Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

National pathologies
Australia has its blind spots too


Yesterday, a man opened fire on people at a music festival in Las Vegas. The last time I looked at the news before bed, the death toll stood at two. When I woke this morning, it had risen to 59. More than 500 people had been injured.

Hundreds of people harmed as a result of the actions of one man.

We in Australia are stunned, confused and angered every time this happens in the United States.

In 1996, 35 people were killed at Port Arthur. But since then, as a result of the gun buyback and actions taken as part of the National Firearms Agreement, massacres on such a scale have been all but unimaginable in this country. Gun-related murders and suicides have fallen by significant amounts, and the evidence strongly supports the assertion that this is because of those decisions.

Three observations.

The first is that Australians have continued to buy guns in the 20 years since Port Arthur – and in quite large numbers. In fact, it was reported last year that there are now more privately owned guns than there were in 1996. Population growth means our per-capita ownership is still significantly lower than then. Nevertheless, there is a real need for our politicians to keep strong laws in place, and to continue to respond to changes in circumstances and technologies as they arise. It is a good thing that Malcolm Turnbull today suggested stronger gun laws may come back onto the agenda [$].

The second is that Australia’s effective gun laws should be a reminder that politicians of strong will can deliver real change in our society, often with quite simple actions. It was not easy for John Howard to act on guns. In hindsight it seems a clear and unquestionable move; at the time he faced genuine opposition from his own base. It is a lasting part of his legacy, because he moved quickly and clearly, because he was brave to do so, and because in doing so he saved lives. As trite as it sounds, we should never give up on the idea that one person can make enormous changes, especially when that person is the prime minister.

The third point is that Australians shake our heads at such times because we look at America’s attitude to guns and we see pathology. It seems crazy – it is crazy – that much of the nation blinds itself to an obvious solution. Under one definition, America has one mass shooting, on average, each day. This seems, to us, genuinely incomprehensible. How do they let it go on?

But every nation has its pathologies – by which I mean attitudes that have taken on a dangerously fervent edge, that are no longer sourced in rational argument, that will one day, no doubt, be seen as the products of collective delusion.

In this country, we have what seems to be a deep psychological fear of people arriving by boat – so much so that the actions we take to prevent it caused Donald Trump to say to Malcolm Turnbull, “You are worse than I am.” It is possible to have an argument about offshore detention, and stopping deaths at sea. But that is not what we are talking about any longer: it has long been accepted that the government treats people as badly as possible as a deliberate policy tool. This is both an acquiescence to, and a fostering of, that irrational fear. The government can get away with treating people this badly because those people have dared to come by boat; and by treating them this badly the government reinforces to us how frightening the threat of boats really is – so frightening that these people must be treated this badly. Amnesty International said our offshore detention system was “a deliberate and systematic regime of neglect and cruelty, and amounts to torture under international law,” that it was “explicitly designed to inflict incalculable damage on hundreds of women, men and children”.

Is this sane?

We suffer from less consequential delusions, too. Our pathological insistence that 26 January is the only day on which this nation might be celebrated. So ingrained is this illogical belief that it has become a dependable go-to for politicians wishing to rally the population behind them. There are arguments to be had, for sure, but that is not what we have recently witnessed. Can anybody genuinely contend the recent burst of hysteria around Yassmin Abdel-Magied was sane? Argue about her (deleted) Facebook post, certainly, but in the context of what followed that is a straw man. What we saw was crazed.

None of these Australian pathologies has caused deaths in the numbers we have seen in the United States as a result of an absurd and harmful guns policy. But that does not let us off the hook. The response to our fear of boat arrivals has led to suicide, and allegations of murder and rape. Our Australia Day obstinacy is part of a systemic failure to look squarely at the country’s neglect of Indigenous Australians, which brings death, disease and poverty. The third – and controversies like it – prevent us giving our attention and energies to issues that might actually affect people’s lives.

Changing our nation for the better, as John Howard did in 1996, will always require an ability to look through our national myths, to penetrate the assumptions with which we have clothed ourselves. It is always easy to see the failures of others; what is more difficult is to see our own.

In other news


​C’mon we’re being fun

‘Get Krack!n’s Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney are not pussyfooting around

Anna Krien

Now, with Get Krack!n, McLennan and McCartney have taken on morning television, a genre that largely originated in mid ’70s America when Good Morning America was pitched against the longstanding Today show. It’s the format, derisively referred to as ‘infotainment’, where traditional news anchors were supplanted by ‘personalities’ whose approach to daily news was much like picking over a tray of canapés. At the time, the much-treasured journalist and broadcast news anchor Walter Cronkite ferociously opposed the variety-show application to traditional news as well as the huge pay packets that saw the hosts turn into celebrities in their own right. In his memoir, A Reporter’s Life (1996), Cronkite surmised that the ‘explosively compressed headline service of television news can expect to be exploited by the demagogues and dictators who prey upon the semi-informed’. Twenty years on, you could say Cronkite was sadly prescient.” read on


Human nature in ‘Force of Nature’

In Jane Harper’s new crime thriller, group tensions boil over in the bush

Gretchen Shirm

“If the double murder–suicide was the grisly drawcard that lured readers into Harper’s immensely successful first novel The Dry, the missing person mystery is the hook at the centre of this book, with all its attendant narrative snares. Alice Russell, a woman with ‘a mean streak so sharp it could cut you’, is the missing person: a feared and revered senior executive at BaileyTennants, a boutique Melbourne accounting firm. Alice went missing in the Giralang Ranges during a ‘team-building exercise’ arranged by her employer.” READ ON

‘Artists in Conversation’

Readers in Victoria can register for free tickets to artist conversations as part of Melbourne Festival, led by the editorial team of The Saturday Paper and the Monthly.

The conversations will feature Melbourne Festival’s artistic director, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from the festival program, to discuss their work and its place in the world. The conversations will take place at the Forum Theatre on Saturdays from 12.30 pm.

To register, simply click any of the three names below and enter your details in the form provided. Tickets will be confirmed by 5 pm on Thursday, 5 October. More details on the conversations and terms and conditions can be found here.

Saturday, 7 October – An Engaged Audience

Hosted by Erik Jensen, editor of The Saturday Paper, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Please, Continue and Game of Leaders.

Saturday, 14 October – Across Platforms

Hosted by Martin McKenzie-Murray, chief correspondent of The Saturday Paper, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Tree of Codes and A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol.

Saturday, October 21 – A Chronicle of Life

Hosted by Nick Feik, editor of the Monthly, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Germinal and EVER.

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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