• Rocking, rolling, riding. Oops!


    Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022

    Political train wrecks come in many sizes. Some are insignificant, merely foot in mouth derailments or negligent slow collisions with the bumpers at the end of the line. Some are the full catastrophe, ripping up the rails and plunging off the trestle bridge into the ravine far below.

    Scott Morrison’s prime ministerial address to the National Press Club in Canberra on Feb. 1 looked set to be a minor derailment, against the benchmark of the solid – even stolid – performance of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese at the NCP the previous week.

    Morrison’s presentation, and his pitch, demonstrated how difficult it is for the leader of a party that’s been in power for eight years to come up with fresh ideas. An opposition leader, by contrast, has neither embarrassed the budget nor littered the trail with broken promises. The vision thing is therefore easier. Albanese, the week before, might not have been an inspiration, but he frightened no one’s horses except those in the coalition’s stables. 

    The Prime Minister, characteristically, took the jut-jaw approach in his speech, again mistaking this for the sort of leadership Australians need or are looking for. He was looking for a reset and seeking to sideline damaging text messages, now public, that question his character. He re-announced a range of previously promised initiatives he earnestly hopes we’ve all forgotten he announced before.

    His trademark melange of bombast and bulldust – that’s a compliment, by the way, because his daggy-dad banality makes him a very good borderline populist politician – was deployed to make a case for his return to office on a same-as-before basis. The subtext was that he should be voted back in because his was a government of excellence, fiscally and otherwise, because the pandemic was still a threat, floods of illegal immigrants were still trying to get in, and now the Chinese and the Russians were being beastly. 

    It was a visionless political spin that sought to obscure significant failures, both legislative and procedural, including on the touchstone issue of women versus antediluvian men that he still doesn’t get. But it’s understandable from a prime minister who is inclined to authoritarianism and remains convinced he holds heaven’s command.

    It was a speech that would have been marked down by the media and assorted other Canberra bubblers. But it would have been largely ignored by the electorate, which to the continued amazement of the chattering classes, doesn’t really care about endless politics or analysis overload.

    Morrison would have walked away from the dais with at most a minor demerit to his account. Instead, he ran into the full catastrophe. He was disgracefully ambushed by former academic and current journalist Peter van Onselen of Network Ten who lobbed the now infamous anonymous texts at him via a question after his speech.

    It’s tempting to place quotation marks around both academic and journalist in Van Onselen’s case, since he apparently misunderstands the importance of objective and ethical rigour in both of his disciplines. 

    Morrison looked stunned, but he’s quick on his feet and he handled the question as well as anyone could have expected. He might still have got away with only minor scratches if it hadn’t been for Nationals’ leader Barnaby Joyce. In loyal deputy mode, Joyce made a song and dance about how the alleged Liberal ministerial author of infamous text messages to then NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian calling his leader a hypocrite, a liar and a psychopath should own up. 

    It was just a little later that he was reminded by Brittany Higgins, to whom he’d sent text messages of his own of a remarkably similar vein, that he too was guilty. He’d sent them when he was temporarily on the backbench, sinbinned for his own insouciant stupidity. Not that that’s any excuse. Now he’s back as deputy prime minister, he and Scotty are chums again (we have the prime minister’s word on this). 

    Joyce felt he had to apologise to the prime minister and offer to resign. The last thing Morrison needs heading into an imminent election is another prime example of the dysfunction that plagues his government. The resignation offer was not accepted. 

    Spare us the rounds of applause. Politics is about Machiavellian intrigue, not manners, or for that matter, suitability. But if you ever find yourself in a paddock with Barnaby, you’d be well advised to stay well clear of the ant nest he’s bound to stumble into.

    The point about all this is that in the lead-up to this year’s election the government will be distracted, potentially fatally, by the fact that more than one person – a single voice could be characterised as mad or inconsequential, and therefore be ignored – believes what has been alleged about the prime minister’s character. 

    By contrast, the Labor opposition is not distracted, even by backflips of stunning proportions such as Hunter Valley coal and power stations. It looks unlikely to be derailed between here and election day.

    Unless Morrison really intends to go for the nuclear option and have two elections – one for half the Senate in May and one for the House of Representatives on a date he considers best between now and September – the prime minister is now doubly in peril. The coalition trails the ALP in opinion polling. The government’s handling of the pandemic and the impact of its made-to-order shambles on aged care, vaccination, quarantine, and testing, all federal responsibilities, are deservedly in the spotlight. 

    These things won’t be forgotten by the voters. As well, the budget is blown – it would have been whoever had been in power, but it was on Morrison’s watch – and will have to be painstakingly and probably painfully repaired. 

    Despite politically convenient assertions from the government that this can be achieved without pain or recourse to radicalism, recovery is likely to be long, and in an economic environment in which inflation and interest rates will be rising. 

    That’s not a good election platform. 

    This commentary appears on the seniors’ website startsat60.com, where I contribute fortnightly thoughts on Australian politics and current affairs.

  • The Sun Never Sets, Etc

    Monday, Jan. 31, 2022

    Though the glow does tend to diminish. In a sort of allegory of the diminution and eventual demise of the British empire (a process I was privileged to see first-hand and in which I peripherally participated in an earlier age) I’m now shuffling around my personal empire turning out lights and shutting down expenses. If I were a sensitive fellow, I might feel a bit like poor Charles, a prince of the tattered banner, present merely as an honoured guest at yet another party to celebrate the end of former times.

    Unless the good people at WordPress have already unplugged me, this will be the last blog entry with all the bells and whistles available to premium customers of WordPress, as, in the vacant patois of the age, I’m letting that go, effective immediately, at the end of its annual subscription period. Under my genteel poverty protection program, I’m moving to the free version, so you may find annoying advertisements popping up all over the place if you bother to read my blog anymore. I hope you do. Read the blog I mean. It’s entirely your decision what is to be done with dodgy formatting or pop-up advertisements for stuff you don’t want and can’t use.

    WordPress Premium joins a personal archive already replete with former premium subscriptions to this or that, all sorts of things which once were not to be done without, and other platforms from which to fly the flag, whether anyone noticed or not. It’s a sort of virtual V&A (it’s certainly no Smithsonian) with occasionally engaging hagiography thrown in for no charge. Well, that’s how I think about it, anyway. 

    Farewell the trumpets, as another hagiographer, much more famous, once wrote.

    NOTE: In case anyone thinks I need counselling, or referral to some site for the frail and embarrassed, this item is a designed for a laugh, etc.

  • Welcome, Australia

    Some thoughts on why January 26 shouldn’t be our national day

    Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022

    Australia Day generally comes and goes as it pleases in my little corner of the blogosphere. Flag waving, anthem singing, feelgood nationalism and themed barbecues have never been my thing. I’ve been an Australian for 50 years and always counted myself lucky that when I signed up Brits and other subjects of the Queen could do so simply by affirmation: No oaths required, vulgar or otherwise.

    But Australia Day is always worth notice, and I’ve never missed doing so. The humourist in me calls it First Boot In The Mud Day, since its present date of national celebration is Jan. 26, the anniversary of what was most likely Australia’s first encounter with large numbers of unauthorised boat arrivals. For First Nation Australians, Jan. 26, 1788 marks Dispossession. 

    It was the day Captain Arthur Phillip’s British-to-their-bootstraps crew brought rum, buggery, and the lash to Sydney Cove, in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy. So that’s the foundational moment of settler Australia. It’s not quite up there with the Pilgrim Fathers, who were fleeing persecution rather than bringing it with them by royal command. And today, 234 years later, it may no longer be something you’d want to write home about.

    No great antiquity attaches to celebrating Australia Day on Jan. 26. It’s been a national holiday on that date only since 1994. It’s probably something the history buffs of the Sydney basin might want to mark, with a flag raising, say, provided it’s with the right British flag. That’s the pre-1801 one, without the Irish cross of St Patrick on it. 

    Excluding ANZAC Day, which is sacred for other reasons, Australia’s two true national days are Jan. 1 and May 8. The Commonwealth of Australia came into being on Jan. 1, 1901. The first federal parliament convened on May 8, 1901. But Jan. 1 is already taken: It’s National Hangover Day. May 8, with a long weekend in its proximity, would suit admirably. It could replace the Queen’s Birthday, celebrated with a long weekend in most states in mid-June, though it would be far too early in the season to double as On the Piste Weekend for snow-skiers. 

    Nonetheless, an “Australia Day” has existed in various forms and under different names, and on widely different dates, since the first time someone thought of commemorating the arrival of the First Fleet. And Aboriginal Australians have been formally protesting about this since at least 1838.

    The best way to move towards true settlement is to listen to the silence, to hear the spirits. The point is that Australia is a magic place. There is so much to celebrate, communally and even politically, especially the generally benign British status of the colonies as they ultimately developed. In that broader context, “frontier” skirmishes, disgraceful police actions, stolen lands and stolen generations, imprisonment and race bars, become less potent. They are not erased from history and cannot be excused; but genuinely acknowledged, they can help us all move on. 

    That’s what our takeout from Australia Day should be.  The achievements of the past two-and-a-bit centuries are many. The failures, the demerits of policy failure and social restriction, are far fewer than they might have been. Plenty of examples lie around the globe of where Australia could be if some other mob of conquistadors had happened along instead.

    Accepting the fundamental injustice of what occurred on Jan. 26, 1788, is in no way at odds with celebrating Australia as we all – immigrants and Aboriginal alike – later made it.

    Pondering these points, one recent evening while I was putting together some thoughts for this piece, a fitting finale to it came to mind. An unmistakably Australian sunset streaked the horizon, orange, yellow, indigo and black in a clear, dry, star-speckled sky. Spirits gathered among the gum trees along the Wadandi Track, close to our house, or so I imagined. I thought I could hear them singing, and they whispered memorials to the ancient past and uttered promises to the future. 

    And I thought: Kaya. That’s “welcome” in the Noongar language of southwest Australia. We should listen: This is what we all celebrate. We should do it in song. That’s a practice of the global human herd, as well as a distinct Aboriginal tradition. It would be better to do it on a day that does not celebrate the imperial dispossession of the world’s oldest civilisation. 

    Here’s my list. Perhaps you’d like to compile your own.

    1. I Still Call Australia Home | Peter Allen
    2. Sounds of Then (This is Australia) | GANGgajang
    3. Wiyathul | Gurrumul
    4. Great Southern Land | Icehouse
    5. I Am Australian | Judith Durham & The Seekers
    6. Tenterfield Saddler | Peter Allen
    7. I’ve Been To Bali Too | Redgum
    8. Treaty | Yothu Yindi
    9. Waltzing Matilda 2000 | John Williamson
    10. Glory Glory (I’ll Be Back To See You Story Bridge) | Johnny Chester
    11. Raining on the Rock | John Williamson
    12. Up There Cazaly | Mike Brady (the 2014 version)

    An edited version of this piece appears on the website startsat60.com, where I write a fortnightly column on politics and current affairs.

  • Get Set for the Merry-go-round


    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.

  • Two Very Special Gifts

    It’s so nearly the end of the year and already I am impatient to start 2022. It’s almost here, up there on the brow of the hill, I can see it …

    Two Very Special Gifts
  • Off Their Faces


    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.