Welcome to Issue 53 of New Matilda.
The NSW Opposition Leader John Brogden has been in the spotlight (or is that ‘frozen in the headlights’?) all week. Every day, a new revelation has appeared in the press, ratcheting up the intensity of the story.
And as the story has escalated from drunken farce, through political thriller, to the brink of tragedy, our reactions have also ricocheted daily, almost hourly, from gobsmacked disbelief, to gleeful schadenfreude, to disgust at Brogden’s boorish behaviour, to relief and even admiration at his speedy resignation, and finally to abject pity for a broken man and his family who have to somehow pick up the pieces. To exhume a cliché, it’s been like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
Thanks to Sharyn Raggett
Brogden’s drunken hubris and the machinations of his enemies within the Liberal Party are the immediate causes of his spectacular disintegration, but all of us who greedily consume our daily dose of news and current affairs are implicated as well. We are the invisible engines of this infernal machine.
And at another level, Brogden’s immediate environment has a lot to answer for, too. Our parliaments pride themselves in being ‘robust’ forums. ‘Robust’ is the best-case scenario — at worst our parliaments are torture chambers of humiliation and degradation. The NSW Lower House, known as the ‘Bear Pit’, is one of the more notorious in this regard, making Federal Parliament’s shenanigans look like a bad day at the crèche by comparison.
Our democracies are built around written rules and unspoken conventions that emphasise civility, reason and dignity — the delicate legacy of the Enlightenment. But the actions that are played out daily on the floor of parliament are more to do with thuggery, bullying and coercion. The metaphors that describe parliamentary conduct are about ‘applying the blowtorch to someone’s belly’ or ‘kneecapping’ or ‘headkicking’, all about a macho violence better suited to the criminal underworld or a war zone.
‘Paying your dues’ as a politician seems to be more like enduring a military boot camp — imagine Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket without the humour — than learning the rules. And the rationale is the same — you brutalise people so that if they’re going to break they do so during training rather than on the front line where it might harm others on ‘our’ side.
We seem to be happy with this arrangement. We certainly don’t make a concerted effort to change it. Of course, we whinge about the ‘schoolboy’ behaviour of our politicians. And sure, there are periodic upswellings of shame in parliament where pollies from all sides promise solemnly to be good, and never to call each other names again. Truly ruly. Ridgey didge. But pretty soon they all slip back into their old habits.
Why wouldn’t they?
And is it any wonder that our politicians are increasingly thick-skinned, intransigent, defensive, unadventurous third rate? If you had any brains as well as ambition, why would you put yourself through it?
We can laugh and we can shrug our shoulders in resignation, but all it means is that we’ll continue to get the politicians we deserve, until we do something about it. Churchill may have been right that parliamentary democracy is the worst possible system, except for all the others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve it, does it?
In this week’s New Matilda:
Three writers look at the ‘Australian values’ and education debates from a number of different angles: Guy Rundle asks what’s so Australian about Brendan Nelson’s nine commandments?; John Hooker replays a couple of the forgotten verses of Advance Australia Fair; and Jane Caro is appalled at how we’ve been sucked into subsidising very rich private schools.
On the international front, Michael Connors takes us to the Malay insurgency in Thailand’s southern provinces; Richard Butler strips away some of the American misinformation about Iran’s nuclear policy; and Tim O’Connor looks at the new agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea on policing.
On the anniversary of the campaign, Paul Ham debunks four myths surrounding the battles on the Kokoda Track.
Tony Moore asks where have all the risk-takers in the arts gone?; and we provide a second extract from Graeme Turner’s new book Ending the Affair which this week looks at the history of accusations of bias at the ABC.
We look forward to your responses.
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