When Henry Kissinger, the architect of the Vietnam War, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the satirist Tom Lehrer announced that he was going into retirement: he could no longer compete with reality. I confess to feeling the same way when I heard that Keith Windschuttle had been appointed to the board of the ABC, joining his fellow cultural warriors Janet Albrechtsen and Ron Brunton as a willing participant in John Howard’s eternal campaign to pack rape Aunty. One perverse ideologue in the mix was not a bad idea; two were more than adequate. Three is over the top.
In the axis of Albrechtsen–Windschuttle–Brunton, Howard has created his new AWB scandal. His motives are clear enough: he is simply following the edict of his mentor, Margaret Thatcher, that before leaving office he should ensure he has overseen the appointment of as many as possible of the 600 people who really run the country. Given that the ABC remains an important influence on public debate, bringing it under control is essential if the Thatcheresque totalitarian goal is to be realised. Starving the ABC into submission hasn’t worked, nor has stacking its board with serious conservatives. The economist Judith Sloan went over to the enemy, as did Howard’s personal friend Donald McDonald. Peter Costello’s mentor, Michael Kroger, resigned in impotent frustration. So, if the moderates can’t win, it’s time to send in the maddies.
Will the zealous polemicists of the far Right succeed where more or less reasonable advocates have failed? The answer is almost certainly no, because Howard doesn’t understand how the national broadcaster works and insists on appointing board members who don’t either. Not only does Windschuttle have little recent experience of the industry beyond occasionally pontificating behind a microphone, he has a weirdly distorted view of what actually goes on in the place. For instance, he has said that in the 1960s (when he was still a lefty) the ABC was full of reactionaries; then it was “infiltrated” (sinister word) by Marxists. In fact, the Left was alive and well in the ABC long before the ’60s. While top management was certainly in the hands of the high Tories, the strongest influence in drama and features came from Allan Ashbolt and his heirs and successors. The current-affairs team recruited by Tim Bowden to run AM, PM and This Day Tonight was in place early in the ’60s, and was past its heyday by the time Windschuttle believes the Marxists moved in. And anyway, what Marxists?
For a historian who purports to place great value on objectivity, Windschuttle plays pretty loose with the facts. But the real objection to Windschuttle is not his politics, nor even his lack of expertise; it is his alienation from the real world – or, as one unkind web critic put it, the problem is not that he is a right-winger, but that he is a nincompoop. Windschuttle runs an ongoing crusade against what might be called the orthodox view of Australian history, which holds that the occupation of the continent by Europeans involved considerable violence against Aborigines, including a number of massacres. His central thesis is that most of these massacres did not occur, because they are not mentioned in written records kept by the white authorities at the time. This childlike innocence about the way the Australian police have always operated may have a certain naive appeal, but it is hardly a qualification for the administration of a national institution.
Windschuttle also holds that the White Australia policy was not in any sense racist; it was a purely economic measure designed to prevent the emergence of an underclass. Here is what Alfred Deakin said of it at the time: “The unity of Australia is nothing if it does not imply a united race … unity of race is an absolute to the identity of Australia. It is more actually in the last resort than any other unity.” Once again, our historian refuses to let the facts spoil a good preconception.
It is probably unfair to single Windschuttle out, as if he were an aberration; the history of the ABC board is a litany of inappropriate political appointments from both sides, and no doubt future governments will follow the pattern. But there is something peculiarly blatant about Howard’s latest onslaught. Windschuttle, Albrechtsen and Brunton are not merely examples of jobs for the boys and girls of dubious merit, a deplorable but essentially harmless practice sanctioned by tradition. They are an open declaration of war, an announcement that Howard intends to impose his world view on the ABC – and, by extension, on the country – in the time that remains to him as prime minister. It is a disturbing reminder of the despot who lurks behind that Pickwickian facade.
The only comfort is that this attempt to shackle the ABC, like all those before it, will almost certainly fail. Aunty has her own inner strength and, as Iraq has shown, imposing a new culture from the top is a task fraught with difficulty. The board’s best hope of bringing radical change lies in the appointment of a new managing director, and that is nearly four years away. Even when it comes, they could hardly do worse than Jonathan Shier, and look what happened to him.
In any case, is what the ABC does really so objectionable? Less partial observers generally see it as tolerant, diverse, perhaps overly concerned with minorities, a bit of a bleeding heart, even a little smug – but compared to the bigoted ranting of its commercial rivals, these are peccadilloes. There is very little public angst over the work of the ABC. The demand for change is purely government-driven, which is why Howard needs to go to his AWB axis of obsessives in a ruthless attempt to implement it.
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