Friday, July 30, 2010

'The next great Russian dancer'

is, they say, Ivan 'Rocket Man' Vasiliev, age 21.

He's currently dancing in London with the Bolshoi and I first heard his name on radio the other day, with an interview. Dancing makes him happy, he says, because it is his element. 'I am fish in water.'

More here.

In which recycling occurs

Back in 1994 I was writing a TV column for Eureka Street. Here's what I said about Laurie Oakes, whose weekly political interviews were the cornerstones of Channel Nine's now-defunct Sunday.

The 'political' interview often becomes a news event in itself, a focal and sometimes pivotal point in the affairs of government. While it purports to deal with the events of recent days, bits of it frequently end up in everybody's news bulletins on the following Monday night; constructed thus as 'news', it sometimes produces further consequences.

Keeping track of these unfolding causalities is disquieting. Among other things, they indicate just how much power Oakes has to help make things happen; his recent interviews have had a hand in the ebb of Ros Kelly's fortunes [remember Ros Kelly? -- Ed] and the flow of Bronwyn Bishop's. Remarks edited out of context, and then repeatedly re-broadcast both by Nine and by other stations, can have major consequences; and sometimes those remarks have been lured, coaxed or goaded out of reluctant ministerial mouths in the first place by strategies comparable in subtlety and sympathy to a well-aimed jackboot to the groin.

Cheryl Kernot, interviewed a week or two before Ros Kelly's resignation and taking a tough stand on accountability, is one of the few politicians I have ever seen remain unflustered by Oakes throughout an entire interview. Kernot, like Gareth Evans [ooh, prescience! -- Ed] but unencumbered by what Jane Austen would have called his uncertain temper, is both spectacularly well-informed and possessed of high-level debating skills; at one point she left Oakes speechless, sweetly but mercilessly showing him up through a hole in his own research.

One of the most noticeable features of this interview was the difference in its participants' rhetoric: Kernot's images and metaphors were those of consensus and integration, Oakes's those of strife and fracture. His language, illuminated by the difference, revealed his view of political affairs as essentially antagonistic, competitive and hierarchical; 'win' and 'lose' are two of his favourite words. This world view, like the medium through which it is expressed, is coercive; in shaping his questions according to it, Oakes builds whole suburbs of verbal dark alleys down which it becomes very difficult for his subjects not to go. Most politicians' terror of silence is such that a simple 'I don't accept the terms of your question' would never occur to them, even when that is clearly the case.

When Julia Gillard patiently said 'I don't accept your premise, Kerry' to Red Kezza on the evening of the day she became Prime Minister, in response to just such a begged question about the 'stabbing in the back' of Kevin Rudd, I whooped and hollered and applauded and frightened the cats. I'd been waiting (at least) sixteen years to hear a politician say that to a journalist.

Much of the rest of it also reads as though those sixteen years had never existed. Perhaps these are the glory days for which Oakes yearns, and that's why he's behaving the way he is now.

What's prompted me to dig this out of the filing cabinet is the news that Cheryl Kernot may be standing as an Independent for a Senate seat. Go Cheryl.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Far, far too much information

One particularly detestable bit of all-purpose politics-and-public-service jargon is getting a good workout during this limp election campaign period: 'roll out' as an all-purpose verb to mean either 'introduce', 'develop', 'implement', 'put into practice' or any one of half a dozen other specific activities depending on context.

But I can't help wondering whether The Australian's Cameron Stewart has seen it used this way before, whether he's decided to extend its meaning, and/or whether he actually checked this bit of copy before he filed it. Who knows, maybe he did it on purpose and thought it was funny. Here you go:

Mr Abbott pointedly opened Sunday's debate by reminding voters that he and his wife understood what it was like "to raise a family, to wrestle with a big mortgage, with grocery bills, with school fees".

And yesterday he rolled out wife Margie for the first time in the campaign.

Abbott has said publicly that he feels sex-starved when on the campaign trail, which is in itself far too much information. But I would pay a lot of money not to now have in my head a sequence of unwelcome images involving the rolling out of Margie. Really I would.

Monday, July 26, 2010

But then, as the cold winter's night began to close in ...

Opprobrious epithets

Mungo McCallum on the "debate" in today's Crikey is in form as fine as it ever was back in the day, when he was writing for the Nation Review and Whitlam was Prime Minister:
Abbott is apparently happy to be seen as a fraud and a poltroon, a shyster who cannot be trusted or believed and who stands for nothing. This, of course, is precisely the political cowardice of which he accuses Gillard, and on her record to date he has a point. But pots and kettles, people in glass houses, etc.

Of course the voters are the real losers. Never has the prime ministership of Australia been contested by such a pair of abject, craven, weak-kneed, whey-faced, chicken-hearted, lily-livered, jelly-bellied milksops.

There's no pleasing some people

Yeah see if they win it'll only be because she is a GURL so nyerdy nyer

Bernard Keane, in this morning's Election Special from Crikey, on last night's 'debate':
The only momentary interest came right at the finish. At the end of his closing address, Abbott said “so this election will determine whether the Prime Minister is to be elected by the people or by the powerbrokers. Whether Prime Ministers are to be chosen on the basis of the job they’ve done, or gender."

If Tony Abbott think[s] Julia Gillard became Prime Minister because of her gender, or that the only way she’ll win the election is if female voters reflexively vote along gender lines, then he really does have a problem with women, and not just a political one.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


One of the many lovely things about reading fiction for a living is that it tends to make you an armchair (time-)traveller. Just in the last few weeks I've read books set in the 1990s, the 1970s, the 1950s and the 1760s; books set in Scotland, Leningrad, Berlin and Buenos Aires, the Netherlands, the English Midlands, Chennai, Chicago and country Victoria, just off the top of my head.

Many of the novels I read for review are partly or wholly set in times and places of brutal regimes. One juxtaposes 1970s Argentina with the German Democratic Republic (so-called) of the same era. Another is set in Leningrad in 1952, where survivors of the wartime Siege of Leningrad are now living under Stalin, speaking in whispers, fearing their neighbours, watching their own every move. A third is partly set in India, where everything that happens is immediately politicised and a herpetologist knows better than to try to find out who it was, knowing that he would come home that night exhausted and therefore not thinking or moving quickly, who left a deadly snake in a basket on his verandah.

So every time I see people snarling and squabbling over Rudd v Gillard, or even over Gillard v Abbott, much less get irresistibly drawn into said squabbling myself, I think of a phrase that has been much in my thoughts ever since I first came across it, one that has had a calming effect on many occasions and has reminded me again and again how extraordinarily useful and powerful a psychoanalytic angle can be in explaining our behaviour to ourselves: 'the narcissism of small differences'.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Here's some folk wisdom garnered over a lifetime of dealing with my father (a dear man in many ways, but pure Id, and born without even a Volume switch much less an Off switch), with two of the blokes  from my chequered past, and now with five years' worth of blog discussions: if in an unguarded moment you are unwise enough to point out to an angry, aggressive man that he is being angry and aggressive, he will turn on you with the anger and aggression ramped up to the power of ten and say I AM NOT BEING ANGRY AND AGGRESSIVE!!!111!11!!

And he will genuinely believe that that is true.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Journalism fail x2

Can there be any profession apart from popular music in which the gap between the good and the bad is as wide as it is in journalism? In Australia, in the corner of intelligence, ethics and the cause of truth, we have journalists like George Megalogenis, Michelle Grattan, David Marr, Margaret Simons, Laura Tingle, you write your own list. In the opposing corner, we have, well, you write your own list. It'll be longer.

Yesterday two things stood out, journalism-wise, and neither of them was pretty. There was the serious issue of national political reporting, which Bernard Keane sums up brilliantly in this morning's special election edition of Crikey:

The media obsess about Kevin Rudd and then use their obsessing about it as evidence that Rudd is “distracting” from the Labor campaign.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, except that it wasn't at all ridiculous if you're an animal lover, here in Adelaide we had an exotic (and gorgeous, look) young macaw called Tambopata escape from the Zoo. It spent a day and a night flying from tree to tree around the Adelaide CBD and Parklands. Not only was it skittishly evading capture, and trying to get away from the magpies and crows that were attacking it, but it was also trying to get away from the media pack that was following it around frightening the bejesus out of it as they hustled and chattered and scampered and bumped each other out of the way every time it settled in a tree from which it might have been lured down by Zoo staff. By the time they finally caught the poor thing yesterday morning, the bird people from the Zoo must have been ready to throttle anything carrying a microphone or a camera.

If you go to that link and read the story you'll see a number of very, very Adelaide remarks in the comments thread:  among the expected gibes about murderous crows and so on, one punter observes 'Funny if the pandas ate it.'

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Which part of the phrase 'united nations' doesn't she understand?

I got an insight into the way that Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop 'thinks' tonight while listening to the ABC news on the car radio. It had been made known that Kevin Rudd had been offered a job with UN -- one that would involve no more than sitting on a panel that meets only a few times a year -- and Bishop was contributing her two cents' worth (I use the expression advisedly) of opinion.

She said she thought it could create a conflict of interest, which made me wonder whether she understands what that phrase means. (She didn't give an example of the sort of thing she meant.) In a sound bite not quoted in this news item but used in the radio bulletin, she also said that if Labor were to win the election and Rudd to be appointed Foreign Minister, she didn't see how it was possible for him to work for the UN without it undermining (not a direct quote: can't remember the actual word she used, but this is the gist of what she said) his work for Australia as Foreign Minister. Bishop gave the distinct impression that she regards the UN and Australia as both mutually exclusive and mutually hostile, and the UN as a sort of foreign country.

Bob Brown, by contrast a sensible and intelligent chap, said he thought it was a great idea.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Thursday whinge

Some dot points arising from the last 24 hours:
  • The Miles Franklin Literary Award is for a certain kind of novel. The criteria include specifics of subject matter: the book should address 'Australian life in any of its phases'. Whether or not one approves is immaterial: that phrase is in Miles Franklin's will.
  • 'Criteria' is the plural form of the singular noun 'criterion'. 
  • Trashing women for getting old and then turning round and trashing them again for availing themselves of surgical retread procedures is a particularly vile and stupid form of misogynist hypcrisy. NB misogyny is not practised only by men.
  • 'Antarctica' is neither spelled nor pronounced 'Antartica'.
  • If you have told a woman in her 70s and a man in his 80s that they must be available to speak on the phone to the Magistrates' Court at some point after 2.15, then you do not let them sit nervously waiting for a call for the rest of the afternoon and then tell them the next day, when one of them finally rings up to ask what's going on, that Oh yes, the hearing took place and the divorce went through, it was all very straightforward and we didn't need to ring you up.
  • At least one senior federal minister is in urgent need of media (re-)training.  
  • If someone orders a hot chocolate, you don't give them the one that just happens to be sitting around behind the counter. You make them a fresh one.
  • If you are a successful writer and someone asks you to write a Foreword for their book and you produce a languid, self-indulgent and equivocal two and half pages, you are doing the book more harm than good despite the fact that it has your name on the cover. If you didn't want to write an introduction, you should have just said no.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

His is bigger than yours

Thanks to Clementine Ford (aka Audrey Apple) for alerting me on Facebook to this extraordinary item about penis size.

You'd think it would have to be a joke, but they sound deadly serious to me. And you'd think that they'd be aware by now that penis size tends to vary depending on what you happen to be doing at the time, and if they're going to get a girl to measure their bits, then, well, you know.

Why do they want to know? And what do they plan to do with this information once they have it? It's already clear that neither of them trusts his girlfriend, or each other, so obviously this is a rocky quartet of relationships to start with. Have they given even a moment's thought to the effect this little exercise is going to have on their friendship? It looks to me as though what they really want is to never speak to each other again, but you'd think in that case they could just do it, in the Nike spirit, and save themselves the fifty bucks.

Men are weird.

Moving Australian working families forward with a great big new tax

Can anyone familiar with PR and/or media training please explain to me the reasoning behind advising pollies (for surely they must have been advised; they can't be doing anything this stupid off their own bat) to just keep plugging away with slogans despite the fact that it makes everyone in the country want to take to them with a baseball bat after they've heard it the first ten times or so?

Is there some deeply rooted belief that slogans will sink in if repeated often enough despite conscious resistance to them? I do not believe that this is true. None of them have sunk into me yet, nor into anyone with whom I've discussed it. Every time Kevin Rudd said Working Families I thought Christ this is a stupid slogan, it doesn't even make sense, unless you picture tiny tots being shoved up the chimneys or down the mines. Every time Tony Abbott says Great Big New Tax, all I think about is how pathetic and unrealistic people are who expect the guvmint to do stuff for them, like build roads and provide hospitals, with fairy dust or leprechaun money, and I redouble my commitment to paying tax even for stuff I don't personally approve of. (Someone who wants the guvmint to support opera needs to be pretty generous in her tolerance of supporting the Institute of Sport, after all.)

And now we have Julia Gillard chanting Moving Australia Forward, another bit of meaningless wankery. No, no, let's move Australia backwards. Eventually we'll bump into South Africa. (And won't that be fun.)

Gillard is a very very bright person and must be aware from her years in the law how easy it is to irritate and alienate the people you are talking to. She gave Working Families a fair old nudge herself when she was Deputy PM and there's obviously some heavy pressure coming at her from somewhere to keep this chanting up. But why? And from where? And why don't the pollies rise up in a bipartisan body and say No we're just not doing this any more, it makes us look like idiots? And who invents these mindless little choruses in the first place?

Saturday, July 10, 2010



Sad as it makes me to do so, and after a couple of unhappy days, I have to recommend this disturbing but persuasive piece from last week at The Drum Unleashed, unequivocally critical of Julia Gillard and her plans for asylum seekers, by former diplomat and peerless walker of the walk Bruce Haigh. It contains the words 'I was a people smuggler' and so he was; among other things he is the Bruce played by John Hargreaves in Cry Freedom, the friend of Steve Biko's who helped to smuggle Donald Woods out of South Africa -- though he did not, so far as I am aware, ever pocket a lot of money from desperate people to crowd them onto a leaky tub and push them out to sea.

I have the utmost respect for Haigh (apart from anything else, he's one of the funniest blokes I've ever met) and perforce take anything he says about refugees, asylum seekers or the subject of Australia in an international context very seriously, if for no other reason because he knows more about those things -- most of this knowledge from first-hand experience -- than anyone else I can think of of. And in this matter I fear he may be right. But I like the way he is keeping the emphasis -- as Gillard does herself -- on considering this country in the context of the region, and on the fact that seeing ourselves as a self-sufficient entity in a vacuum is a big part of several different national problems. About where Gillard's actually going with this, I can only hope he's wrong. Or, at the very least, too harsh.


Those expressing outraged surprise at current Labor Party policy on asylum seekers, such as it is, must be harbouring what I would argue is in 2010 not much more than a nostalgic fantasy indulged in by people either too young, too uneducated or too deeply in denial to know or remember that it was Paul Keating's government that first introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers, much less that the Australian Labor Party is traditionally the bastion of institutionalised racism in this country. If you don't believe me, you have only to google the phrase 'White Australia Policy'.

It's one of the tragedies of the Australian cultural/soft left that they -- we -- stupidly persist in expecting the Labor Party to be in lockstep with us on things like feminism, internationalism, refugee advocacy, cultural pluralism, the arts, and intellectual practices and pursuits. South Australians in particular are eternally re-bewildered to find it's not, because we remember Don Dunstan. One had hoped that Gillard might remember him too.

But Dunstan was an aberration. By and large the ALP don't follow that pattern, they never have, they never will, they never said they would, and it's kind of mad to expect them to. In the leadup to this year's SA state election my mate Darcy forcibly opened my eyes to a truth I had been avoiding: SA Labor was openly disregarding one of its support bases, the one to which we all at coffee that morning (only some of us were sipping lattes, however) belonged: a loose affiliation of artists, intellectuals, academics, writers, journalists and left-leaning professionals who wanted Labor to win the election for the usual reason -- so that the other mob wouldn't get in -- but were frankly and often stridently critical of the way they were going about it. As Julia Gillard and before her Kevin Rudd have done, SA Labor openly signalled its determination to capture the middle, at the expense of our particular margin, with the sort of broad populism that, in SA, tends to focus on phrases like 'tough on law and order' and promises to lock up the bad guys and throw away the key.

When you think about that, it's not so different from most of the asylum seeker policies this country has thus far come up with: in both cases, it's a matter of fostering an 'us and them' mentality, and then simply assigning virtue to Us and the other thing to Them. Or if you want to look at it psychoanalytically, think of it as a Kristevan rejection of impurities, a violent expulsion of the Other from the boundaries of the civic or the national self: what Judith Butler calls 'the process by which Others become shit.'


I have always been, and albeit with deepening reservations remain, a fan of Julia Gillard's. Her wit, her intelligence, her easy articulateness, her openness and her preternatural calm all appeal, and seem to me to be the attributes of an astute politician and a proper grown-up. I think a lot of the angst over the manner of her ascension is to do with the histories or personalities of the people freaking out about it, who seem mainly to be either (a) the abovementioned idealisers of the ALP, (b) men, (c) Queenslanders who feel that their boy Kevin has been done over (whereas some of us think that he appeared to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and that if he was done over then he was done over just in time), and/or (d) people with a deep and abiding hatred of the NSW Right who persist in citing that entity as the 'faceless men' behind Gillard's successful challenge when it actually seems to have been two Victorians, a South Australian and Mark Arbib. (And if you do a Venn diagram of that (a)-(d) list, you can see huge areas of overlap.) All the simplistic nonsense in the media about 'backflips' on a proposed possible centre in Timor Leste can be disregarded once you've read the text of her original speech, which says exactly what she says it says.

All the same, her attack (in the musical sense) on and subsequent handling of the asylum seeker question has been her weakest spot so far: an ACME Instant Asylum-seeker Policy. Just add water. Seawater. Lots and lots of seawater. I'm still trying to work out who Wyle E. Coyote is in this scenario, but I gravely fear that it is Gillard herself, and that she will eventually be squashed flat by a giant rock that she made herself and didn't throw away soon enough.


Bruce Haigh calls Gillard 'wooden' (can't see it, myself, perhaps because she is so very much less wooden than the two PMs before her), 'self-involved' (probably, but who ever got to the Lodge without that?) and 'unimaginative', which I would concede only beyond the point where it starts to mean 'not visionary'. Elsewhere, on and offline, Gillard is being accused by some elements of the Left of pandering to 'middle Australia', 'bogans', 'rednecks', 'sheeple' and 'window-licking hordes', and is being reviled for having acknowledged the existence of these alleged groups without actually damning them to hell in the process. It's my understanding that by these epithets the commenters are referring to the majority of the population. That is, those most loudly proclaiming their own virtuous leftitude are doing so by expressing their hatred for the masses and their contempt for the democratic principle.

As well as being accused of 'dog-whistling', a term that people are throwing around with gay abandon but apparently no understanding of what it actually means, Gillard is also being abused for -- wait for it, are you ready for this? -- being clever, and for wanting to win the election.

Oh, quite right. Obviously, what we really need is a stupid Labor leader who will lose.

And you know who'll be in charge then, don't you.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Read, Think, Write -- new post

Because I'm going to get this blog going properly if it kills me.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

You want me to cook what now?

I don't watch MasterChef, for the excellent reason that the telly is borked and there's no time to get organised with a new antenna and shifting the furniture around and blah de blah. Clearly I don't care about TV as much as I thought, or all else would have been swept away before the dire emergency of not having one, so there you go. One continues to learn things about oneself even at my age.

I have no doubt that once I get the TV situation sorted I'll be glued to MasterChef whenever it's on, but in the meantime I need someone to explain this dish to me.
Each was given three and a half hours to cook 120 raspberry, beetroot and black olive macarons and assemble them on a cone reminiscent of Zumbo's 2009 croquembouche, which terrorised contestants in season one.
Macarons hold no terrors for me, nor am I scared of scale. But my understanding of the chemistry of a macaron is that sugar is kind of central. Am I alone in thinking that 'raspberry, beetroot and black olive macarons' sound utterly disgusting? (And they look even worse than they sound.) Can someone who knows more than I about contemporary cuisine please explain?

Monday, July 5, 2010

This is hilarious

Memo to the Liberal Party: if you want to sell something to women, enlisting the aid of the aggressive, amoral, antifeminist dick-wavers in their 20s who tend to abound in PR and advertising is probably not a fabulously good way to go about it.

That would be the case with any product you were trying to sell. But when the product you're trying to sell is Tony Abbott, well, think of a number and double it.

The party is understood to have appointed Splash Consulting, an agency that focuses on marketing to women, to conduct research in up to eight key marginal seats where women have been identified as crucial to a swing against the government.
And I bet it's cost them a squillion bucks and we don't need to ask where that money came from, do we now. And yet, I can think of a foolproof way of selling Tony Abbott to women voters and the Liberal Party is very welcome to my advice for free:

Give him a head transplant.


The language of deception

It's been a week and a half since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in what was, contrary to much of the hostile commentary and despite the involvement of certain less than savoury characters, an orderly takeover from a PM who couldn't even muster enough numbers to make a show of meeting a challenge, and who was, as all who have read Robert Manne's detailed analysis in the current issue of The Monthly will be aware, in a state of deepening crisis before Gillard's challenge.

All the same, Gillard was accused on many if not all sides of 'stabbing Rudd in the back'.

In that week and a half I've been seeing a great deal of anti-Gillard commentary from people who until two weeks ago were her biggest fans. Obviously they wanted her in charge until she actually took charge, and frankly I think that's a bit suspicious in itself. Now that she has made her position clearer on asylum seekers, and believe me I'm not super thrilled about it either (despite the fact that I think she may actually be doing something else, something we haven't seen from federal politicians before), she's getting some hysterically abusive flak around the traps for what people are calling 'dog-whistling'.

I have my own theories about why some people are so emotional about Gillard and I'm not going to air them here, but as is my wont I'd like to focus on the vocabulary that's being thrown around. First of all, 'backstabbing', which implies sneaky, underhanded deception and creeping up on people who trust you, when they're not looking.

How was it backstabbing? Gillard did not go behind Rudd's back at any point. She has always been his obvious successor. He obviously did not trust her or anyone else; indeed he was so paranoid and untrusting that she had to learn from reading the paper that her (up to that point repeatedly tested and demonstrably iron-clad) loyalty had been questioned and checked up on by Rudd's confidante and golden boy chief of staff Alister Jordan, which hardly suggests that Rudd was 'not looking'. When Bill Shorten, Mark Arbib et al urged her to challenge Rudd for the leadership, she insisted that proper open soundings be taken on the Caucus numbers. She openly challenged Rudd for the leadership, and she won.

So say she stabbed him if you must, but if she stabbed him at all, she stabbed him in the chest.  There may have been ruthlessness, but there was no deception.

And as for 'dog-whistle' -- I'm starting to wonder whether city folks actually understand this metaphor. A dog-whistle is a thing that humans beings can't hear, sounding at a frequency that only dogs can hear. It was used during the Howard era to describe coded remarks that looked innocent of sinister meanings but could be picked up by Howard's natural constituency because their ears were attuned to his real meaning and it was what they wanted to hear.

But Gillard is saying exactly what she means. You may not like it. You may be outraged that other citizens of the country who don't agree with you should have their right to free speech affirmed, however unpleasant one may find what they say. And you may, like me, be particularly irritated by Gillard's use of the phrase 'political correctness', which long ago became something that could only ever muddy the waters of meaning. But again, there is no deception. It's not a dog-whistle. It's a whistle.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

All this and good taste in books too

That's the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature that Ms Gillard is placing on the Prime Ministerial office bookshelf.

When you put in three years of work on a book (and most of the editorial team worked on it for longer than that; I was a late starter), it's ever so gratifying to see it turn up in an image like this. Makes you wonder whether we shouldn't have produced a companion volume: a concordance for handy quotations, speechwriters, for the use of.

Although, given that one of the best-known quotations from classic Aust Lit is 'Unemployed at last!', maybe not.