There’s a very funny moment in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers, which until recently seemed to depend for its humour on its absurdity. George Moore, a philosopher of the Oxford school, is raging with powerless fury at the televised opening of parliament of a new Labour government. One filled with crony appointments, obsessed with “modernisation”, and disdainful of traditional institutions. What sinecure has Sam Clegthorpe, the trade union leader, gained, he wonders? And who has been appointed archbishop of Canterbury? When he finds out that the new archbishop of Canterbury is Sam Clegthorpe, he realises that he is living in a changed world, one outside the traditional modes of reason.
So it was when the government appointed Janet Albrechtsen and Neil Brown to the appointments board of the ABC. Stoppard outjumped. Brown, a former Liberal deputy leader, had called for the ABC’s abolition. And Albrechtsen? Well, she’s a fine writer and an able partisan for her cause. But she’s chosen a role, that of political warrior, that not only raises questions about whether she can fairly assess those she has crossed swords with, but the wide question of whether she would recognise her own deep biases as such, even if she made an effort to. Her notorious Islamophobic misquoting of a French academic – who debunked the notion that Muslim youth were over-represented in gang rape, and who Albrechtsen portrayed as saying the opposite – took weeks to disprove because Albrechtsen would not admit she had got it wrong. Deliberate misquotation seems unlikely, but the alternative is worse – in the post 9/11 era, she was so fixated on an Islamophobic world view that clear judgement became impossible. The world view itself is not the question here – no one would bat an eyelid if Richard Alston were appointed to the committee – but the view of that world view is. Absent of broadcast managerial experience, the choice of Australia’s marginally less batty version of Ann Coulter – who considers the institution she will help steer as a “Soviet-style” outfit – is a subtraction from it, more than anything else.
The two were technically appointed by Ian Watt, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, as a charge of office established by Kevin Rudd. By an incredible coincidence, Watt independently recommended two favoured right-wing culture warriors who have no technical or managerial experience, either of broadcasting or anything else.
The right have run culture wars before, but this is something else. When the Howard government, in the early 2000s, had nailed down its tax, budget and foreign policy aims, it shouted itself a bit of a march through the institutions. Yet it retained some sense of proportion, appointing conservative sociologist John Carroll to review the National Museum, Donald McDonald to the ABC, and Greg Melleuish to oversee a national curriculum. By all three the government was disappointed, since they failed to produce the one-sided denunciations the government was seeking.
After that, they began to get silly – the ABC board was graced by former Maoisant, now genocide-denier, Keith Windschuttle. The Australian Research Council was put under the supervision of the by-then terminally alcoholic Paddy McGuinness, to weed out “radicalism”. Finally, to get the rote-learning history curriculum John Howard desired, the talents were sought of Gerard Henderson, a figure lately exhumed to judge Tony Abbott’s literary prize. Janet Albrechtsen joined the ABC board at the time, too, and the presence of that duo was a reliable sign that the Howard government was in its decadence.
So what does it mean that the Abbott government has started with Planet Janet and the ghost of the Sydney Institute? The strong impression is that they are not seeking to preserve these institutions, and render them more centrist or even conservative, but to undermine them from within – to consume them as fuel in a war that creates maximum division for political gain.
In his book The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank identified a version of this approach in the US right – discredit government by governing badly. The Henderson appointment appears to be an example. Neither the alumni of judges nor of the award winners suggested a significant left-wing bias, and the only recognisable culture warrior on the lists – a pretty avuncular one at that – was Phillip Adams. Had arts minister George Brandis wanted to address the fact that many people in the arts are implicitly left-liberal, then, as the publisher Chris Feik noted, he could have appointed a cultural conservative writer. Had Brandis appointed a figure such as Pierre Ryckmans, Sophie Masson or Peter Kocan, the prize would have been strengthened. But that was not what was wanted – the point is to test its legitimacy to destruction. To maximise the absurdity of the stack, Henderson has been joined as a judge by Peter Coleman, an old cold-war bruiser who was editor of right-wing journal Quadrant. Nevertheless, Henderson had his defenders, such as a stirring plea in The Australian to give him a chance, written by, er, Peter Coleman. What a pity there isn’t an award for farce.
Mind you, they would have stiff competition from the Albrechtsen/Brown appointments. For decades, until the later Howard years, Labor and Liberal had made partisan appointments to the ABC and other boards. But they had also appointed from the other side, and they had been diligent in selecting people with claims to management and administrative experience. Howard’s increasingly desperate triple-stack of the board upset that political ecology, and Kevin Rudd, to his enormous credit, sought a way of restabilising the process.
This is nothing other than a conservative gesture, in a Burkean sense – trying to preserve inherited traditions and institutions, on the grounds that they are composed of the wisdom of past generations. To deliver to its appointments board perhaps the most visibly partisan figure in the country, and someone who wants to abolish an institution built over a century, is pure destructiveness. It takes in not only the half-dozen TV programs they allege to have a left-wing bias but a vast number of things – genuine local radio, as opposed to the networked commercial version; coverage of obscure sports; a place for low-budget experimental drama and comedy – that are social goods the market would not provide.
The relentless attacks on the ABC are enormously demoralising to many people doing good work within it, but there is little concern over that, because any appeal to the social good it creates gets the simple and tautological answer that what people want is what the market provides, and vice versa. This is a classical liberal formulation in service to a neoliberal dystopia: a fantasy world in which a traditional and recognisably shared Australian society somehow magically continues to exist, while the institutions that sustain it are white-anted, leaving only the market as an expression of public life. Wrecking consensual institutions means that coercive institutions become the sole face of Australia, which is why the Abbott government has taken on such a relentlessly military air.
Put otherwise, it’s a form of political nihilism – and it is far from a sole possession of the right. Indeed, the generation that now spruiks these policies – Abbott, Brandis, Pyne – were those formed at the tail end of the great left–right battles of student politics, the last redoubt of ideological politics in Australia, following the ALP’s rightward move in the 1960s. To a great degree, the new government’s ideological trio are more defined by the left, as an opposition to it, than they are by any positive politics of their own. The guerilla tactics the left adopted in matters cultural in the 1970s – the idea of perpetual war – are simply being replayed on the right. We’re being governed as if we were a student union that had been captured by a clique.
That they are doing it badly is only some consolation. And there is, of course, a hardheaded rationale behind some of it, especially the appointment of Albrechtsen, a News Corp employee, to a position that decides key personnel in the ABC’S future. The question is how to respond to the wrecking crew, not merely politically but in the best interests of the country. In this case it seems clear that the high road would also be the one of greatest political advantage.
Taken separately, these low blows have little impact. But, together with larger issues such as the numerous broken promises of the budget, they add to the impression that the Abbott government has ranged itself against the people. Indeed, it appears to be doing the work of building a coalition against itself, if a consistent series of polls is anything to go by.
Now other parties are starting to grab sections of the resistance to the government’s program. Thus, on budget issues, the Palmer United Party has positioned itself decisively to the left, not merely of the government, but also of Labor.
That consideration, and the determination of the government to run on the wrecking-crew model, puts the onus on Labor to make some sort of commitment as to how it will run public institutions once returned to power. Unquestionably, they should avoid the temptation to fall into a payback cycle. Having part completed the process of putting such appointments on a less nakedly partisan footing, they should complete the process. That would not have become necessary had the existing turn-taking system been preserved by reasonable conduct.
But the Liberals can clearly no longer be trusted to preserve the ecology of such a process. Because the wrecking crew is determined to widen the area of life that is subject to a relentless and cynical political struggle, the area that must be reclaimed becomes of greater breadth, and so does the political coalition dedicated to it. Tom Stoppard’s skewering of this process in Jumpers was aimed at the ’70s political left, to which he gave the fictional name the Radical Liberal Party. For entirely different reasons, the name fits the current squalid state of affairs pretty exactly.