Tag Archives: Quarterly Essay

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.
—–
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:

tweet.jpg

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.
—–
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.
——
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)

qe63.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Then, less reassuringly, he asks:

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

What oft was thought but is here so well expressed.

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


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

James Brown’s Firing Line

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

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

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

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

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

What this means, among other things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Tingle’s Political Amnesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Marr’s Faction Man

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

qe59

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

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

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

adbs

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

David Kilkullen’s Blood Year

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

9781863957328

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quarterly Essay 57: Dear Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guy Rundle’s Clivosaurus

Guy Rundle, Clivosaurus (Quarterly Essay 55)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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