Paul Kelly and The Lucky Country


In October’s edition of The Australian Literary Review (ALR), journalist Paul Kelly offers an intellectual road trip, entitled ‘Time for a Rethink’ but riffing on the theme of ‘The Lucky Country.’ Kelly devotes 2000 words too many to an exploration of ‘second rate’ Australian public intellectuals’ incapacity to appreciate the Australian electorate’s genius in electing a first-rate political leadership.

This is such a hackneyed theme (the elitism of the intellectual class, not the genius of the Australian electorate) that it would be surprising if Kelly had anything fresh to say. As it turns out, he doesn’t unless the spectacle of a journalistic ‘national treasure’ delivering a homespun eulogy to Prime Ministers Hawke, Keating and Howard counts as such.

In his version of the ‘The Lucky Country,’ Kelly argues that current Australian prosperity (that is, the emerging American-style wealth-divide) is the fruit of successive Labor and Liberal Party political acumen, epitomised by their respective management of the US alliance and their differential, but consonant, agenda of working with Asia, particularly China.

I would say that apart from the brazen act of currency deregulation under Hawke in 1983 and that act’s consequences, Australian prosperity has been delivered in spite of government policy, in the same manner as a randomly thrown dart at an inventory of stock exchange listed companies is better at picking winners than a Mercedes-chasing stockbroker selling his expertise. Truly a nation of gamblers. The rest of the Australian Story has been about management, packaging, marketing and keeping the game on the road.

Kelly’s vantage point is the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney not the slum, the junkie’s needle point exchange, or the sweat of an AWA – ,it is the six-lane highway of national achievement. This is a vantage point, he claims, that the precocious ‘second- raters’ of the aristocratic Left have ignored in their supposed rush to condemn the Australian electorate as inane and immoral.

Kelly’s derivative piece ironically subverts Donald Horne’s famous 1960s book The Lucky Country this should have been a warning to the ALR‘s editor that it was going to be an article of imprecise hackdom. In what counts as the intellectual equivalent of grievous bodily harm, he takes a handful of thinkers as representative of the total sum of anti-Howard intellectuals, and then narrows the field further by concentrating on an easily beratable, shrill and fanciful David Marr.

Marr’s over-the-top statements about Howard’s Australia in his June’s Quarterly Essay ‘His Master’s Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate Under Howard,’ are easy enough to dismiss. Kelly paints Marr as a kind of jeremiahic Bertrand Russell in the antipodes, minus the math. All this leads Kelly to a lamely ironic twist: that Horne’s depiction of a country with second-rate politicians and first-class intellectuals has been reversed.

Kelly is right to point out that some ridiculous analogies have been doing the rounds among the intelligentsia (that there are similarities between pre-Nazi Germany and contemporary Australia), but he fails to then offer a single word about the Right’s own disingenuous mob of time-servers like Kelly’s News Ltd colleague Janet Albrechtsen or the Herald Sun‘s Andrew Bolt. Is there some unwitting aesthetic judgement on Kelly’s part that these people should not be taken seriously as intellectuals? They have been singing the praises of first-rate political leadership for a decade. Is he jealous of their foresight?

What Kelly’s atrociously selective piece suggests is that public intellectuals (meaning ‘Howard-haters’) are so far-removed from the ordinary concerns of life that the necessarily pragmatic and compromised nature of politics that supposedly delivers national prosperity and relative domestic and regional cohesion are seen by them to be contemptible.

There is certain hubris in Kelly’s rant about second-rate public intellectuals: he should have declared his own interest as a fellow traveller. ‘Time for a Rethink’ marks a low point in his political journalism, an altogether too-confident declaration of his undiluted national-interest account of the sublime art of Australian compromise.

While Kelly’s decades of access to the corridors of power may have led to the production of a certain banal commentary, he is not completely incapable of the lyrical insight of his namesake troubadour. Just as clichés capture certain truisms, Kelly’s journalistic writing, as do all journalistic writings, reflect some wilful zeitgeist the first draft of history (as has been said).

In this instance, that zeitgeist now has it that Australia has enjoyed national prosperity and relatively moral and sincere leadership. Kelly’s imaginative leap is to turn Donald Horne’s devious title into a homily. Australia is lucky because Howard is incapable of duplicity and mendacity on the big questions so Kelly believes.

Rarely has the first draft of history looked so needy of revision.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.