David Burchell has a piece in today’s AFR. I think it’s so good, he’s let me post the unedited version.
About half-way through the federal election campaign a poster appeared on a telephone-pole not far from my home. â€˜You Lie, You Loseâ€™, it said, with stark Biblical simplicity. The authorization was from the â€˜Not Happy, Johnâ€™ crowd. And since the only other adornment was a portrait of the PM, looking shifty, you were left to fill in the dots yourself.
If youâ€™d conned the Old Testament in school scripture lessons, the moral was obvious. Because of Mr Howardâ€™s shiftiness in the â€˜children overboardâ€™ affair, and because of the Americansâ€™ signal failure to find WMDs in Iraq, a just but vengeful God was going to reach down from heaven and give the Coalition the big shove. Using the Australian electorate as his agent, rather than the more traditional thunderbolt, famine or flood.
The poster summed up rather succinctly the depths of self-delusion to which many self-styled political observers have sunk over the last few years. Forget Centrebet. You could have made a motza out of accepting bets on the election in the cafes and bars of the nationâ€™s inner-cities these last months.
Legion were the folks in designer spectacles and black roll-neck sweaters who seemed convinced that truth and falsehood, light and darkness, blood and oil, were the essential, the defining election issues â€“ all because, in their own personal moral schemes of things, these issues were vital tests of conscience that could not be ignored.
If a utopian is one who superimposes the map of their heart on top of the map of the world, and imagines the two to be the same, then weâ€™re suffering from utopianism-overload at present in this country. Or at least in its inner-urban reaches. Too many people who ought to know better are examining, not the dull, prosaic state of popular opinion, but the tormented landscape of their own souls.
What makes the situation worse is that many of our habitual heart-gazers occupy posts which license them as putative experts. The heart and soul of the â€˜Not Happy, Johnâ€™ congregation, after all, are big-city journalists on newspapers like this one, folks who like to imagine they have their finger on the pulse, rather than simply their hand on their heart. Close behind them are academics â€“ hyper-critical types who like to imagine themselves â€˜seeing throughâ€™ public opinion, rather than simply transcending it into a higher reality. These are people supposedly credentialed in political analysis. If theyâ€™re off with the fairies, whoâ€™s left?
And yet the political tea-leaves havenâ€™t really been that difficult to read in Australia over the last few years. In the â€˜burbs people are preoccupied with their financial and personal security. How well-heeled professional types whoâ€™ve been â€˜trading upâ€™ through the property-market to their heartâ€™s content could grossly underestimate the political importance of interest rates is a mystery best left to the realms of psychoanalysis. How people obsessed with bloodshed in Iraq could ignore the fear of related bloodshed closer to home is equally hard to fathom.
Even on the â€˜moralâ€™ issues theyâ€™ve hung their hats upon, the grandstanders have been remarkably dim. It was simply never true to say that Australians lined up on the asylum-seekers issue primarily on the grounds of conscience. Mostly they were concerned about mundane issues of statecraft and sovereignty â€“ how many people should be allowed past our borders, how their bona fides should be measured, how we should discharge our international obligations, and so on. The huge imagined outpourings of empathy (on the one hand) and racism (on the other) were to a very considerable extent a mirage.
Nor was the Iraq war a moral litmus-test for most ordinary citizens. Most people donâ€™t fancy themselves as international relations experts. They rely upon their governments to make prudent decisions on the basis of reasonable calculations â€“ and then, if the decisions turn out to be wrong, to clean up the mess. By these standards, the government may have erred badly on Iraq, but this didnâ€™t necessarily turn us all into moral lepers.
By the same token – as the Prime Minister divined with his customary canniness â€“ Australians by and large do not expect their leaders to be paragons of transparency and candour, and are reluctant to judge them on such a basis. With his very opening gambit of the campaign, implicitly opposing â€˜truthâ€™ with â€˜trustâ€™, Mr Howard effectively undercut the entire moral thrust of the â€˜Not Happy, Johnâ€™ crew. Even if they were too worked up to notice.
Too many people imagine â€˜trustâ€™ in politics to be some kind of blood-pact between the people and their leaders, like a bloodied-thumb-pressing exercise in the school playground. Yet in the end, as Machiavelli once observed, in politics people judge by the result.
Labor has many problems right now. It has whole sub-regions of the country seemingly turning against it, perhaps for good. It has trouble making itself heard, even when it â€˜flicks the switch to vaudevilleâ€™. Itâ€™s burdened by the legacies of a mis-remembered past.
One of its biggest handicaps, however, is the influence of its erstwhile friends in the media, the arts and the higher professions. The party which canonised the all-too-human Gough Whitlam, and which has had Bob Ellis foisted upon it as self-appointed poet-laureate, has enough myth-making to contend with already.
Mr Latham needs to make like Odysseus. Resist the siren-song of the self-deluded and, strapped to the mast, head full steam ahead towards the land of the sausage-sizzle.