Tag Archives: Quarterly Essay

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 29th 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)

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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..

qe69

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.

David Marr’s White Queen

David Marr, The White Queen: One Nation and the politics of race (Quarterly Essay 64, 2017)

Pretty much ever since Pauline Hanson appeared on the political scene, there have been protests that the mainstream media pays too much attention to her. These tweets from March are recent examples:

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I sympathise with the sentiments, but the ‘no-platform’ cry is surely wrong-headed. True,  it’s painful to see precious media minutes taken up with, for example, crackpot comments on the Great Barrier Reef, but it’s the electoral system that has given Pauline Hanson a platform, and for the media to ignore her now would be derelict. Just recently, though, it’s hard not to feel we’re getting too much of a not-so-good thing: the ABC’s 4 Corners aired ‘Please Explain‘on 3 April; Richard Cooke’s ‘Alt-Wrong‘ is in the current issue of The Monthly; the summer issue of Overland gave us ‘No Pasarán!’ by Vashti Kenway (who as a teenager in 1996 threw eggs ‘with wild joy’ at Hansonites); and now here’s David Marr’s Quarterly Essay.

9781925435498.jpgThe essay obliquely acknowledges this dilemma. Marr writes, ‘Most Australians reject everything that Hanson stands for,’ but nevertheless ‘politics has been orbiting around One Nation since the day she returned to Canberra’.

The essay gives a history of Ms Hanson’s political career since her stint on the Ipswich city council in the mid 1990s. It chronicles her turbulent relationship with the mainstream political right, including John Howard’s refusal to condemn her infamous ‘swamped by Asians’ maiden speech and his later opportunistic adoption of her policies (the section outlining Howard and Hanson’s trajectories is titled ‘Made for Each Other’). It reminds us of her brief sojourn in gaol and her release on a technicality (what she meant to do was illegal, but she hadn’t actually managed to do it). It takes us through her series of Svengalian advisers. It traces her progress, if that’s the word, from having ‘a folksy distaste for the blacks of Ipswich’ to being ‘an ideologue of race’ with ‘a conspiratorial mindset’.

Anyone who follows Australian politics will already know most of this, but it’s good to have it laid out plainly and without weaselly ‘balance’. There’s also joy to be had in the section ‘A Note on the Language’, which – as Raymond Williams’s Keywords did on a broader scale 40 years ago – examines the loaded meanings of words that have become prominent in the language of reactionary politics. Marr’s analysis isn’t as penetrating as Williams’s or that of the Keywords Project that continues his work, but it includes a number of gems, such as the entry on Free speech, which begins;

Free speech
Not about everything. Mainly Race. But it’s not free speech for pinging racists for being racists. That’s censorship or, indeed, persecution.

Pinging racism, as it happens, is at the heart of the essay. Where Marr’s previous QEs – on Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, George Pell, Bill Shorten – have been mainly character studies, this one is less interested in personality than in politics. It aims, as Marr says in a note on his sources, to put ‘a floor of fact under speculation about Hanson and her political appeal’. The fifteen-page section ‘Pauline’s People’ leans on the latest Australian Electoral Study numbers, drawing into the discussion ‘several professional pollsters who have conducted focus groups among resurgent One Nation voters’. One Nation voters in 2016:

  • were almost entirely Australian-born (98 percent, with the Nationals coming closest at 91 percent)
  • mostly described themselves as working class (66 percent, with the nationals again coming second at 46 percent, and Labor at 45 percent)
  • compared to the general public, included half the proportion of university-educated people and twice that of people with trade qualifications
  • thought things were ‘a little’ or ‘a lot’ worse for them than a year ago (68 percent, with Labor running second at 38 percent)
  • believed politicians ‘usually look after themselves’ (a huge 85%, with the Greens a poor second at 51 percent)
  • considered immigration ‘extremely important’ when deciding how to vote (82 percent), thought immigration should be cut ‘a lot’ (83 percent), believed migrants increase crime (79 percent) and take our jobs (67 percent)
  • the kicker, ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with turnbacks of boats containing desperate people seeking asylum (a whopping 90 percent).

And 88 percent of them want the death penalty to be reintroduced.

‘Hanson’s people,’ writes Marr, ‘are not implacable conservatives.’ From marriage equality to euthanasia, they’re open to the small-l liberal agendas. They are generally in work and middling prosperous, though they’re ‘oddly gloomy abut their prospects’. They are overwhelmingly pissed off with government, against immigration and all for law and order. Of these, the hottest topic is immigration.

And as for racism:

Hanson’s people know she is talking race. They talk about it themselves in focus groups. Her candour on race is fundamental to their respect for her. They fear being branded racists if they complain about burqas and mosques and schools forbidding Christmas. She is not afraid. … ‘We’re not racist,’ they say. ‘We support Asians. We like them. We think they’ve done a lot here.’ But they don’t like Muslims. They don’t talk bombs and terrorist attacks in focus groups, though perhaps the threat of violence is somewhere in their minds. They talk a bit about lost jobs and a lot about people not fitting in. Not even trying to fit in. …

I’ve come to think it’s not much use asking if Australia is a racist country. It’s too broadbrush. The better question is: what role does race play in the politics of the country. This is not the politics of class or the politics of money, but the politics of difference.  … The politics of race reassures white Australians unsure of their place in the heap that they’re on the only heap that matters.

Yet, as he says elsewhere, ‘neither Coalition nor Labor leader will bluntly call Hanson on race … the tactical impulse of the major parties is to flinch from naming her for what she is.’ As one of the most significant politicians of our times might say: Sad!


Added later: I forgot to say that one of the best things in this Quarterly Essay is the correspondence about the previous issue, Stan Grant’s Australian Dream. There are robust contributions from Aboriginal people – Alice Springs activist Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Monthly contributor Amy McQuire, and the venerable Marcia Langton. George Megalogenis has intelligent things to say about Grant’s comparison of some Aboriginal experience with that of migrants. Kim Mahood brings her particular whitefella insights to bear. And Stan Grant uses his right of reply with robustness, civility and nuance.

Stan Grant’s Australian Dream

Stan Grant, The Australian Dream: Blood, history and belonging (Quarterly Essay 64)

qe64.jpgThis Quarterly Essay topped the poll when Brisbane’s Avid Reader Bookshop asked customers what Malcolm Turnbull should read this summer. I hope he and every member of his cabinet do read it, including Peter Dutton, who famously shunned Kevin Rudd’s Stolen Generations apology. It might spark something in even those hearts. (You can read the bookshop’s letter accompanying the copy they sent to the Prime Minister here.)

The essay is framed as a commentary on a speech Stan Grant gave a little over a year ago, at an Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate staged by Sydney’s Ethics Centre. The speech was unrehearsed and unscripted because, Grant says, he wanted ‘to look the audience in the eye and hold them’ when he talked about Aboriginal exclusion from ‘the Australian dream’. Surprising no one except Grant himself, it went viral. (If you’ve missed it, here’s the video).

Beginning with the text of the speech, which he tells us he hadn’t previously seen written down, Grant observes that commentators tended to focus on the parts of the speech that fit the litany-of-horrors version of Aboriginal history. He refers us to a dozen writers – historians, novelists, song writers – who have told the horror stories of continuing dispossession, exclusion and brutality, and takes as his subject the contributions that Aboriginal people have made to Australia society, the prospects for a better world. He doesn’t disown the horror stories – far from it – but he sets out to tell ‘a more complete story of the dynamism and potential of Australia and its first peoples’.

For him the most important line in the speech was the last:

And one day, I want to stand here and be able to say as proudly and sing as loudly as anyone else in the room, Australians all let us rejoice.

The essay turns on the hinge of that sentence: while acknowledging the devastation that has been wrought on Aboriginal peoples and the continuing bleakness of many Aboriginal lives, it argues that substantial change is happening and the future could be bright. It doesn’t quote William Gibson, ‘The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,’ but it could have.

Grant takes issue with W E H Stanner’s view that Aboriginal culture – the Dreaming – is essentially unchanging and timeless, so cannot survive contact with the market. He backs his argument with beautifully told stories of his great-great-grandfather, great-grandfather, grandfather and father, each of whom responded to devastating invasion and continuing dispossession with creativity, resourcefulness, courage and wisdom, and each of whom made significant contribution to the broader Australian community – as workers, soldiers, teachers, family men, communicators.

Taken out of context, some passages read as shockingly Pollyanna-ish – like this, from the section titled ‘The Boys of Don Dale’:

The Indigenous experience bends and shifts with the growth of the country. In the midst of catastrophe, Aboriginal people were adapting to this utterly foreign intrusion. The survival and resilience of the descendants of the people of the Australian frontier should be seen as part of the pioneer mythology of this country. At Federation the Indigenous people were assumed to be dying out and would not be counted among the numbers of the Commonwealth. Now Australian law acknowledges native title, Indigenous people sit in our parliaments, and Indigenous art, music and dance have a unique, treasured place in our national culture. We may have rubbed uncomfortably against each other, but together we have enlarged the idea of Australia.

‘We may have rubbed uncomfortably against each other’ must be a contender for all-time world champion understatement. But Grant knows what he’s doing. He insists that the monstrous treatment of the young men in detention in the Northern Territory should not be treated as emblematic of a homogeneous Aboriginal experience. Without denying the bad stuff (‘those tyrants who reduced talk of genocide to a whisper in Europe find their equivalent in those who deny atrocity here’), he argues that to narrowly identify Aboriginality with victimhood plays into the oppression: he calls this the ‘identity trap’. He rejects ‘reliance on a narrative of historical grievance and exclusion’.

It’s a nuanced, passionate, courageous essay. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Stan Grant writes about the danger of a single story. He would agree with Rebecca Solnit (whose Hope in the Dark I’m now reading), that despair can be unrealistic, that hope and the recognition of change are necessary and realistic.

I won’t try to summarise the argument any further, but note that Grant doesn’t present himself as a lone voice. On almost every page he is in dialogue, usually amicable and always respectful, with other Aboriginal writers as well as a number of non-Aboriginal ones. Here’s a partial list:

Aboriginal writers in order of appearance (with some links): Noel Pearson • Jack Patten • Charles Perkins • Gary Foley • Chicka Dixon • Marcia Langton • Jackie Huggins • Michael Mansell • Amy McQuire • Ellen van Neerven • Anita Heiss • Kim Scott • Alexis Wright • Bruce Pascoe • Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu • Frank Yamma • Archie Roach • Gavin Andrews • William Cooper • Cecil Grant (Stan’s paternal grandfather) • academic Maria Lane • Yin Paradies • Kerryn Pholi (who publicly renounced her ‘Aboriginal identity’) • Bronwyn Carlson (The Politics of Identity) • Kevin Gilbert • Warwick Thornton • Bess Nungarrayi Price • Larissa Behrendt • Dr Sana Nakata

Writers who aren’t Aboriginal, also in order of appearance: Czesław Miłosz • W E H Stanner • Vietnamese writer Viet Thanh Nguyen • Henry Reynolds (maybe in the wrong list) • Lyndall Ryan • Rosalind Kidd • David Rieff (In Praise of Forgetting) • Charles Rowley • George Megalogenis • Robert Manne • Gaynor Macdonald • Bain Atwood • Robert Ellis • Peter Kabaila (Survival Legacies) • economist Christopher Lloyd • anthropologist Ruth Fink • political scientist Terry Moore • Tony Judt • Jacques Le Goff • Amartya Sen • Geoffrey Blainey • economist Jon Altman • Nicolas Peterson • Michel de Certeau • Julie Lahn

I look forward to reading what some of the people on those lists have to say in the correspondence section of Quarterly Essay 65.
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The correspondence up the back of this issue deals with Don Watson’s The Enemy Within. It went to press before the US presidential election, and bristles with assumptions that Hilary Clinton would win. It’s interesting reading all the same.
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Added later: Lisa Hill has an excellent review at her blog ANZ LitLover’s LitBlog, which quotes liberally.

Don Watson’s Enemy Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, less reassuringly, he asks:

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

What oft was thought but is here so well expressed.

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


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