Tag Archives: Quarterly Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And

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

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

End of background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Charlton’s Dragon’s Tail

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

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

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

Charlton graph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Toohey’s Sinking Feeling

Paul Toohey, That Sinking Feeling: Asylum Seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution (Quarterly Essay Nº 53, 2014)

qe53Possibly the most hope-inspiring thing about this Quarterly Essay is that a journalist who works for the Murdoch empire is writing for a publication whose presiding intellectual presence is one of that empire’s most stringent critics. Perhaps Australia isn’t Echo Chamber Land after all.

Toohey spent time in Indonesia interviewing refugees who planned to travel to Australia with people smugglers. He observed the different attitudes and behaviours of the different groups (Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis, Sri Lankans). He visited the villa of at least one people smuggler, and told a number of people the latest developments in Australia’s policy regarding the boats (this was before last year’s election). He was there at a small coastal town soon after a boat foundered after setting off with a full load of would-be asylum seekers, interviewed the survivors and did what he could (which turned out to be nothing) to help a small orphaned girl. These passages convey a vivid sense of the desperation that leads people to become ‘boat people’, and the tragedy involved in just one of ‘the boats’ going down.

He went to Texas, where he explored the differences between our response asylum seekers and the USA’s to illegal immigrants from Mexico. (The main difference is that the USA knows that the ‘illegals’ who survive serve a useful function in the economy, whereas refugees who arrive in Australia by boat are perceived, absurdly, as a security threat and a potential drain.)

He visited the detention centre on Manus Island after the riot in which Reza Barati was killed, and spoke to some of the locals.

He argues for an ‘Indonesian solution’, that is, cooperation with Indonesia in processing asylum seekers there, which would indeed stop the need for boats. The main obstacle to such a solution is the general misperception of Indonesia in Australia, fostered by the media and pandered to by governments. He doesn’t say in so many words that this misperception is grounded in racism, but that’s how I understand him. He is particularly scathing on Tony Abbott’s mishandling of relationships with Indonesia and his deliberate thwarting of Julia Gillard’s attempts to solve the problem, but equally scathing about all three recent Prime Ministers playing the politics rather than seeking a real solution.

Toohey may be a Murdoch man, but he’s one with mud on his boots. He makes it clear he’s not an ‘asylum-seeker advocate’, a member of the ‘detached elites’; he does some muted ABC-bashing, and he misrepresents the ‘pro-asylum view’ as supporting the ALP, but he has a journalist’s admirable commitment to getting at the truth that puts our political leaders of every stripe to shame. It’s a serious, challenging, grounded contribution to this important debate.

As I finished his essay, I read an article in The Big Smoke, in which by Julian Burnside made a proposal that Toohey would probably see as so much wishful thinking, but looks good to me:

• Boat-arrivals would be detained initially for one month, for preliminary health and security checks, subject to extension if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer;

• After initial detention, they would be released into the community, with the right to work, Centrelink and Medicare benefits;

• They would be released into the community on terms calculated to make sure they remained available for the balance of their visa processing;

• During the time their visa applications were being processed, they would be required to live in specified regional cities. Any government benefits they received would thus work for the benefit of the regional economy. There are plenty of towns around the country that would welcome an increase in their population.

Burnside continues:

Let us make some bold assumptions. Let’s assume that the spike in arrivals that we saw in 2012 became the new norm (highly unlikely); and let’s assume that every asylum seeker remained on Centrelink benefits (also highly unlikely: they are highly motivated). It would cost us about $500 million a year. We would save $4.5 billion a year by treating them decently. And the $500 million would be spent in the struggling economies of regional towns and cities.

I wish I could have some faith that our government, committed as it now is to silence and three word slogans, or the opposition, which shows no sign of diverging, might give serious attention to some of the actual thinking that’s going on.

As always, up the back of this Quarterly Essay there is correspondence about the previous issue. Sometimes the correspondence includes stringent debate. This time, responding to Linda Jaivin’s Found in Translation, it gives a tiny glimpse into the community of translators, the people who struggle valiantly to break down the parochialism of our alarmingly monolingual society.

Linda Jaivin’s Found in Translation

Linda Jaivin, Found in Translation: In praise of a plural world (Quarterly Essay N° 52)

QE52Every now and then the Quarterly Essay series leaves aside the world of party politics and the headlines. The last time it did that was in N°41, David Malouf’s The Happy Life. In this one, Linda Jaivin, professional translator from Chinese to English, entertains, informs and advocates on a number of fronts, all to do with her profession, which is also clearly a major passion.

I’ve been interested to the point of fascination in reading about translation ever since Brother Gerard, my high school Latin teacher, explained that when he said my unseen exercise was a very good attempt he was offering high praise, because all one could ever do was attempt to translate, the thing itself being impossible. And I remember how thrilling it was in first year university when our lecturer spent a good ten minutes exploring the nuances of a single word (it was ‘serratum’) in a passage of Virgil. This essay feeds that fascination beautifully, with a wealth of personal anecdotes and snippets from the public record that range from hilarious to frankly chilling. It also has an urgent, cogent point to make about the importance of learning languages other than English as a significant and necessary counter to domination of politically weaker cultures by the stronger.

Having recently re-read Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and been sent back by it to a translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and of course inspired to my own dabbling with the Onegin stanza, I loved reading about a chain of creations and translations involving the Seth novel:

Stirred by Seth’s brilliant homage, the Israeli writer Maya Arad read Pushkin in the original Russian and then wrote her own verse novel in Hebrew in 2003, translated into English by Adriana Jacobs as Another Place, Another City. … David Bellos marvels at how ‘the very diluted version of the Onegin stanza in Adriana Jacob’s translation of Maya Arad’s imitation of Vikram Seth’s imitation of Charles Johnson’s verse translation of Pushkin resurrects something of the lightness and joy of Onegin’s youth.’ Babel can never be recovered; it never existed. Yet translation allows the construction of great towers, in which each brick may be laid by someone speaking a different language but sharing a common vision.

And up the back is an excellent selection of correspondence on QE51, David Marr’s The Prince, which dealt with Cardinal George Pell’s response to clerical child abuse. I particularly appreciated the responses from four Catholics: Geraldine Doogue, Michael Cooney, Frank Bongiorno and Paul Collins.

awwbadge_2013This is another title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.

David Marr and The Prince

David Marr, The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell (Quarterly Essay N° 51)

QE51This is David Marr’s third extended portrait in the Quarterly Essay series. After tackling Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott he’s moved on to Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell, with a focus on his response to accusations and proven cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and religious brothers. Though it’s written with Marr’s characteristic pungency, wit and compassion, it’s not an easy read: so much human suffering, so much denial and disconnection.

The essay tracks Pell’s career – priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal – in parallel with the unfolding revelations of abuse and the institutional church’s responses. Its narrative backbone comes from Pell’s four-hour interview in May this year with the Victorian parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations. Its heart is a double quest: on the one hand to hold to account the most institutionally powerful Catholic in Australia, and on the other to try to understand what is going on behind his unrevealing public persona (unsurprisingly, given Marr’s previous writing about him, Pell did not agree to be interviewed for the essay). No doubt the first quest, carefully documented and full of chilling detail, will stir defensive controversy: there may well be an equivalent of That Wall Punch, such a useful distraction from the gist of Marr’s essay on Tony Abbott. The second quest, as befits an essay, asks interesting questions and proposes answers that raise even more interesting questions – the final paragraphs, reflecting on the meaning of priestly celibacy, offer an equivalent to Marr’s conclusion in QE 38 that anger is the juice in Kevin Rudd’s machine …

Avoiding spoilers, I note that Marr isn’t a Catholic. Unlike, say, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s lucid writing, which explores problems with papal infallibility and the moral theology of sex as contributing of the problem of abuse, this essay isn’t particularly interested in the deep questions of how the church got into this state, or of what can be done at the level of culture (beyond relinquishing any sense of being above the law of the land, and acting with justice and compassion rather than defensiveness and financial shrewdness): prayer and forgiveness are correctly dismissed as worse than useless strategies for child protection; there’s little tolerance for celibacy or the seal of the confessional, and even ‘smells and bells’ (Marr’s phrase) come in for a bit of mockery.

Marr tells the story of a man who, abused as a nine-year-old altar boy, met with Pell in 1997. As reported in the Age and quoted here, the man asked how Pell could persuade him to return to the Catholic faith, to which Pell replied, ‘Do you say the Hail Mary?’ While Marr leaves that hanging as one of many examples of Pell’s amazing interpersonal incompetence, a Catholic writer might have stayed with the moment, teased it out a bit. Why the Hail Mary? The words of the prayer don’t offer much help:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Is Pell insensitive to other people’s suffering, or is he suggesting that this form of words might revive some deep, healing connection to childhood piety? Does his question expose the poverty of his personal spirituality, or suggest a profoundly simple approach to faith? If in a similar situation a Buddhist or Hindu sage offered the questioner a mantra, would it seem less bizarrely disconnected? I’m genuinely puzzled.

One reassuring aspect of the essay is that George Pell’s rigid, defensive, authority-centred version of Catholicism is not widely shared by other Australian bishops, let alone the clergy or laity in general. And now, even more grounds for hope, the pope himself seems to be from a very different Catholic tradition.
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And up the back, as always, there is discussion of the previous Quarterly Essay. Seasoned feminist activists Sara Dowse, Sylvia Lawson and Rachel Nolan add interesting and necessary perspectives to Unfinished Business, Anna Goldsworthy’s essay on sexism in public life.

In a departure from Quarterly Essay‘s usual practice, and fair enough because a right of reply is involved, a member of the Australian‘s commentariat puts in an appearance, about which perhaps the most interesting thing is that the cheapest of her snarky shots (and there are quite a few) is reproduced almost verbatim by a cooler-than-thou self-styled left-wing cultural columnist. Angela Shanahan: ‘On the other hand, Anna Goldsworthy is an excellent pianist.’ Helen Razer: ‘Anna Goldsworthy, by contrast, is a wonderful pianist.’ A kinder editor might have deleted both these sentences, and left both writers with a little more dignity intact.
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Addition: Andrew Hamilton, consulting editor of Jesuit publication Eureka Street, reviews David Marr’s essay here.

Anna Goldsworthy and our Unfinished Business

Anna Goldsworthy, Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny (Quarterly Essay N° 50)

qe50 Evidently some people with tin ears believe that the USA entered a post-racial era with the election of Barack Obama. I don’t think anyone except some commentators at The Australian believes that Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership marks a definitive victory in the struggle against sexism in Australia. But if they were, this Quarterly Essay would give them pause.

Anna Goldsworthy takes as her starting point Julia Gillard’s now famous misogyny speech (the link is in case you’ve been on another planet since last October), and broadens out to a catalogue of sexist horrors. Evidently the essay went to press before the most recent Bad Week for Women – with news from the defence forces, Liberal Party fundraising dinners, elite football players and so on. She wasn’t able to include Lieutenant General David Morrison’s stunning speech or what’s just a light-hearted joke for some Brisbane Liberals. But she has plenty of examples to back her argument that there is abroad in our culture a general permission to treat a woman in public life (and by implication elsewhere) as if she has no right to speak simply because of her gender: argument is not met with argument but with gender-based insult and possibly threats of violence. According to Goldsworthy, misogyny comes with a ‘remarkably consistent platform’ repeatedly expressed in online comments sections in its bluntest form: Shut up, you fat c*** (SUYFC)! That is to say: you have a female body and that’s enough reason for me to demand that you have no voice. Sometimes there is the added explicit threat, or I’ll hurt you.

Julia Gillard is not the only one: the fat-shaming of Gina Rinehardt on Q&A in May last year, the British tabloid press’s recent mauling of Hilary Mantel, A. A. Gill’s SUYFC to classicist Mary Beard all get an airing. So do gonzo porn, Fifty Shades of Gray, Lena Dunham’s Girls, Slutwalks, Lady Gaga, the way facebook has turned young women into their own paparazze, the ‘I’m not a feminist but …’ and ‘You’re not a proper feminist because …’ phenomena. All of these relate to the central notion that there is a pressure abroad in the culture to reduce women to their bodies, to make them ashamed of their bodies, to silence them.

The essay is very timely. It covers appalling terrain, and singles out some glimmers of hope. It’s beautifully written, judicious, nuanced and passionate. I look forward to the correspondence in N° 51, which I hope will include some expansion of her theme to Indigenous and other non-white women, and to examples of sexism that result in so many women living in poverty.

And then up the back there’s correspondence about the previous Quarterly Essay, Mark Latham’s Not Dead Yet. I didn’t read the essay itself, but Latham’s response to his respondents here is a pleasure to read.

David vs Tony

David Marr, Political Animal (Quarterly Essay N° 47)

20120914-221620.jpg When David Marr writes an essay about Tony Abbott there’s no point asking if it will be a hatchet job. The question is how well the hatchet job will be done. Abbott is the preserver of John Howard’s legacy; Marr wrote and edited a number of books laying bare Howard’s duplicitous and anti-democratic politics. Abbott is a high-identifier with old-style Catholicism; Marr has been consistently critical of the Catholic Church. Abbott is, well, not comfortable about Gay liberation issues; Marr is, well, cheerfully out as a Gay man.

Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd drew a fairly long bow – on the strength of Rudd losing his temper with an arguably impertinent journalist, Marr concluded that anger was Rudd’s ‘juice in the machine’. There’s no equivalent stretch here. In fact, he paints a picture completely congruent with a clerihew I wrote some time ago:

Anthony John Abbott
has a habit
when playing for high stakes
of saying whatever it takes.

He does raise a question that could be paraphrased in another clerihew:

Tony Abbott
is making a stab at
becoming prime minister
possibly concealing intentions that are sinister.

Most discussion of the book in the mainstream media has been about an incident that Marr relates from more than 30 years ago when Abbott was a student politician. This looks to me like a clever ploy on the part of Abbott and his journalist allies, giving those who haven’t read the essay the impression that it’s mostly he-said-she-said allegations about ancient history. It’s actually much more substantial, responsible and entertaining than that.

Laura Tingle’s Great Expectations

Laura Tingle, Great expectations: Government, entitlement and an angry nation (Quarterly Essay Issue 46, 2112)

In 1965, my classmates and I helped to fight the terrible Chatsbury/Bungonia bushfire in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. I vividly remember a woman whose house had been burned down crying out in rage and distress, ‘I’ll never vote Labor again!’

It’s easy to mock such blame-the-guvmint mentality, and we did. We weren’t without compassion, but we were 18 years old and not very forgiving.

But these days – I grow old, I grow old – the misogyny, anti-science and book-burning that characterise our blame-the-guvmint discourse feel too serious for mockery. In this riveting Quarterly Essay, not a cheap shot in sight, Laura Tingle brings decades of experience as a political journalist to bear and argues that they are the symptoms of a deep, longstanding and unfaced confusion over what we can expect from the government, a confusion that has been pushed to something like crisis point by the economic rationalist reforms introduced by Hawke and Keating, extended and exploited by Howard, and maintained, with some ineffectual backtracking, by Rudd and now Gillard.

To diagnose the confusion, she goes back to the autocratic/paternalistic beginnings of the colony of New South Wales and the development of its democratic institutions, drawing on historian John Hirst – Convict Society and its Enemies and The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy. The glimpses she gives of his books make them seem like ideal contrapuntal readings for the late Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore: the vicious brutality Hughes describes was far from being the whole story – for many if not most convicts the colony provided much greater opportunity than they would have if they had not been transported. For example, the children of convicts had access to public education well before children of similar class background in Britain.

The history is interesting. The essay’s thesis is lucidly argued. As we come closer to the present time, the narrative takes on an authoritative feel – Tingle never says it in so many words, but there’s an ‘I know this, I was there’ edge, especially to her account of Howard’s and Rudd’s prime ministerships. Her conclusion:

Australians will be forced in the next decade to consider what level of government intervention we really want and what form it should take. That will require us to forge a much more explicit new settlement, a much clearer social contract than the one we have had to date. We must assess what level of government intervention works in an open economy and how best to deliver it. We will have to go back to the idea that government assistance is on a needs – not an entitlements basis [a change brought about largely by Howard's strategy of bribing the electorate] and work out which needs we are prepared to support. Our politicians will have to face up to the question of what governments can realistically promise – and what they can no longer pledge to provide – and change their messages accordingly.

I’m looking forward, as always to the correspondence about this essay. It would be good to see a Marxist response, though on past showings there’s unlikely to be one. My own grasp of Marxism is pretty crude and old fashioned, but it seemed to me that what Laura Tingle calls variously ‘the world’ or ‘an open economy’ or ‘market forces’ is actually international capitalism – driven by profit to the exclusion of other considerations. What she calls government paternalism is the role of government in restraining capitalism, protecting people from its ruthlessness. She traces the process by which we have been misinformed and bribed into accepting the dismantling of structures that served the common interest and replacing them with for-profit structures. People’s anger, then, comes not so much from an unreasonable sense of entitlement, as from an intuition that behind the confusing smokescreen of economic techno-talk, and in spite of the many handouts of the Howard era, something valuable has been lost.

Kate vs Inga – it’s still going on

Kate Grenville was interviewed on the most recent Guardian Books Podcast, a good choice of guest as the subject was historical fiction, and her last three books – The Secret River, The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill –  have been tales of the early years of the colony of New South Wales.

It must be irritating to Ms Grenville that every time a journalist talks to her about her colonial novels, they raise the matter of the ‘attacks’ on The Secret River by ‘historians’. And that’s what happens in this podcast. Asked about the response to The Secret River, KG says in part:

We all kind of knew that things had happened, but people of my generation were brought up with this illusion that, you know, the reason there were no Aboriginal people left in many parts of Australia was that they all got measles, and had no resistance to it. We all kind of knew that this was wrong and The Secret River gave people a way of starting to think about it, I think. And because it’s fiction, it wasn’t too confronting. With fiction you can always reassure yourself that after all this is just made up. …
A couple of historians, with The Secret River, were cranky that I was writing something that they felt was their territory. You know, this is hard stuff to think about. Here we are as white Australians living incredibly privileged lives and we’re doing it on the back of 2oo years of oppression and misery and murder, basically. To actually look that fact in the face is extremely confronting, very difficult. So I think when those historians really diverted the debate away from what I’d been writing the books about, which is the massacre and what  the beneficiaries of it do with that knowledge, I think they felt that this was a chance to divert the debate into something more comfortable – which is the debate of is it history, is it fiction, how far should novelists go in writing historical fiction.

OK, the only reason for a novelist to appear on the Guardian podcast is to promote her own work, and the dismissal of any number of other novelists who have tackled the subject (Thea Astley comes immediately to mind, and surely there are others) can be forgiven as loose talk. It’s absolutely true that the subject of ‘massacre and what  the beneficiaries of it do with that knowledge’ is difficult and confronting and, I would add, of high priority (though it’s an open question whether the book actually goes to the question of the beneficiaries). It may even be that the criticisms of The Secret River had the effect of diverting attention from that question. But really ….

The only historian I’ve read on this subject is Inga Clendinnen, who made some astringent and, yes, cranky remarks about The Secret River in her Quarterly Essay, Who Owns the Past? But her gist, as I remember it, was that on many points the novel distorts the history – for instance, by moving a key incident from the first years of the colony to a couple of decades later – and in general it lacks any sense of actual engagement with the times she was writing about. Clendinnen herself could hardly be described as ‘heavy duty’ in the sense of inaccessible. And it would be hard to read her writing about the early colony as comfortable.

Evidently Kate Grenville is still smarting from the criticism, but this is fighting dirty. Inga Clendinnen is not Keith Windschuttle, yet anyone learning about her criticisms from this podcast would assume she was near allied.

Andrew Charlton’s Man-Made World

Andrew Charlton, Man-Made World: Choosing between progress and planet (Quarterly Essay No 44, 2011)

Andrew Charlton has a good eye for a quote. He  was in the room at the Copenhagen Climate Conference when Barack Obama arrived, late, at the meeting of world leaders that had been hastily convened to avert a complete breakdown of the conference. It was definitely a behind-the-scenes gathering: the leaders, Charlton tells us, ‘hunched in plastic chairs around a rectangle of contiguous small tables’. When Obama arrived, Hilary Clinton said, ‘Mr President, this is the worst meeting I’ve been to since the eighth-grade student council.’ Apart from flaunting the teller’s insider status, the anecdote’s clear subtext is that the insiders, the powerful elite, are just as flummoxed by global warming as the rest of us.  More than anything else in the essay, it drives home the point that the planet’s current environmental crisis will be resolved, if at all, by human beings bumbling forward as human beings have always done.

The other stand-out quote, which Charlton says is famous, is from Sheikh Yamani, former head of OPEC. When someone asked him when he believed the world would run out of oil, he replied, ‘The Stone Age didn’t end because the world ran out of stone,’ memorably encapsulating a key point of this essay, namely that technological innovation and the discovery of new materials and sources of energy have led to great leaps in human progress in the past, and we can hope will do so again.

Charlton argues that the failure of Copenhagen was caused not by non-cooperation from the US or Europe or muscle-flexing sabotage by China, but by a failure to address ‘the central dilemma of our century: the choice between progress and planet’, the apparently intransigent conflict of interest between the world’s rich minority who can afford to talk about scaling back consumption and the vast majority for whom increased consumption means emerging from grinding poverty:

These two global challenges –poverty and the environment – are the twin imperatives of the twenty-first century. One ravages billions of people alive today; the other threatens billions yet unborn.

Because of this conflict of interest, he argues, ‘our global approach ot climate change has failed:

we have failed to establish a globally binding treaty, we have failed to effectively bring the developing countries into a global solution, and we have failed to develop new technologies sufficient to reduce emissions rapidly.

Like everybody else in the known universe, he doesn’t hold out much hope that ‘market mechanisms’, such as Australia’s price on carbon and further down the track emissions trading scheme, will achieve the necessary targets, and that’s even if they survive assault from Tony Abbott and his buddies.

He calls for a Plan B, which has thee elements: to rethink the key goal, from raising the cost of fossil fuel energy to making clean power cheap; to reverse the relationship between rich and poor countries, so that rather than trying to persuade the developing world to reduce emissions the west works with them to develop breakthrough technology to deliver cheaper energy to the world’; to pay a lot more attention to back-up plans in case of disaster.

The essay is well worth reading, but I don’t know if it moves us forward significantly. At times Charlton’s experience as senior economic adviser to the Australian Prime Minister works against him, as he moves into polemic mode when the subject calls for careful persuasion: his figures occasionally slip from comparative to absolute when the argument requires it, he sometimes jeers at an opposing argument when engagement is needed. This background may also account for the fact that while he argues that reducing Australia’s emissions by even 5 per cent by 2020 is ‘all but unachievable through domestic efforts’, he  ignores grassroots, science-based initiatives such as Beyond Zero Emissions, a detailed plan to reduce emissions to zero by 2020 using existing technology, or Zero Carbon Britain, a similar plan for Britain (the link is to a YouTube talk by the eminently persuasive Peter Harper of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales). I can’t tell whether he would see these plans as examples of his Plan B or whether he includes them in the ‘glib rhetoric’ he attributes to ‘green groups’.

But this is all good and necessary argument, recognising that there’s a real problem and searching for a solution, which is immensely refreshing compared to the fake debate set up by those who believe – or pretend to believe – that ‘science is crap’.

Speaking of which, I’ve already had my tuppence worth about the correspondence about Robert Manne’s essay on the Australian at the back of this Quarterly Essay.
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(Posted during the Wikipedia blackout over the PIPA/SOPA legislation but by no means in opposition to it.)