The Politics    Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Television as teacher

By Sean Kelly

Even someone who was there can learn from ‘The Killing Season’

Some say that great novels match their form to their content perfectly. A novel dealing with a loveless marriage may contain cool, spare prose, devoid of emotion. A book focused on the chaos of modern life might be dominated by crazy, helter-skelter allusions to anything and everything, overwhelming the reader in the same way the protagonist is overwhelmed.

While the first part of the ABC documentary on the last stretch of Labor government, The Killing Season, which screened last night, might not quite reach the artistic heights of Herzog or the recent Knausgaard novels, it did remind me of this principle, being, as it was, a perfect marriage of structure and narrative.  

There are many stories that could be told about the Labor years, and particularly about Kevin Rudd, on whom the first episode focused, but one that is hard to escape is the slow and painful journey many people in the country experienced: the transition from hope to frustration. In 2007, there was fervent belief in the regenerative powers of a sincere new government, a belief that spread far beyond die-hard traditional Labor voters; by the time the 2013 campaign had run its course most of us felt we were watching a tired performance. We’d heard the slick lines too many times before. Whatever one’s personal feelings about the government’s achievements – and I still believe that that government, under both Rudd and Gillard, did a huge amount of good – there was a sense of exhaustion in the nation. Belief was hard to summon.

There were two Kevin Rudds on display last night. There was present-day Rudd. Of course, he is older now. He has had to live with the bitterness of being removed as prime minister, an experience he told the show’s host, Sarah Ferguson, he still has nightmares about. He is more guarded than he once was, as though his responses are swimming up through layers of anticipated objections. All these things are visible.

But then there was the Kevin of 2007! And 2008! So earnest, so vigorous! An incredibly hard worker. An energetic man. Probably the best media performer of his generation. To watch him interviewed on a live evening news broadcast about the global financial crisis was to see a man on top of his game doing the thing he is better at than perhaps anyone in the world. There are few things more pleasurable. And the achievements mounted up, too. The raw necessity of the apology to the Stolen Generations. The foresight and decisiveness of the stimulus package. The genuine emotion he was not afraid to show as he hugged big, burly men who had lost everything but their lives in the Victorian bushfires. The passion of that time came flooding back.

In that gap, of course, lies the story of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd government of 2007–2013.

The other thing I thought about last night was the passage of time.

When the AMC television series Mad Men finished a few weeks ago, I read a great piece suggesting that what was particularly moving about the show’s ten years on screen is that we had watched it all unfold in real time:

“We've all been on our own decade-long journey along with the characters. And that means that when we reflect back on the passage of time and what's happened to them since the show began, we also recall what's happened to us.”

The same thought struck me about The Killing Season. Of course, it is more true for me than for most people. There are few faces or locations in the documentary that don’t evoke, for me, a thousand other memories. Remembering where I was the night Kevin Rudd was elected is a pretty literal exercise: I was in the hall with Kevin Rudd, cheering him on. But on some level most Australians will have a similar response. Most of us remember the 2007 election night, one way or another. Most of us recall the stark horror of the Black Saturday bushfires, perhaps the scent of ash in the sky. The fear brought on by the GFC. It’s Australian political history that we’re watching, but it’s our own lives that we’re remembering, the nine years that have passed since Kevin and Julia became the leader and deputy leader of the Labor party.

We are nine years older, and so is Kevin. Whatever our differences as viewers, whatever we think about the former Labor government and its different leaders, that fact unites us all.

Today’s links

  • Joe Hockey refused to apologise for his comments yesterday (though he did say he “totally understands” that housing is expensive). Bill Shorten called on Tony Abbott to say whether he agreed with Hockey. Abbott managed to both express the empathy with homebuyers that Hockey so conspicuously lacked yesterday, and back Hockey as a great treasurer. (This, by the way, was the same as Abbott’s approach to Hockey’s petrol gaffe last year, after which Hockey finally got around to apologising.) The PM even recalled his own mortgage stress.
  • Peter Martin explains why houses are, in fact, contra Hockey, unaffordable. And Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens, not a man free with his opinions, said that pockets of Sydney house prices were “crazy”.
  • The prime minister has said “real men don’t hit”, campaigning against domestic violence. That’s exactly the type of message we need men in positions of authority to send.
  • A survey of MPs by the Guardian suggests gay marriage may not be a done deal.
  • Bill Shorten appears to have distanced himself from Cesar Melham, who succeeded him as AWU secretary, and who yesterday stood down as Victorian government chief whip over allegations in front of the royal commission into trade unions. Tony Abbott said that Shorten must make clear whether workers were ripped off by the union when Shorten was in charge. Shorten said they weren’t.
  • The UN urged the government to stop attacking Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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