Thursday, November 2, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Mixed messages
Government MPs are living in completely different universes from each other

Supplied by ABC News

I have had an odd sense, in recent days, that there is something slightly perplexing about the current political landscape. To describe it should be simple and obvious: the government is in crisis. It’s lost a deputy prime minister and another cabinet minister, and every day there’s something else.

I could list the problems here and they would seem quite impressive, and yet, as the days go on and still more things go wrong – the PM yesterday lost his Senate president to another citizenship mess, which has just as I write this led to further accusations – what strikes me is not that the temperature is heating up, or the chaos amping up, or the ship of state spiralling downwards, or any clichés of a similar linguistic structure: it’s the refusal of the different members of the government to join together in a single story. They’re all acting as though in the midst of slightly different events; or the same events, seen quite differently. Rashomon, say, but for tedious political narratives. 

For starters, today we had Kevin Andrews, once defence minister and now largely irrelevant backbencher, calling for “strong, decisive, stable leadership” [$]. Displaying the political skills for which he is known, Andrews managed both to condemn the leadership “merry-go-round” while refusing to say that Turnbull should remain as prime minister. Good one, Kev.

Time was, this would have been big news. And certainly it was unhelpful. But my point is that it was unhelpful in a predictable, politics-as-usual type of way. It all had the feel of a tired re-run, as though Andrews had travelled back to 2009, when he was a “stalking horse” for Tony Abbott’s successful challenge to Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.

The problem for Andrews is that nobody else seems to feel quite the same way. Most notably, Abbott himself is not stuck in 2009. He has vaulted forwards, into an apocalyptic war between the West and everyone else: in his mind, he is the hero in a movie adaptation of a Dan Brown novel. Today [$], he was back in the news for telling an American anti-gay group that the No campaign had created a “network that could be deployed to defend Western civilisation more broadly and the Judeo-Christian ethic against all that’s been undermining it”. Technically, he left out goats and pagans and volcanoes, but you could sense them simmering just behind the words he actually used. 

Others in the Coalition could not care less about the dying West: for them, the main game is an almost comically stupid war between the National Party and the Liberal Party. Barnaby Joyce – who seems to think he doesn’t have to act at all like the deputy prime minister anymore, even though they’re keeping the position open for him – has repeatedly opened up on the Liberals. The Liberals have retaliated. Then, yesterday, John “Wacka” Williams, from the Nats, put himself forward for the $350k-a-year gig of Senate president. Not so fast, that’s a Liberal job, said several Liberals. This is all very, very strange behaviour. Crisis? What crisis? Let’s have an avoidable internecine squabble, because we can obviously afford it.

Then there are those who don’t care about Nats and Libs killing each other, because they are saving their energy to focus on Libs killing off Libs. These are the various people in the Coalition, presumably conservatives, who think now is the time to take down Christopher Pyne. In the past few days, he’s been blamed for sparking discontent on the marriage bill, declaring [$] he would take the seat of a sitting female MP (which he denies), and encouraging an independent [$] to run against another Liberal candidate (which he also denies). Have they missed the fact that the government is in a little trouble?

The PM is also acting as though he is unaware of any crisis – though, to be fair, that’s his job. He probably shouldn’t have said he’d never had more fun in his life, but otherwise he’s simply going about his business, like calling for peace in the Middle East [$]. (The joke here is too obvious to make.) 

Meanwhile, Scott Morrison motors along as though none of this is happening, giving a speech here, making an announcement there. This is good stuff from Morrison, and, as with Turnbull, I’m not suggesting he should be doing anything else. After all, someone has to be announcing policy. It’s just that, alongside everything else, it has an air of unreality to it, as though he were in the third term of the Howard government, or some other equally unremarkable period.

So, what to make of all this? It should be end-of-days stuff, except, for some reason, it isn’t. Perhaps Turnbull’s implicit message to us all – that this year simply has to be seen out before the brighter days of 2018 can be ushered in – has been persuasive. Perhaps the citizenship business, for all its formal appearance of chaos, just isn’t that big a deal in the end. Perhaps Abbott and Andrews and the rest have long ago been factored in, and can be discounted. Or perhaps nobody is listening to anyone in the government anymore, which would have the same result. 

What is clear is that they can’t all be right. Someone is deluding themself – but as to who that is, your guess is as good as mine. 

Episode 9: Rights and association
This week Richard Denniss asks author and law professor George Williams why Australia is the only democracy without a bill of rights, and Simon Sheikh, former head of GetUp!, talks about government attacks on progressive social organisation.


In other news


Notes from the studio

Robyn Davidson’s ‘Tracks’ vs Harvey Weinstein

Robert Drewe

“In her book, Robyn the feminist heroine is periodically shadowed throughout her journey by a young photographer from National Geographic, Rick Smolan. It was Rick who’d suggested that the magazine sponsor her trip. She has mixed feelings about having sold out and the trip no longer being totally her own.

But there’s a spark, and Rick keeps dropping in during the journey to photograph her, and eventually the two young, single heterosexuals, alone in the desert, have sex.

Ah, the sex scene. As the whole point of this very ’70s story was female fortitude, Ray and I thought it totally correct to place the intrepid female character, who after all had just trekked with camels across the bloody continent, in the dominant sexual position. So we wrote it that way.

As strange as this seems nowadays, Miramax refused outright to have a sex scene where the man was not on top. We stuck to our guns.”read on


Two approaches to abstraction

Exhibitions by Brent Harris and Karl Wiebke reinforce how abstract painting can both beguile and explore big questions

Quentin Sprague

“Anyone familiar with Harris’ body of work would recognise that any answers come only through prolonged exposure. Meaning is never spelt out: instead, it accrues slowly. One of his most striking series, Grotesquerie, spoke of familial trauma: archetypal figures, rendered in Harris’ characteristically crisp swamp-arabesques, embodied ‘the father’ and ‘the mother’; bodily secretions bound them together. It was an obvious figurative turn that seemed to open the floodgates: soon named deities – Christ, Buddha, Ganesha – began to populate his works. The subject, although still deeply personal, was clearly one of faith: faith in religion, yes, but also faith in human relationships and faith in painting itself. Here painting-as-subject becomes a kind of oblique self-portrait, but it is also far more. Painting is a difficult craft, not least for its pronounced ‘uselessness’ when measured by the metric of the broader culture. For this reason, the practice can for many become one of sustained doubt: why paint is a question that can readily take on existential shape.”READ ON

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.



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