2018: Death and the maidens
With some effort, you might recall that the former prime minister’s “bonk ban” – Malcolm Turnbull’s change to the ministerial code of conduct, an attempt to prevent a repeat of his deputy’s “shocking error of judgement” – was made in only February, and not a decade previous, so distant is it made to seem by the year’s subsequent, cascading follies.
During Barnaby Joyce’s very public demotion, following his affair with a younger staffer, he chastised the media’s prurience while courting its attention with bizarre and self-defeating insistence. Meanwhile, his contempt for the prime minister became so uncontainable that it spilled into public threats.
We saw seven federal byelections, most compelled by ineptitude, and the sale of filing cabinets stuffed with classified documents to a second-hand furniture dealer – in the same year the government asked for our trust as it hastily drew a bill undermining encryption technology.
In Wentworth, the new prime minister, Scott Morrison, sought the approval of the electorate’s Jewish voters by announcing his desire to move Australia’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a major, provocative shift announced with little consultation. The government lost Wentworth anyway, a first for the Liberal Party, and also lost the faith of Indonesia, which protested against the policy by stalling its approval of a major free-trade agreement.
This month, Morrison announced his government’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, an acknowledgment of Palestinian claims to the east. It pleased neither Israel nor our Islamic neighbours, and the logic of the whole process remains obscure.
New South Wales Labor leader Luke Foley bitterly relinquished his leadership after an ABC reporter, forced crudely into making a public statement, alleged he had sexually harassed her. Foley’s press conference, of which most expected a terminal contrition, was short, blunt and defiant: the claims, he said, were false and defamatory – he would abandon the leadership out of altruism, not guilt; he would stay in parliament and he would sue the reporter. A fortnight later, he was persuaded to neither recontest his seat nor pursue legal action.
The Greens were variously scandalised. In November, NSW parliamentarian Jenny Leong demanded the immediate resignation of her colleague, Jeremy Buckingham, over allegations of sexual misconduct. (Buckingham quit the party on December 20, saying he would contest the upcoming NSW election as an independent.) A fortnight later, federal Liberal MP Julia Banks, who memorably described being intimidated by her own colleagues during this year’s leadership spill, suddenly announced she would quit the party and move to the crossbench – effective immediately. “The coup was aided by many MPs trading their vote for a leadership change in exchange for their individual promotion, preselection endorsements or silence,” she said. “Their actions were undeniably for themselves. For their position in the party. Their power. Their personal ambition. Not for the Australian people who we represent. Not for what people voted for in the 2016 election … My sensible centrist values, belief in economic responsibility and focus on always putting the people first and acting in the nation’s interest have not changed. The Liberal Party has changed.”
It was a busy year for the Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, who oversaw a policy that has now kept children on Nauru for five years, delayed their urgent medical evacuations and assisted the Nauruan government to enforce its illegal employment blacklist against political opponents. In September, a senate committee found Dutton had misled parliament with his characterisation of his intervention in the visa status of two foreign au pairs employed by people he knew. Dutton also denied he was constitutionally ineligible under Section 44(v), which prohibits members from having pecuniary interests in the Commonwealth.
There was also the little matter of his plot to replace the prime minister – a humiliating affair that failed to reward Dutton’s ambition but succeeded in replacing our country’s leader for the sixth time in a decade, and that helped further poison the well of public faith.
Elsewhere, cricketers succumbed to pressure and found notoriety; the banking royal commission, reluctantly agreed to by the government a year ago, revealed systemic cons. An independent review into cricket’s administration, penned by the Ethics Centre, linked the two. “As the Hayne Royal Commission into Banking and Finance has shown so clearly, the remuneration policies of business have been notoriously effective in driving a ‘win at all costs’ performance culture that has seen fees levied from dead people and for services never provided,” it read. “That a financial institution ‘robbed the dead’ is as unthinkable as an Australian cricket player taking sandpaper onto the field of play – and has prompted a similar response from the Australian public.”
As I wrote last year, via author Franklin Foer, we have marvelled too long at the tech giants while they’ve grown their addictive, monopolistic, privacy-smashing networks – networks, we now know, that are vulnerable to insidious manipulations. This year, Facebook and Twitter wrote largely platitudinous submissions to a senate inquiry into our 2016 election, while a New York Times investigation found Facebook’s executive team preferred securing its reputation to its systems when they were alerted to its interference from hostile agents.
This quick audit of public folly is woefully inadequate – not least because it doesn’t include the things not done. Climate change, tax reform, energy policy, infrastructure, population, Close the Gap… There is an enduring deficit of courage, cohesion, ability, imagination and good faith. And each week there’s a warning sign. “Australia’s climate has warmed by just over 1°C since 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events,” read the CSIRO’s biennial “State of the Climate” report, released this week. “Australia is projected to experience: Further increases in sea and air temperatures, with more hot days and marine heatwaves, and fewer cool extremes; further sea level rise and ocean acidification; decreases in rainfall across southern Australia with more time in drought, but an increase in intense heavy rainfall throughout Australia.”
So, yes, it has been another dog of a year, and never mind for the fortunes of the Coalition. It has been wretched for our collective faith in democracy. Within the Australian National University’s rich, longitudinal election study one disturbing graph plots popular satisfaction/dissatisfaction with democracy itself. The graph’s two lines, so comfortably separated just a decade ago, are now on a collision course.
This faith isn’t a luxury. Its absence in America helped elect an anarchic crook as president and swelled the ranks of white nationalists. The sum of disorder and cynicism is the exhausted faith of the people – who will start looking elsewhere.
The year ended as it began – with a Nationals sex scandal, associated questions about public funds and a blighted leadership. Andrew Broad, an assistant minister to the deputy prime minister, was alleged to have courted young “sugar babes” on overseas jaunts – and to have repelled at least one woman with a boorish malfunction of his “charm”.
In a series of semi-cryptic statements from the party, we learnt that the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, had advised Broad a few weeks ago to refer something to the Australian Federal Police. From Broad we heard his belief that the woman in question was involved in some unspecified illegality. The lack of detail was confusing, leaving the impression that Broad had either become ensnared in something more unsavoury than his overtures, or that he would like us to think he has been victimised in some way. This week, the AFP said it had found nothing to pursue.
Maybe there’s a world in which we grant some qualified understanding to Andrew Broad, were it not for the married MP’s public appeals to family values, his showy criticism of Joyce or his comparing gay men to livestock during the marriage-equality debate. “I can put the rams in the paddock and they might mount one another but no lambs will come out,” he told a local newspaper in 2016, but presumably it wasn’t for lambs that Broad approached “Sweet Sophia Rose”.
The deputy prime minister hardly improved things when he defended his party’s valour by claiming the support of “both the women in my party”. Nor did he help Coalition relations by failing to alert the prime minister to the impending Broad scandal – a strange oversight given the circumstances of his assuming the job after Joyce’s downfall.
The country is now poised to forcefully evict its government – but not to embrace its replacement. In this context, the presumed election of Bill Shorten to the Lodge next year will be troublingly contingent. Shorten has never enjoyed public approval, but he’s been fortunate enough to escape its scrutiny. He’s sailing downstream. One might be inclined to salute his pragmatism and wink at his good luck. But if one is inclined to view this as an alarming time for democracy, and to view our decade of public neglect and political disorder as the sum of a thousand acts of self-interested myopia, I’m unsure how well Shorten’s particular pragmatism will serve us.
On the final day of parliament this year, after the government ran down the clock to avoid losing a vote on the medical transfer of offshore refugees, came Labor’s late, surprise capitulation on the government’s encryption bill – a bill the Opposition had described as recklessly unrefined. To avoid being wedged on national security, and to clear any troubling logs on that downstream ride, Shorten abandoned his party’s amendments. It surprised more than a few of his colleagues.
Australia is currently governed by a Steven Bradbury – it doesn’t need another.
During last year’s French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron presented as earnest, genial and dependably wonkish. Once elected, his presentation changed abruptly. Macron’s would be a “Jupiterian” leadership, aides said, named for the Roman god of sky and thunder. Grim-jawed and laconic, he would conduct his leadership with a dignified aloofness while ordering his earthly surrogates in cabinet to acquit the messy business of politics – all the better to generate mystery and awe about a position he felt had been tainted by the scandals of his two predecessors.
It was an odd moment – during sustained contractions of populist nationalism – to hinge a presidency upon its mystification. With 23 per cent approval, and the streets periodically ablaze, the president’s gamble hasn’t paid off. His leadership is only 18 months old, and the collapse of support is stark. Having accidentally found a vacated centre, Macron’s election seemed less an embrace than a rejection of the extreme right and left that flanked him. But what is Jupiter’s mandate?
In Britain, Brexit continued to confound and depress. It’s now been two-and-a-half years since Britain voted to leave the European Union, ending David Cameron’s prime ministership and leaving Theresa May with the mother of all Gordian knots. Where Macron felt he could quell the waves of national ennui through sheer will, May had already inherited the people’s – they wanted out and it was her duty to get them there.
She still doesn’t know how. An agreed deal with the EU requires the authorisation of parliament and when May anticipated its failure there she delayed its vote, signalling her weakness and triggering a vote against her leadership. But her colleagues couldn’t find those votes either and the limbo continues. May has scheduled another parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal for January when a no-confidence motion against her government, tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, will also come to a vote. “What an odd situation we’re in,” the British comic David Mitchell wrote in The Guardian. “We’ve got a prime minister that hardly anybody wants – a year or so ago a minority thought ‘she’ll do for now’, but that was pretty much her popularity zenith – trying to push through a plan that absolutely nobody wants. I think that’s true, isn’t it? That nobody wants it, this ‘Chequers plan’? It’s a form of Brexit, so all the people who voted against Brexit (such as Theresa May) don’t want it. But it’s apparently a feebly soft Brexit – ‘economic vassalage’, according to Johnson – so all of the people who want Brexit don’t want it. And also the EU, which doesn’t want Brexit and hasn’t agreed to the Chequers plan, doesn’t want it.”
If Macron assumed the role of an alpha god this year, Scott Morrison was the anti-Jupiter – a fumbling, fair-dinkum caricature. For the first few weeks of his leadership, it was almost impossible to see “ScoMo” without a snag, footy or baseball cap. He journeyed across Queensland in a big blue bus bearing his grinning face – except, well, he didn’t. He flew. The bus was more like the Mary Celeste – mysteriously abandoned, adrift.
Sure, all the frothies and Four’n Twenties and blokey vernacular helped contrast the man with his urbane predecessor, but the performance lacked either conviction or subtlety. As an actor, Morrison is a ham, and I wonder how much the public crave “ordinariness” anyway. Clarity and competency must surely rank higher, but these are harder to come by than a Sharks cap.
In November, Morrison met briefly with the United States president at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Trump his superior when it comes to farce. It seems preposterous to summarise The Donald’s year, so chaotically plotted it has been. But by year’s end, Trump’s 2016 campaign, transition team, inauguration committee and his presidency itself were all under investigation. His long-time fixer, Michael Cohen, was convicted on federal fraud charges and for deceiving congress, and in court directly implicated the president in his crimes. Incredibly, Cohen became the fifth Trump adviser to be convicted since the Mueller inquiry began. Trump will begin the new year with a Democrat-held house of representatives.
The recording of Astral Weeks, which turned 50 this year, was not promising: the young Van Morrison, allergic to his sudden fame, escaped to New York City – only to find indebtedness with the mob, which obliged his refuge in Boston. He dropped the electric guitar for an acoustic one, pop-blues for something that taxed description and conventional lyrics of romantic wistfulness for mystical streams-of-consciousness.
Then the album’s producer ordered Morrison to drop something else: his touring band, to be replaced with brilliant session musicians. Guitarist Jay Berliner had played with Charles Mingus, but he’d also just recorded a jingle for beer snacks – Astral Weeks was just another gig.
And what a strange one. At 23, Morrison was already a difficult man in thrall to his own jealously guarded muse and he spent most of the sessions in the vocal booth with his guitar, defiantly rude, refusing to speak with anyone. From this aloof vantage Morrison dictated proceedings with voice and guitar alone, the ground upon which the session players would improvise.
And they improvised brilliantly. Berliner’s guitar, Connie Kay’s brushed drums and, most distinctively, the upright bass of Richard Davis – the strings, which Morrison felt were too thick and relentless, were overdubbed later. The result was a miraculous accident – gestalt achieved without camaraderie or verbal instruction, though evidently found with a common language. As Vietnam metastasised, cities burnt and assassins stalked the land, Morrison was recording a masterpiece of far subtler and intimate disintegrations.
The same year, Aretha Franklin, who died in August aged 76, released Lady Soul – one of the finest albums from one of history’s finest singers. In February 1968, she sang it live to an audience that included Martin Luther King Jr, who had earlier conferred upon her an award on behalf of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was murdered two months later and Franklin would sing once more for him at his funeral.
Where Van Morrison was now singing obliquely about pain – more Yeats than Lead Belly, both his icons – Franklin was bearing witness bluntly. And there was plenty of pain to testify to. Born in Memphis, Franklin was raised in Detroit by a mother who left when she was six – and died when she was 10 – and an abusive, influential and charismatic reverend father. At 12, she would give birth to her first child while a child herself.
Time magazine gave its June 28, 1968 cover to her. The journal of the white middle-brow conceded, “Much if not most of what the white public knew as rock’n’roll during this [post-World War II] period consisted of proxy performances of Negro R&B music by people like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley”, which created a “caustic resentment” among African-American musicians. Until her death, Franklin kept a purse beside her during performances that contained her appearance fee, paid upfront – a legacy of her having been ripped off by white impresarios decades before.
In different ways, and for different reasons, Morrison and Franklin transformed pain into timeless testaments.
The pioneering journalist, novelist and provocateur Tom Wolfe died in May this year, aged 88. Perhaps best known for his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, it was his 1973 anthology of magazine reporting, The New Journalism, that switched me on – Joan Didion in Haight-Ashbury, writing coolly on the moribund slums of Bohemia; Hunter S. Thompson melting mind and genre to chronicle a horse race and American decadence; George Plimpton, a pole-thin dandy, suiting up for the mean Detroit Lions with a notepad stuffed in his helmet; as a drunk and raging participant, Norman Mailer describing the march on the Pentagon.
Wolfe’s journalism closely observed manners and throttled received wisdoms, but it seemed to me that his enthusiastic contrarianism later became an unexamined pose – a snideness stuffed and mounted on the public wall. Wolfe enthused about Trump the way an arsonist enthuses about fire. “He’s a loveable megalomaniac,” he said. “The childishness makes him seem honest.” In the US president, Wolfe saw a man whose contempt for liberal pieties outstripped his own, a man who could transform that contempt into something much grander than essays and sharp rejoinders.
But the childishness wasn’t benign, much less loveable, and Trump’s contempt isn’t limited to liberal piety but covers, in a gushing tide, anything or anyone that challenges him. Nonetheless, Wolfe died entertained.
The same month, the novelist Philip Roth died. He was 85. Author of almost 30 novels, including the comically ribald Portnoy’s Complaint and the later, brilliant American Pastoral, Roth possessed a spooky intelligence and monk-like devotion to his craft. He was also fiercely independent. The novelist Zadie Smith wrote following his death: “At an unusually tender age, he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person. ‘Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest,’ he once said. For Roth, literature was not a tool of any description. It was the venerated thing in itself.”
In one of his last interviews, Roth spoke of his pleasure and surprise to wake each morning, to find himself still alive. He had stopped writing some years before – convinced his talents were retreating – and did little but read. “I go to sleep smiling and I wake up smiling,” he told The New York Times. “I’m very pleased that I’m still alive. Moreover, when this happens, as it has, week after week and month after month since I began drawing Social Security, it produces the illusion that this thing is just never going to end, though of course I know that it can stop on a dime. It’s something like playing a game, day in and day out, a high-stakes game that for now, even against the odds, I just keep winning. We will see how long my luck holds out.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Death and the maidens". Subscribe here.