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‘The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics’ by Katharine Murphy QE 79

2020, 98 p

Journalism has long been described as the first draft of history and that’s certainly the case with Katharine Murphy’s latest Quarterly Essay The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics. The arrangements for the Quarterly Essays are usually locked in a year ahead of time, and Katharine Murphy thought at first that she would be writing a profile of Australia’s unexpected Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. But in this Year of Madness, events overtook her and instead of writing an essay based solely on his personality, she interweaves it with a chronology of the unfolding of the COVID pandemic and the politics it has engendered.

No matter where she stopped this essay, things would have continued to change. As it is, her essay starts with her interview with Scott Morrison during “some of the last hours in which Morrison hoped the second wave in Victoria could be avoided”. Events have moved on since then, and so too the civility that marked the for-public-consumption ‘unity’ of Morrison’s National Cabinet of Prime Minister and Premiers, which has sidelined Parliament, the Opposition and the usual cabinet processes. The gloves are off now. Since she wrote this essay, Victoria’s second wave has quite rightly come in for criticism, but Morrison is now cheerleader for opening borders and patting the head of Liberal-run NSW, suggesting that deep down Morrison really is Prime Minister for New South Wales. She doesn’t mention the COVID Commission Advisory Board, headed by none other than resources businessman Nev Power, and its championing of a gas-led recovery.

If her aim was to paint a portrait of Scott Morrison, even she would admit that she has not been particularly successful. The emphasis on the pandemic has pushed any further consideration of Morrison’s character offstage. I have learned nothing about his education, his life before politics, or his position in the party. His route to the Prime Ministership is left unexamined. Apart from his Pentecostal faith, which is off-limits for reporters, the Morrison she portrays is a pragmatic and transactional shape shifter. He learned from his much-criticized inertia with the bushfires, where he couldn’t actually do anything. He’s certainly into doing now, but curiously absent when things go wrong.

So much has changed for us in the last nine months that it’s hard to keep track of the trajectory, and her tracing through of the early response to news of Wuhan is valuable as history. But her essay ends, as the title suggests, in an uncertain way. Pragmatism, in the absence of anything else, is amorphous.

Murphy doesn’t say this, but I suspect that Morrison is more ideological than she suggests, and I think that we will see it in the budget that awaits us. But for that, and for any real sense of how this pandemic has changed us, we will just have to wait.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: my Quarterly Essay subscription.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Six degrees of separation: From ‘The Turn of the Screw’ to….

It’s the first Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. The rules of the meme are here. In October the starting book is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw which I confess to not having read. But I gather that it’s about a governess – and I have read about governesses, so off I go!

The first governess I thought of was Caroline Newcomb, who shifted across from Hobart to Port Phillip in 1836 to act as governess for the (in)famous John Batman’s family in the very early days of Melbourne’s settlement. She ended up in Geelong, where she met Annie Drysdale, and together the two women formed a partnership to run sheep on the the 10,000 acre Boronggoop property on the Barwon River as women squatters – certainly a novelty at that time. Their lives are described in Miss D. and Miss N. where Bev Roberts edits and annotates Anne Drysdale’s diaries.

Sometimes I’m a bit of a purist with my historical fiction, but I love it when a novelist does the research then subverts it completely. This is the case with Peter Mews’ Bright Planet, which takes its name from a real ship that often appeared in the Port Phillip Shipping News columns. It’s set in a Melbourne known as Bareheep in the early 1840s, complete with a mixture of historic and fictional characters, and like Robyn Annear’s Bearbrass , it’s a real hoot.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries uses astrological principles as an organizing structure for her sprawling (and too long, in my opinion) book about the New Zealand gold rush in Hokitika. It’s a bit like a great big Victorian door-stopper of a book with myriad characters. I thought that it was technically clever, but just too long-winded.

Think New Zealand, and think Janet Frame. Owls Do Cry was her first novel, a thinly disguised autobiography, and it is often considered to be New Zealand’s first modernist novel. It’s a startlingly original book, dealing with mental illness and it still packs a punch after more than 60 years.

Speaking of owls, I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven is a quiet, meditative book about a young priest who, unknown to him, has only a few years left to live. He is sent to minister to a small Indian village, where Christianity, commercialism and the outside world are encroaching on the traditional myths and practices that the villagers share with him. It’s a beautifully written book, but a bit ponderous.

Not at all ponderous is Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing. It is a series of tales set around an Aboriginal mission in far northern Australia with the Mission mob, the Catholic clergy, trying to convert the Bush mob who lived just outside the Mission. The Bush mob move back and forth between the arbitrary strictures and efforts of the clergy and their own more grounded life outside. They are clear-eyed about the hypocrisy and smallness of these white priests and nuns, but they are also painfully aware of the degree of control that the mission has over their lives. It is imbued with a quick, cutting, deft wit that overlays anger and sorrow.

And so that brings me to the end of my chain. It seems that with the exception of one book, I’ve stayed mainly in the Southern Hemisphere this time!

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 September

Heather Cox Richardson . In her History and Politics Chat of 15 September, she picks up on the claim that mass hysterectomies were being performed on women in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement_ hospitals without informed consent. She is not absolutely convinced, given that it is just part of a much longer complaint about the COVID response in ICE facilities, and it did not come through established whistleblower channels. Nonetheless, she does go on to talk about the eugenics movement in America, and the use of forced sterilization among indigenous and disabled settings. After answering some other questions, she also talks about why she is so concerned about ICE agents and other forces controlled by the Dept. of Homeland Security

Then on 24 September, with RBG’s death, the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, and Trump’s ambivalence about accepting the result of the election, she tries to soothe things down a bit. She warns not to accept whatever result is announced on Election Night, because it will not be the final result. She also advises that we think about how we, individually, will act on principle and non-violently after the election. She then talks about the Supreme Court and the threats to American democracy.

And in the Thursday History of the Republican Party on 27th August Part 13, she picks up again on Ronald Reagan, who racked up debt, prompted the Great Divergence in wealth between the rich and poor, and drew on the cowboy, individualistic motif as imagery, especially with the Iran/Contra affair- whoever thought THAT was a good idea? (She explains it well). George H. W. Bush, who was really more of a traditional New Deal type of Republican was forced to court the Movement Conservatives to be elected, even promising ‘Read my lips, no new taxes’ (a cowboy trope again).

The Real Story (BBC) What everyone wants to know: When Will We Get a COVID-19 Vaccine? An epidemiologist, the chief executive of the Wellcome Trust and the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology, the Senior Vice President responsible for Research & Development at Inovio Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, California, and a familiar voice, Chris Smith, Consultant virologist and lecturer at the University of Cambridge and presenter of ‘The Naked Scientists’ podcast

The History Hour (BBC) Prohibition in India. How Indian women in the 1990s campaigned to stop the sale of alcohol in the state of Andhra Pradesh to protect women from domestic violence and safeguard family finances. The history of America’s healthcare system, how the UN was eventually persuaded to apologise for the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti and the horror of being caught up in one of the most notorious hi-jackings of the 1970s, plus the birth of Reddit, one the world’s most successful websites.

Start the Week (BBC) ‘The Radical Agenda’ has Rachel Holmes, the author of a recent biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, Owen Jones who has recently published a book about the Corbyn election and why it went so wrong, and Conservative columnist Danny Finkelstein (although he says that he argues for ‘moderation’, not ‘conservatism).

America if you’re listening (ABC) One of the things we have to grudgingly admit is that Trump hasn’t launched America into a war yet, even though North Korea and Iran have both looked pretty dicey. How close did Trump get to nuclear war looks at the influence of John Bolton whose recent book might have provided comfort for anti-Trumpers, but Bolton himself always was a war-mongering official.

Science Friction (ABC) has a three part series Click-Sick about medical misinformation on the internet. Part 1 Why Sharing isn’t always Caring looks at the family friction that can arise when some members of the family trawl dodgy medical pages. A bit ho-hum.

In Our Time (BBC) Oh good, new episodes! I don’t really know much classical history at all, so I was interested in this podcast about Pericles. He was seen as a bit of a class traitor at the time, as he came from one of the best families, but really promoted democracy. He was elected fifteen times, gave a famous speech at our version of Anzac Day, and ended up dying of the plague, which broke out under his watch.

I hear with my little ear: 9th-16th September

Heather Cox Richardson Her History and Politics Chat of 8th September asked: why are the Republicans so good at breaking things down and explaining them simply and the Democrats so poor? She partially agreed. She then explored the question of “Is democracy good? Why is democracy good?”, coming to much the same conclusion as Churchill “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”. She also looked at campaign funding (which she has covered previously) and noted that Trump started his 2020 campaign almost as soon as he was sworn in. This means that for the past four years, he has been able to hold rallies with selected audience, and more importantly, have his legal bills paid.

Her History of the Republican Party of 20th August looked at Ronald Reagan, and the rise of ‘western’ tropes (e.g. RR dressing up as a cowboy, prairie dresses, even Star Wars as a modern version). The Movement Conservatives were still active. Reagan was all over the shop in terms of tax cuts and spending.

The Real Story. Each night, I am stunned by the number of new cases in India. The commentators in India’s COVID-19 Challenge all came from fairly entrenched positions e.g. the BJP commentator had nothing but praise for Modi’s government; one of the women brought everything back to Modi’s decision to lay the foundation stone for a new temple to Lord Ram on the site of the Babri mosque, destroyed by Hindu mobs in 1992. Still, all rather sobering.

America, Are You Listening? In this episode, The surprising story of how Donald Trump took on the NRA, Matt Bevan looks at Trump’s relationship with the NRA. Surprisingly (especially for a Republican President), Trump initially stood up to the NRA and for a moment it seemed that the stars were aligning to end the madness of America’s ‘sacred’ relationship with guns: an unconventional President, a willing House, public revulsion at mass shootings, and the NRA in internal disarray. But somehow, and for some reason, all that seems to have gone away.

Dan Snow’s History Hit Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages looks at the practice of making a pilgrimage within England – a rather flexible activity it seems, as you could pay someone to do it for you, just thinking about it counted as actually doing it and Saints Days could be shifted around to take advantage of better weather. The podcast features Dr. Sheila Sweetinberg.

And while we’re talking about religious things, Stealing from the Saracens: Islam and European Architecture looks at the Muslim (and particularly Syrian) architecture brought back by merchants, pilgrims and crusaders to the Holy City, and it was incorporated into what we see as the quintessentially European ‘gothic’. The interviewee, Diana Darke, comments on the expungement of Syrian influence in the mosque at Cordoba, something that I noticed too. Although I think that it is too strong, and that the Christian additions are mere excrescences.

Outlook (BBC) In Sewing to Protest in a Chilean Prison Camp, London-based Jimena Pardo visited a display of handcrafts created by Chilean prisoners in Pinochet’s prison camps. It gave her the courage to ask her mother, Cristina about her own prison experience- something that she had never spoken about before. This is Cristina’s story, when as a medical student and mother of a young baby, she and her husband were swept up in a raid and imprisoned. (There’s a really good video about the imprisonments and the exhibition here, in English)

Rough Translation (NPR) American Surrogate 30 months later picks up on a program from 2017 where an American woman agrees to act as a surrogate for a Chinese couple. The American woman, who hoped to have a friendship with the couple when they returned to China with their baby, was stunned when the Chinese woman said that she would not tell their child of the surrogacy arrangement. This catches up with them 3 years after the birth, which had been more difficult than they anticipated because of eclampsia .

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 September 2020

99% Invisible. When I went to Spain quite recently, I was told and read that the Spanish Civil War was still a topic best avoided. This episode, Valley of the Fallen, talks about the memorial constructed by Franco, using prisoner labour, which he envisaged as a huge monument to honor the achievements of “our crusade,” and the “heroic sacrifices of our victory.”  It was only when Spain’s allies in the Cold War became uneasy about the size and divisiveness of the memorial that Franco announced that it would be for all the fallen. But once again, being Franco, ordered that bodies be exhumed from mass graves  and taken to The Valley of the Fallen for reburial. Many of these bodies were of his enemies, and they were disinterred and thrown together in a way that they could not be identified. When he was buried there, it became a site of pilgrimage for fascists. I had heard that he had been exhumed last year and shifted elsewhere. I hadn’t heard that many of the families of his victims are trying to get the other bodies exhumed and identified. Post-Franco Spain had agreed to forget about the crimes in a ‘Pacto del Olvido’ – a pact of forgetting- that silenced any memory of the past. But some things cannot, and should not, be forgotten.  The website has a transcript with videos (in fact, it’s probably better than the podcast).

Heather Cox Richardson. Her History and Politics Chat of 18th August started off by looking at De Joy and his removal of the sorting boxes. She then moved briefly to Trump’s convention trick of ‘pardoning’ Susan B. Anthony. The major part of her chat this week is about the republican-lead Senate report into Russian interference in the last election- something that made my eyes goggle, and which seemed to disappear completely afterwards (as no doubt the Republicans intended by releasing it during the Democratic convention). I think she must be tired because this was a bit disjointed, although I think that she was also being very careful about what she said.

Her chat of 25 August was interrupted by a storm! In the fifteen minutes that she recorded,  she responded to a question over whether it was unusual that the Republican National Convention had not released a policy platform but just recycled the 2016 one. Yes, it was unusual she said. She noted that there are three groups within the Republican party: Trump supporters, anti-Trumpers and a group with four letter names who oppose government action of any sort- Rand, Cruz and I can’t remember the others (and neither can she).  And then BANG! The power went off.

The following 1 September she talked about Social Security and Unemployment Insurance and whether Trump really would get rid of the payroll tax through which these programs are funded (as distinct from deferring it, which he has already done). Yes, he would,  because that would be consistent with the ideological position that many in the Republican party, if not Trump himself, endorse.  She was then asked why Donna Hylton, author, criminal justice activist and convicted for 25 years for second-degree murder and kidnapping, appeared at the Democratic Convention. Her answer- because she had done her time, and this is what rehabilitation looks like.

Her History of the Republican Party of 13 August is the one I have been waiting for: when the Republican party switched from the big-government, New Deal party to the individualistic, evangelical party that it is today.  This Southern Strategy took place between 1964 and the 1980s. She intended getting to Reagan, but instead ending up spending the whole session on Nixon. An interesting take on Watergate: Nixon had actively undermined LBJ’s peace talks in Vietnam, and Nixon was terrified that the Pentagon Papers would reveal this (they didn’t – they didn’t go up that far). And that was why he needed the ‘plumbers’ to find the dirt on Daniel Ellsberg and the Democrats in the Watergate building.

The Real Story (BBC) This program frightened the bejesus out of me. Why is QAnon going global looks at the the QAnon conspiracy theory that Mr Trump is leading a top-secret campaign to dismantle a global network of Satan worshipping cannibal paedophiles led by billionaires, celebrities and Democrats. It’s spreading in US, Europe and Latin America, right from President Trump through to evangelical churches. Really scary.

The Navalny ‘poisoning’ puts inverted commas around the word ‘poisoning ‘ as there is debate amongst these commentators about whether he was poisoned, and whether Putin was behind it. Yevgenia Albats (Russian investigative journalist), Sir Tony Brenton (former British Ambassador to Russia), Mary Dejevsky (former Times correspondent to Moscow), Vladimir Milov (opposition politian, Navalny adviser) and Sergei Markov (former member of the Duma from President Putin’s United Russia party) barely agree on a single proposition in this podcast.

America if You’re Listening (ABC) Russia If You’re Listening is back with a new name! This time Matt Bevan looks at the four year presidency of Donald Trump, starting off with What a hurricane taught Trump about being President. Trump handled hurricanes in Florida and Texas well but once it came to Puerto Rico….What did he learn? That when things are going badly, lie.

‘Berta Isla’ by Javier Marías


2017, 532 p.  Translated by Margaret Jull Costa


I’m not really into spy novels, but Berta Isla turns the spy novel on its head, because it’s not really about the spy at all. Instead, it’s about the people he (or she) leaves behind as another operation begins, another identity is adopted  and other deceptions are woven.

Tomás Nevison is Anglo-Spanish, and has a very good ear for languages and mimicry. While over in Oxford, he is ‘approached’ by a tutor who sounds him out about working ‘for the good of the Realm’. He shows little interest. He has his long-term girlfriend, and later wife, Berta Isla waiting for him in Madrid, and it has been just assumed that they will end up together, even though they both lose their virginity to someone else. But when Tomás finds himself accused of a crime he says he did not commit- charged by none other than Inspector Morse, no less!- he finds himself entrapped into working with MI6 after all.

And thus Tomás is launched into a strange half-world where he leaves his wife, Berta, and their children for years at a time. At first believing that he is away on business, Berta soon starts to suspect that Tomás’ other life is more shadowy than she could have imagined, especially when she comes into contact with other equally mysterious characters. She is unable to reach him: he reappears without warning, and leaves just as abruptly. Meanwhile, time goes on. Franco dies, the Northern Ireland Troubles rage, the Iron Lady has her Falklands Island victory, the Berlin Wall falls – and Berta waits.

And waits. And waits.  This is a long book – 532 pages- and I would estimate that half of it is just waiting. It’s a self-consciously literary work, with many references to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. It is told sometimes in the third person, and sometimes from Berta’s first person perspective. Yet, the narrative voice is very much the same – a  prolix, long-winded, introspective voice, where the self is constantly watching and monitoring, and where thought is much the same as the spoken word.

Its wordiness is not just in the content. The sentences are lengthy and labyrinthine, and strangely flat. By the end of the book, you are almost inured to the wordiness, which seems to just clang now, without meaning, not unlike Tomás and Berta’s lives.

I did find myself wondering half way through this book when and whether anything was going to happen. It probably could have been cut by half, without any loss of effect.  I saw the ending ahead of time, although I was unprepared for the hollowness that I felt – and that no doubt Marías intended  – when I finally got there.

My rating: 7.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 August 2020

Heather Cox Richardson In her History and Politics Chat of August 4, she returns to the question of the U.S. Postal Service, which she has dealt with earlier, and which has recently become a real issue facing the next election (in fact, she foreshadowed this quite some time ago). She then goes on to talk about why America doesn’t have a national childcare scheme (short answer- it’s ‘communism’ and Nixon rejected it). She encourages people to look at Jonathan Swan’s Axios interview with Trump and exhorts people to keep talking about the Russian Bounty scandal, because it’s important.

In the History of the Republican Party Part 9 video of 30 July, she talks about the liberal consensus that was formed when Eisenhower (Republican) took over from Harry Truman, who himself had taken over from FDR  and his New Deal. He challenged for the Republican nomination when the Republic party was in danger of being taken back to the big-business oligarchy direction under Robert Taft. Heather is obviously a bit of an Eisenhower fan (although she notes that she has been reminded that Eisenhower’s policies were not good for minorities).

Rough Translations I still really can’t believe, when I’m walking around my local shopping centre or in the park (which are the only two places I can walk) that we are all swathed in masks. In From Niquab to N95 two contradictory French laws are explored: the law that says you cannot cover your face, and the law that says you have to wear a mask. Interestingly, they couldn’t find a French woman who wore a niquab to interview, so they had to resort to Australian niquab-wearers instead.

Dan Snow’s History Hit. It’s strange to hear your own country’s history being told from the perspective of another country.  VJ Day: 75 years commemorates the end of hostilities against Japan. His first guest is a British historian (I wish that his show notes said who his guests were) who told this part of the war from very much a British/Empire perspective, where Australia is just one of a number of Far East and African countries fighting for Britain. He makes much of the Indian Ocean war – something Australia rarely focuses on- and Burma looms large. The second guest spoke about the Chinese war against Japan- something, again, which is not high in Australian historiography of WWII and the way that the Nationalists and Communists united to fight Japan- something that the rest of the world did not expect to happen.

Nothing on TV Robyn Annear has crept out of lockdown to talk about Mr Denning’s Umbrage. Mr Denning was a dance master, who ran Quadrille Assemblies in Melbourne in the mid-1850s, constantly battling to keep them ‘respectable’ and hounding his patrons through long advertisements in the Argus. I love this podcast. Narrated in her beautiful, slow Australian accent, there’s a chuckle in her voice and the pop of a champagne cork.

Rear Vision (ABC) How WWII changed Australia has three top-notch historians: Stuart Macintyre, Gwenda Tavan and David Lowe talking about the effect of WWII on Australian history in terms of the economy, immigration and foreign policy. Very good.


‘The Discomfort of Evening’ by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld


2020,   282 p. Translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchinson

Preamble: I read this because it was shortlisted for the Booker International. I am appalled that it won. Surely there is enough pain and unhappiness in the world.

Ten year old Jas lives on a Dutch dairy farm run by her strict Dutch Reformed church parents. I don’t know if she was disturbed before her family faced a tragedy, but she certainly is afterwards. Not just her: the whole family is cycling into a vortex of wordless despair. She is frightened that her father is going to leave; her mother has collapsed in on herself in grief; her brother is sadistic; her sister is in a similar place to Jas herself.

I spent most of this book flinching from its unrelieved misery and cruelty and self-abuse. Her parents’ Christianity is harsh and emotionally sterile, and it is juxtaposed against a world obsessed with bodily functions. The children are largely left to find their own way through the tragedy, and the depth of mourning over the loss seems unbalanced against the indifference with which the children are treated. In my mind the farm seemed cold, dismal and muddy, with no beauty in anything or anyone.

I found this a really disturbing book, which means that it will probably stay with me. I don’t know if I really want it to. It’s a debut novel: does this mean that it has succeeded? I suppose it does – and it has certainly attracted critical acclaim- but I felt like having a hot shower and seeking out a book to make me laugh, to remove the misery that clung to me as I finished it.

Rating: I have no idea. Would I recommend it? Only for the strong-stomached.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker International Prize.


‘QE 77 Cry Me a River’ by Margaret Simons


2020, 109 P.

I find that, on finishing a book, I usually take an image away with me and it tends to be that image that I remember later. Margaret Simons writes evocatively of the Murray-Darling river system in this Quarterly Essay: the variation of farming uses, the high cliffs overlooking a meandering river, the mirages of water in red plains, the sand dunes and crashing ocean at the South Australian end. But what I will take away is the image of an effigy of the then-Water Minister David Littleproud being thrown into the water at Tocumwal and left to bob his way down to South Australia. Fitted with a tracking device, the effigy had acquired glasses and a suit on the way, was fished out near Swan Hill and taken for a drive around Nyah before being launched again, probably to be caught on a snag further downstream. Who knows- he may be there still.

But this is probably the only light moment in this essay, which teases out the politics that make management of the water of the Murray-Darling river system such a wicked problem. Not only are four states involved, but even within New South Wales, there is a Lower Darling (more regulated) and Upper Darling (boom-and-bust) split. There are big bolshie “outspoken” personalities, like Chris Brooks from Barooga in N.S.W or cotton-industry lobbyist Ian Cole; spokespeople for different lobby groups; the quaintly-named Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder Jody Swirepik; indigenous traditional owners; academics like Peter Gell who has fallen out with former colleagues over a study he produced with them;  and politicians who have, for better or worse, left their fingerprints on the policy without actually effecting real change.  Are there baddies? Yes, the water thieves, and possibly some corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who have fallen under the eye of ICAC, and the NSW government, which is threatening to withdraw from the whole program. But, as cotton cultivators, almond growers, and farmers pointed out, people have only done what they have been allowed to do by governments and policy makers.

In the Murray-Darling Basin, the authorities joke, everyone downstream is a wastrel, and everyone upstream is a thief. Only I, the person drawing water in this spot, for these crops, in this way, truly understands the value of the water and how to use it. (p.5)

Dispute over the Murray-Darling was hardbaked into the 1901 Australian Constitution, when the states were given ownership and management of the water, with the Commonwealth having a limited role. The founding fathers left it to the High Court to determine the competing rights of each state- something that still has not happened.  The creation of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement under several Labor governments in 1987 took advantage of a narrow window of Commonwealth power to give effect to international environmental treaties. This environmental framing of reform continued with Turnbull’s Water Act in 2007, which relied for its constitutional validity on the international RAMSAR wetlands act, and it rather surprisingly passed in the dying days of the Howard government which expected (rightly) that it would lose. Despite all the argy-bargy that has followed, the Water Act still stands, with its rather contradictory aims of protecting the ecological values of ecosystems at the same time as promoting “economic, social and environmental outcomes”.

Under the free-market water licence reforms, the water could be unbundled from the land, and sold separately. With Penny Wong as Water Minister, many irrigators sold their water to the Commonwealth in the “Pennies from Heaven” buyback period. Tony Windsor used water politics as part of his deal with the Gillard government, and no sooner was the guide to the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan released, with its recommendation of 3000 to 4000 gigalitres of water returned to the environment, than everyone (including the government and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority itself) began backpedalling from it. A final figure of 2750 gigalitres was ‘fixed’ (literally), even though no-one thought was actually congruent with the science. With a change of government, Barnaby Joyce  moved water buybacks behind the curtain, and to his credit David Littleproud (he of the effigy) at least tried to hold it all together. The National Party in particular has not covered itself in glory but the chances of a Liberal party prising water from the cold dead hands of the Nationals is very unlikely.

This essay is told from a personal viewpoint, as Simons travels throughout the river system, but not in a geographically methodical way from headwaters to mouth. She interviews farmers, lobbyists, bureaucrats and academics, and spends lots of time on country roads, striding over paddocks, scrambling up dams, and in pubs.  After describing the plan and the politics, she starts at what she describes as “one of the saddest places in Australia”, the middle section of the Lower Darling around Wilcannia and Bourke. This is where we get the images of the fish-kills, and the government-purchased Toorale station. She then moves up into Queensland to Cotton Country, where floodwater harvesting has become a controversial practice, and where the ‘old school tie’ still matters. Then she goes down to the Murray that separates Victoria and New South Wales where, perversely, the water efficiencies encouraged by the plan have reduced the run-off which has fed the whole system. Finally, she ends up in South Australia, her own home state, where some believe that the attempt to ‘save’ the Murray should be abandoned and that the sea should be allowed to flood the lakes.

I’m not sure that there is a solution to the Murray Darling and I don’t think that Margaret Simons does either.  Her subtitle is “The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin”, which evokes the idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ where individual users, acting in their own self-interest, spoil the shared resource. The Plan, while not perfect, does exist, which in itself is an achievement. The sticking point is its implementation.  The Murray-Darling is never going to return to ‘before’ because it is already a heavy plumbed and engineered water course. She is not hopeful:

Rural Australia, no longer the heart of our national narrative, is too easily neglected. It has been governed piecemeal, and with cynicism, and the National Party has contributed to that. some of the producer groups have made positive contributions, and some have been aggressive and short-sighted- on the wrong side of history. Developing visionary policies for rural Australia would take courageous leadership and enlightened politics. It is hard to find much evidence of either in the history of the Murray-Darling Basin. The exception, perhaps, is the fact that we have a Basin Plan at all. (p. 102)

This essay is valuable for taking a whole-of-system approach, integrating the perspectives and realities of a river that crosses four states and even more landscapes. It includes personal perspectives as well as the politics, and it provides a good background for watching as the next steps in this sorry, conflicted saga play themselves out.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: My Quarterly Essay subscription

aww2020I have included this on the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


‘Cancelled’: Facebook series.


I have been absolutely loving the 10-part series ‘Cancelled’ that is screening on Facebook. Each episode goes for about 8 minutes or so. The whole thing was filmed on an i-phone by the three protagonists themselves (Luke, Maria and Luke’s mother Karen) in their Valencia apartment earlier this year, when Spain went down into a hard lock-down.

Luke Eve is a film director (and it shows) and he and his fiance, Spanish actress Maria Abiñana were planning their wedding in March. His mother Karen had arrived for the wedding, and was staying with them in their AirBNB apartment. As the deaths mounted, and the lockdown was announced, they felt that they had to cancel the wedding. Disappointed and frightened by the rising numbers of cases, they had to negotiate a new relationship with Luke’s mother in a confined space.

This is absolutely beautiful, intimate storytelling, released week-by-week in real time. This video here tells you how it was made. I originally started watching it for the subtitled Spanish, but it drew me in with its honesty and humility. It’s great.

Here’s the Facebook link: