Tag Archives: Quarterly Essay

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.)

Robert Manne and the Australian

Robert Manne, Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of the nation (Quarterly Essay N0 43, 2011)

These days I keep up with the Murdoch commentariat mainly at second hand, most regularly by way of the delightfully caustic Loon Pond, where someone identifying as lapsed Catholic ‘Dorothy Parker’ from Tamworth holds a satiric mirror up to their venomous name-calling, impassioned defence of the rich and powerful, and self-serving illogic.

I guess everyone knows what kind of beast the Australian is, though it’s striking how reluctant people are to say so in public. On the Book Show just last week, for example, someone said that it was perceived ‘rightly or wrongly’ to be right wing, and Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief, describes it as centre right. Robert Manne’s essay grasps that nettle and at the same time demonstrates that people have good reason to be cautious in calling a spade a spade in this matter. He has done a careful analysis of a number of case histories: its impassioned promotion of Keith Windschuttle, an amateurish historian with an agenda, to a major player in Australian culture wars; its unremitting support for the invasion of Iraq, and complete failure to acknowledge having got so much wrong; the bullying of Media Watch and the ABC until Australia’s only major non-commercial source of news and opinion was running scared; the bizarre attack on science and reason in its coverage of climate change; its elevation of itself to key political player in first supporting and then campaigning against Kevin Rudd; and, most appallingly of all, its sustained attacks on individual tweeters, one for correctly reporting a negative public comment from a former Australian employee, the other for what was manifestly a joke that would have been cleared up by a simple apology if the Australian hadn’t made it the subject of no fewer than five front page stories. I had to stop reading every now and then to go out and get some fresh air.

This wouldn’t matter so much in, say, the Green Left Weekly, though I doubt of the GLW would ever be so vicious in attacking someone who wasn’t a high-profile millionaire. But Rupert Murdoch controls a huge percentage of the Australian print media, and the Australian is his heftiest newspaper. I learned in this essay that at some press conferences in Canberra more than half the journalists are from the Australian, that the members of what Robert Manne calls the political class read it without fail, that it is influential out of all proportion to its actual circulation.

People who depend on the Australian for their national and international news in print (and it is after all the only major national newspaper we have) need to read this essay. As always, Manne’s writing is lucid, his tone judicious even at his most combative – and he does get combative. I believe there have been no fewer than eight vigorous replies in the newspaper. I read only one, and if the others distort Manne’s arguments as blatantly as that, it’s all the more important that readers of the Australian read the actual essay.

Strikingly, one line of attack has been to say that Manne is arguing for censorship, for closing down debate. Yet Paul Kelly, the Australian’s editor-at-large, pulled out of a scheduled debate at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centrelast week, and no one from the Australian could be found to stand in for him. So actor Max Gillies read the bulk of Kelly’s published response. You can see the Slow TV of the ‘debate’ here. You can read Manne’s ‘deconstruction’ Kelly’s published response on Manne’s blog, here. I have no idea why Kelly and the rest declined a debate, but if my arguments had been taken apart so very deftly I would probably remember a previous engagement too. All the same, it’s a bit rich to accuse someone of wanting to shut down debate and then refuse to engage in a debate with them outside the protective confines of Rupert Murdoch’s flagship. Even more striking is Australian‘s the report on the Australian‘s no-show – at this point I weaken and give you a link: the journalist seems to be suggesting either that this was an excellent prank on the part of Kelly and Co, or that it would have been completely unreasonable to expect Kelly and/or others to actually face the big bully, who threatened to use reason at them.

This must be the most vigorously discussed Quarterly Essay yet. I wonder what editor Chris Feik will do for the correspondence section in the next issue. I imagine he will need to allow some space for the Australian‘s apologists (though they may well decide to ignore that opportunity as well). I hope he will also find space for comment along the lines of Tad Tietze post on the Overland blog, which while appreciates Manne’s careful accumulation of evidence, and goes on to offer interesting observations from a left perspective.

Quarterly Essay on the country and the city

Judith Brett, Fair Share: Country and city in Australia (Quarterly Essay 42)

Judith Brett has an admirable capacity for seeing beyond the surface of ugly or bizarre utterances to the valid concerns or at least genuine pain that has given rise to them. In this essay, for example, she resists (or perhaps doesn’t even feel) the pull to mock or repudiate Bob Katter’s extreme language when he’s arguing for his constituency. And she doesn’t indulge in the city dweller’s revulsion from book-burning when she discusses the farmers who burned copies of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s draft plan last year – no snide comment about people who condemn and burn documents they haven’t had time to read.  That is to say, she side-steps the kind of point-scoring that tends to pass for debate in the press these days. Instead, she addresses her subject seriously and respectfully. Even as she argues that ‘economic rationalism’ brought havoc to rural Australia, charts the rise and fall of the Country/National Party, or notes the impact of Pauline Hanson, she avoids cheap shots.

It’s an excellent, thoughtful essay. This paragraph comes close to encapsulating its argument :

City and country in Australia share a history, a long history both of interdependence and of watchful suspicion. The understanding of that interdependence was strong in the first two centuries of Australia’s European settlement, and the attempt to build a vibrant and self-sustaining countryside was a major political preoccupation. The country made claims on the city for support, and by and large the city attempted to meet them as part of a compact in which Australians shared the cost of living in a big country. This understanding has waned rapidly since the neoliberal 1980s. Since then the country has seemed to be in a perpetual state of crisis: dying towns, depressed and ageing farmers, unproductive farms carrying too much debt, environmentally unsustainable irrigation schemes, droughts and flooding rains, crisis-ridden marketing schemes like the wool stockpile and the Australian Wheat Board, and so on. The picture is of irreversible decline. Yet, as Tony Windsor reminds us, over 30 per cent of Australians live outside the big cities. What is their role in the nation? And what are we to do with all that land beyond the ranges and the thinly settled coastal strip?

My two cents worth: read it – you’ll see the world a little better!

As usual, this Quarterly Essay includes correspondence about the previous issue. The contributors here are all but unanimous in their appreciation of David Malouf’s The Happy Life, calling it variously ‘beguiling’, ‘characteristically delicate’, ‘elegant and humane’, ‘thoughtful and courteous’. They are also all but unanimous in finding that he didn’t say anything definitive about happiness. A Russian scholar argues that his reading of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is simplistic an uninformed. A psychiatrist invokes the academic literature about happiness. Several others push their respective barrows with varying degrees of elegance and insight.

David Malouf does not rejoin the conversation. I read his silence as signifying that he’s perfectly happy for other people to have their say, to correct him where needed, to have their own crack at the subject. After all his piece differed from most Quarterly Essays by being in the tradition of the essay as a crack at a subject rather than a tightly argued thesis. Sometimes the appropriate response to an essay is not to argue with it. Maybe Marieke Hardy got it right on the First Tuesday Book Club last night. She said she felt as she was reading The Happy Life that she was sitting on David Malouf’s lap resting her cheeks on his bald head and letting him read to her.