The little premier that might have
Does unquestioning, childish enthusiasm have a place in politics?

The Tiger Who Came To Tea (via Facebook), Gladys Berejiklian (via Facebook) and Thomas the Tank Engine (photo: Universal)

Readers of this column will know that I’m unafraid to share unpopular opinions, such as that Mare of Easttown is grossly overrated, or that David Gonski’s home might be too big. With that same moral clarity, today I review what passes for kids’ entertainment. 

Thomas the Tank Engine

Insecure, pious and repellently solicitous, Thomas is a major bummer. His relentless need to please others is pathetic, and his show is little more than a serialised pageant of his own self-abasement.

What’s more, Thomas’s intellectual insecurity is not merely sad, but dangerous. Always pretending to knowledge that he doesn’t have, this weakness invariably results in some crisis of panic, derailment or lost freight. This weakness also yields plenty of lessons and opportunities for reform, but Thomas is tragically incapable of heeding them.

No one’s approval is more valued than the Fat Controller’s, a priggish, pompous and half-bright functionary working a provincial train station who always dresses as if he’s about to meet the Queen. He’s both shallow and righteous, and it’s before this small man that Thomas bows.

It’s an abusive relationship. Thomas lives in knots of insecurity and anxiety, breathlessly self-affirming his “usefulness” and trying to avoid the Fat Controller’s signature scold: “You have caused confusion and delay.” As a sentient train, surely the only sensible response to his master’s criticism is: “How am I alive?” or “Who the fuck is my mother?”

Concerned only with punctuality, the Fat Controller is monstrously indifferent to the existential torment of conscious trains who are still occupied by human drivers. Given this occupancy, what precisely are these trains in control of?

Other questions come to mind: Did humans create these sentient engines? If so, was it Jeff Bezos? Is their consciousness tied to the life of their engine? Or does it reside independently of their mechanical parts – the ghost in the machine?

Why is Thomas so deferential to a man unwilling to explain his own existence – and the limits of his consciousness? The answer, I fear, is that the Fat Controller has induced guilt among his enslaved workers for not toiling hard enough. He has trained these poor beasts to tie their identity to his approval. Perversely, their pride depends upon enthusiastically upholding their own enslavement. It’s masterful really, and I realise now that I have been too harsh on poor Thomas.  

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

One afternoon, a mother and her young daughter Sophie answer a knock on their door to reveal a charming stranger: a well-groomed tiger who asks, in an oily baritone, if he can come in for a bite to eat.

Despite her better judgement, the mother anxiously indulges Tiger, presumably for the sake of her child who’s naively thrilled by his company. The mother then passively watches as he remorselessly consumes everything: every last crumb of food, “ALL of daddy’s beer” and, miraculously, the home’s water supply. Sophie loves every minute – a rainy afternoon has been salvaged from boredom.

This seems to be an extreme case of “cool” parenting – deferring to your child’s pleasure, even when the source of it is dangerous. Tiger is floridly narcissistic, rapacious and intimidating, and it reflects poorly on Sophie’s mother that she fails to intervene. CALL THE COPS, I scream. SCOOP YOUNG SOPHIE UP AND RACE TO THE NEAREST SAFE HOUSE.

This doesn’t happen. Because for as long as Sophie is enchanted, her mother says nothing. Sad. They’re lucky Tiger doesn’t deposit a massive coil on their rug on his way out. Or torch the house. Or – heaven forbid – eat Sophie.

Gladys Berejiklian

Admittedly not a kid’s show, but among fans it has inspired childish enthusiasm. In the season finale of Gladys, an incredible thing happens: the context for the premier’s resignation magically evaporates in the heat of an intense public grief – as if she’d announced an inoperable tumour, and not the fact that she’s being investigated by an anti-corruption body (or that she had a secret relationship, marked by selective deafness, with a dubious character now facing the prospect of criminal charges).

Reporters wept and howled and eulogised her in columns. Politicians mourned the loss of a great leader, victimised by obscure and roguish “bureaucrats”.

“Spanish Inquisition,” our deputy prime minister thundered, which was recklessly hyperbolic but at least coherent. “A law unto themselves, ICAC is addicted to the power and publicity of the bombshell political scalp,” tweeted The Australian’s Sharri Markson, later adding: “ICAC reverses the principle that is the very pillar of our judicial system: innocence until proven guilty.” Federal Liberal MP Dave Sharma ventured that “I might be a traditionalist, but I would prefer it if the voting public decided the fate of Premiers,” apparently forgetting that his own party room, and not the people, deposed our previous two prime ministers.

When did basic accountability – and the bodies charged with enforcing it – become the villain?

No law compelled Berejiklian’s resignation. It was voluntary. Nor has there been any finding of guilt – not least because the Independent Commission Against Corruption doesn’t make them. It investigates and recommends; it does not prosecute or convict. Sure, the timing’s unfortunate but, again, no law compelled her resignation – she could have announced she would step down in a month, say, arguing the delay was necessitated by the importance of an orderly transition of leadership as the state emerged from lockdown. Fiddling around with the timing would stray inappropriately beyond ICAC’s mandate, and complaining about the timing seems to me like a variation of shooting the messenger.

The real scandal here is that so many politicians, including our prime minister, are cynically misrepresenting ICAC’s charter and its powers.

The scandal here is that among federal, state and territory governments, the Commonwealth is the only jurisdiction without an anti-corruption body – despite more than a thousand days having passed since Morrison promised one.

The scandal here is that the federal government’s draft laws for one are shockingly insipid – perverse, even – as per a recent review by the independent Centre for Public Integrity (CPI), which found that, in the words of former judge and CPI director Stephen Charles QC, the proposed body “would hide corruption, not expose it”.

In a statement this week, Charles added: “The inability to hold public hearings and table reports would mean the public is left in the dark. [It] falls short of its state counterparts on almost every level. It is a breed of its own and does not deserve to be called a watchdog.”

Pessimism about The State of Things recurs throughout history, and is rarely unique. But there seems something particularly rotten and fragile about our democracy right now – declining accountability, sharpening tribalism and an increasingly brazen skill to leverage the latter to conceal the former.

What happened to keeping the bastards honest? If that isn’t a majority sentiment in this country anymore, we’re stuffed. Or if it is a majority sentiment, but it’s ignored or obscured by the sophistries of our politicians and their culture warriors, then, well, we’re stuffed too.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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