November 2015


The new normal

By Don Watson
A welcome to Turnbull and a farewell to slogans

Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”

“Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures.

It was a bit like Don Quixote, and a bit like being trapped in one of those old cinemas that played the news on hourly cycles, the news being in general about floods and fires, sport and other excuses for self-congratulation, lifesavers, the Queen and Prince Philip. It was also a bit like being trapped in a B-movie: the kind in which we watched our hero struggle with an insidious exotic menace when just looking at him told us half the problem was likely in his head. Like Cervantes’, the plots were preposterous, but unnerving just the same. That’s the thing about B-movies: often they stay with us long after we’ve forgotten the A ones.

And then suddenly we were out of this black-and-white world and in the sunlight. As it always does at such times, for a moment the real world felt stranger than the unreal one we had just departed, as if we’d left The Blob for Gigi. The country seemed bathed in a sort of furry Menzian radiance, and to be going backwards and forwards at the same time. As things came into focus, two venerable professors talked on ABC radio about the new normal that Malcolm Turnbull had just ushered in, and assured us it was real. In the sunshine of that Sunday morning, to be alive was, if not exactly heaven, much more heavenly than it had been.

Odd to the last, the fallen leader saw out his last hours in Kirribilli House carousing with his old school chums. The sight of the former prime minister greeting the lads at the door might have been taken as yet another sign that the man had never left the boy behind. But it also spoke of the price he put on loyalty, and, by implication, his contempt for anyone who plied it at a discount. Here was the snake in Turnbull’s Eden. Of course, the others cast out might also prove snaky, along with those who felt their faith betrayed or their judgement confounded. Then there were the potential snakes among those who simply loathed Malcolm Turnbull. As a veteran of the Rudd and Gillard ministries told me a fortnight before the overthrow, the Libs don’t want Malcolm; they think he’s their Kevin, and they’re probably right. There is still time for that remark to prove prophetic, and on the chance that it might do so we should count egomania among the serpents Malcolm Turnbull must charm back into the basket.

Yes, there were snakes, but what is politics – or life on earth – without them? And who cares, when within minutes of the ballot there were such promising developments in vocabulary and sentence structure. In no time he was saying “agile”, and no doubt the word was music to managerial ears; for the rest of us it was a blessing that he sounded agile. You’d swear that he could speak and think at the same time, that he was an intelligent person who also could say intelligent things. Just five minutes of Turnbull’s gentler, subtler cadences and Abbott’s little era deliquesced like prickly pear before the cactoblastis moth. And the faint and eerie howl we heard, which was likely Andrew Bolt, did nothing to abate our hope.

That was the thing, hope. In the face of absurdity, hope sustains us, as Albert Camus said after a fashion. Politics throws up enough absurdities (and I’m not even thinking of George Brandis or Bronwyn Bishop) and needs no help in the matter.

Yet to the absurdity that is a natural condition of our existence the deposed prime minister always seemed determined to add more, and to make hope depend on our signing up to them. Under siege we were, from wind farms, refugees, climate science, budget emergencies, debt, deficit and a death cult. Only “Team Australia” could save the citizenry. Everyone, including the national broadcaster and the Opposition, was to fall into line or risk the PM’s boycott, or a silent unblinking stare, or something worse if necessary. And no questions about “on water” matters. And so on.

Who knows if this bizarre, sub-Orwellian drama was an expression of the man’s psychological need, or something he and his resident geniuses concocted for political advantage – or if the thing was both personal and political – but it did no one any good. He had imposed on us a regime of relentless slogans (or mantras, or messages, call them what you will) thought necessary for our education. “Resonant phrases”, he says they were: as if “debt and deficit”, “lifters not leaners” and “stop the boats” deserved places in the Book of Common Prayer.

All this went to show how language fashions politics and the national mood. Belligerence begets belligerence, but also depression and resentment. Fearmongering begets fear, but also sullenness and disbelief. And slogans might as well be lies. They make politics as stupid and self-defeating as lies do. One can’t debate in slogans. One can’t hear in them. Nothing is explained by them. Slogans make a mockery of the “conversations” that Joe Hockey so often called for, and of the democracy that all politicians reflexively extol.

Of course, better sentences can no more create jobs than a slogan can. Nor have they any purchase on the world’s climate. They cannot be relied on to stop a slump in the housing market or head off a recession; will defeat neither ISIS nor Assad; will not create the economy we need in the 21st century, persuade a state government to act in anything but self-interest, or turn a bad policy in which you don’t believe into a good one in which you do. They will not draw the teeth of the IPA, the radio hosts or the coal industry. Fine words will not of themselves win an election, create a republic or rout a prejudice, and too many of them at the one time are certain to produce antipathy. We wait to see how long the new prime minister can last before he gives up and utters his first slogan – if indeed the country can any longer be governed without them.

But for the time being, at least, Turnbull promises a language in which to think about the problems, confront ideology with argument and enlist the capacious centre. Already he has ministers – even Barnaby Joyce – talking with more intelligence about policies, even with a hint of changing them. He has them talking more about the future and less about the threats to it. If they keep it up, they might find that “innovation” is more than a mantra to be uttered at every press conference, and that it starts right in their own portfolios.

All the snakes aside, the biggest risk for the prime minister is contained in that management word “agile” and the example of Don Quixote: if through the enchantments of business he mistakes the country for a corporation and his new job for a CEO’s, his own loquacity might mutate and strangle him, and the promise of a new politics with a modern glow will turn into the same old newsreel we’ve been watching for a decade.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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