Get Set for the Merry-go-round

AUSTRALIAN POLITICS

Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022

It’s election year. This may not fill our hearts with glee. But it will certainly fill our minds with polly waffle and expose us to more photo opportunities than we would wish upon our worst enemies. Such, unfortunately, is the business of modern electioneering: Never mind the content, feel the bandwidth.

In 2019, Scott Morrison pulled off an election win from a minority government position, the coalition’s margin having been frittered away by in-fighting, inattention and attrition. He secured a one-seat majority; this was less against the odds than against the opinion polls. He had been drafted as the 30th prime minister of Australia nine months earlier, after the Liberal party room gave his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull the Julius Caesar moment that now seems almost compulsory in the antipodean version of the Westminster parliamentary system.

Morrison, the voters narrowly decided, was due a chance to win office in his own right.

Three years on, we’re back at the merry-go-round. The man who can pivot on a pinhead, promise that fine policy can be found in his latest pamphlet, make all manner of untested assertions apparently in the belief that everyone will believe him, and who doesn’t hold a hose, even if there is a bushfire, will be making a pitch for a second term. 

Morrison has several problems. Apart from the natural difficulties of longevity – the coalition has been in office since 2013, and if a day is a long time in politics, eight years is an archaeological era – the Liberals are badly on the nose with women. For some reason that eludes common-sense analysis, they seem to insist on continually insulting women by protecting men of their acquaintance who consider women as prey. This time around, too, there’s a novel factor in play: Simon Holmes à Court’s independents will make life difficult in several Liberal seats.

Opinion polls place the government behind the Labor opposition. But we’ve been there before, as former ALP leader Bill Shorten knows to his cost and prime minister Morrison to his benefit. 

Albanese has been around federal politics for a quarter of a century but he’s a potential circuit-breaker, far more of a threat to the coalition’s hopes of retaining office this year than Shorten was in 2016. This is clear from treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s recent characterisation of him as “hard Left” in the ALP. Albanese is certainly from the left wing of the Labor Party, but if Frydenberg genuinely thinks Albanese is “hard left” he’s missed most of the political primers that should be imprinted on his brain. 

We don’t know yet when the 2022 election will be. Federal parliament does not have fixed terms, though it should, since only incumbent governments benefit from being able to set election dates. 

There are various options, including the wild card of separate House of Representatives and half Senate elections that would mean the lower house wouldn’t need to face election until September. This isn’t regarded as a viable option, though, since it would require voters to turn out twice, double the cost of electing the next parliament, and be widely seen as a ruse to cling to the comforts of office for as long as possible. But it shouldn’t be entirely ruled out, especially given the prime minister’s record for inventive truths.

May is most popularly tipped as an election date as that is effectively the last opportunity to have a half-Senate election in time for new senators to be validated under the complex voting system for the upper house before the new term must begin on July 1. The government has already pencilled in the budget for March 29 with very few parliamentary sitting days before it. Federal budgets are usually in May, but 2019’s was in March and the government dropped the document in the parliament and called an election.

The other prospect is to forget about the budget and have an election in March. This would only mildly inconvenience South Australia (which has a fixed term election due that month) and might avoid the likely early fading of the rosy glow of jobs, jobs, jobs that Morrison, ever the spinmeister, is suggesting will continue if we re-elect the coalition. 

Then there is covid, an even greater unknown. If March is in the prime ministerial mind, we’ll know soon after Australia Day.

Election contests always go down to the devil in the detail of voting counts. In Australia, there’s a narrow window for a progressive message. The conservative bent of the electorate extends beyond the formal coalition margin. This is Labor’s problem. It’s difficult to argue for more spending on social policy when – in the face of the pandemic – the capitalists on the government benches have been spending like drunken sailors. 

It’s also hard to argue for progressive social change when the Australian electorate occupies conservative space by quite a large margin. The formal coalition primary vote in 2019 was 41.44 per cent, but 8.5 per cent of the vote nationwide went to fractional parties whose preferences generally flow to the coalition. So that’s 49.94 per cent, a mere statistical blip away from an outright popular majority.

Labor’s 2019 first preference 33.34 per cent doesn’t compete in that scenario, even if it could count on the bulk of The Greens’ 10.40 per cent first preferences flowing their way.

The safest way to campaign for votes in a democracy is to offer inducements and carefully ration the visions – and altogether avoid those of heavenly dimensions – and carefully target lower house seats. The Senate will reflect the national mood. That’s where the narrow differences between mainstream political views are visible. 

Let the fun begin!

An edited version of this commentary appears today on the Startsat60.com website, as the first of a projected fortnightly diet of commentaries on Australian politics and current affairs.

Off Their Faces

SOCIAL MEDIA | Bans

Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021

An old friend* has been banned from Facebook. It’s not a temporary ban, of the sort the platform’s annoying algorithms and equally irritating geeks might mete out to people who fail to genuflect to the Great Cursor, or who post something Zuckerberg geeks deem disrespectful, like saying someone’s an idiot for being an idiot. It’s an all-time ban, or so it seems to my friend, who of course cannot find a human in the Facebook galaxy of the Meta universe – most likely there aren’t any, at least of a recognisable variety – to speak to about the ban.

His problem is that someone hacked his Facebook account so that a restart with updated passwords and the other impedimenta of virtual life was necessary. We’ve all been there, so we all know how irritating it is, and all wish that the Zuckerberg crew would spend more time and make more effort on providing online security and less on policing moral and other turpitudes as defined by Silly Cone Valley.

So, it should be easy, even if it’s a pest, to revive one’s virtual life on one’s choice of virtual platform. And it would be for my old friend, except that when he originally set up his Facebook account, he did what a lot of people do. He took a few years off his birth date. He did so for very sensible reasons. Who wants to targeted by algorithm-driven advertisements for little blue pills that claim they’ll (re)make a man of you, or for incontinence underwear, after all? Or to be directed to someone else’s assumptions about your musical and other tastes defined by your age? Most of us are perfectly capable of running our lives without the intervention of nerds, especially of the Californian variety.

I’m a little older than my old friend who is now in trouble because he’s lied to Facebook, but I’ve never bothered – on Facebook – to trim my age. If people can’t cope with the fact that I’ll be 77 just after Christmas, that’s their problem. I just ignore advertisements or ill-disguised sales pitches that don’t interest me. I’m sure a lot of people do. I admit to having shaved my age on some other platforms – in one instance, on a music streaming service, by twenty years, so I don’t get directed to the top pops of the 1940s and 1950s – but Facebook, well, I just try to leave the little geeks to their own devices, and to get on with my life as unmolested as possible.

According to my friend, Facebook won’t allow him to restart his account with a birth date that is different from the fictional version he concocted. They prove, yet again, that it really should be called Off Your Facebook.

He blogs too, my friend, and has been in the habit of posting his material on Facebook as well. I do that, to spread the word. I’ve told my old friend I’ll happily put his blog posts on my Facebook, even if I don’t agree with what they say, which sometimes I don’t, while he’s waiting for a flash of light from the heavens, or for Mark Zuckerberg to wake up.

*I know who my old friend is. No one else needs to, in this context. Especially the Zuckerberg storm troopers and their foolishly weaponised algorithms.

Fortunes of War

ARTS | Books and Films

Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021

We’re watching Fortunes of War, the 1987 BBC dramatization of Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levantine trilogies. I should say, we’re re-watching it – on YouTube – three years since first doing so, al fresco, on a laptop computer lounging in the evening heat on our pool terrace in Bali. I’m also re-reading the book itself, having found it again in Port Douglas in August. Manning’s representation of events in the wartime Balkans and later Egypt and Palestine had always struck me as masterly; so unexpectedly finding the book was nearly as much fun as rediscovering Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, another achievement of our winter escape from the southwest of WA. 

Generally, in relation to filmed adaptions of literature, I’m one of those annoying people who either like the book or the show, but never both. I’m happy to break ranks with myself on that, in this case. The TV series – only seven episodes, each of them riveting – is as faithful to the original text as seems possible, given the different milieus, and that is truly a joy in this instance, since the historical facts both fully underpin the book and the TV series, and shouldn’t be messed with. Another pedantry to which I happily plead guilty.

It is surprising (to me at any rate) how similar are one’s subconscious constructs of both the book’s text and the TV series’ dramatization. Re-reading a book always reveals more between its lines each time, however often it is read. Revisiting a film does the same. It’s always fun spotting the differences you detect between readings or viewings.

Guy and Harriet Pringle, in the book, test the mind’s eye. It may help that reading if you have had some close to direct experience yourself of the lives and times of which the book is a mirror. In my case this was the shambolic just-post-imperial Middle East and the bitter lemons of the Levant a decade after Manning’s narrative. It’s very English (I mean this as opposed to British, a distinction that is too often overlooked or misunderstood).

In the TV series, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are magnificently cast. Thompson’s Harriet is a tad more outré in her approach to her new husband and his coat-trail of connections than Manning’s original creation. Branagh’s pedant-Marxist English lecturer academic is just as frustrating as you’d expect, in both the book and the series, especially perhaps in his stage production of Troilus and Cressida in Bucharest while the war presses in ever closer to doomed Romania.

I didn’t think that in the TV series Ronald Pickup was quite as believable as Prince Yakimov as that awful Russian émigré, wastrel, glutton and scrounger was in the book. That’s not a criticism of Pickup, who portrays the seedy hopelessness and social distress of his subject very well; it’s just that, in a sense, Yakimov is the hardest character in the book to translate to a visual medium. 

The film has one other thing that sets it apart from the book, as a sensory experience. The theme music, by Richard Holmes, is brilliantly skin-tingling, fully evocative of everything that the story tells.

Do Yourself a Favour, Gladys

Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021

I have some sympathy for former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, as, I think, would many people who implicitly understand that no one is perfect, least of all themselves. She did the right thing – eventually – when the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) named her as a person of interest requiring investigation. She resigned as premier and said she would leave state politics. Ethically, she had no option but to fall upon her sword. Taking personal responsibility comes with leadership. That’s something a lot of so-called leaders should think about.

Berejiklian erred in letting the known serial gouger, former state member for Wagga Wagga Daryl Maguire, into her private life. She was state treasurer at the time and Maguire was – as always – sniffing around for political favour and public money. He embodies the word grub, both politically and personally. She was mad not to disclose to her ministerial colleagues her personal relationship with Maguire. That was straight-out dereliction of duty by an elected official. She was daft not to say “WTF!” when Maguire told her things about his schemes to acquire wealth and influence at public expense, opting instead to tell him there were things she didn’t need to know about.

But she took the fall that was the inevitable outcome of this astonishing public negligence, and she is due credit for her courage in doing so.

Now prime minister Scott Morrison wants her to run for federal parliament in the conservative blue-ribbon seat of Warringah, won in 2019 by the independent Zali Steggall, who saw off former prime minister Tony Abbott who’d been there since 1994. The Liberals are desperate to retain-and-or-regain seats they see as their natural turf in the election that must be held by June 2022. The sky will fall in, d’you see, if they lose office. It won’t, of course. Most Australians, however they generally vote or plan to next time, understand that perfectly well.

Morrison, who is a living lesson in the problems of the Peter principle and whose grasp of ethics is as notional as his grip on verisimilitude, says the ICAC investigation of Berejiklian is a stitch-up, and that most people don’t really care what she did with or to whom, while in office in NSW. Neither does he see any difficulty with getting Berejiklian endorsed as the Liberal candidate in Warringah ahead of the ICAC decision in her case. He doesn’t like independent inquiries into allegations of corruption, as we know. That’s why there isn’t a federal ICAC. It would be too close to home.

Berejiklian should do herself, and everyone, a favour. There’s only one answer she can give Morrison: No.

There’s a lot of bull in this China shop

Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021

Well, forgetting the bull for the present, there’s a lot of blue water – literally in this case – between the fractious business of managing relations with China and doing the sort of pre-boy on the burning deck routine we’re seeing in Australia from the government and its fellow travellers. There are bogeymen everywhere, if you listen to them. Of course China is a potential problem, though far less for Australia than for others. There’s no argument in favour of telling ourselves scary stories, or for cutting off our nose to spite our face, and we certainly need to nuance our policy. We should make the point that China’s cross-strait bullying of Taiwan destabilises the neighbourhood. We can do that pointedly as well as politely. We should emphasise to China our view that, if it cannot or will not give away its direct claim to the island, it should prosecute its aim of reincorporating Taiwan – to which the vanquished Chinese nationalists fled and set up a rival China when the communists won the civil war in 1949 – by peaceful negotiated means. We need as a corollary to this to understand that Beijing’s rhetoric is not necessarily more than huff and puff and frighten the horses unless someone else does something really stupid first.

We certainly don’t need to join the Jeremiah chorus of armchair generals and recent real ones that’s found a meal ticket in predicting war in the short term between China and the rest. Add to that list the Australian minister for defence, Peter Dutton, who told the National Press Club on November 26 that China was a terrible threat and we should remember that every Australian capital city was or would soon be within striking range of a Xi dynasty nuclear missile. Mr Dutton, who is from the fearless come-outside-and-knee-me-in-the-nuts faction of the Liberal Party, likes to scare people. He thinks it will make them vote LNP. It suits his politics, and undoubtedly his ambitions, to remind us that we should constantly worry whether underneath every bed is a red, a monster, or possibly both. At least his new focus is giving us a rest from his global Islamist conspiracy. He scares me too; but it’s his jackboot tendency rather than his misunderstanding of geopolitics that unfailingly finds my spine and sends a shiver up it.

There is as yet no direct evidence to support the Dutton view that China has an overwhelming preference for subsuming Taiwan by force, or a precise timetable for this event. It’s fairly clear that it could do so if it wanted, though it’s also clear that even if it was only fighting that other Chinese army, the nationalist one on Taiwan, it wouldn’t be doing so in a walkover. Sun Tzu noted that you should fight the battles that you can win. He is of suitably Chinese origin to gain official notice among the mandarins. But Machiavelli does venal politics much better.

Former prime minister Paul Keating’s speech at the National Press Club in Canberra on November 10 was masterly by contrast. It was informed not by funk, as some who accuse Keating of appeasement would like us to think, or (refreshingly) by a political desire to frighten people, but by a substantial comprehension of the facts. He didn’t say that Australia had no option but to kowtow to the mandarins in Beijing. He said that Australia needed to define, develop, and implement its own national policy in regard to China and its latest Great Helmsman.

In other words, we need to take a pragmatic, common sense and primarily Australian view of the relationship from our own perspective. In short, if we daren’t fully abandon our historical bipartisan preference for playing upraised middle finger on behalf of the two apron strings to whom, with the new AUKUS pact, we have revitalised our historical status as auxiliaries to the western empire, we should at least try to look as if we know where we are. A clue: We’re not anchored mid-Atlantic, somewhere between the Scilly Isles off Old England and Nantucket off New England .

And no one is suggesting that supine should replace supreme as a sensible diplomatic or defence posture, by ourselves or any others. We’re not alone in the region in feeling apprehensions over China’s future intentions. India has its own China problem, in which, in a maritime environment, Australian naval power could play a deterrent role. There’s not much we can do about the Himalayas, after all. Japan is also worried. So is South Korea. And so, for a raft of reasons, is America.

Let’s Not Forget

Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021

There’s a lovely verse in Baker Street, Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 track – it has headed my personal hit parade for more than four decades – and it seems apt, almost totemic, as a way of describing life as I am living it these days:

He’s got this dream about buying some land

He’s gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands

And then he’ll settle down 

In some quiet little town

And forget about ev’rything

There’s some artistic licence in there. Unless you’re an American, a nightstand is better known as a bedside table. They look lonely, or at best asymmetric, unless accompanied by a twin. But I jest. Rafferty was crooning about opportunistic sexual encounters. In my case, these have been overwhelmingly more gossipy fiction than biographical fact, though I concede that the fiction, and the gossipers, gave me some anxious moments back in the day. 

But just to note: There’s no way I’m giving up the booze, even though I apparently unknowingly angered a black cat back in 2014, fell into the hands of the surgical community, and haven’t been able to touch whisky since. Do I hear you intone, “bummer!”? I’ll have a double, thanks.

Nonetheless, time has moved on and we’ve bought some land (it had a very nice house on it when we did) and we’re trying to settle down in a quiet little town. That town is formally a city, in the Australian fashion. In other words, it is far from being a metropolis. It has a population of around 35,000 people and 35,000,000 gum trees. It’s very quiet, unless there’s a breeze blowing.

We’ve now been here for more than eighteen months, having abandoned our decade and a half of Fifo life Bali in April 2020. I’m trying very hard not to forget about everything. I’m implacably opposed to the modern fashion for deciding that the past is dead and that it therefore has no utility. Historians everywhere would agree with me.

Also, after a long career as a scribbler, I’m not going to forget the things I’ve written about, or suddenly decide that I am no longer interested in them. Neither, wearing my other hat, shall I forget what I did to whom, or why, during a decade in which I politically advised people, although I still wonder how I talked myself into that walk of life.

At the end of next month, I shall be seventy-seven. This is incomprehensible. I remember clearly how, at seventeen, which though sixty years ago still seems like yesterday, I chiefly thought only two things about old guys who were seventy-seven: 

One, I’ll never make it. And two, how on earth did they?

I now know the answer to the second question: A combination of luck and (often borrowed) good judgment, with a sizeable preponderance of the former.

Is it time to consider a universal wage?

Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021

Every cloud has a silver lining. Well, that’s if you’re lucky and you believe in ancient aphorisms. But there’s certainly a silver lining under the big covid cloud if the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) attracts you. Serious academic study of the concept and of its associated cost is now under way in Australia. It’s supported – as a concept – by Anglicare, the social justice arm of the Anglican Church, and others in the welfare sector. And its big-ticket cost doesn’t look too bad against the $311 billion cost of countering covid as a disease and an economic threat outlined in the 2021-22 federal budget, especially in the remodelled tax landscape that would be necessary.

No country in the world yet has a UBI in place. Germany is currently trialling a scheme and Finland has experimented and likes the idea. Scandinavian and German concepts of mutual welfare are somewhat different from those in more capitalist-oriented societies, however. Andrew Yang, a Democrat aspirant for the US presidency in 2019 who swiftly disappeared from the hustings proposed a UBI as part of his non-mainstream program. (He said it should be $US1,400 a month, currently equivalent to $A1,800.)

Proponents of a UBI – there are other acronyms around but the theory’s the same – point out that implementing a scheme at the right level would remove much of the social disadvantage experienced by low-to-no income groups and eliminate the stigma of living on welfare. The idea is that if everyone gets a UBI, then no one will be viewed as a burden on the community. It’s a concept that’s gaining public popularity too, as a poll conducted for the not-for-profit Anglicare found last year.

It would be a handy way of reminding government that it’s people, not a pile of rocks and a bunch of bushes, that constitute a country, and that – in a democratic system at least – it really is the people who are sovereign. It would make administration simpler and eliminate confusion. A UBI set at a high enough figure to be effective ($18,500 is one suggestion, estimated to cost $126 billion a year) would be substantially offset by elimination of many other welfare payments.  This could include ending the age pension altogether if a UBI were set at the age pension level ($18,900 a year). “Age pension” Australians would simply stay on the UBI when they reached pension age.  

Professor Ben Spies-Butcher, a Macquarie University academic and co-director of the Australian Basic Income Lab established last year with academics from Macquarie, Sydney University and the Australian National University, says the covid pandemic and the JobSeeker and JobKeeper support package responding to it stimulated interest in a UBI and created much useful data on what steps might be taken to establish one.

Covid won’t last forever as a pandemic threat, but neither will it be eradicated as an endemic risk, and the virus will continue to mutate, throwing up new variants, so it’s unlikely there’ll be a swift return – far less a full return – to life as we have known it up to now. (Unforeseen consequences are a feature of cataclysmic change, as history teaches anyone who bothers to listen. Some unreconstructed politicians and resource-stripping corporations may be feeling as blindsided as Western Europe’s feudal lords did when the Black Death of the 14th century suddenly made wage-earning freemen of their few remaining serfs and sparked the march to mercantilism, the precursor of Adam Smith’s capitalism.) 

Australia has been luckier than many countries through the covid pandemic. The virus itself has been largely a controllable public health and medical event – though Melbourne and Sydney have been hit relatively hard – and the ability of the Australian government to outlay enormous sums of money to support the national economy and population has been a boon. Long-held principles of so-called fiscal rectitude were hurriedly if sometimes grudgingly thrown overboard in 2020. There may be a few who think that we now need to be re-educated – Capitalism for Dummies 101 – but Australia has never been a fully capitalist society. Post-covid, capitalism’s theoretical signature is likely to be even further reduced. A return to perceived normality is now a questionable prospect even in the longer term.

The pandemic also hit at a crucial moment in the global transformation of industrial economies from a source of almost unlimited jobs to one in which without high skills – a lot of them so new that virtually everyone’s an apprentice in them – many people will simply not be employable. We can’t all be brain surgeons, and anyway, AI robots are as likely as not to gain an edge in that skilled speciality too. 

Similarly, the brave new world of the gig economy probably cannot be outlawed (whether it should be is another question). This means that many people face lifelong exclusion from the prospect of home loans and of building up significant superannuation. No one will give you a mortgage if you don’t have a regular job, and paying meaningful private super instalments requires a regular income.

But here’s the rub: Even an incurable optimist would have to concede that at present an Australian UBI is a distant prospect. It’s unlikely to benefit today’s age pensioners. It’s worth thinking about, though, if you’re interested in what Australia could look like in years to come. 

(This commentary also appears, slightly edited, on the website startsat60.com)

Some further reading on universal basic income:

https://www.dw.com/en/basic-income-germany-tax-free/a-54700872

https://phys.org/news/2019-02-basic-income-world-national-finland.html

Eye, Eye!

Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021

Just a little bit of whimsy ahead of an event I’m not looking forward to.

This week I shall be having the first of two cataract surgeries. The first is in two days time, on Friday, Apr. 16, and the second is scheduled for May 11. I’ve read up on the procedure, which these days is delivered in day surgery with eye-numbing drops. It’s that last bit that gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy, not your modern self-voyeur who likes a ringside seat. If a surgeon is going to be messing with me, I like to be unconscious.

Still, life teaches you – if you are sensible – that what must be borne must simply be borne. As with any health preventive or corrective measures, there’s a risk: that it won’t fully work; or worse. The risk is very small. It’s probably even smaller if you remember not to flinch while you can see that unnatural things are being performed upon you. And I shall try very hard to remember that.

What really irritates, however, is the evidence that the necessity for cataract surgery presents as to the failing nature of oneself. Yes, it’s a natural process. Yes, it’s also an inevitable process. And actually, it’s a welcome one, since no one should be so self-important as to want to live forever. I’m very distant from death’s door, at least so far as I know, barring the intervention of fate. But I am being forced to recognise that, actually, yes, I’m 76. How did that happen? Last thing I remember, I was chasing nymphs around rose bushes. Well, sort of. Myth is always more powerful than history. And anyway, perhaps I really was trying to get away. That could be another good myth, couldn’t it?

The truth is that up to now, for more than three score years and ten, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in terms of health and what, if I were a horse, someone might describe as condition. The usual childhood things aside, I’ve had to deal only with dysentery – an accident of short-term residence in a hot, flyblown, windy and very sandy bit of Africa 70 years ago – and two surgeries, one long ago, and one emergency matter, more recently though dealt with successfully and far enough in the past to now be merely archive material. I’ve worn spectacles since I was 18 (though if my ophthalmic surgeon, Ed. and Glas., is right, that may soon end) and – I love this joke – I’ve had my own teeth since those that my genetics issued to me proved wholly inadequate for the tasks required of them.

In a way, I feel rather like great-grandpa’s favourite axe, now a family heirloom and still in its original condition, as good as ever, having in its long and useful life had only two new heads and four new hafts. I’m on no medication. Doctors are astounded by this, or perhaps they’re just disappointed that I’m not in the market for western-style pandemic prescriptions. But I’ve never favoured “here’s a pill, pop it,” as either prophylactic or palliative medicine. I’ve shrunk a bit, as you do under the weight of years, though not too much; and now we’re back in Australia permanently, I’m never again going to win Tallest in Room.

Right. Next question?

Mr Porter’s Problem

Thursday, Mar. 4, 2021

It’s not that he’s an entitled brat who’s never properly grown up. It isn’t that he counts himself among a group of Liberal politicians who style themselves The Swinging Dicks (a tip, fellas: buy better underwear). It isn’t that, as a consequence of his all-too-common adolescent male fantasy, he’s in that cohort of men who think women are privileged that he has noticed them and should be grateful for this beneficence. It’s not even that as attorney-general of the Commonwealth, he’s Australia’s senior law officer: that may formally be the case, but he’s just another politician, and in his case, a bad one.

Christian Porter’s problem is that when he finally fronted up to a media conference and unwelcome photo opportunity in Perth yesterday, having by his silence for far too long allowed the other 15 males in federal cabinet to be speculated upon as possible rapists, he spent 45 minutes explaining that he was the victim. Pass the sickbag. With that pathetic demonstration of the true nature of his character, he identified himself very clearly as a man with whom it would be unfortunate if not fatal to share a foxhole under fire in No Man’s Land. He denied all allegations against him. He is entitled to do so, under oath or otherwise. But there could not be a police investigation because – and there are sensible reasons for this – a complaint dies with the complainant. In this instance, too, the woman who lodged the complaint, alleging that the attorney general of the Commonwealth raped her in 1988, when he was 17 and she was 16, had not formalised her complaint before she took her own life.

Ending a police inquiry – before it had begun, in this instance – has no bearing on determining whether there should be an inquiry into historical allegations of rape. Again, Attorney General Porter is entitled to protest his innocence. He is entitled to smear the memory of the woman who claimed she was his victim, by asserting that none of the events alleged took place. In his view, then, she lied, or was mistaken, or was malicious or mad. He can do that in perfect safety. The dead cannot sue for defamation. 

But there is a word that aptly describes powerful, well-connected men whose superior sense of entitled grievance when challenged leads them to assert that they are excused scrutiny. Mr Porter has added a substantial footnote to the lexicography of crude epithets with his performance yesterday in Perth.

Instead of clearing the air by finally finding some courage – by announcing, say, that he maintained his denial of the events alleged but that in the circumstances there should be an inquiry and that he would stand aside while this took place – he gave us a fairy story. He asserted that if allegations were made against politicians and others who denied them, and that if they had to stand aside while these were investigated, then the whole basis of our rule of law would be destroyed. Give. Me. A. Break. The office of attorney-general is just that, an office like any other. If an incumbent cannot act, whether or not temporarily, other people can fill that office. No one would fall off the sides of Mr Porter’s apparently flat earth if he did the decent, sensible thing. Except perhaps in astonishment.

NOTE: Paul Kelly has a good piece in The Australian today that puts another argument. It’s worth reading, if it’s available to you, and I have done so. I can’t post a link to it here, as I no longer subscribe to the newspaper. That’s a budgetary decision rather than a cerebral choice. I’ve always read from a variety of contestable sources.