Cover of book: Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life

Judith Brett
Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life

A public intellectual is a person, traditionally from within academia, who has big ideas and the ability to communicate them to the wider community. Younger readers won’t remember this, but in the 1990s and early 2000s, newspapers such as The Sydney Morning Herald would celebrate Australian public intellectuals with “top-100”-type lists.

By 2005 the idea was beginning to lose lustre. Writing that year in The SMH, assistant editor Michael Visontay revealed that some people either refused to nominate people or struggled to distinguish genuine thinkers from those who “fill our media with lots of heat, but often not much light”. “The idea of saluting public intellectuals,” he reluctantly concluded, “seems to sit poorly with the Australian sensibility.”

Judith Brett, emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University, public intellectual extraordinaire, well deserves to be saluted. Doing Politics is a collection of her writings on public life, some newly abridged or revised. In the book she lays some of the blame for the decline of Australian public intellectual life on the “bureaucratisation” of our universities. Combined with the slashing of humanities and social sciences faculties and curriculums, these changes – a kind of corporatisation of learning – have damaged our “broad cultural literacy” itself. The culture wars fostered by John Howard and raised to adulthood by his successors have also, and severely, “diminished Australian public life, too often reducing it to sterile adversarialism”.

“Transactional” politics, meanwhile, has all but replaced “transformational” leadership, which comes with a vision and strives to bring people along on a journey of change. If Keating was our last “transformational” leader, Brett posits, Morrison is a copybook “transactional” one. The tragedy is that even in circumstances that demand urgent action and change, such as the climate crisis, “a lot more people crave reassurance than inspiration … and anxiety trumps hope.” We lose our appetite for big, challenging ideas.

For those who are still hungry for them, Doing Politics is a feast. Brett’s thinking about Australian politics and society is solidly grounded in her work as a historian: “I look for explanations not just in the perfidies of the present, but in the decisions and events of the past.” She also draws on the tools of social science and the insights of psychoanalysis – in its contemporary, post-Freudian forms – to examine the intersections of private and public life in Australia. Hers is not an elitist argument – she wants intellectuals to listen more carefully and to presume less.

Brett interrogates common perceptions such as the idea that minority governments are inherently a bad thing. She questions the assumption that competition is essential to economic creativity and innovation and debunks the notion that the biggest supporters of cultural diversity are inner-city elites. She looks at the lessons civil society has to offer to an uncivil parliament. Tracing the shifting relationship between town and country in Australia, she exposes how neoliberalism, with its privatisation of services from post offices to banks, has “cut the country loose from the city and left it to fend for itself”.

Her close study of conservative politics in this country, from the political legacy of Alfred Deakin and the appeal of Robert Menzies to the disparate approaches to governance of Howard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison, demonstrates the importance of taking political rhetoric seriously. There is a tendency, especially among progressive commentators, to dismiss such catchphrases as Menzies’ “forgotten people”, Howard’s “all of us” and Morrison’s “quiet Australians” as so much bumf. But, as Sean Kelly also showed in The Game, words matter. Words reveal.

Howard and his successors have used words carefully to craft a vision of the Australian moral mainstream as under attack from “powerful vested interests” – not fossil fuel or mining companies but feminists, environmentalists and the “Aboriginal industry”. This rhetorical disparagement of activism as dangerous sectionalism has paved the way for decades of criminal inaction on multiple fronts, including the climate crisis.

Brett’s message is grim. She argues that the “bin fire of the humanities” in our universities and governmental fund-stripping from the arts and cultural institutions including the ABC, means that “Australia is well on its way to becoming the most philistine country in the West”. But she does offer some glimmers of hope. Alfred Deakin’s example illustrates how minority government can constructively shift the focus of politics from parties to policies and help locate the “consensual centre”, which speaks positively to the movement to elect more independents to parliament. And as the title of one chapter asserts, “we are good at elections”. As confounding as preferential voting can seem, together with compulsory voting and independent electoral authorities it means that our system works well – and must be carefully guarded from legislative attack.

The historical insight, breadth and intellectual rigour that Brett applies to the subject of public life serves as a chastening reminder of how intellectually impoverished political discussion is when carried out via sound-bite socials. I’d have liked to have seen Brett’s take on Twitter as well as her view of the contribution to public life of Australia’s many festivals of ideas and literature, and also her take on podcasts and other less traditional forums and platforms that connect thinkers and the thinking public. Does she have suggestions for how to increase political literacy in an age of not just rampant misinformation but disinformation? Wanting more is not a bad place to be finishing a book like this.

Text Publishing, 320pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life, Judith Brett".

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Linda Jaivin is the author of 12 books.

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