Australian politics, society & culture

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May 2010 in brief

In this Issue: 

THE MONTHLY ESSAYS

The coal industry remains a benign abstraction for most, not much more than a hum of economic and political waffle on the periphery of everyday life: ‘biggest export, thousands of jobs, economic backbone’, ‘“clean coal” on the way’. Many link coal to global warming, but conclude that coal exports are a necessary evil. Few appreciate the incomprehensible magnitude and pace of the current rush, or ponder its climate-changing consequences.” 

In “King Coal”, Guy Pearse urges us to reflect on the devastating effects of the current Australian coalmining boom, both on the environment and on the small towns that the insidious mines consume. An interview with the “last man standing” in the all-but-deserted regional Queensland town of Acland illustrates the industry’s willingness to level all that stands in its way. Pearse warns that coal-addicted politicians have been so seduced by the monetary rewards of the enormous export trade that they are failing to serve their constituents in protecting the nation’s environmental future.

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“Australia, alone among the world’s top 15 economies, does not plan to go nuclear. Following the Obama announcement, Kevin Rudd restated the federal government’s opposition to the introduction of nuclear energy … but the debate remains divisive. Some, such as Tim Flannery, have had their views challenged, and changed, by the debate on nuclear energy. ‘I was influenced by James Hansen and James Lovelock, who are both obviously people with great credibility, who have said that the problem of climate change is so urgent that all low-emissions sources, including nuclear, have to be considered.’”

In “Nuclear Dawn”, Malcolm Knox explores arguments both for and against the case for nuclear energy in Australia. That a country as uranium-rich as Australia hasn’t embraced the nuclear option is puzzling to the many scientists who believe it could be the only way to reduce carbon emissions and prevent the catastrophic global warming scenario that has been predicted. Knox asks why the environmental movement is so resistant to what may be the best solution for meeting our energy needs.

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In any quest to discover the causes of the collapses of Allco and Rubicon, the words ‘arrogance’ and ‘greed’ keep recurring. ‘Frankly, I think the principals started to get greedy and stopped worrying about ethics,’ says one banker, who worked alongside them for many years. ‘Greed was very high in a lot of these guys,’ says another who was close to the inner circle. Put bluntly, [David] Coe, [Gordon] Fell and their colleagues were so money hungry that even investment bankers and lawyers thought their snouts were too deep in the trough – quite an achievement.”

And in “Coe & Co.”, Paul Barry gives a detailed account of the collapses of Allco Finance Group and Rubicon property trusts, discovering that the greed and hubris of the companies’ principals played as significant a role as the floundering global economy. Drawing on a wide range of interviews, he delves into the former worlds of the principals, where being part of the exclusive boys’ club guaranteed multimillion-dollar rewards. Finally, Barry asks why those responsible for two of Australia’s biggest corporate disasters still have most of the wealth they accumulated in their former positions.

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“[Forty years ago] addicts wanting to quit heroin had to emerge from the shadows and check into a psychiatric clinic or charity dorm, or sweat it out on a bed. But the detoxification ritual, with its Biblical imagery of water drenching and cleansing, merely flushed away what was measurable in urine and blood analysis. Narcotic hunger, as it used to be called, gripped and hung on in some hidden corner, ready to be your friend again when everyone else had left town … Methadone changed the way addicts stepped down off the heroin express.”

Plus, in “Liquid Handcuffs”, Gail Bell reflects upon 40 years of the methadone program in Australia. Tracing the history of the program’s operation from its inception in a small clinic in western Sydney in 1970, Bell also charts the changing public and medical perceptions of the treatment of addicts since the early abstinence-based models. As some “old hands” of the program say, methadone may never ‘cure’ you of your addiction, but at least it allows you to function.

 

THE NATION REVIEWED

“Last month a meeting was convened at Stonington Mansion in Malvern, Victoria, to discuss the decline of Western civilisation. Participants included John Howard, Cardinal Pell, Hugh Morgan and Geoffrey Blainey, with Andrew Bolt as master of ceremonies. Although Tony Abbott was not in attendance, he is, of course, precisely the kind of prime minister for whom the Stonington group must yearn. Abbott is the only leading Coalition politician who is willing and able to entrench and even radicalise the neo-conservative and neo-liberal populist reconstruction of the Liberal Party that took shape under John Howard. His victory in this year’s election would galvanise the most hardline and backward-looking elements of contemporary Australian conservatism.

In the Monthly Comment, Robert Manne examines the politics and personality of the current leader of the federal Opposition in Australia. Manne analyses the conceptual framework upon which Tony Abbott draws, as well as the way in which he brings his beliefs to bear on his governance of the Liberal Party. Manne also identifies the contradictions that riddle Abbott’s political manifesto, Battlelines, and highlights the moral imperturbability of many of his recent public assertions.

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And in “Flavour of the Nation”, Gay Bilson laments the difficulty of creating an authentic culinary experience at a remove from the cultural context of a cuisine; plus, in “Bush Love”, Benjamin Law takes a friend to a B&S ball in search of some country romance.

 

ARTS & LETTERS

“[Michael] Lewis makes a convincing case that few saw the crisis coming and even fewer had the cajones to profit from it; that is, to take the other side of the subprime bets. Wall Street believed and put its money on housing prices going up. Or if they fell, they wouldn’t fall nationwide. A small posse of men – Davids to an exceptionally formidable Goliath – bothered to assess the quality of the crappy assets that were being bundled and rated AAA, and shorted them. How small? Lewis estimates that fewer than 20 people made these bets.”

In “Clueless”, Kate Jennings reviews Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, praising its verve, clarity and adroit analysis of the American subprime disaster. Jennings asserts that, while much “noise” has already been made on the subject, Lewis differentiates himself, not merely through his “peachy prose”, but also by providing a compelling insider perspective. The book becomes a page-turner by virtue of the window it provides on the eccentrics that inhabit the upper reaches of the banking world.

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 “Batuman’s actual life is like an endless Mad Hatter’s tea party. It doesn’t, as she says, add up to anything. The people she meets mostly shout past each other like a roomful of the unhinged deaf. Her book, on the other hand, is an attempt to find a literary form for saying so. In fact, her aim goes even higher: it is to break down the very distinction between life and art – in both life and art, naturally.” 

In “Faraway Tales”, Robert Dessaix ponders the strengths and deceits of Elif Batuman’s “romp in the fun park of Russian and Uzbek literature”, The Possessed. Dessaix says that, while it is by no means what it purports to be – an adventure with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them – the book offers enlivening ideas on what fires a writer’s imagination.

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“A cynic would claim Hitchens has sold out to the lure of power and money, but Hitchens makes a powerful case for seeing some consistency in his shifts. A turning point was the Falklands War, when Hitchens found himself supporting the British government because of his loathing for the appalling junta that then ran Argentina. ‘Thatcherism,’ he writes, ‘was the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right.’”

And in “Swinger”, Dennis Altman evaluates Hitch-22, the memoirs of the highly influential – and controversial – writer and commentator Christopher Hitchens. While the book provides an interesting personal account of Hitchens’ widely discussed transition from ultra-leftist to “defender of the Bush administration”, Altman argues that its self-indulgent moments of hearsay reduce the power of the work.

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Plus, there’s Robert Forster on The White Stripes’ Under Great White Northern Lights; and Peter Conrad on Alfred Stieglitz’s Lake George years.