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The disappearing man
Like Ancient Greek heroes who die young in exchange for immortality, Labor governments change Australia, but expend themselves in the process. A remarkable number of dynamic reforms, many once considered radical, have been criticised by conservatives from opposition, but then retained by those same critics once they take office. Medicare, the Accord, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the abolition of the death penalty, our anthem and our honours: the pillars of modern Australia were built, in large part, by the Australian Labor Party.
This fraught history leaves a distinct residue – it means that the Australian left loves losers. Its Hall of Fame is full of seasons cut short and careers abbreviated in their prime. Three giants of modern Labor – Julia Gillard, Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam – faced only four elections between them, and their combined careers in office span roughly the same time period as John Howard’s reign. Frequently, their most formidable foes were their own colleagues.
Since its founding in 1944, the Liberal Party, along with its junior Coalition partner the Nationals, has been the natural institution of Australian federal governance. It has held the prime ministership for 49 years since World War Two, more than double the duration of ALP rule in the same time period (something similar, though even more pronounced, has been the case for the Labour Party in the United Kingdom).
These long periods in the waiting room have resulted in a second type of archetypal Labor leader. This is the Runner Up, a figure typified by Kim Beazley. Constructive, respected and ultimately ineffective, history records them as a foil or a source of accountability, someone who didn’t define an era, but helped define the leader who did. For these leaders, sniping is intermittent, not a fusillade (in marked contrast to the Tony Abbott approach in opposition). There is cautious criticism, but also cautious praise.
Anthony Albanese is an improbable figure to play this night watchman role. Until now, his future as a Labor leader looked firmly in the “burn brightly” tradition of short-lived, reforming pioneers. He was someone who “cut his teeth as a political firebrand”, as the Australian Financial Review put it, growing up aligned with the Hard Left in Young Labor and rising to command the Labor Left faction. It’s not an apprenticeship that suggests carefully managed longevity.
His political motto, often repeated and now sounding dated to the point where it is almost reproachful, is that Albo likes “fighting Tories”. Time has shorn away the context – the line found its largest audience in February 2012, when Kevin Rudd resigned as foreign minister in the Gillard government, and began a slow, successful campaign to destroy her leadership. Albanese wanted to remind everyone that defending the government from its critics was his core business. If only the party could stop fighting itself for a moment, he could get back to combatting its enemies.
“I believe that the last few days have done damage to our party – there’s no doubt about that,” he said at the time, adding that he had argued against this sort of action before, on the night of June 23, 2010, when Gillard had forced Rudd from the leadership. “I believe the government’s difficulties can be traced to that night,” he said, and he was right about the date and the damage. It was a period of self-harm from which the party has never fully recovered, and in the aftermath of an unexpected loss in the 2019 federal election, it has solidified into something like trauma.
Many former streetfighters mellow with age, but there is something more in Albanese’s turn from combatant into conciliator. The Shorten opposition took firm stands and outlined bold policy (and was punished for them at the ballot box). By contrast, Albanese employs a rope-a-dope strategy: hanging back, feinting, weaving and only sometimes throwing a counterpunch. On a good day (and so far, those have been scarce), this looks sporting and efficient. On a bad day, it looks as though he fought the Tories, and the Tories won.
This climbdown is even more out of kilter in a world context. Elsewhere, left-wing parties are approaching post-pandemic politics as a fundamental transition point. The strange chimeras of populism, nativism, mercantilism and inexpertise that found power in the United States and United Kingdom are teetering, and ready to topple. No market mechanism can provide an antidote to a virus. There is no “Third Way” out of the mess caused by COVID-19. The state is back by necessity, and the countries and states that pared back their public sectors have found themselves ill prepared, then sick and exposed.
Stranded by events, governments embraced the spending power of the state, no matter their political stripe. British prime minister Boris Johnson announced infrastructure spending so massive he had to clarify, jokingly, that he was “not a communist”. In Spain, the ruling left-coalition commenced the largest rollout of a universal basic income in history. Usually more staid institutions sounded almost as radical: the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, tied the COVID crisis to the climate crisis, and spoke of both as linked opportunities to reform capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Australian Labor Party seemed to watch the Coalition government take initiative with a mix of regret, awe and confusion. For a spell, Albanese transformed into Albo’s Ghost, a seldom-sighted shade of his former self. The voice from the other side said “beware”, but its warnings were about Christmas Past. In the thick of one of the major political, economic and social crises of the century, the Labor leader started fretting about the deficit.
There were, Albanese told Radio National Breakfast, at least 875,000 people who had received a wage subsidy through JobKeeper that was higher than their pre-pandemic income. Tapering these payments meant the government had finally “woken up to the waste in this scheme”, Albanese said, which had “resulted in literally billions of dollars being added to what will be a record deficit and record debt that should not have been in the original design of the scheme”. This budget hawkishness, already nearing extinction worldwide, sounded out of step with the discourse. Closer examination showed it to be stranger still.
Weren’t the beneficiaries of these “excess payments” Labor’s traditional constituents: the young, the part-time and low-income workers? Didn’t they need the money? This precariat were also ideal candidates to drive a macroeconomic stimulus – so cash-poor they would spend money rather than save it, and spend it on purchasing necessities. The Morrison government was right to shovel money out the door without checking the recipients too closely. This was the basic economics of a Keynesian emergency, where haste was critical.
Labor’s quibbling made no sense even as a set of sums. At the same time the party was expressing concern about red ink, it was also advocating for assistance payments to other worthy cohorts, such as universities and foreign workers. Even if such spending was more efficient – and that was doubtful – the effect on the deficit would be the same. There were no relative savings built into its plans. As with so much of the ALP’s messaging, it was difficult to discern its intended audience.
In focus groups, pollsters uncovered latent resentments around JobKeeper. Some respondents imagined former hospitality workers transformed into dole bludgers, smoking weed and playing Xbox at the taxpayers’ pleasure. Still, this seemed a petty, incidental concern, not something the Opposition should be foregrounding. The tone and the language offered a clue to the origin of the strange episode. That “record debt and record deficit” line didn’t come from a roundtable of punters – its author was Tony Abbott, whose attacks on the ALP’s economic management had done so much political and psychic damage from opposition.
Kevin Rudd’s tenure as Labor leader helped solidify “fairness” as a fundamental Labor value, perhaps the fundamental Labor value, and this was more than a foundation or moral imperative to inform policy. It also, almost subconsciously, echoed the defining feature experience of the late-stage Labor Party: unfairness. It was unfair that the ALP didn’t get credit for its economic stewardship. It was unfair that voters and even opponents eventually welcomed its reforms and then rejected their architects. Most unfair was the party’s treatment by the media: a buffeting, hostile and unending headwind from News Corp, combined with a cross draught that constantly threatened to blow the party off course to the left.
This fixation on equal treatment, not just for the party’s constituents but also for the party itself, helps explain this niche, hawkish tone. It is payback, the dispersal of a grudge. As budget management it is unintelligible. As an expression of moral accounting it is suddenly explicable. It is also an appeal to the burghers of the financial world (especially the financial press) that reads “Please take us seriously”, and, like all the previous iterations of this appeal, it failed. Respect can only be commanded, not demanded, and those same commentators and institutions now praising the “Hawke–Keating legacy of reform” in many cases had tried to kill it on arrival.
In the long shadow of its 2019 defeat, the ALP also launched counterintuitive attacks on another key Coalition stronghold: immigration policy. In August 2019, Labor’s home affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally tried the improbable gambit of outflanking the home affairs minister from the right. “Peter Dutton has lost control of borders at our airports,” she claimed, in a series of tough-on-migrant bromides that convinced nobody, least of all herself. The Coalition was soft on “plane people”, she said, asylum seekers were arriving via plane rather than by boat, and the swelling numbers of these desperados spoke to immigration incontinence.
In fact, this was by design: the cruelties of the Pacific Solution are supposed to promote asylum-seeking by less lethal routes than the sea. If polling was an indication, the intended target of this ALP messaging – marginal-seat voters who wanted the ALP to be harsher on borders than the Coalition – never arrived. Perhaps they were never expected to. The exercise may have had more to do with promoting the party’s “credibility” on these fronts: along with energy and the environment, the economy and immigration are viewed as potentially fatal vulnerabilities with lower-middle-class and working-class swing voters, once the ALP’s main source of support.
The spooked, tentative quality of Albanese and his party originates with a betrayal. Bill Shorten, a union man, was repudiated by heavy industry workers, and there is every indication these workers are firming in their dissatisfaction with the ALP more broadly. No Australian labour movement leader turned politician can take that too personally. These are only small, distinct episodes in a story that is international in its scope, and generations-long in its timescale. Albanese’s tale – a lion of the left, now tamed – is a microcosm of the same narrative trajectory. It is the story of the decline of social democratic parties in the developed world, and the breakup and rearrangement of those once-reliable voting blocs that decided their fortunes.
Around the Western world, parties with long social democratic heritages are succumbing to a chronic disease with an ugly name: pasokification. The term is derived from the Greek political party PASOK, which spent 40 years as the left-wing half of a two-party system. After introducing austerity measures in the aftermath of the 2009 global financial crisis, PASOK went from a position of incumbency to catastrophic decline. Between 2009 and 2015 it lost almost nine-tenths of its support, shedding most of its voters to a new radical-left, anti-austerity coalition named Syriza.
PASOK’s fate, while the most extreme example, was shared elsewhere. One study outlined how by 2015 European social democratic parties had their lowest share of the continent-wide vote in 70 years. A London School of Economics paper called “The Rise and Fall of Social Democracy, 1918–2017”, which studied 31 different social democratic parties across a century of European elections, found support for these entities had peaked as long ago as the 1950s. Two formerly assured voting blocs – industrial workers and public-sector workers – had not only shrunk in absolute size, but had become unreliable as social democrats. As a result, the study found, “parties that once commanded over 40 per cent of votes have collapsed to the low twenties, teens or lower”.
Labor’s reduced primary vote isn’t quite so terrible – on May 18, 2019 it received 4.75 million first preference votes, its worst result in 85 years, though still a third of all ballots cast. It has been spared the worst of these tectonic electoral shifts. The structural assistance of compulsory voting insures against the depth of damage other social democratic parties have suffered.
Australia is not the only democracy with compulsory voting – more than 20 legally mandate it (though in several these laws go unenforced). Nor was it the first country to compel its citizens to the ballot box (that was Belgium). But our rationale for voting enforcement may have been unique: it was, in part, to stop social democrats winning every election. Compulsory voting at the national level, instituted in 1924, served a number of purposes, foremost among them arresting a decline in turn-out. But at state level, the impetus came earlier and was less ambiguous: to give conservative parties a fighting chance against union turn-out machines. According to the Australian Electoral Commission’s history of compulsory voting, the Liberal government of Digby Denham made Queensland-wide voting obligatory in the 1915 election, “apparently concerned that ALP shop stewards were more effective in ‘getting out the vote’, and that compulsory voting would restore a level playing ground”. Denham went on to lose and, a century later, his brainchild was giving left-wing parties an unanticipated advantage. In other developed democracies, some of the very poor and disenfranchised have responded to record inequality and politician malfeasance by ceasing to vote altogether. When these democracy sceptics are compelled to vote, as they are in Australia, it tends to advantage left-wing parties (and, to a lesser extent, minor parties).
Perhaps the most detailed and persuasive descriptions of pasokification have come from the French economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty bifurcates modern electorates along a new cleavage, between what he calls the “Brahmin left” and the “merchant right”. The Brahmin left are a graduate class – urban, affluent, moved by social justice issues and open to immigration. Meanwhile, the merchant right combines a traditional business elite with low-income, low-education voters hostile to the factor Piketty calls “openness”. He finds this change is consistent in the United States, France and Britain, and the template is applicable across developed democracies.
Since the 1970s, the old association between working-class voters and the political left has broken down. Instead, higher-education voters have become the core left-wing constituency. This divide is regional as well as educational (the more highly educated tend to congregate in cities), and also generational (older voters still tend more conservative, and are more prevalent in extra-metropolitan electorates). The origins of this change are still controversial, but they centre on the changed nature of work.
Unions are still the exoskeleton of the Australian Labor Party, but their influence, membership, militancy and power have all declined. This means wages have stagnated relative to inflation (although again, the situation is worse elsewhere in the world), and the once-reliable mechanisms for redistribution – strikes, an ever-growing public sector and direct universal welfare – have all declined.
Manufacturing has dwindled, and, where it survives, it employs fewer union members, and fewer workers overall. In Australia, the working classes have more reliable routes to comfort and, frequently, prosperity. The trades are the predominant example. By 2012, the Suncorp Bank Wages Report found that, for the first time, blue-collar workers earned more on average ($1229 a week) than their white-collar counterparts ($1085 a week). The same survey revealed that six of the top 10 highest-paid industries are now blue collar.
Not surprisingly, this fiscal upheaval completely rearranged traditional class allegiances. Two Australian National University professors, Ian McAllister and Toni Makkai, found that occupation, which was the primary determinant of party preference for at least 50 years, had become “unimportant” to it. In addition to newly prosperous “cashed-up bogans”, the democratisation of market-exposed asset ownership had resulted in a new series of material alignments, creating a form of “popular capitalism” centred on property and equity, especially in the form of superannuation.
These changes were also hugely favourable to older voters, and they enjoy one of the few forms of wealth redistribution still en vogue: from younger votes to older voters. Ever-rising house prices in Australia’s metropolitan areas (Perth excepted) are, in a sense, government assisted. They are buoyed by planning restrictions, negative gearing, quantitative easing, the exclusion of residential homes from the pensions assets test, and other preferential policies that have the effect of prioritising wealth over income.
Among pundits and policy houses, there is often bipartisan agreement that these measures are unfair. This is because the evidence is so incontrovertible: between 1994 and 2016, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that the household wealth of those aged between 55 and 74 had more than doubled; during the same period, younger generations stalled. But there are no obvious political allies for these younger voters. They are outnumbered and more diverse, which means they cannot form the same chauvinistic coalitions that white resentment can. Labor must address them if it is to address its core value of fairness, but it seems a majority of voters benefit from this unfairness, or believe that they might one day.
The United States is a gerontocracy in its leadership class, helmed by politicians and judges in their seventies and eighties. In Australia, it is older voters who hold a cultural hegemony. This, in combination with their demographic heft and economic clout, means their ideas, viewpoints and positions are valorised, enforced and protected.
There is nothing especially socialistic about addressing the institutional wrinkles that benefit this group. Reforming negative gearing and franking credits would be an exercise in prudent budget management – baby boomers, who enjoyed the fruits of direct government transfers in their youth and then wealth-friendly policies in their dotage, still expect first-rate socialised healthcare for their chronic ailments, while degrading the tax base and worker-to-retiree ratio required to pay for it.
Climate change is not dissimilar, another free-rider problem where older voters and workers in emissions-intensive areas are incentivised to skip the bill. Not coincidentally, this is where the gulf between constituencies in Melbourne and, say, the Hunter Valley yawns widest, and the Labor Party’s confused signals on this issue have never been resolved. Under pressure from a One Nation protest vote, the Hunter’s Labor MP, Joel Fitzgibbon, has become a kind of Member for Coal, blaming the party’s climate policies for poor electoral results and publicly contradicting its leadership on medium-term emissions targets.
The old “fairness” coalition that Labor once compiled is today riven by insoluble contradictions on migration, education, temperament and occupation. Religious differences may play a part as well. In the 2019 election, the ALP performed particularly poorly with Christians, perhaps because of its support for gay marriage, or due to Scott Morrison’s public Pentecostalism.
These new fractures are particularly wide on energy issues, where climate change demands action on market externalities, but the remaining workers in mines and refineries want to hang on to their jobs and are broadly sceptical of attempts to retrain them for a new economy.
This tension was described as “climate grievance” in a widely circulated post-loss critique written by former Mark Latham adviser Alex Sanchez. It so impressed Albanese that he hired Sanchez as a senior economic adviser, though it is hard to understand why. His post on LinkedIn was a piece of boilerplate indistinct from the kind that can be found in The Australian almost every day: “Once, left of centre parties around the globe would line up to replicate the moderate Australian model. Instead, Labor allowed itself to be hoodwinked to believe that the response to working/middle class disenfranchisement was tax, spend and climate grievance… Hawke/Keating are rightly the Labor folk heroes, doing what previous conservative governments couldn’t do, subjecting the price of capital, exchange and labour to market forces.”
But you can’t float the dollar twice, and the 2020s are not the 1980s. Australia now has one of the smallest tax bases and public sectors in the OECD, coupled with wage stagnation, in a time of galloping inequality. Why would further deregulation be the response? What prudent fiscal management do Sanchez and co have in mind? It is not specified. The “socialistic” charge rarely survives scrutiny either, and beyond clichés, Labor’s ostensibly “far left” policies are rarely itemised in pieces like these, because describing them as “far left” is so unpersuasive. Shorten’s “big climate agenda” was to the right of the UK Conservative Party’s, and in time, Scott Morrison has quietly adopted several of its most contentious features, including a predicted uptake of electric cars.
Sanchez’s prescription is far from unique. Nick Dyrenfurth, executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre, has proposed a quota to ensure working-class MPs (tellingly, he chose a lack of post-high-school qualifications as the defining criterion), and bemoaned that “those of conservative outlook or disposition are increasingly made to feel unwelcome in the party”. At Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Joe Hildebrand has made similar arguments, and they are superficially intuitive: voters are voting for conservative parties, so Labor must become more conservative to win.
But this strategy runs into trouble even at the level of product differentiation. It positions the ALP as a kind of Diet Liberal Party, conservatives-lite who match the fizz of business-friendly policies without leaving you feeling heavy or ideological. This role for the party leans into what the former Rudd adviser Lachlan Harris called the ALP’s role as “political seagull, occasionally snatching electoral victories that the Coalition discards”. It is a Steven Bradbury race plan, where the party skates in the slipstream of the frontrunner and waits for a mistake.
The preferred leader of this conservative-lite group was once Rudd, though today they would fret about Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, and his description of climate change as “the great moral challenge of our time”. Rudd’s latter observation was correct, and it is hard to access the levels of adviser-brain needed to view that challenge – an urgent, real problem – as “climate grievance”. This is a reality already understood by many Liberals, and increasingly by the drier kind. Andrew Constance, the state Liberal member for Bega, bided his time after the Eurobodalla fires, and then spoke of the need to get past left–right divisions on climate. “We’re bloody lucky we didn’t bury thousands of people,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald in October. “I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to making sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The Diet Liberals model is dubious enough as a media strategy from opposition. When it has been allowed to determine the Labor Party’s governing ethos, it has been disastrous. What destroyed trust in the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd era was not their governments’ undertaking of major reforms, but their announcing major reforms and then bottling their implementation. Part of this was personality-driven, the result of Rudd’s preference for presentation over implementation. But the real damage was done by caution, conciliation and keeping one eye on the polls at all times.
Carbon pricing is the most well-known (and most heavily disputed) example, and created a breach between rhetoric and action that ate away the party’s credibility semi-permanently. But in the same period, Labor also introduced a mining tax and then backed down; opened the borders with no clear plan, then closed them again and instituted a cruel offshore processing centre, and opposed boat turnbacks and then agreed with them; let the Turnbull government take the initiative on gay marriage; and baked in changes in the industrial relations realm that are still punishing workers now.
The Anthony Albanese that stands before us is a product of these same processes. His “class-war rhetoric” is gone. He is a conviction politician who grew up in Camperdown social housing, who now says that those earning $180,000 a year might still “be struggling with a mortgage, with the bills they have to pay”. He opposes Morrison’s tax cuts for the wealthy, but does it with sympathy. His childcare policies, which are not means-tested, allow high-income workers to benefit, and echo one of Abbott’s signature ideas.
His leadership is shaped by consensus, born of contingencies, defeats and compromises. He was a safe choice, an ideal wound-licker. Polling shows he is liked but not thought of as a leader, and that he failed to prosecute the case against Morrison early enough, when the latter was less assured in office. He is not quite Diet Liberals, more Labor Zero, and is careful to issue many of the pro-growth statements the Alex Sanchezes of the world like to hear.
Perhaps this moderation is the correct response to the time and place. But if it is successful – and there are few indications it will be – that would make the ALP’s experience unique in the world. It is hard to think of an incumbent left-wing political leader elsewhere who looks and sounds like Albanese. Joe Biden would be the closest analogue, but his policy platform is far more radical, and he has adapted to the times by becoming more progressive, not less. In the United Kingdom, Keir Starmer leads Boris Johnson in the polls and, while he is to the right of Jeremy Corbyn, he is still a self-described socialist.
In fact, it is hard to identify a single working example of the conservative-lite strategy – the last exemplar was Tony Blair back in the 1990s. One of his former staffers, Jacinda Ardern, seems to have learnt a quite different set of lessons from her mentor. As prime minister of New Zealand, she has passed a zero carbon bill with Opposition support, set a goal (since revised) to build 100,000 new houses for low-income families in 10 years, and instituted a $5 billion package of tax cuts and payments she called “the most significant change to the country’s welfare system in decades”. She has now been returned in the largest landslide victory in New Zealand for 70 years, and will govern in concert with the New Zealand Greens.
Elsewhere in the Anglosphere, Justin Trudeau legalised cannabis, banned Arctic drilling, and, in the wake of Trump’s ban on Muslim migrants, invited them to Canada: “to those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” He, too, won another term.
These are different countries, with different electoral histories, and perhaps it is no coincidence that tolerance for young, dynamic and progressive leaders is strongest in places with no Murdoch media. Nevertheless, the change is not created by figures who are charismatic because they are young. It is generational. It rests on politicians who have watched the diminishing returns of austerity, neoliberalism and progressive fetishisation of markets, and who recognise the limited ability of that suite of solutions in engaging with societal problems. This generation is making itself felt on the right side of politics as well, where the nostrums of small government, free trade and deregulation are increasingly out of favour.
Ironically, Labor’s opponents in the Liberal Party may perform some of the most difficult progressive reforms for them. They are already cementing Australia’s transition away from coal as a source of power generation, and despite the wishes of the National Party, are unlikely to build any next-generation coal-fired power stations or nuclear power plants. At state level, there are several centre-right figures who have faced down a hostile media on climate and abortion issues. The NSW Minister for Energy and the Environment, Matt Kean, is one of the country’s foremost promoters of renewable energy, and has made himself a Murdoch target in the process. But the kitchen sink they throw at him doesn’t hit like it used to.
Watching the Coalition implement the original plan for the National Broadband Network after years of criticism, political damage, media hostility and half-baked implementation is hard to bear. This cutting unfairness helped provoke Kevin Rudd into a further confrontation with News Corp – his petition for a royal commission into the company garnered a quarter of a million signatures in just a few days. Misguided or not, it reflected a hard truth: that Labor has neglected media concentration and malfeasance, to curry favour with a toxic entity that will never reciprocate.
There is no use pointing out the double standard on “debt and deficit” held by much of the press. This hypocrisy is almost eternal: already The Washington Post reports that Republicans in the United States are prepared to refresh their trolling over deficit concern in the event of a Biden win. The Tea Party has said nothing while Trump runs up, well, record debt and deficit. Instead, progressives must embrace an anti-austerity politics to take advantage of never-to-be-repeated circumstances where debt is cheap, infrastructure is declining, renewable energy is such a good investment for the future, and small government conservatism is in retreat.
This strategy also requires a new set of tactics to work around or even against hostile media. It needs new party structuring, to better reflect the eclipse of the union movements. In Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere, successful leaders have sought coalitions with novel partners and politicians, especially independents. They have emphasised confidence, competence and enthusiasm, drawing a contrast with ailing, out-of-touch and poorly governing populist leaders.
Scott Morrison is not incompetent, and he is less ideological than comparable incumbents. He is much more canny at understanding his half of the “mercantile right” electorate, and is unwedded to austerity, instead giving governmental assistance to friends and punishment to enemies (this explains his savaging of the tertiary sector, the Brahmin-left HQ). But he cannot be dislodged, or deLodged, without a fight. And at this moment, the man who has spent his life fighting Tories looks like the wrong kind of loser.
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