to read it three months after that, a sizeable proportion of the Australian population was back in lockdown, there were weird demonstrations in Melbourne, and the prospect of the Federal Government offering the kind of leadership that would restore faith in good government seemed remote. But the essay’s final paragraph – read in the light of fresh submarine deals and more bloviating about climate change – has lost none of its force:

Morrison has yet to accept responsibility for the future. The longer he waits, the greater the risk that the rest of the world, led by a reinvigorated United States, imposes its own terms on Australia.


Quite a bit of the correspondence in Quarterly Essay 83 – Lech Blaine’s Top Blokes – responds specifically to Megalogenis’ discussion of the Morrison government’s treatment of universities. Megalogenis discussion is interesting – they did it because they hate universities, because universities produce Labor-voters, and because they hate Victoria and Victoria specialises in higher education. There’s a lot of nuance in the discussion, but the Morrison government doesn’t emerge from it smelling any more like a rose.

For me, the most telling response to the essay’s main thesis came from Richard Denniss, chief economist at the Australia Institute and author of Quarterly Essay 70, Dead Right (my blog post here). He laments that this essay didn’t contain ‘a lot more on possible exit strategies and the political forces that will determine which options are placed on the democratic menu and, ultimately which dish is selected’. I love this departure from the usual calm tone of QE correspondence, in which he quarrels not so much with George Megalogenis as with his source – an economist calling out an economist rather than the journalist who may be simply innocent meat in the sandwich:

George quotes former Treasury secretary Ken Henry saying [successive governments’] hostility to government spending ‘was not something that the Australian Treasury had dreamt up … The academic consensus around fiscal policy was basically: “It’s too hard to use” … The best thing to do is sit on your hands and let the private sector work it out.’

What utter crap. No such academic consensus ever existed, and it’s not at all clear from the essay whether George believes it did. But what is clear … is the tendency in Australia for powerful people to source advice, economic or otherwise, from those they agree with.

(QE 83 page 123)

The most telling additional piece of information comes from Travers McLeod, chief executive officer of the Centre for Policy Development. The National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), he tells us, was established by Scott Morrison in March 2020 to ‘coordinate advice to the Australian government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic’. Then, on 3 May 2021, ‘with Australia at the bottom of global vaccination rates, and the Delta strain having just been used to justify a ban on Australians returning from India’, it was disbanded.

It does look as if any hope for a reasoned response in Australia to the ongoing pandemic crisis (not to mention the climate emergency) must lie with the states, or with any luck, a change of government.

Alan Finkel’s Getting to Zero

Alan Finkel, Getting to Zero: Australia’s Energy Transition (Quarterly Essay 81, 2021)
– plus correspondence in QE 82

Alan Finkel was Australia’s chief scientist from 2016 to 2020, and among other things he is currently special adviser to the Australian government on low-emissions technologies. So an essay on ‘Australia’s energy transition’ written by him carries a certain weight.

On the face of it, it’s hard to believe that the current Australian government is serious about taking effective action about the climate emergency. It’s not so long since Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament to make puerile mockery of concerns about fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change, and he now conspicuously refuses to commit to a zero-emissions target by any given time. The Minister for Resources is a fervent advocate of the Adani coal mine in Queensland. The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction want to spend vast sums to keep coal-fired generators open. A gas led recovery or a hydrogen valley sound more like amateurish marketing slogans than indicators of any serious policy. So when one of their key advisers writes an essay whose title implies a goal (getting to zero) and a plan (transition) it inspires hope that he will spell out whatever seriousness lies behind the politicians’ sloganeering and obfuscation.

Ian McAuley says in the correspondence in QE 82:

With a little editing – if he replaced his personal anecdotes with the language of bureaucracy, for instance – this essay could serve as the government’s green paper on ‘Australia’s Energy Transition’ – that is, if our government were willing to engage with the public on difficult public policy problems through the traditional green paper/white paper process.

This may be so, but Finkel makes it clear that he has very little to say about politics, policy or politicians. He writes as an engineer: ‘Just as technology has got us into trouble through its propensity to generate carbon dioxide emissions, it is technology that will save us.’ He does acknowledge that technology doesn’t live in a vacuum:

It lives in the policy-driven world of markets, fiscal settings, taxes, government decisions and consumer preferences. This essay is about the technology, not the policies, which are for our democratically elected political leaders to determine. Governments have to balance competing priorities across economic growth, scientific advice and community values.

(page 27)

The essay delivers on that promise. After a very readable outline of the science, it outlines the technological challenges (‘The task is, quite simply, immense’) and the processes already well under way to meet them: the huge uptake in solar energy, progress by way of batteries, hydrogen generation and other means to making wind and solar dependable, electric cars, and so on. He clarifies his modified support for continued use of gas as part of a transition to zero-emissions; he champions hydrogen as the hero of the story. He emphasises that the challenges are huge (‘a mountain to climb’) but is optimistic. He ends with these words:

We can do this, but it will take considerable effort and will take time. So remember: be ambitious; be patient.

(page 97)

I was heartened to read Finkel’s lucid, careful, methodical argument that the challenge of the climate emergency can be met – with difficulty, but successfully, and without significant sacrifice (‘No trade off, no dichotomy. Prosperity and low emissions.’). I was also uneasy. Surely something has to change as well as our technology. There was a herd of elephants in the room. The essay starts with a quote from Buckminster Fuller:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

I imagine the ‘alternative society’ enthusiasts of the 60s and 70s who had Buckminster Fuller as a kind of guru would consider it close to blasphemy to invoke him in this way.


This Quarterly Essay demonstrates the brilliance of the series’ practice of including in each issue extensive correspondence on the previous one. And it confirms me in my practice of postponing my reading of each issue until the next one arrives.

Alan Finkel can be read, roughly, as explaining the government’s position on the transition to a zero-emissions economy. The correspondence in Quarterly Essay 82 is appropriately heavyweight. Starting with Tim Flannery (Finkel ‘tragically fails’ to identify the real problem, which is ‘that unless we take timely action and view cost as a secondary consideration, we seem destined to precipitate a new, dangerous climate that will threaten our global civilisation’), Scott Ludlam (‘This is a fight that won’t be resolved by reasoned argument alone’) and Ross Garnaut (‘Public expenditure on technological development is wasted unless it is accompanied or followed by a carbon price or by regulation mandating its use’), the line-up of scientists, scholars, researchers and activists engage respectfully and forcefully with that position. If Black Inc were to publish the essay with the correspondence in a single volume, it be a useful, and very readable, overview of the state of climate politics in Australia.

A new IPCC report has been published since the essay and responses were written. Who knows what Alan Finkel would write now?


Added much later, Alan Finkel’s carefully reasoned case has trouble holding its own against the Juice Media’s version of things:

Laura Tingle’s High Road

Laura Tingle, The High Road: what Australia Can Learn from New Zealand (Quarterly Essay 80) – and correspondence from Quarterly Essay 81.

The High Road is Laura Tingle’s fourth Quarterly Essay, making her possibly the series most frequent contributor. Great Expectations (QE 46 2012) dealt with Australian expectations of government, Political Amnesia (QE 60 2016) with failing institutional memory, and Follow the Leader (QE 71 2018) with political leadership in the modern world (links are to my blog posts). The High Road presents an abridged comparative chronology of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand: both began as colonies of England, and both were cut adrift when the UK joined the EU, and they have taken very different, though parallel paths since then, while for the most part doing their best to ignore each other.

The essay begins with the stark contrast between Jacinda Ahern’s decisive response to the Covid crisis and Scott Morrison prevarication and ambiguity, and goes on to make broader comparisons between the two leaders that are all unflattering to Morrison. But when the essay goes back to sketch the histories of the two nations, the comparisons don’t always favour Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Aotearoa/New Zealand doesn’t have a written constitution. It does have the Treaty of Waitangi, which laid the basis for a mutually respectful relationship between Māori and Pākehā. The treaty was largely ignored by settler society until the second half of last century, but it has been since taken seriously and provided a basis for major advances in Māori status and conditions, and for compensation for past injustices. Compare this to Malcolm Turnbull’s offhand dismissal of the call for a makaratta and a Voice to Parliament in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. In Aotearoa/New Zealand politicians of all stripes speak of ‘honour’ in relation to the Treaty, a word we will wait some time to her in the Austraian Parliament.

Neo-liberalism has come like a plague to both countries. It hit Aotearoa/New Zealand harder. Because there is only one house in their Parliament, and there are no states, a Prime Minister with a majority can override opposition to an economic program, which is what happened with ‘Rogernomics’ – a ‘deregulatory frenzy’ in the 1980s, which has made New Zealand ‘a stellar example for those wanting less government, less tax and more markets ever since’, and has also brought about a huge amount of human suffering. On this side of the Tasman, when Hawke and Keating set out with similar aims they had to compromise and set up a certain level of protection for the vulnerable.

On the other hand, because Aotearoa/ New Zealand has an electoral system that makes it less likely than in Australia that any one party will have a clear majority, and though Jacinda Ahern has one currently she chooses to work collaboratively in the manner to which she has been accustomed. Their electoral system means that parties that appeal to the centre are more likely to gain power – unlike in Australia, where the major parties (especially the LNP?) can be held captive by their extreme elements.

Laura Tingle’s starting point is that most Australians are fairly ignorant about the history of our most similar near neighbour. She’s certainly right about me, and I’m less ignorant for having read the essay.

The correspondence in the following Quarterly Essay, Alan Finkel’s Getting to Zero – from historians and journalists from both sides of the Tasman, economists, lawyers and politicians – largely amplifies the thesis of this one, with some minor disagreements and several pointed anecdotes. Historian Frank Bongiorno, for instance, reminds us of the underarm bowl by Australian Trevor Chappell in a 1981 cricket match, saying this ‘ugly’ tactic was ‘the emblematic event in the trans-Tasman relationship’ of his childhood, even after New Zealand took a stand against US nuclear weapons and Australia remained supine. The most telling pieces of correspondence are from First Nations writers.

In particular, Bain Attwood from Monash University and Miranda Johnson from the University of Otago argue ‘that relations between white settlers and indigenous people in Australia and New Zealand did not actually follow a significantly different course after their beginnings’, that in both cases indigenous people lost their resources or autonomy or both. As to the difference in the degree to which each country has sought to address historical injustice:

Rather than simply attributing this to the presence or absence of normative, moral, legal, philosophical and political forces in the governments, as Tingle does, it makes more sense to take note of the role played by material factors – for example, the fact that Māori are a much larger minority in New Zealand than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are in Australia or that there was less post-war non-British migration to New Zealand than to Australia. Unforeseen consequences of government policies and practices must also be taken into account. For example, the New Zealand Labour government in 1985 had no inkling that granting the Waitangi Tribunal the authority to hear cases about historical breaches of the treaty dating back to 1840 would lead to a veritable sort of claims and the compensation of many Māori iwi (tribes).

In her reply to the correspondence, Tingle focuses on the Covid pandemic and the difficulty of landing ‘a definitive portrait of my fleet-footed and shape-shifting subject, Australia’s prime minister. Someone said journalism is the first rough draft of history. Laura Tingle is a top-ranking political journalist, and this essay is an excellent draft of significant history.


The High Road is the eighth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Katharine Murphy’s end of certainty

Katharine Murphy, The End of Certainty: Resources, climate and Australia’s future (Quarterly Essay Nº 79, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 80

One of the chaps on the Book Group told us that he was a year behind Scott Morrison at school – I think it was Sydney Boys High. We all fell silent, expecting a revealing anecdote, but all he could come up with was a story about a football team to which both he and the current Prime Minister of Australia belonged being left to fend for themselves in the wilds of Bondi Junction, having illegally partaken of alcohol. The worst my friend could say about Scott Morrison was that he was there.

The derisory nickname Scotty from Marketing didn’t come from nowhere: almost everything we know about the Prime Minister has been generated by his personal publicity machine, including his self-bestowed nickname ScoMo and photos of him at prayer, building a cubby for his daughters or working from home in jacket, shorts and thongs. So even more than for other prominent politicians it was a good idea for Black Ink to commission a Quarterly Essay profile. And who better than Katharine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia and a member of the Canberra press gallery for more than 20 years?

Murphy does deliver. But intervening events meant that the account of Morrison’s personality and political modus operandi had to shrink to make room for a detailed narrative of the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia and federal and state governments’ responses to it. As a political journalist, Katharine understands in her bones that a week is a long time, and the essay feels as if it is catching the moment by the tail, getting an account down on paper (or screen) even as the moment becomes something else. It makes for fascinating reading, especially from the vantage of several months into the essay’s future, which is when I’ve read it. Even the correspondence in November’s QE 80 was out-of-date before it left the presses (as in a fair bit of conjecture about the findings of the inquiry into Victorian hotel quarantine – none of it, incidentally, proved way off course by the actual findings).

So, what does Murphy make of Morrison? She has more access than most of us, and he did grant her an interview even in the midst of the pandemic. She acknowledges that he’s a master of controlling the narrative, in particular the narrative that concerns himself (going on what she calls ‘yes mate’ outings on talkback radio rather than granting interviews), and so she has to dig hard for her own independent observations.

Sadly, my post-it-festooned copy of the essay has disappeared along with the backpack I was carrying it about in, so I can’t quote from the essay with any confidence. One of the telling anecdotes that I recall came from Nick Xenophon, who had worked with Morrison to get some piece of legislation through the parliament. Once the thing was done, Xenophon suggested that they meet to have a cup of coffee or similar social interaction. Morrison rejected the invitation, saying something like, ‘I’m purely transactional, mate.’ Murphy argues that since becoming prime minister he has been learning to be a little more relational – that his disastrous handling of the bushfire disasters a year ago may have been a learning experience for him. Tentatively, she holds out the possibility that the man who forced bushfire survivors to shake his hand may do better next time. He’s a manager, a fixer, rather than an ideologue, and that has been Australia’s good luck, as he was able to cooperate with his ideological enemies in responding to the pandemic. The question, back in August, and again in November when the correspondence was written, was how far could that pragmatic non-ideological approach work before everything snapped back to the old battle lines.

The correspondents in QE 80 include other journalists: David Marr and Philip Coorey basically applaud the essay as necessary and well done; David Kelly is much less optimistic about Morrison’s lack of ideology. There are scholars: Damien Freeman of the Australian Catholic University categorises Murphy as a progressive commentator and says she just doesn’t understand ‘the conservative approach to public life’. Social researcher Hugh Mackay engages elegantly rather than argumentatively, suggesting that Murphy’s passing references to her own sense of local community deepening in small ways during the pandemic might usefully have been given greater prominence, as his research indicates that this has been a more general phenomenon. Celeste Liddle, self-described as ‘an Arrente woman living in Melbourne’, ‘a union organiser, social commentator and activist’, is refreshingly blunt, and complex, in her discussion of the Victorian lockdown, and the relationship between Scott Morrison and Premier Dan Andrews.

In her Reply to Correspondents, Katharine Murphy says that it was her first Quarterly Essay, and she found it ‘desperately hard’, but, she says:

the times are important, and I reported honestly, and shared what I saw. I hope the record stands the test of time.

The essay is a reminder of the crucial role played by serious. responsible journalism. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do. If you found the backpack with my copy in it, feel free to read the essay before you bring it back to me.


The End of Certainty is the 22nd and last book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

November Verse 2 & Judith Brett’s Coal Curse

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

Which is a response to:


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

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

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

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

(Page 8)

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

Here’s her argument in brief:

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

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


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

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

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

(QE 79 page 128)

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


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

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.