Category Archives: Essays

QE71 ‘Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman’ by Laura Tingle

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2018, 90 p.

How frustrating it must have been to write this book!  The conclusion of the text is dated 27 August 2018, just three days after Australia’s 29th Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was overthrown for No 30, Scott Morrison. The volume was no doubt planned probably a year in advance (certainly they’re pre-advertised six months in advance) and, being one of Australia’s foremost journalists, Laura Tingle would have wanted the book to be current. As it turned out, the Liberal (i.e. conservative) party decided not to choose Peter Dutton, the closest thing Australia has to a ‘strong man’ as leader – thank heavens. I wonder how much she had to change the book at the last minute to accommodate this change?As it is, the book concentrates more on leadership and democracy, than the ‘strongman’ mentioned in the  title. Perhaps there were whole chapters that ended up in the bin.

This is the third book in a series of Quarterly Essays that Laura Tingle has written over recent years. In 2012 she released Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and an Angry Nation and in 2015 she followed it with Political Amnesia: How We Forgot to Govern, both of which have been released in a single volume called In Search of Good Government, where she added a new essay on Turnbull in Power (huh!)  Perhaps I’ve seen and heard too much of her elsewhere, now that she’s on the 7.30 Report and Philip Adams still ‘mingles with Tingle’ on ABCRN. I felt as if there wasn’t anything particularly new in this book. After all, others have commented on the obsession with popularity, the search for a strong man,  the ubiquity of ‘stakeholders’ instead of experts, and the deluge of information from a splintering of sources.

There were a few things that were new, though, and I’ve found myself thinking on them over the last couple of days. First, she uses as her analytic frame the work of Ronald Heifetz from the Kennedy School of Government, who published a book called Leadership Without Easy Answers in 1994. In it, he distinguished between leadership, power and formal authority. Leadership he defined as “helping a community embrace change”. This is not necessarily a party thing:  leadership can come from outside the formal power and authority structures, and indeed, this is what she ends up arguing for.

Heifetz defined leadership as helping a community embrace change, offering a map, a clear option to deal with a problem, and corralling factions to a compromise. For him, leadership is about possessing the skills with which to read and push a community (p.83)

Second, she compares a number of different leaders. She cites Miranda Carter’s article in the New Yorker in 2018 comparing Trump with Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Carter noted the Kaiser’s conviction that his one-on-one “personal diplomacy  would fix foreign policy”, just as Trump seems to view whole countries in terms of whether he ‘likes’ a leader, and more importantly that they ‘like’ him too. Like Trump, Kaiser Wilhelm viewed people instrumentally; he lied; he patronized the aggressive nationalistic right, and he was touchy and unpredictable.

Tingle then turns to two European alternatives. The first of these is Angela Merkel, where the cobbling together of coalitions means that she needs to listen and lead from behind. Tingle comments that in Australian politics, political barbs are always personalized against the leader, rather than the government or opposition they lead- note, for example, the almost instinctive response to immediately attack a policy in terms of the leader “But Shorten…” “But Morrison….”. She doesn’t say this, but a coalition of smaller parties would broaden the focus from just the leader.  The second alternative is Emmanuel Macron who leads from the “front, sides and middle” (p.47). He seems to break all the Heifetz rules, and like Trump, in his own way wants to break the system and make France “great again”. However, she says, unlike Trump so far he has been doing this without finding scapegoats, with a clear purpose and a sense of direction. Tingle is not quite sure about him though: there is a danger that he will resort to strongman tactics.

Third, she gives a real life example of Australia acting as a middle power- Turnbull’s “awful” phone call with Donald Trump after his inauguration, congratulating him on the presidency and ensuring that Trump honoured the refugee-swap arranged with Obama. It is a verbatim transcript, and she quotes it in full. I’m not really sure that it advances her argument much, but it’s just too delicious. It’s important, too, because it shows how slippery and self-centred Trump is in those relationships he so prizes with other leaders. I hadn’t seen the transcript previously in full, and she does us a service in reproducing it.  Quite apart from Trump’s childishness, skittishness and self-obsession, it also appalled me to see how little Turnbull was actually asking of him (even though Trump certainly didn’t see it that way). Turnbull was in effect telling Trump that he didn’t have to take a single refugee under the deal worked out with Obama; that all he had to do was go through the motions. In fact, it amazes me that Trump took any refugees at all (he has taken about 400). Even though I knew it at the time, it reinforced how instrumental and risk-averse the arrangement was for Australia to take 12000 Christian-only refugees when the Syrian situation was at its worst.

Finally, she returns to Australian politics and the failures of the leaders we have had over the last ten years.  Her prescription for leadership is bland and obvious, but harder to achieve than it sounds:

To be a leader, you don’t necessarily have to have a vision, but you either have to know what it is that you want to persuade other people to do, or else have the knack of identifying and synthesizing an issue on which people are seeking leadership. You also need to know how you are going to do something about such issues. And you have to know which are the most important things to get done at any given point in time. Then you have to make the rest of us understand why these things are important and what you are going to do about them. This task might simply be an echo of a crystallised or uncrystallised public mood. Or something that involves reimagining all the barriers and structures around a difficult issue. But it does ultimately require you to bring people with you.(p. 81)

She concludes that a large part of the job of political leadership now is “to rebuild the national political discussion after years of it being under assault”, and to recognize that “their own room to move is going to be vastly expanded if there are other leaders in the community with whom they can speak”(p.86). In Heifetz’s terms, this involves protecting the voices of leadership outside the political realm (Human Rights Commissioners and climate scientists spring immediately to mind).

In this, I agree with her.  I inwardly groan when I hear the panellists on Q&A on a Monday night as you see the same old faces and can predict the tenor of the ‘debate’ as soon as the camera sweeps along the table. Sometimes, just sometimes, there’s a new voice from outside, and you wonder “Why don’t we hear more of this person”?

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I’m adding this to the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. During the month of October Brona, the convenor of the Non-Fiction round-ups challenged people to read a short non-fiction. This was just the push I needed to actually unwrap some of the Quarterly Essays which sit on my shelf (much to my son’s frustration: I figure that she who buys the Quarterly Essay gets to open the Quarterly Essay, no matter how much he wants to read it).

 

‘Reason and Lovelessness: Essays, encounters, reviews 1980-2017’ by Barry Hill

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2018, 488p.

This is a big book and it took a long time to read.  ‘Big’ because it’s pushing 500 pages in length, and ‘big’ because it spans  37 years – a whole career.  But it wasn’t just the size that made it such a drawn-out reading experience.  It’s also because the essays are dense with ideas, and I found myself only able to read one at a time.  They were mentally chewy and I wanted to let each one sit for a while.

Barry Hill has hovered on the edge of my consciousness without ever really breaking through.  I was aware that he won plaudits for Broken Song, his biography of Ted Strehlow, and I’ve been vaguely aware of him through the Australian Book Review.  Looking through the long list of publications at the beginning of the book, he’s been writing novels and poems since the 1970s. However, I haven’t read any of them.

I like reading essays, largely because they allow me to meet the author half-way: to sit in on a conversation, if you like.   The essays that I enjoyed most in this collection were where he wrote as a son, writing about his father – an old union man and peace activist-   in ‘Letter to My Father’; or about his mother in ‘Brecht’s Song’.

But many of other essays were more cerebral than emotional.  After an excellent introduction by Tom Griffiths, the book is divided into four parts: Close to Bones; Inland; Naked Art Making, and Reason and Lovelessness, from which the collection takes its name.  Part II (Inland) can be fairly easily characterized as being explorations of  colonialism, with reviews and commentaries on W. E. H. Stanner, Greg Dening and elaborations on his own work on Ted Strehlow.  He has really enticed me into moving Broken Song up from ‘one day’ to ‘soon’ as far as my own reading is concerned. He really does not like Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines at all (I haven’t read that one, either).  In Part III (Naked Art Making) there are several essays on Lucien Freud, John Wolseley and the Australian artist Rod Moss whose work is on the front cover.   Parts I and IV are more diverse, several of them based on interviews with poets, writers and artists. In Part IV in particular there are steps of logic that seem to link the essays together.

But I must confess that for many of these essays, I felt left behind.  I hadn’t read the work or the author he was discussing, and on the few occasions when I had, I realized the richness of what I was missing.  (e.g. his essays on Greg Dening and Robert Manne;  his excellent essay about William Buckley who lived with the Port Phillip Wathaurong people after escaping from the convict settlement at Sorrento in 1803, his essay on George Orwell).  Reading through his essay on Ezra Pound, I asked my very-widely-and idiosyncratically-read  husband “Have you ever read any Ezra Pound?”.  He had  (of course), and then went on to talk about several of the things that Hill discussed. ” Well, have you heard of Rabindranth Tagore?” I asked him.  Again, yes he had, and again mentioned things that Hill had also covered. “YOU should be reading this book!” I told my husband, and I meant it. There’s a conversation going on here, but I’m not part of it.

Should that matter? I found myself thinking of Montesquieu of all people, and the beguiling ease with which he draws you into his conversation. I rarely felt that same ease with Hill’s essays, beyond the more personal ones about his own family.  Perhaps that’s because in many of these essays, he’s writing as a critic.  Summarizing the content of a work is not part of the role of the critic, and there’s an implicit assumption that the reader is familiar with the work under discussion.  That is the  reader that Hill is writing for; not someone on the outside looking in.  Several of the essays are reflections on interviews and conversations he has conducted with writers –  Christina Stead and Rai Gaita – underlining that he is part of their milieu.  As a poet, he writes about other poets – Fay Zwicky, Shonagon (the author of The Pillow Book)- and he shares in own poetry in several of the essay.

Given that these essays were written over thirty-five years, they have probably been selected to resonate with the 2018 political climate. ‘The Mood We’re In: circa Australia Day 2004’ was given as an Overland lecture, and it captures that strange era of Latham-esque politics.  He still rages over the Bush/Blair/Howard invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and his feeling of impotence when protests across the world were futile permeates his essays ‘The Uses and Abuses of Humiliation’, ‘Poems that Kill’ and ‘Human Smoke, Bared Throats”.  There is not – mercifully- even a breath of Trump.  I suspect that he would find Trump almost beyond words.

This is not an easy book, written by “a truly learned man” as Tom Griffiths notes in his introduction. It demands intellectual chops and familiarity with an eclectic and erudite reading and artistic menu that strays far beyond my knowledge. I felt a bit intimidated by it, frankly.

Sourced from: a review copy from Monash University Publishing.

 

 

Quarterly Essay 67: ‘Moral Panic 101’ by Benjamin Law

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It’s profoundly depressing that this Quarterly Essay, released last week, should immediately trigger reference to the Same Sex Marriage survey being run through the ABS between September and November this year.  This is because the initial ‘No’ case advertisement focussed not on the question of whether the definition of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples, but instead on the Safe Schools program in schools. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has further muddied the waters by encouraging anyone who is uncomfortable with Political Correctness to vote ‘No’.  It’s wandering quite some distance from the question of whether two same-sex people who love each other are allowed to marry.

Benjamin Law’s Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101 was written before the High Court gave the go-ahead for the survey. His essay is not about same-sex marriage. It is about the Safe Schools Program, and the lengthy and detailed campaign conducted by Murdoch’s Australian newspaper against it. He traces the history and genesis of the Safe Schools program, created in response to the distress and suicide rates of GLBTQI students, and its uptake throughout Australia.  He then looks at the ‘poison’ of the campaign against it, spearheaded by the Australian Christian Lobby and facilitated and driven by the Australian which somehow, in the reams and reams of print devoted to the topic, never once spoke to a student.  Law begins his essay with the suicide of thirteen-year-old schoolboy  Tyrone Unsworth, who took his own life after sustained bullying over his sexuality.  He ends it at Minus18’s annual formal for GLBTQI students. Law’s focus is on children: just as the Safe Schools debate should be.

So why then the link between this book and  Same Sex marriage? It’s because the ‘No’ advocates opened their campaign with an advertisement, which features three women, including Cella White, who claimed that her son was told that he could wear a dress to school.  Law knows Cella White. As he points out in his essay, her claim was rebutted at the time of her airing it (January 2016), and as far as I am aware, no other parents or students have stepped up to verify her accusations. That hasn’t stopped Cella White being featured in this advertisement in September 2017.

The calls to de-register the doctor who also appeared in the ‘No’ ad alongside Cella White are wrong. But Cella White is wrong to make this incorrect claim, and this should be called out- loudly and repeatedly. Law does it in this book, and Sean Kelly did so in his article ‘Welcome to the No Case‘ in a recent Saturday Paper.  Chrys Stephenson has been doing some interesting investigating into the links between American evangelical religion and the Same Sex Marriage debate, too.

This Quarterly Essay is not about the SSM survey, but because of the advertising campaign prompted by the ‘No’ side, it has been drawn into the whole debate.  It is a good and, unfortunately, very timely read.

A video of Benjamin Law talking about his Quarterly Essay: