The end is nigh: prepare!

It’ll be hard going but we have no choice.

We’ve been spoilt, our senses dulled, our imagination and creative thinking corroded. It’s time to excise the lowest common denominator for all our conversations, if you could actually call them that. There are scary times ahead.

You know the trap we’ve fallen into: “I can’t think of anything better to talk about so I might as well have a gripe about … you know what”.

Our excuses have been manifold:

  • It’ll take too much time and effort to find something more meaningful to discuss
  • Is there really something more meaningful?
  • Suits me fine, I was never much of a conversationalist anyway
  • It’s part of God’s devilish plan
  • Couldn’t care less, I’ve got a really bad hangover.

Mother Nature tried to help, sending Covid-19 to distract us. What did we do? We spurned the opportunity MN offered. We refused to mention one topic without the other. How good was that for ingenious stupidity?!

But it’s all coming to an end. I’m getting ready and so should you. My psychoanalyst, fearful of what she calls “cold turkey mass psychosis”, recommends a gradual withdrawal.

“You can’t undo the damage of the past four years overnight,” she counselled me. “Try going for an hour without saying the T-word. Depending on how you cope, extend it to, say, a half-day, then, if you’re feeling really strong, maybe a whole day. Whatever you do, pace yourself. This is not something that can be rushed. And keep a detailed record of the state of your nerves.”

I’ll try but it won’t be easy. There’ll be no extravagant New Year resolutions. Fortunately, my psychoanalyst has provided a stockpile of heavy-duty meds.

“You think there was a problem with the supply of toilet paper,” she warned. “Just wait until 20 January next: the shock at hearing the President of the USA talk in civil tones, using multisyllabic words we no longer understand, using we rather than I. It will be simply too much to bear for a lot of people. We are in for a rough ride.”

“Mind you”, she went on, “it’s not all bad news. There’ll be a pharma-led economic recovery right around the globe. I’ll be booked out for years to come though I can squeeze you in late in 2022. Hope that suits. Good luck!”

Things I will miss about Trump

 

Just imagine the relief when, finally, the Donald is gone. But, like it or not, there’ll be things we will surely miss.

 

  • Trump has made us all feel highly literate. Every day we could wake up, knowing that in the course of the next 15 hours or so we would fluently use a much wider range of words than POTUS ever managed. Said to be “allergic” to reading, a 2018 analysis found that Trump, who attributes his success to “being, like, really smart”, had the worst vocabulary of any US President since 1929. (Jimmy Carter had the best.) Trump’s (sacked) national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, described the president’s intelligence as that of a “kindergartener”; his (sacked) Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, preferred the more direct, “fucking moron”.

  • Hot on the heels of literacy has been our moral superiority. Trump demonstrated daily what amateurs we are when it comes to bending the truth. Trump was/is a serial liar; like,

    really serial.  We can only wonder whether he is capable of telling the truth and, worse, whether it matters to him in the slightest. His outrageous mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis (225,000 Americans dead and counting, one million new cases in a week) is but one example. As of August 2020, The Washington Post “Fact Checker” had recorded 22,510 false or misleading claims by Trump since he assumed office. An average of 17 porkies a day from the world’s most powerful figure has offered the rest of us plenty of wiggle room.

  • The Trump circus has also been entertaining—though often in a sickening way. High-level sackings; offensive comments about places (“shithole” African and Central American states); tasteless remarks about individuals (Ivanka Trump, with her “very nice figure” who the president might have “dated” if she “weren’t my daughter”; obscene stereotyping and fear-mongering (“ Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day”; “Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp”). Following his electoral defeat, Trump tweeted there would be a “big press conference” at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia. The venue, it transpired, was not the glamour hotel but a landscaping business located between a crematorium and an “adult” book store. (Maybe its tomes appealed to POTUS.)

Post-Trump, we will no longer be able to rely on his crazy, offensive behaviour to make us look (relatively) civilised. That could be a worry. But there is much good news.

  • The “pussy-grabber-in-chief” will no longer have the keys to the White House. That should lift the morale of women everywhere. Trump has faced 26 allegations of sexual misconduct, including from his first wife, Ivana, who initially accused him of rape. Trump has dismissed all allegations as publicity stunts, politically motivated or coming from women who, in his own words, were “not my type”. His then lawyer, Michael Cohen, argued in 2015 that Trump could not have raped Ivana because legally “you cannot rape your spouse”. That was false and Cohen later recanted his “inarticulate” comment. Caught up in the 2016 Russian electoral interference scandal, Cohen was subsequently jailed but released into house arrest because of Covid-19. His recently published tell-all, Disloyal, The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J Trump, noted Trump’s “inadvertent” comment about Cohen’s 15-year-old daughter: “Look at that piece of ass. I would love some of that”.

  • Life is likely to be a lot less comfortable for those political leaders for whom Trump, in effect, ran a protection racket. Leading this list is the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, closely followed by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohamad bin Salman. May they have many sleepless nights.
  • Those with red ties will be able to wear them again, without using a balaclava to disguise their identity.
  • Finally, just imagine what’s going through the mind of Rupert Murdoch and his pet parrots as they contemplate the reality of a Trump-free White House. Key Murdoch mouthpieces (Fox News, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal) recently urged Trump to preserve his “legacy” by showing grace in defeat. Oh Rupert, life will be different for you too!

New hope for spurned writers in Biden victory

 

Rarely has Joe Biden been described as inspirational. That is now changing as aspiring authors around the globe tap away with renewed hope and purpose. Why? Because President-elect Biden, more than any other political figure around, has shown that constant rejection – the bane of authors’ lives – can be overcome.  

Next January, when he is sworn in as 46th President of the USA, it will be 34 years since Biden first ran for the top job. He tried again in 2008, only to confront the eloquent appeal of Barack Obama, and had to settle for a consolation vice-presidency.

Finally, he’s done it! On inauguration day, I appeal to him to speak to authors everywhere. To use his story to lift their spirits, to make clear that decades of rejection are just part of the great plan.

I offer these notes to guide him.

“I know your despair”, the new President should say. “I understand your often-pointless toil. That day-after-day, month-after-month, year-after-year grind of creating short stories, novels, plays, multi-volume histories on subjects as diverse as the history of ancient Rome or the reproductive habits of the speckled cuttlefish. I know the cost: the blood, sweat and tears; the intellectual ferment and emotional turmoil; the alcohol abuse; the family stress. And, finally, when the draft is complete and despatched, I know the suffocating quiet that settles over you, your house, your computer, your iPhone; the stillness of the cemetery.”

“Look at me”, he might go on, “I, too, have written books. Like you, I reached into my heart, and my head. Alright, I know mine were best sellers and I had no difficulty finding a publisher. But do you know why that was so? Because I had an impeccable record of failure in my chosen field of endeavour.”

The President might then pause and gaze reflectively at the hushed audience. “This next bit’s difficult”, he can say, sounding heartfelt, modest. “No one watching this great celebration of democracy should take it as an admission on my part. It involves the p-word. Plagiarism! A charge levelled at me many years ago. It is true that in recounting my struggle to get ahead my words were eerily similar to those used by the then British Labour leader. But we are a great trading nation, we will always import ideas. I simply chose the best available. There is no shame in that.

“To writers everywhere, I now say, ask not what your publisher can do for you, rather what you can do for your publisher. Be yourself, everyone else is already taken. And always be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second-rate version of someone else. Never let anyone walk through your mind with their dirty feet. Remember, too, no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. And while you’re at it, don’t forget that ideas are like rabbits – get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you’ll have dozens.

“Keep all that in mind”, the new President should conclude, “and a new, golden era will be upon us. Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence, so let’s make writing great again. It’ll be tremendous. Just tremendous!”

 

You can’t make this stuff up

Confused about America and the workings of that country’s politics? So are we. That’s why our Special Correspondent got America on the phone for an exclusive interview.

 

Special Correspondent: Thanks for taking time out to join us, America. Interesting times, don’t you think?

America: What sort of a trick question is that? We’re sick of smart-arse foreigners setting us up for failure. We remain the one and only beacon of hope for the world, for democracy, for … mmm, quite a few other things I can’t recall right now.

Special Correspondent: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

America: Exactly! It’s good to see our values are so widely recognised.

Special Correspondent: But your political system seems to be, don’t take this the wrong way, a bit creaky. I know you got rid of the most outrageous examples of discrimination—

America: What does that mean?!

Special Correspondent: Wasn’t there a time when African Americans were quizzed when they tried to vote? Some of them were even asked, “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?” to try to disenfranchise them.

America: All in the past, and name me a country that doesn’t have a few awkward memories. I hear that Australia’s hardly squeaky clean. What about that dictation test you had: asking a migrant from say, Swaziland, to write a passage in Icelandic, or vice versa, and deporting them when they couldn’t.

Special Correspondent: Fair enough, but I’m asking the questions here. It’s hardly one vote one value in America, is it? As for the electoral college, can an eighteenth-century institution really meet the demands of the twenty-first century? Some have described it as, quote a disaster for democracy unquote.

America: What idiot said that?

Special Correspondent: President Trump.

America: We’re not expected to believe anything he says. That’s why he’s so popular. It’s about the acting, the entertainment, the need to distract us from all the horrible things we’re doing to each other.

Special Correspondent: But isn’t the truth important?

America: It’s grossly overrated. If you’re so hung up about truth remember this. Trump didn’t take us into one new foreign war. Not one. That’s quite an achievement when you think of all the countries we either invaded or subverted under earlier presidents: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Cuba, Costa Rica, Honduras, Haiti, Panama, Grenada, Venezuela, and so on and so forth.

Special Correspondent: That’s an impressive list.

America: C’mon, that’s just a sample. When it comes to interfering in the internal affairs of other countries no-one, absolutely no-one, can hold a candle to us. Trump realised, wisely, it’s all about the economy nowadays. Why start a foreign war when we can have one at home? It stimulates growth, creates jobs, saves all that foreign travel, even helps in the battle against climate change—if you’re stupid enough to believe in that conspiracy. And why go overseas to catch Covid-19 when you can so easily get it at home?

Special Correspondent: That’s all very persuasive. But don’t you think the day of America having to reckon with its internal contradictions is inevitable?

America: Well, I question the premise of your question. Just because we’ve trashed the principles of Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, foreigners like you get all sniffy. We’ll go on doing what we’ve always done so well: proclaiming principles we have no intention of upholding. That’s what made this country what it is today.

Special Correspondent: Isn’t that just the problem?

America: No comment.

Special Correspondent: A final question. How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?

America: No comment. But do send me more info on the dictation test, will you. Could be a real goer here.

Image: Inkforall.com (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The first Tuesday of November: think like a horse

I’ve just watched a short, award-winning play about three horses, locked in their stalls and bickering about their lot in life (no pun intended). One of them is a self-satisfied champion, the two other horses feel deprived and exploited. It all sounds very human.

That’s entirely reasonable. The play, Fabio the Great, was written by a woman, not a horse. Even the most subtle, incisive mind within a human head will never know what it’s like to be a horse. Or a whale, a rocking chair, or any other animate or inanimate object. That shouldn’t stop us imbuing them with human qualities and characteristics in the wonderful grown-up game of pretence many of us like to play.

Rarely will anyone contemplate what it’s like to be a baked bean. Still it would be an interesting exercise to set for children and adults: you are a baked bean who keeps a diary: write an entry for one day. Note that you are not allowed to be eaten at lunch time to save imagining how baked beans while away their afternoons.  

But leave baked beans aside. It’s early November in Australia and there are bound to be a few people wondering what it’s like to be a horse in the Melbourne Cup.

A giddying mix perhaps of fitness, sleekness and nervousness?

Do the animals give each other “may-the-best-horse-win” neighs of encouragement? Or are they conscious of all the money riding (no pun again) on the outcome and determined to stay “in the zone,” just the way a champion human athlete would. Do they have their own favourites, encouraging the young, or maybe deliberately giving an older runner a last hurrah? Do the horses themselves ever fix the result, knowing they won’t be held to account? Do they contemplate the horror of an accident, talking in hushed whinnies about what happened last year or the year before and why some contenders will be forever absent. Do they bridle (alright, that one is intended) at the fact that injured jockeys are rushed to the hospital while injured horses often end up in the knackery.

And just what do horses think of their jockeys: do they like some more than others, making more of an effort for them? Do they resent the hypocrisy of rules which allow riders to whip them while society at large decries animal cruelty?

What’s truly going on in a horse’s mind will forever remain a mystery, as much as the mysteries of being a baked bean or whether an apple feels discomfort when it’s pulled from the tree.

Still, “I wonder what it’s like to be a …” is a critical question we should ask every day. If we can’t or won’t imagine how others see the world, and us, we can’t expect much understanding or sympathy from human beings, or animals for that matter.

Exercise: you are a wombat; write a short play about three humans sitting near your burrow and discussing their lives. (Remember: a group of wombats is called a wisdom.)

Will we ever be satisfied with less?

I can’t imagine the old normal returning unaltered after COVID-19 but worry that the rush towards a new normal will entail too much focus on growth and profits and not enough on caring for the vulnerable and the environment. If that happens, we will have squandered an opportunity to reset how we value health, work and leisure.

Anthropologist James Suzman has written a history of work that gives us plenty to consider as we navigate our way out of the pandemic towards that new normal. Here’s my review (which first appeared in The Weekend Australian 19-20 September) of Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, published by Bloomsbury.

Why, in an era of unprecedented abundance, are we preoccupied with scarcity and therefore aspire to more and more growth? Anthropologist Suzman employs the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of entropy, to answer this question. His idea is that entropy – the energy not available to do useful work, like the steam that escapes from an engine – ‘unpicks whatever order the universe creates’. Entropy, Suzman argues, has ‘driven humans to direct energy surplus into something purposeful’. This is the book’s leitmotif but repetition does not make the concept easier to grasp. Nevertheless, most of this history of work is accessible and thought-provoking.

To explain contemporary attitudes to work, Suzman traces the convergence of the way humans use energy with our evolutionary and cultural history. After the hunter-gatherers, whom Suzman knows well from his work with the Ju/’hoansi bushmen of eastern Namibia, came mastery of fire. This began a process of capturing energy that has changed the way people live, produce and value time. I found the chapters about early human endeavour the most interesting and enlightening. They lead to the proposition that, after fire, farming (which triggered population growth) and then the exploitation of fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution have had dramatic effects on work, society and the climate.

What Suzman admires about the Ju/’hoansi is their satisfaction with just the resources available to nourish them. He appreciates their bewilderment at the notion of scarcity, which now drives the pursuit of growth in modern economies, although he also acknowledges that, for subsistence farming societies, scarcity was often a matter of life and death. His critique is that when ‘hardly any of us now produce our own food, … the sanctification of scarcity still underwrite[s] how we organise our economic life’.

Suzman shifts across centuries as he tells the story of how we spend our time. He illustrates his points with references to individuals, some famous, some anonymous, some like Thadeus, an urban dweller on the outskirts of Windhoek, Namibia. Thadeus’s story illustrates an important development: increased urbanisation, with 2008 a landmark year when more people lived in cities than in the countryside for the first time in human history. But the story of cities goes way back, to the communities built by termites and to ancient Rome where the first guilds were established.

The book is a feat of synthesis: Suzman draws on anthropology, archaeology, economic history and philosophy. He humanises many of the thinkers he quotes, offering snippets about their lives that illuminate or just entertain. For example, he tells us that Sir John Lubbock, the person behind introducing the bank holiday to encourage work-life balance, also tried to teach his poodle, Van, how to read. One person Suzman does not mention, strangely, is Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose work on the concentration of wealth and rising inequality, must have influenced Suzman’s analysis.

When he reaches the recent past and discusses the rise of the consumer society and then the dominance of services, Suzman’s opinions and prejudices rather than scholarly insights come to the fore. He hates management consultants and is scathing about bloated university bureaucracies. In the latter case, his criticism is not accompanied by a discussion about the trend towards demand for higher skills and mass tertiary education. This change in perspective raises the question as to when Suzman’s history of work should have stopped? I suggest in the 1980s when his lived experiences fog up the historical lens.

Most of the contemporary analysis is in Western countries, though Suzman does talk about the Japanese phenomenon of ‘karoshi ’: death by overwork. He also mentions those whose health can be affected by boredom at work, and workaholics. Suzman strikes me as one of these, given the enormous breadth of his canvas and his forensic search for interesting anecdotes. He is, however, ambivalent about ambition as well as affluence. Durkheim’s idea of anomie, a ‘malady of infinite aspiration’, caused by people’s sense of dislocation during the Industrial Revolution, is, Suzman fears, becoming a permanent condition of the modern age.

This has resulted in the blurring of work and leisure, with people finding it more and more difficult to be idle. It is a shame Suzman did not investigate further the consequences of this blurring. But his real omission is inadequate discussion about the individual and social effects of unemployment in modern economies, especially in the time of COVID (which he does mention) when work is proving to be an important psychological as well as economic prop. Indeed, the role of work in building social capital and self-esteem deserved greater attention in this history.

Suzman is now the director of Anthropos Ltd, a think tank that applies anthropological methods to solving contemporary social and economic problems. Work does not provide solutions. We still do not know how to reach the Keynesian dream of valuing ends above means and preferring the good to the useful. Nevertheless, this survey of human endeavour gives us plenty to think about as we navigate the post-COVID fourth industrial revolution and try to make better work for all, with less waste, less carbon and more leisure.

 

West Bank annexation – dead and buried or just comatose?: Peter Rodgers

If Trump is re-elected and revives Netanyahu’s ambitions, Australia must have a plan to make the existing “suspension” permanent.

 

In November 1967, the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 242, following the Six-Day War, was accompanied by lively debate about language. For some UN members the resolution’s call for “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” lacked two vital words. Should it not have been “all” territories, or “the” territories, ideally “all the” territories?

Fast forward 53 years and beneath the hoopla of the US/UAE/Israeli Abraham Accords, signed on September 15, also lurk questions of language and intent.

The joint statement issued by the three countries on August 31 said that the breakthrough in relations between the UAE and Israel (and subsequently Bahrain) resulted in “the suspension of Israel’s plans to extend its sovereignty” in the West Bank. The UAE’s ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, said the agreement “immediately stops annexation and … maintains the viability of a two-state solution”.

Yet at the same time, Netanyahu declared on Hebrew-language television that there had been “no change in my plans for annexation, with full co-ordination with the US”.

During an earlier media briefing in Washington, President Trump declared that “right now” annexation is “off the table. I can’t talk about some time in the future”. He then turned to David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel (and an unabashed supporter of Israeli settlement activity), asking: “Is that a correct statement?”

“Yes,” Friedman replied, “the word ‘suspend’ was chosen carefully by all the parties. ‘Suspend,’ by definition, look it up, means temporary halt, it’s off the table now but it’s not off the table permanently.”

Trump’s senior adviser on the Middle East, Jared Kushner, offered more in this vein. Israel had agreed not to move forward without US approval. “We do not plan to give our consent for some time,” said Kushner. It was a discussion that would be had, though “not in the near future”. Asked about “temporary”, Kushner defined it, with Trumpian precision, as somewhere “between a long time and a short time”.

In early September, Reuters reported that differences in the English and Arabic versions of the August 31 joint statement had been “seized upon” by Palestinians to argue that the UAE had overstated Israel’s readiness to drop its annexation plans. According to Reuters, the English-language version of the text used “suspension”, while the Arabic language version talked of “Israel’s plans to annex Palestinian lands being stopped”.

A senior UAE official reportedly attributed the differences to a translation issue. The senior PLO figure, Hanan Ashrawi, countered that it was a “forked tongue” aimed at misleading Arab public opinion.

Whether annexation is truly dead or merely comatose, only time will tell. In the short term, two factors will decide its fate. The first is the outcome of the US presidential election. Democratic contender Joe Biden has made clear his opposition to annexation and declared he will reverse Trump administration actions “which I think significantly undercut the prospects of peace”.

The second factor involves Netanyahu’s legal troubles over allegations of corruption and whether he goes to jail. His trial is scheduled to start hearing evidence in January.

In mid-September, the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, welcomed the normalisation of relations between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain and “Israel’s commitment to suspend plans for West Bank annexations”.

There are two things Australia should now do. The first is to use its close relationship with Israel to urge it to abandon annexation altogether, clearly and unequivocally. The second is to consider how it would respond to a perfect storm of a re-elected Trump, an at-large Netanyahu and a resuscitated drive for annexation.

This would demand more than the tardy and featherweight comment by Foreign Minister Payne on July 1 that Australia had “raised its concerns with Israel in relation to indications of annexations”.

Meaningful action could include marshalling an international effort to impose sanctions on Israel, as Australia did with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. One prompt and cost-free action would be to close Australia’s Trade and Defence Office in West Jerusalem.

Opened in March 2019 without fanfare and little real purpose, its stated aim is to complement Austrade’s work in Tel Aviv. Precisely how is unclear, given that Tel Aviv remains Israel’s trade and technology “capital” and headquarters of the Israeli defence establishment.

The perfect storm might not eventuate, sparing the government the awkwardness of taking issue with Israel. Still, the Prime Minister has declared that if need be Australia will “openly rebuke a sincere friend” on issues such as land appropriations and settlements. Australia should work to make “suspension” of annexation permanent. But is also needs a plan B.

First published by Plus61J Media on 2.10.20; published by Pearls and Irritations on 7.10.20

IMAGE: Montecruz Foto, Flickr, Creative Commons

Trapped in the bubble – by Peter Rodgers

This play was first performed at Melting Pot Theatre, Bundanoon, in
July 2020, with Miranda Lean playing Advisor 2 and winning a best actor award.

 

Cast: Minister (M); Adviser One (A1); Adviser Two (A2)
[Lights up]
[Parliament House, the Minister’s outer office, the Minister is offstage]
[A1 and A2 are onstage, A1 standing, phone in hand: A2 is seated at a desk]
M  [yelling, angry, frustrated]
Get in here someone! Now! Can’t find the bloody thing anywhere.
A1  [looks hard at A2; points to the Minister’s office]  Your turn.
A2  But I have my life ahead of me.
A1  You won’t if you don’t go.
A2  I won’t if I do go, by the sound of that.
A1  Come on. It’s a learning journey.
A2  I’m not sure I want to find out.
A1  It’s high time you earned all that money we pay you.
A2  Oh, alright.
[A2 stands, takes a deep breath and exits; loud, angry, unintelligible yelling offstage; A2 rushes back onstage]
A2  You might have warned me!
A1  You have to experience it sometime.
A2  I didn’t sign up for this.
A1  So what did you sign up for?
A2  [dreamily]  To … to do good. To make the world a better place. To always put others first and never play the games that go on around here.
A1  [hand on head]   Oh no, another idealist! What is wrong with the education system these days?
A2  Why are you so cynical? Shouldn’t we aim high?
A1  Now let me tell you a few hard—  [A1 is interrupted by more yelling]
M  Where is that damned thing? I’m surrounded by idiots!
A2  Shouldn’t we help her look?
A1  Nah. It’s hardly the first time she’s lost something. One of the first things to go were her principles. Happens to them all.
A2  I don’t believe you. I just don’t believe you. There’s got to be goodness in some of those we work with. Maybe, many of them.
A1  [shakes head in wonder]  What a romantic you are. Nice in a way. But sad.
Do you know that the basement is chock-a-block with discarded principles. They truck them offsite these days.
A2  [optimistically]  To recycle them?
A1 To take them to the tip, dummy.
[more unintelligible yelling from the Minister’s office]
A2  [points to the Minister’s office, plaintive]  Was she always like this?
A1  Who knows? Who cares? She’s on the inside looking out. Best place to be. That’s where I want to end up. And she’s had a bit of fun along the way. I can tell you that.
A2  What do you mean?
A1  Well, it’s Australia. The 21st century. In the wee small hours, everyone needs a special sort of comfort.
A2 [shocked]  What about the code-of-conduct? The Barnaby Principle?
A1  Oh dear me. Another one who hasn’t read the fine print.
[speaks slowly, carefully] Ministers-aren’t-allowed-to-have … liaisons … with-their-staff.  [smiles, speaks normally again] Don’t you just love that word? Liaison.
But there’s nothing to stop staff having liaisons with ministers.
A2  That’s appalling. Hypocrisy of the highest order. We’re supposed to be setting an example.
A1  And we are. In creative implementation.
A2  Now you sound like a lawyer.
A1  Very kind of you to say so.
A2  I feel sick.
A1  Maybe you’re not really cut out for this life. Be honest though, wouldn’t you just love to be in there? The warm, tingly feeling that power gives you. The fact that you can yell at others without any justification whatsoever.
A2  That’s what my children are for.
A1  Ha ha! Let me give you a bit of advice. Love the bubble – or leave it.
A2  I’ve got a better solution. I’ll start my own party.
A1  Oh no, not the dreaded Third Way.
A2  I can see it now. The crowds gazing expectantly.  Each and every person looking to me, and me alone, to salve their wounds, to lift their spirits, to offer them hope for the future.
A1  And just how will you do that?
A2  By the power of my words. All you ever come up with is cliché.
A1  They’re very useful around here. They have a soothing effect on ministers, and everyone. Helps them to forget.
A2  Amnesia is no substitute for action. I offer a vision.
A1  If you say so. Go on then, give us a taste.
A2  Well, it’s a bit off-the-cuff, but here goes.
[takes a deep breath, confident]
As Bismarck once said, it’s better never to watch laws or sausages being made. So, at the outset, let me be absolutely open and frank for my message is clear and simple. The fact of the matter is we inherited the current deplorable situation from our predecessors but the only thing we have to fear is fear itself as honesty is the best policy and money isn’t everything. Besides, it doesn’t grow on trees. Nonetheless, we’re spending more dollars in real terms – whatever that means – than any other government in the history of the world and when it’s all said and done and the cows come home to roost …
[frowns, rubs chin]
Aw … something went wrong there. It’s only a first draft though.
[The Minister appears around the corner; A2 does not see her]
[The Minister gives A1 the thumbs up then disappears again]
A1  Go on, go on. You’re doing really well.
A2  So my friends, at the end of the day, the ball’s in our court. We’ll go over the top at first light determined to play hard but fair, to make the ultimate sacrifice if need be, so that in the fullness of time and going forward we will maximise mutually beneficial outcomes for all those deserving to share in the riches of this great nation. Can we do it? The answer is inspiring. Say it with me. In just three words.
A1/A2   [looking at each other, they speak in unison, enthusiastic]
Can we do it? Yes we can!
A1  Very impressive. Very. You’re a natural. Bit of a surprise really.
What I like so much is the freshness of the ideas and the originality and the vigour of the language. You’ve definitely got something. Just give me a moment, will you.  [disappears offstage briefly and returns]  I hope you’ll think this is good news.
A2  Try me.
A1  [points to the Minister’s office] She liked what she heard. Liked it a lot. Was very complimentary. She wants you to become her strategic communications adviser. Big pay rise, of course.
A2  That’s definitely good news. But what about you?
A1  No need to worry about me. I’m her life coach, for life.
A2  Well … it’s a very tempting offer. I need to be clear, though. I’m not thinking of myself.  [shakes head, emphatic]  Not for a single moment.
A1  Of course not. Perish the thought.  [rubs hands together]  Well, that’s all settled. Why don’t we go and have a celebratory drink with the Minister?
A2  [hesitant]  But what about the thing she lost? It sounded quite important.
A1  Forget it. You can’t hold ministers accountable for anything they did or said five minutes ago. The place would grind to a halt.
A2  Mmm … am I doing the right or the wrong thing? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
A1  Relax … after a while you won’t know the difference.
A2  Doesn’t that bother you?
A1  Did for a while. But I grew out of it. We all do. Come on! Can’t keep the Minister waiting.
A2  I suppose what I’m doing is in the national interest.
A1  Of course it is.
A2 Well, then, lead the way!
[they exit, lights down]

© Peter Rodgers 2020

Cicada time

People are talking about cicadas, again. That reminded me I’d written  a post about how to pronounce ‘cicade’ in spring 2017:

By the turn of the 21st century, most British references gave “kah” as the primary variant, with “kay” still holding sway across the Atlantic.

More intersting really is the extraordinary lifecylce of these creatures. The carcas I found this morning tells of the adult cracking through the shell of its nymph to fly off and feast on spring’s vegetation and, if male, to serenade us . This article on the ABC RN website explains the cycle and shows the moment of liberation. 

Bundanoon is a favourite place for cicadas. That’s why the local school has been part of a citizen science program, the Great Cicada Blitz. Australia has the richest diversity of cicadas in the world (350 of around 100 have been identified).  This project is asking people to help with understanding the ecological preferences of Australian cicadas, including how they have adapted to urbanisation.  You can send in photos or sound recordings to add to the database. Now there’s a good way to use social media. 

 

 

Higher education reform: use and abuse of Menzies

by Francesca Beddie

 

When Australia was rebuilding after World War II, then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, recognised the important role of universities in educating Australians to power our economic recovery.

Funding and enrolment growth for universities increased sustainably under Menzies, and more Australians were given the opportunity to obtain a degree.

Australia harnessed its higher education system to drive its recovery from World War II and make our nation stronger than before the war started.

By harnessing our higher education system once again we can drive our recovery from COVID-19.

Like so many nods to the past deployed by politicians, this reference distorts the historical record. Menzies repeatedly made it clear that the value he saw in higher education went well beyond the economic. Take this extract from his 1942 Forgotten People speech:

Are the universities mere technical schools, or have they as one of their functions the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly — the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary.

David Furse-Roberts presented an excellent account of Menzies’ attitudes and actions on education in an essay published last year in Quadrant called ‘A Rugged Honesty of Mind: Menzies and Education’. It should be compulsory reading for all education ministers wanting to recruit Menzies to their reformist ventures. They would see that Menzies was fully aware his plans to expand universities would cost the federal government an enormous amount of money. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Furse-Roberts does not discuss the Martin review Menzies commissioned in 1961 to ‘consider the pattern of tertiary education in relation to the needs and resources of Australia, and to make recommendations to the Commission on the future development of tertiary education’. But it too deserves consideration by contemporary policy makers, who purport to be striving for an integrated tertiary education sector. The principle underpinning the Martin review, which resulted in the binary system of universities and colleges of advanced education, came from Sir Harold Robbins who was tackling the same questions in the United Kingdom of how to expand tertiary education:

tertiary education should be available to all citizens according to their inclination and capacity.

Most regrettably, Tehan’s proposals ignore that vital ingredient for success in both learning and life: motivation.

Menzies supported the idea of a national university that would focus on researching issues directly relevant to the national interest. But he also championed pure learning and ‘the unfettered search for truth’. He considered that these things contributed to a civilised life, the goal of his education policies.

Today’s proposed reform of humanities education, as well as the government’s lacklustre support for arts and culture and for the ABC, suggest our leaders are retreating from the aim of creating a better Australia to one that can produce good-sounding statistics about jobs and growth. The latter are important but without the fulfilment of talent, the creation of social wellbeing and a celebration of beauty, the numbers add up to a nation in decline.

Historians do, sometimes, point out inconvenient facts: Cook did not circumnavigate Australia; Australia did have slave labour (and arguably still does); Menzies believed in learning for its own sake. That is no reason to send a price signal to students dissuading them to study history, which offers policy makers so much if they choose to overcome the presentism of contemporary debate. Were they to champion the humanities and agree with Menzies that progress means embracing not just the utilitarian and profit but also ideas of tranquillity and leisure, we would be heading towards real prosperity.

Surely, in these weird days of COVID-19 we deserve leaders who share Menzies’ yearning for the company of books and conversation with friends, rather than people who selectively quote or misquote him and focus only on the prosaic and the next poll.

[This post first appeared at https://johnmenadue.com/francesca-beddie-higher-education-reform-use-and-abuse-of-menzies/]