... And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsWhen it comes to politics, Nick Dyrenfurth loves the stink. This is probably why he wrote this. Like Tony Abbott, he's one of those people who doesn't know who he is unless someone is kicking him in the head.
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
- Shakespeare Macbeth Act V, Scene V
How is it possible to perceive a political environment hallmarked by "relentless negativity" and "sleaze and smear" in an even remotely positive light?This is the wrong question to ask. The question that should be asked is illustrated in the second paragraph:
The tumult and shouting of Parliament masks a not-inconsiderable bipartisanship. Just last week, as political watcher Malcolm Farr notes, 11 bills requiring cross-party agreement passed through the House of Representatives.It isn't only the bipartisanship that is "not inconsequential", but the issues covered in that legislation that costs millions of dollars and affects many, many Australians. Farr's employer, and Dyrenfurth's publisher, are to blame for focusing on the inconsequential stink rather than the issues at hand.
There is, from a Labor partisanship point of view, a story to be told about how great issues like school funding or disability support are dealt with in that legislation. The Liberal record in that area is also (to use Dyrenfurth's fusty construction, a sign of someone who's listened to way too many Bob Carr speeches) "not inconsequential". Journalists worried about balance need only people from both sides who know their stuff, and the strength and judgment to realise that a bit of staged stink is likely to be a distraction rather than the essence of politics.
Not so Dyrenfurth:
Instead of lamenting politics and its practitioners, we should celebrate parliamentary hostilities ... In any case, partisan brutalities have ever been thus. One of the more heated passages in Australian political history occurred [when] ... Deakin formed a new ministry in June 1909, but at the next election, in April 1910, Fisher became the first majority Labor prime minister in the world after a landslide victory. The nine-month period between "fusion" and the election was hallmarked by vitriolic debate and personality politics. Labor attacked and obstructed the governing fusionists at every opportunity.During that ten-month period, Deakin began the process of equalising wages for similar work performed in different parts of the country. He secured the first Commonwealth-State funding agreement. Planning for the defence of Australia, including commissioning ships for the Royal Australian Navy (officially founded in 1911 under the Fisher Government), was instigated under Deakin's fusion government. Not bad for someone supposedly "all gab and no spine"; Deakin had used office for the benefit of the nation to a far greater extent than The Worker, or Dyrenfurth, could bear to give him credit.
Deakin was the target of unprecedented abuse.
Many of the achievements credited later to Fisher and Labor were measures they had failed to block. (When Labor people later joined with Fusionists, were they deserting the fold or returning to it? Answers on my desk by Friday).
All parliaments in Australia had been built with press galleries pre-installed, since the NSW Parliament opened for business in 1856. The difference between Deakin's time and ours is that the newspapers of the time reported on what was done by Parliament rather than the sound-and-fury of what was said. Not so with latter-day denizens like Farr and Akerman, who take the facile sizzle-rather-than-the-sausage approach, which also suits sound-and-fury enthusiasts like Dyrenfurth.
Fun facts about protagonists of that time quoted approvingly by Dyrenfurth:
- Conservative leader Sir William Lyne was referred to by Deakin's biographer J A La Nauze thus: "Lyne continued to rage and roar; he was an angry man who knew no other methods of expressing his feelings."* Remind you of anyone?
- At the time of his outburst about people leading double lives, Frank Anstey was a barely functioning alcoholic. Colourful racing identity John Wren enriched himself at the expense of Anstey's constituents; Anstey, for whatever reason, never felt the need to bring Wren's sly-grogging, backyard-abortion, gaming racket to the attention of authorities. A conspiracy theorist about international finance, and a vicious anti-Semite, Anstey left politics and made a fortune from financial speculation. You can see why Dyrenfurth would quote such a man about 'double lives'.
Rhetorical violence was routinely practised by both sides during the 20th century. Yet whether it was the titanic debates over military conscription during World War I, the trauma of the Great Depression or the heated emotions produced by the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government, our democracy has survived and prospered.The difference is that the "rhetorical violence" in those debates was directed to the issues, rather than away from them. During the debates over military conscription during World War I, the issues were the rights of free men and the right of the state to commandeer their service (and their lives). They were not a smokescreen for, or subordinate to, the goings-on in the Labor Party, as they would be for latter-day reporters ("Mr Anstey has declared his full support for Mr Hughes, but senior Labor sources ...").
Partisanship is a sign that politics matters after all.
... my hunch is that the same folks who lament the supposed ideological convergence of the major parties are also the first to complain at the slightest whiff of partisanship.No point in just excreting a hunch, Nick; that's what bloggers are for.
The irritation with latter-day partisanship comes not with the issues themselves.
The lobbying for more resources on mental health by Professors McGorry and Mendoza is both passionate and well-informed. Occasionally it is covered by journalists, on what they call "slow news days". The failure of those advocates to get their message across is not because they have been defeated in debates by countervailing arguments that are no less passionate or well-informed. It is because non-issues like Gillard-AWU or Thomson-HSU or Slipper-Ashby occupy the attention of Farr, Dyrenfurth and others, because of all the colour-and-movement that make more measured observers suspicious. This focus on colour-and-movement then means decision-makers must deal with non-issues rather than being able to focus on real issues.
Not being able to switch to real issues in Australian life, Dyrenfurth flicks the switch to high emotion:
Perhaps a little perspective might help. The current 18-month Syrian civil war, roughly coinciding with our domestic political rancour, has claimed the lives of an estimated 45,000 people, at least half of which were civilians slaughtered by their own government.None of those people died because an old flame of Bashar al-Assad might have played fast and loose with other people's money, nor because he exchanged off-colour SMSs with his staff. The "little perspective" Dyrenfurth is offering is clearly not enough.
That war has displaced 700,000 people. If even one per cent of that number ends up seeking asylum in Australia, Scott Morrison will have conniptions. Nick Dyrenfurth will not be able to welcome those people, gainsaying Morrison in the name of partisanship, because Labor doesn't do that stuff any more.
It is a dreadful slander on our democratic traditions and on the very real needs of our social institutions today to say that the confected outrage of media campaigns is the same as, or a substitute for, policy debate in this country. MSM journos report on what they wanna report on and anyone who doesn't like it can just just suck it up. Because those who provide us with information are focused away from debates of substance and import, any contribution to those debates is dismissed by Dyrenfurth, Farr and others as "ill informed", and thus the poverty of public debates through the mainstream media is reinforced. If politics is your sport, an arena where you can just cheer and boo like an ape, the complexities of debate are only going to get in your way. But when you're just hungry for stink, admit it: that's the way you like it.
* J A La Nauze Alfred Deakin Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1979: p. 577. Forget Dyrenfurth's book, this one is better.
Note: I offered the above to The Sydney Morning Herald to publish as a response to Dyrenfurth, which they declined.