May 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Comment: The Shock Jock Rule of Campbell Newman

By John Birmingham
Campbell Newman. © Brian Cassey

It was Winston Churchill who famously refused to cut funding to the arts to pay for more Spitfires and destroyers during the grimmest days of World War II, demanding of his art-hating, penny-pinching advisers in Treasury, “Then what are we fighting for?”

A fabulous quote, making for a fine comparison with the latest barbarian to take the helm of Queensland. A quote Kevin Spacey cited in defence of American arts funding a year ago. And a quote I threw at Premier Campbell Newman’s feet, on ABC Radio, after he decided to axe funding for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards – a decision announced just a few hours after his Cabinet was sworn in, imbuing it with a symbolic power beyond its actual significance.

Unfortunately, Churchill almost certainly never said anything of the sort, and Campbell Newman may not even be a fascist bully boy. But it surely sounds like something Churchill would have said, just as liquidating the ‘premier’ award for literature in the Deep North sounds like something of which the deceased troglodyte and Newman’s predecessor, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, would have approved.

The quote, which seems to be everywhere but in any collection of Churchill’s speeches, papers or books, is probably a harmonic reflection of several confirmed Churchill quotes and decisions, such as his minuted suggestion to bury the treasures of the National Gallery in a cave, rather than sending them to Canada.

The sudden squall of progressive outrage that blew up on the Newman ministry’s first day in office is likewise almost certainly due to fear that the past is another country invading the foreseeable future, pouring over the borders to rape the body politic and debauch civil society while bashing a few poets into the bargain.

Newman was probably expecting a pro-forma response from the permanently appalled; perhaps even looking forward to it as a branding exercise. As a very rough guide to the electoral politics of the cut, a News Limited poll found 57.5% of Courier Mail readers in favour, while a Fairfax poll found 68% of Brisbane Times respondents were not.

Newman probably wasn’t expecting to trend on Twitter or to have to spin his way out of perceptions that racism underlay the philistinism of the whole first-day fiasco. One of the elements of each year’s prize-giving is the David Unaipon Award for indigenous writers. It’s one thing to snatch money from the paws of Australia’s super-authors, and another thing entirely to trouser the folding stuff – and not much at that – set aside to acknowledge and encourage a few stand-up Aboriginal wordsmiths. Given the appalling state of indigenous literacy in Queensland and beyond, and in spite of the vastly greater sums poured into the maw of a struggling Education Department, the impact of a past winner like Tara June Winch on the generation coming up is invaluable.

Perhaps that’s why Newman made such a show a few days later of axing or leasing out taxpayer-funded corporate boxes at sporting grounds including the Gabba and Suncorp Stadium. It went some way towards addressing the embarrassment of taking money from poets while stuffing millions into the back pockets of the footy codes. Some way, but not far. The cost of the state government’s redevelopment of Suncorp Stadium last decade, for instance, would pay for more than a thousand years’ worth of Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, including a never-ending sandwich buffet and champagne for all on the big night.

Brisbane author Nick Earls, who has never bothered the bookies with his chances of a win in the premier’s awards, put it rather well on his blog:


Insiders tell me there’s nothing more influential on the ratings folk at Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s than reducing your debt by 0.00029% through axing awards for writing. That’s how valuable the axing of the Premier’s Literary Awards is to the state’s finances. It’s a saving of $250,000 at the same time as the LNP is telling us the state is $85b in debt (and I didn’t even factor their extra $4b of new spending into my calculation). It’s the difference between going $20,000 into debt to buy a car and instead being really smart about your finances and only having to borrow $19,999.94. 


When Peter Beattie introduced the awards in 1999, they helped dispel some of the backwoods stink that still clung to the state after the long dark reign of the supreme hillbilly, Bjelke-Petersen. It’s that same whiff of wilful stupidity and inevitable corruption, the kind that brews in a closed, unquestioning environment, that some sniffed around Newman on that first day. The ALP, of course, had been desperately claiming he was on the nose during the election campaign, with one radio advert in particular skating the very edge of defamation by alleging his family had profited from decisions he’d taken in his last days as mayor.

It’s hard to imagine, if you didn’t live in Queensland during the great darkness, how unsettling any perceived nexus between corruption and the dumbing down of public discourse can be. One of the main critiques made of the old National Party regime by the Royal Commissioner, Tony Fitzgerald, inquiring into its systemic corruption, was that it forcibly choked off any discussion of its manifest failings using an arsenal of legal weapons ranging from stopper writs to street-march bans, and more questionable tactics such as those employed by the Special Branch to drive activists out of the state. Nobody wants to go back there, possibly not even Newman. Fitzgerald made a rare foray into the public realm shortly after the election, to lambast Newman for politicising the senior ranks of the public service with appointments of senior Liberal Party figures such as Peter Costello and Michael Caltabiano.

The question that now looms over the potentially long reign of Campbell Newman is just how much of the past he intends to disinter. He’s not a fascist. He’s not even Bjelke-Petersen. But he’s not the master manager he likes to portray himself as, either. If he were, he would never have blundered as he did managing the fallout of dropping the literary awards. If he recalls any figure in Australian history it might just be an icon of the other side of politics, Gough Whitlam, insofar as having a ‘crash or crash through’ style.

Newman’s time as mayor lends some credence to this comparison. During the floods of 2011, when the rising waters threatened to unmoor the city’s extensive riverfront walkways and create a massive floating ram, he spoke calmly and clearly about the possible need to blow up the boardwalk. He didn’t leave anyone listening in any doubt that he would instruct navy divers to detonate the much-loved structure if necessary.

A second, less flattering display of unbending will was his insistence, over the objections of the city’s planners and administrators, that the city implement a bike-hire scheme. It has been an unqualified failure, costing the city at least four times the original projected cost of $2.2 million over four years. (Or 34 Premier’s Literary Awards.) If there is any upside to the CityCycle debacle for Newman, it’s that it is dear to the heart of the green Left.

Campbell Newman may not be the corrupt, ignorant redneck people fear. At the close of his third week as Premier, in distinctly un-Joh-like fashion, he sacked his Police Minister for being a law unto himself, effectively. (David Gibson, ostensibly one of the new Cabinet’s guns, had been caught speeding while disqualified.) Nonetheless, as Tony Fitzgerald put it, Newman will lead a team of ministers with “ambitions which, if history is a guide, might exceed their talents and experience”.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.


May 2012
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