THE MONTHLY ESSAYS
"When Paul Keating lost the 1996 election and Al Gore ‘lost' the 2000 presidential poll, their centre-left parties bequeathed to their conservative vanquishers economies that had been transformed - transformed in ways that neo-liberal ideologues had urged their conservative political representatives to embrace, but to no avail: not in the case of the Fraser government, in which John Howard was the treasurer, and not in the case of either Ronald Reagan or George HW Bush. As a consequence, neither Howard nor George W Bush had to present themselves as neo-liberal reformers with radical agendas for economic change, for the hard work had already been done. George W Bush, in fact, ran for office as a ‘compassionate conservative' who would seek to ameliorate some of the harshest consequences of Bill Clinton's agenda! For his part, Howard ran a small-target campaign, enunciating few policies and eschewing any suggestion that he would undo the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating years."
In "Getting Elected", Michael Gawenda, a former Age editor who has spent the past few years in the US, compares the recent histories of the Australian Labor Party and America's Democratic Party. After catastrophic defeats in the culture wars and at the ballot box, Gawenda argues, both parties are well on their way back from the political wilderness. Yet the themes that have dominated the neo-liberal governments in the two countries, such as economic conservatism and adherence to much of the agenda of the Christian Right, are being embraced by centrist candidates such as Hilary Clinton and Kevin Rudd in their quests to win office.
"Howard, then, has claimed credit for victory in the culture wars - credit that is due him - and also responsibility for the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth since the golden era of the '50s, which is a much more dubious proposition. But whatever its truth, it is undeniable that Howard managed to transform Australia culturally. The question is whether this transformation can be undone - and for that matter, whether a Labor Party led by Rudd, were it to win government, would actually seek to undo it."
"On 26 May 1969, the front page of the Age proposed as the most pressing question for contemporary women ‘Are Ladies in Trousers Respectable?' The question resolved that same day by Justice Clifford Inch Menhennitt in the Fourth Court was what constituted a legal abortion. His answer was gradually echoed in each Australian state; in some states it has been reinforced by legislation, but not all: in Victoria as well as New South Wales and Queensland, abortion remains part of the Crimes Act."
In "The Principle of Necessity", Gideon Haigh tells the gripping story of the little-discussed yet landmark case of R v Davidson: the ruling that made abortion legally defendable in Australia; the equivalent to Roe v Wade in the US. It is a tale of doctors both noble and opportunistic, of crooked cops and ineffectual politicians, of scared witnesses and establishment activists - and of the exacting judge who made legal history.
"That the case came before Menhennitt was yet another accident in a story replete with them: judges simply took it in turns to sit a month in ‘crime'. ‘If anyone had looked at the list,' says one of Menhennitt's contemporaries, the former Chief Justice Sir John Young, ‘I suspect they might have marked the case Not for Cliff.' Justice Bill Gillard, whose father, Oliver, also served on the bench with Menhennitt, puts it bluntly: ‘What Cliff knew of abortion would have been exactly nothing.' Yet Menhennitt might have known a little more than anyone suspected about unwanted pregnancy ..."
"The historian does not merely record; he edits, he omits, he judges, he interprets, he reorganises, he composes. His mission is nothing less than ‘to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth manifold and one, underlying its every aspect'. Yet this quote is not from a historian discussing history writing; it is from a novelist on the art of fiction: it is the famous beginning of Joseph Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, a true manifesto of the novelist's mission."
And in "Lies That Tell the Truth", Simon Leys explores with customary wit the intellectual link between veracity and fiction. Myth, parable and creative writing: all are tools employed by thinkers to uncover a higher truth. Through a sparkling series of examples, Leys investigates how creative thinking and writing can lead to the most important of scientific, historical and moral conclusions.
"The fact is, these two arts - history writing and fiction writing - originating both in poetry, involve similar activities and mobilise the same faculties: memory and imagination; and this is why it could rightly be said that the novelist is the historian of the present and the historian the novelist of the past. Both must invent the truth."
THE NATION REVIEWED
"For years, everyone had believed that John Howard had promised to leave the prime ministership when asked to do so by his party. In September, the most authoritative voice of the party - a majority of the Liberals in his Cabinet - had asked him to retire. Howard stubbornly refused. Not only had he broken a promise made on a hundred occasions. It was suddenly clear that the promise had been formulated in so cunning a manner that its second half effectively negated its first. This was what one of those who spoke to the recent biographers of the prime minister meant by Howard's ‘lawyer's tongue'."
In the Monthly Comment, Robert Manne presents a balance sheet for the Howard years and provides his final pre-election word on why Australia needs a change of government - on why an ex-mandarin must become the nation's top banana.
"My mother was very fond of an old German joke: ‘Go with God, but go!' That is how I feel about John Howard. I hope that by the time the next issue of this magazine is published, a new era in Australian history, under the prime ministership of Kevin Rudd, will have begun. Only when that era opens will the meaning of the Howard years ... gradually become clear."
"I didn't think you could call someone a bogan. Even a bogan, I thought, doesn't want to be called a bogan. It is a term so derogatory it is double-edged, condemning its user as a snob with something to prove at the same time as slagging off its target. Then again, in a society squeamish about identifying class differences - up or down - maybe everyone has their own private bogan, someone slightly to the west of them."
And in "All Bogans Here", Anna Funder visits a session at the National Young Writers' Festival in Newcastle that opens her eyes to the bogan-pride movement. Audacious, loud and without pretension, the panellists help Funder to discover that boganism is a new way of understanding art and life. Boganism, with its irreverent humour and defiant honesty, might just be an antidote to bland populist culture.
"Perhaps to be a bogan is to expect so little and have so little expected of you that you define yourself by your lack of pretension. This is not a bad place to make art from: social pretensions are not useful if you are trying to see things for what they are."
"‘Walk into any patch of our bushland and two-thirds of the organisms you see will not have been formally recognised by science,' says Cameron Slatyer, the director of the Australian Biological Resource Study ... ‘Of the 600,000 organisms here, we know 172,000. Australian flora and fauna is more poorly understood than some parts of the Amazon ... Almost half the continent has never even been visited by scientists, and in some places the last scientist went through in the 1890s.'"
Elsewhere in The Nation Reviewed, Ashley Hay discovers that the very people who discover and catalogue new species are themselves at risk of extinction. Who, she asks, will save Australia's taxonomists? ABC broadcaster Leigh Sales spends an afternoon with the nation's first grandmaster, Ian Rogers, finding that chess is a health hazard, but also a game that can connect people from all backgrounds. And Linda Jaivin talks with the irrepressible Morteza Poorvadi, an Iranian asylum seeker who, upon arrival in Australia, was renamed DON 94 and locked up in the Woomera detention centre. Now, four years later, he is itching to cast a vote in the election.
"Poorvadi recalls seeing curious kangaroos and emus staring through the fence. He thought Down Under was a very odd place indeed: ‘They put the people in the zoo and the animals come to look at them.'"
ARTS & LETTERS
"Environmental books worry a lot. Yet they are almost always redemptive. I don't think I've read a single one that suggests it's too late: ‘That's it, Modern Man. Down oblivion's toilet with you and all your works. The only choice now is whether your civilisation ends in bangs or whimpers.'"
In "Eco-Worriers", Robyn Davidson reviews Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma & Bill McKibben's Deep Economy. Both books outline the ways in which we are destroying the planet and ourselves. Both offer alternatives to fossil-fuel dependency. Both are optimistic enough to argue that if we act soon, if we just adopt a simpler, more local focus, we could become sustainable consumers. But, as Davidson points out, this means giving things up.
"And that's the problem, isn't it? How to give up something you've become habituated to, that underpins the structure of your life, even when you know it's bad news for your grandchildren. (Or children. Or your own future.) How to imagine a society based on the ethics not just of moderation, but of self sacrifice. How to extricate yourself from, or even begin to comprehend, the infinitely complex chains of consequence that constitute modern life."
"Sidney Nolan was as famously articulate as Arthur Boyd was notoriously inarticulate or, at least, chose to be when journalists or other gormless enquirers asked him about ‘the meaning' of his pictures. Appropriately we have 450 pages of Nolan's pensées, and Boyd has fortunately found a biographer of skill and stamina in Bungey to speak for him."
In "Familiar Compound Ghosts", Patrick McCaughey reviews Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in His Own Words, edited by Nancy Underhill, and Arthur Boyd: A Life, by Darleen Bungey: two books that go behind the works of these most revered of Australian painters to reveal their oft-troubled lives. Nolan's own writings demolish his public self-characterisation as an urbane, cosmopolitan artist, while Bungey's biography presents with great sensitivity a portrait of a "kindly man and ferocious artist".
"Nolan and Boyd had renewed their friendship in London during the '60s, meeting for lunch and to visit the National Gallery. John Hull, who knew and worked for both men, described them as ‘a pair of devious old boys ... both pirates ... bouncing jokes around and falling over and laughing.' One day in 1984, Boyd and Nolan, now brothers-in-law, were together at their last, beloved fastness - Bundanon, on the banks of the Shoalhaven River - and the allegedly inarticulate Boyd perfectly restated the core of their lives: ‘... there's an amorphous atom bomb going off over the horizon, a creek going down, a black dog watching some lovers on the opposite bank, a lot of black crows and a rampant ram. The allegory is the triumph of love in the midst of disaster ... it's what it often is.'"
There's also The Monthly's film critic, Luke Davies, on Andrew Dominik's long-awaited follow-up to Chopper, The Assassination of Jess James by the Coward Robert Ford. Brad Pitt plays the troubled outlaw undone in mind by his own demons, and then in body by a member of his own gang, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). But more so than the film's action, it is the protagonists' internal dramas, mirrored by the film's vast, amber-washed cinematography, that tell the story of the misery of violence and the growing cult of celebrity. To Davies, it is the finest of Westerns.
And in "An Afternoon at Rough Trade", rock critic Robert Forster revisits one of his favourite haunts, the Rough Trade record store in London. As well as snapping up some exceptional new albums (Alela Diane, Thurston Moore, Tunng), and finding gems from older artists that have been recently discovered (Karen Dalton) or re-released (the best of San Francisco's late-'60s psychedelic scene), Forster feels again what it's like to be in one of the great record stores: a place that keeps its finger on the pulse, maintaining a unique relationship with the city and with the music it offers its punters.
Plus, there's Carlie Jennings on the new Mini Shots series of pocket-sized Australian short stories, ten-minute fiction delving into bleak inner worlds; and expert birdwatcher Sean Dooley on Andrew D Blechman's Pigeons, a study of the interaction between humans and "the world's most revered and reviled bird".