Opinion

Mike Carlton
The land of the fair gone

There was an awful fascination to watching the Australian cricket captain destroy himself on the television news. It was almost as grisly as those shots of the Mad Monk kissing Hanson at her “book” launch on Tuesday, although for different reasons.

Steve Smith’s oddly 1950s Ginger Meggs face was racked by the enormity of what he had done, a shell-shocked contemplation of the disaster he had engineered. He had paddled himself up shit creek, where the canoe was now sinking.

What a fall it was, my countrymen. Two weeks ago, good ol’ Steve, the world’s greatest batsman, was being touted by sportswriters as the new Bradman. Now he and his co-conspirators, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, are the most vilified figures in the land, ogres who have exposed us to what Australians dread above all: international scorn and derision. The world is sneering at us. Heavens, even dopey Theresa May scrambled out from under her Brexit train crash to announce that she was shocked and disappointed.

Yet in the great scheme of things the cricketers are small fry. They haven’t killed anyone, raped small boys or turned widows and orphans out onto the streets. Their chief crime was to lay bare the national delusion that our sunburnt country produces generation after generation of clean-limbed superheroes, morally spotless whether they are bayoneting Johnny Turk or hurling cricket balls at South Africans. So much for that.

Appalling as it was, the cricket cheating scandal is merely a symptom of a wider national sickness. There is something rotten in the Commonwealth of Australia. A culture of greed, selfishness, envy, cruelty and often criminal corruption is gnawing at the nation’s heart. The notion of the “fair go”, once prized as the very essence of Australianism, has become an empty slogan mouthed by the sharp-elbowed spivs and chancers hell-bent on trampling the rest of us into the blood and sawdust as they claw their way to the top.

These dark thoughts began to march in as I lay awake at some ungodly hour, contemplating the fate awaiting wretched Steve. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll marshal them below.

First, politics is broken. None of the big political parties are trusted anymore. The minor parties, particularly out on the alt-right edge, are a gaggle of cranks and nutters. Devoid of any policy ambitions, the Trumble government lurches from gimmick to gimmick, surviving only to survive, existential proof of John Kenneth Galbraith’s dictum that “the modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”.

The lie that SloMo Morrison’s corporate tax cuts would shower down as wage rises was blown to bits on Monday by the leaking of a secret report of the Business Council of Australia that showed more than 80 per cent of companies would simply shovel the extra dough back to shareholders or invest in the company.

On foreign policy, we see no more than truckling to the oaf in the White House. In the small picture, voters see politicians brazenly scamming their “entitlements”. At taxpayers’ expense, the foreign minister and her bloke parade at the polo or frolic with B-grade celebrities in Los Angeles.

A deputy prime minister, notionally a paragon of family virtues, bonks the hired help, who moves on to a job at a salary beyond the dreams of most people. So does the Border Force boss, Roamin’ Roman Quaedvlieg, who is sacked in disgrace. Not to be outdone in the shonky stakes, Victorian Labor MPs rort almost $400,000 in expenses at the 2014 state election. A deputy commissioner of the Australian Taxation Office, Michael Cranston, is charged in connection with a $165 million tax fraud. Centrelink is a shambles, bashing and hounding its “clients” for what turn out to be entirely fictitious “robo-debts”. Corruption is rife in the old customs department. Voters loathe the arrogance, the duplicity of their rulers.

Decency and fairness are dead. The odious Peter Dutton seems to revel in treating refugees with cynical brutality, in defiance of international law and common humanity. White South African farmers and visiting European au pairs are to be ushered down the red carpet, but a suicidal 10-year-old Iranian boy left to rot on Nauru has to be rescued by a judge. More than half the juveniles in Australian jails are Indigenous kids, many of them the products of a cruel, third-world squalor ignored by the rest of us. Billions of dollars are shovelled into wealthy private schools for their jet propulsion laboratories and equestrian centres while state schools go begging.

Corporate Australia is a thieves’ kitchen. Pea-and-thimble tricks of accountancy allow the biggest, richest companies to avoid paying tax by shifting billions in profits offshore. Franchise outfits – 7-Eleven, Domino’s Pizza, Caltex et cetera – operate a business model that they know can work only if they screw their workers at $12 an hour. Executive pay soars to multimillion-dollar heights of greed even as more and more Australians, mostly the young, are snared in the so-called gig economy of low-paid, casual labour without the benefits of holiday and sick pay, or superannuation, let alone job security.

The finance sector is nakedly corrupt. Big banks are caught laundering millions of dollars for criminal gangs. Their Masters of the Universe crookedly rig lending rates, and shamelessly gouge hundreds of thousands of their most vulnerable customers by fiddling the figures to flog loan “products” the poor sods do not need, cannot use, and can never possibly repay. The notional regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, trots blithely along in the rear of this cavalcade of corruption, delivering the occasional flogging with a limp lettuce. Caught red-handed, banking chief executives appear at carefully choreographed media events to offer a hand-wringing faux apology before diving back into the ordure again.

Public morality is also dead. The Christian churches conspire to turn a blind eye to a pandemic of child sexual abuse, browbeating their victims with contemptuously small compensation payments and secrecy agreements. Even now, exposed by a royal commission, they twist and turn to evade their responsibilities. In the Northern Territory, children are still sexually abused, most notably in Indigenous communities, where syphilis is rampant. Across the nation, domestic violence continues unabated: on average, a woman is murdered by a current or former male partner each week. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians between 15 and 44 years of age, the great majority of them young men.

I could go on, but you get the picture. And I didn’t even get started on climate change, or the republic. How we got to this sorry state is anyone’s guess, although I am inclined to date it back to John Howard’s calculated elevation of selfishness and xenophobia as national virtues. Much of the mainstream media are on the same bandwagon, chiefly at Murdoch’s News Corpse, where vendetta journalism has become an art form. Targets – frequently prominent women – are chosen to be relentlessly reviled and bullied for trumped-up transgressions in both the news columns and on the opinion pages. Julia Gillard, the young Muslim activist and engineer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the former human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs, the Indigenous academic Larissa Behrendt and, most recently, the ABC’s economics journalist Emma Alberici, have all been singled out for the lash.

This is in the service of the so-called culture wars, of course. Devoid of any evident capacity for original thought, the Murdoch bloviators hurl barbs and insults pinched from the lexicon of the American lunar right. “Virtue signalling” is the customary sneer for any sign of compassion or humanity, along with “political correctness”, a particular Howard favourite that simply meant any idea he and his acolytes didn’t like. This endless diatribe passes for “commentary”.

We are going to need genuine leadership to get out of this mess, to return to being that country where there is at least a halfway decent chance of getting and giving that fabled fair go. But it will not come from Mr Harbourside Mansion or his Liberal and National party “government”, as it is laughingly called.

After the Abbott disaster, Trumble attained the prime ministership on an unprecedented wave of goodwill from across the political divide. He blew it in a year. Spineless and dilatory, in thrall to the loony right, he has turned out to be a prime minister even worse than Billy McMahon – a singular achievement. Madly, Abbott continues to stalk him, hoping for some sort of Churchillian return from the wilderness.

Bill Shorten? Much better, but he is woodenly uninspiring, not a man to lead the revolution at the barricades. There seems little of Curtin or Whitlam, Hawke or Keating about him, and he appears to be uncomfortably close to the big end of Collins Street. As for the Greens, forget it. They’re absorbed with chucking their toys out of the cot.

For all its flaws, I love this country. If you have been born an Australian, or have become one, you have been hit by the lucky stick. But we are squandering that good fortune as surely as Steve Smith destroyed his baggy green.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 31, 2018 as "The land of the fair gone". Subscribe here.

Mike Carlton
is a journalist and broadcaster, and the author of naval histories.