In the same week that Australia’s political commentators were glued to the conclusion of The Howard Years, the Australian Film Industry handed out eight awards to the locally produced television drama Underbelly.
It was an underworld drug story set in the suburbs of Melbourne that took on Shakespearean proportions. And it offered a far more telling insight into the "aspirational" suburbia associated with the Howard prime ministership than did the details of Tony Abbott’s late night "comfort sessions", or thin pickings from Peter Reith’s failing memory.
By couching murderous ambition in the language and trappings of the "ordinary", Underbelly undercut the heroic narratives of consumption, confidence and growth that flourished under Howard and which are now being fundamentally debunked, politically and economically, across the world.
John Howard’s leadership of the Liberal party and his prime ministership — associated with the longest economic boom in recent memory – coincided fairly neatly with the underworld war that Underbelly dramatises. The narrative arc encompasses the period from Alphonse Gangitano’s almost casual execution of Greg Workman in February 1995 (just one month after Howard put Alexander Downer out of his leadership misery) to Carl Williams’s arrest for murder in 2004 in the show’s climactic "barbecue-stopper".
Williams’ rise to the top of the criminal pecking order by means of a series of assassinations, beatings, kidnappings and thefts concluded with his imprisonment for murder in May 2007. By the time the last scenes of the series played out during its broadcast the following year (over an elegiac Nick Cave rendition of "The Carnival is Over") both the Howard government and the boom were dead and buried. The timing of these events points to some provocative lessons.
At the very least, Underbelly powerfully demonstrates the moral bankruptcy behind the credo of aspiration and wealth preached by the Howard government and its cultural allies. Like the bloated warehouse-spirituality of the Hillsong Church, much public policy during the Liberals’ tenure viewed the well-off nuclear family as a self-sanctifying entity, as an end in itself. Questions about whether the sources of national or individual riches were ethical or sustainable were put aside, even portrayed as unpatriotic, whether they were premised on recognising indigenous histories or acknowledging climate change. Addressing these was unacceptable for a further reason: they risked "hurting the economy", the gravest sin of all.
For the Williams family in Underbelly, and their enemies the Morans, providing for one’s family at any cost is not only acceptable, it is wholly compatible with drug-dealing, extortion and murder. Although they pursue an unconventional line of business, Carl and Roberta represent the battler ideal of the Howard years: poor in cultural capital, but commendably entrepreneurial. Their ambition sees them challenge the complacency of their competitors in the "latte belt", and they are far less interested in the pretentious trappings of inner-city life than in gilding their suburban castle.
While the "Carlton Crew" keep their wives in the dark, and do their business in favoured pubs and restaurants, for Carl and Roberta, it’s a family affair — the series had them talking as easily and freely about murder and mayhem as they did about shopping, schools and home improvement.
The cops in the show don’t necessarily offer an unambiguously contrasting image. Detective Steve Owen is another focus of the series, and his pursuit of Carl Williams is fundamentally linked to his progression up the greasy pole of police promotions. Viewers are left to decide whether he is driven by an abiding passion for justice or if jailing criminals is in fact simply the most efficient means of career advancement. In the desire for self-motivated class mobility, he shares more than a little of the temperament of his nemesis.
Like the criminals he chases, and a growing number of Australians in the decade of Work Choices, Owen is "always on". He is often seen working at the dinner table, in bed, or being summoned to the office by the beep of a mobile phone. His embryonic relationship is regularly threatened by the distracted inattention that stems from an inability to leave work behind at the office. (One memorable scene has Jason Moran — one of Owen’s quarry — tapping at the window of a restaurant where Owen is dining with his girlfriend, embodying the intrusion of work on private lives.)
His white collar lifestyle and restrained consumption is opposed to the entrepreneurialism and hedonism of the crooks. Yet bringing down Carl is less a confirmation of his powers than it is a revelation of how close he came to dispensing with formal processes of justice, nearly drained of whatever fire had led to his vocational calling.
But perhaps most importantly, in a year that saw a succession of incidents involving sports stars behaving badly while the culture obsessed over the problem of recreational binge drinking, Underbelly asks us to consider matters beyond the lifestyles glamourised on screen. For above all, the underworld war is fuelled by the emerging "billion dollar business" in party drugs that the rival gangs are competing for. Along with alcohol, these illegal drugs are a central component of the contemporary nighttime economy.
Underbelly‘s high-end lifestyles, the long list of contract assassinations, the employment of bodyguards, and the endless legal battles that follow for the protagonists are all financed with drug money gleaned from supplying the clubs of Melbourne with the industrial quantities of ecstasy pills, which are integral to the culture of post-MDMA clubbing. Underbelly shows that the leisure economy that was extended and entrenched during the boom has had broader, unacknowledged impacts.
It was somehow fitting that when Underbelly couldn’t be shown in Victoria due to ongoing criminal trials, it was circulated online on peer-to-peer networks, and illegally copied DVDs. These widely reported acts of mundane criminality by ordinary Australians perhaps told us a number of things about our national complicity with petty criminality. But like other parts of the fragmenting media landscape, today’s television networks can no longer decide who will use their products, nor the circumstances under which they are viewed. In taking back the power to choose when it wants to be entertained, the audience poses problems for an industry already struggling to support more local productions.
Nonetheless, Underbelly deserves repeated viewing not only as an innovative Australian drama in an era when such things were commonly thought to be extinct, but as an indicator of how much things changed in this country between 1996 and 2007. It reflects wider developments in our relationship with media, in the fabric of our cities, and in the values that have come to guide us.
At the end of the Howard decade, "culture wars" will no doubt continue to be fought between articulate people in salaried positions with unchanging ideological agendas. But this tale — a blood-and-bullets war over territory, aspiration, entitlement and honour — involved a far greater number of us, although with perhaps just as many self-deceptions, self-justifications and blind spots.
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