16 June 2007

Not thinking

The Sydney Morning Herald ran a series of opinion pieces (not published online) called "A country that has stopped thinking". They are trying to assess our grounds for optimism in a changing world, some sort of update on The Lucky Country.

In the body of the piece it's clear that, well, some Australians are thinking, but this is being stifled by cost-focused and unimaginative leadership. He's right to lament the advances in solar energy and other innovations going offshore after being neglected here. Fair point, and the headline should have reflected these issues. It's just that Burrell and others should have strained at the bit more than they did, if for no other reason to show what's possible (and to negate all those nasty blogger accusations of stale and unimaginative writing coming from the MSM).
Keating ... was voted out not because he had run out of ideas, but because he had too many that were too big and remote from an electorate that yearned for a return to a quiet life.

Keating was exhausted, as I've said, and he couldn't translate that big-picture stuff to practical reality. He didn't show us how we could help, other than by voting for him, so we didn't. With Howard, he creates the impression that what little he does is sufficient, or even all that's possible, to match the wider vision (e.g. "practical reconciliation" with Aborigines).

Burrell skates over the national lack of imaginaion as a function of its head of state arrangements. Donald Horne and David Marr have gone into this in some detail, and this debate has not been settled for all time in 1999. It was germane here, it could have been with better writing, and Burrell et al and their employer should have weathered the storm from monarchists who'd actually help prove the wider point: the monarchy acts as a brake upon ambition.

Burrell notes but does not explain the "stoush" over broadband. Basically what's happening is that Telstra wants to roll out "broadband" such that it entrenches its pre-existing monopoly over capital, and the G9 (other telco providers) want to do so in a way that makes Telstra just another provider. The government is dithering over this, and is not willing to invest the sort of money necessary to roll out the infrastructure. This political dithering by both the incumbent Coalition and their Labor challengers is deplorable.

Noting the "stoush" is not enough. Nor is it good enough not to note that the Federal government is happy to run a rail line from Melbourne to Brisbane. Will changing land-use patterns in response to sustainable water use have ann effect on this project over the longer term? What effect will it have on Sydney, having all that produce from the NSW Central West diverted between Australia's second and third cities? How will it help Brisbane become second-biggest and Melbourne third? What if we ran a massive fibre-optic "spine" by the track? No thinking outside the box for Steve, oh no.

Burrell's comments on art demonstrate the kind of "poverty of ambition" he would rail against in others. It's not necessary to have films funded by government. The fact that Kenny was financed by a private company ought not be as disappointing as it was to Steve. Crocodile Dundee wasn't publicly funded - does that make it less Australian? The Matrix, on the other hand, was partly funded by government money. It was filmed in Sydney but only the most bland, generic streetscapes were used - it's hard to imagine that anyone would be motivated to visit Sydney after seeing that film.

Given that Kenny was centred on toilet humour, who else would have done it but a private company? It wasn't to everyone's taste, and it was commercially successful. These are two factors that should insulate it from (not always philistine) complaints about wasting taxpayer money, as with, say, Bastard Boys.

The same applies to films Burrell praises. Priscilla was about a bunch of people whose manic flamboyance drained them internally and affected those around them negatively as well. Muriel's Wedding was the story of a banal person, distinguished by nothing other than having her story told. Same with Strictly Ballroom, Petersen, the Bazza McKenzie films or even Jedda. Perhaps the reason why people seek out "reality" TV is to achieve this transcendence, hoping that others can reveal a core that they themselves can't get in touch with.

Why the focus on film, though? People seem convinced they cannot tell a story effectively unless they have at least $1m of taxpayer's money at their disposal. They're wrong, aren't they? Given years of consistently declining standards at the Archibald Prize, given repeated grousing about public sculpture in Australian cities, could those that know about these matters not generate a response that involves bitchiness - itself a sign of narrow-mindedness unworthy of Art?

Lisa Pryor should have done the piece ahead of Steve Burrell. This piece is witty and perceptive. She should have made the link that Richard Florida makes between being open to new possibilities and discernment in private life and extending that to economic activity. Maybe she could have, with more space. The SMH should also have made better use of Elizabeth Farrelly's oeuvre, too.

When economic pull from overseas is strong, cultural push is also strong, so we merely become wealthy enough to buy imported stuff (or local copies thereof). This is an important issue, made not by Burrell but by Pryor. When demand for raw materials from overseas is strong, the country tends to do as little as possible to resist it, and as little as possible to fully exploit it in terms of building infrastructure.

Incase you thought Burrell, Pryor et al represent a change of direction, the same old, lame old comes through from Michael Duffy. Duffy is right about the shifting and narrowing focus of the left, but the poor bugger probably finds a treasury of diversity among Albrechtsen, Devine and other members of the choir. It is not essential to be a Trotskyist, or even a Labor voter, to hope for more from Howard; it is perfectly possible to do so within the main stream of Australian life. This article is a symptom of the puzzlement with which Howard supporters regard increasing dissatisfaction with mediocre performance.
When the authors want to compare Australia with other countries, they often make out the worst cases: on freedom of speech the comparison is with the United States; on government response to climate change it could be Germany.

This is called benchmarking, Michael. Companies do it to lift their game, and those who love Australia compare it to the best in the world and dare hope for more that what's dished out to us.
With this approach it doesn't take long to portray Howard as the Saddam Hussein of the First World.

What, a long-standing American client who is now dead?

I used to be a Liberal because I thought they'd build infrastructure to vouchsafe our longterm prosperity; I left that party because I was wrong, they weren't serious at all. I thought that with all this push and pull, we'd become more grounded in who we are. I was wrong about that too, but I just can't give up hope that it may yet come to us.

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