The Lists Go On


Everyone loves a good list. Just look at the upcoming 2020 Summit. Lists of agenda items, lists of participants, lists of responses, lists of worthies who are pro and those who are contra … the lists go on.

I can remember a similar mania for lists when I was a child, and can see it again in my own children — it’s a way of controlling the burgeoning, chaotic world around you. Like stamp-collecting or the belief in a benevolent, all-seeing God, one hopes that the little critters grow out of it, but I can see why list-making is attractive.

Slate recently reviewed a biography of the ‘Man of Lists’ himself: Peter Mark Roget — famous for his eponymous thesaurus, which is nothing more than lists of words, and which provided the logical backbone for many a Monty Python joke. According to the review, Roget made lists, "as a way of exercising some control in his [tumultuous]life. One of his first lists, at age eight, was of Latin words and their English translations. As an adult, he kept lists of important events, including ‘dates of deaths’ of friends and relatives."

A list is a beautiful thing because, no matter how peremptory or random it is, as soon as it’s done there’s an inside and an outside. A dedans and a dehors, as the French would say. I remember well that, during the reign of a previous Prime Minister, named John Winston Howard, there were those who were "in" and those who were not; and, strangely, there were those who were called "elite", from which one might have deduced that they were "in", but who were actually quite definitely "out".

All these thoughts came flooding recently when I was reading articles about the 2020 Summit by a couple of newmatildans, Ben Eltham and Mark Bahnisch, both of whom rightly speculate on the ins and outs of the Summit’s (very vaporous) agenda and its list of attendees.

My contribution to their analysis is to recall my days as a Commonwealth bureaucrat. Creating open-ended agendas and unfathomable lists of attendees that provoke endless (and fruitless) speculation is a powerful bureaucratic tool. For one thing, as I said before, it helps control that burgeoning, chaotic world; for another, these tactics make it look like something intense is happening at a place where, in fact, everyone is running on the spot — while elsewhere, out of sight, the Real Game is going on.

As all this discussion about the Summit was happening in Australia, here in the sleepy south of France the talk was of the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ex-supermodel and alleged pop-singer wife Carla Bruni’s "successful" visit to the UK. The BBC website resorted to the "hilarious list" as organising principle and gave a roundup of newspaper reports about the Sarkozy-Bruni visit:

"Not since Anne Boleyn has a woman curtseyed so deeply, so demurely, or so calculatedly before a British monarch, writes … the Daily Mail … as Fleet Street clears acres of space for the state visit of what the Independent calls France’s ‘bling bling president’ and his wife. The Times — beside a black and white photograph of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy leaving the presidential plane in her grey Dior overcoat and matching pillbox hat — says she went for a look that was ‘part Jackie Onassis, part district nurse.’ … But the Left-leaning Liberation highlights Mr Sarkozy’s nervous tics … and says he babbled like a child to the Queen at those moments when he had been advised to stay silent."

A lot of fun, no doubt — and there’s much to be said for cocking a snook at those in power. But what the list leaves out is something important. As the BBC reported: "The last word goes to a less appreciative Daily Express in London. ‘French President Sarkozy yesterday delivered a major speech on relations between our two countries. Can anyone remember a word he said? And will anyone forget the sight of his enchanting wife.’"

While everyone is focussed on sideshows like pillbox hats and nervous tics, France is actually in a bad way and in dire need of reform.

Things are so dire in France, in fact, that the right-leaning Le Figaro magazine ran on 21 March the headline: "Mr President, Now It’s Time to Reform!" Inside, the Gallic love of a good list came to the fore with an article listing how other countries have managed to reform in recent times — including examples from Ireland, Spain, Germany and, you guessed it, Australia.

Unfortunately, the Gallic disdain for fact-checking (one of the reasons the place needs reform!) also came to the fore in this article, when after listing some of the political and economic reforms of 1980s and 1990s Australia, the journalist states that:

It was leftist governments, headed by Paul Keating and then John Howard, that have put in place these profound changes.

Recently, Kevin Rudd went overseas and met some important people, distracting everyone for a moment or two. But it seems that, like France, Australia also needs reform right now. Apparently, that means the Government needs to consult a list of people who are both representative and expert to come up with some fresh ideas. Which is why we need the 2020 Summit.

I asked myself what a collective noun for those attending a summit might be. I thought perhaps it might be a "consultation" or a "bling bling of summiteers". But there are lists of collective nouns on the internet, usually for animals. And I found a great one for owls — it’s "a parliament". How about that: a parliament of summiteers?

And it struck me what a strange thing it is that the politicians we vote in to govern us and the bureaucrats we employ to administer the machines of government should be so bereft of ideas and gumption that they need to replicate themselves in this summit of people who are representative and expert — in order to either validate what they want to do anyway, or to come up with something new and wonderful that they haven’t the imagination to dream of.

What are we paying these politicians and bureaucrats to do?

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.