Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

I wasn’t a good boy this year; I’m not on Santa’s list… Even the meta-discussion about Keating is pathetic

‘There’s disputes about what the nature of the Chinese affront to the Uyghurs are. There’s a dispute about that.’

‘If you’ve got 15 of the things [submarines] at sea, how in the God would knocking one out matter? But if you knock one of the three nuclear subs out, it really matters.’

‘Remember this all happened after Marise Payne–the great non-Minister of our time–went on the Insiders program and said we’re going to have weapon inspection, weapons-type inspections of Wuhan to find out the cause of the virus. It was out of that that came all of this.’

‘Remember this, the Allies succeeded in Normandy because… because… as a maritime assault, because there was an industrial state 21 miles away, Britain. There was no radar; there was cloud cover.’

‘I’ve got a brain. Principally.  And I can think.  And I can read.  Y’know.  And I read every day.’

If it weren’t for the Australian reference, these rambling, incoherent utterances could easily be mistaken for quotes by Donald Trump.  But they aren’t.  These are quotes from Australia’s former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, when he spoke to the National Press Club earlier this week.

What captured the Australian political media’s attention this week was less the rambling, incoherent nonsense, and more the highly personal vitriol that spewed out of Keating’s mouth towards political journalists.  As soon as Keating started calling well-established media figures psychopaths, the game was on.  Journalists would tut-tut an attack by a political figure on the incredibly-important-to-democracy Fourth Estate, and the Drips on Twitter would cheer on Keating’s invective.

Australian political culture is so vapid that anything that apes the aesthetics of higher order thought is confused with actual intelligent thought.  We let Todd Sampson make silly little documentaries because he frowns and speaks assertively.  Several columnists write bland, centrist, ‘both-sides are bad’ takes, and we inexplicably let them get away with it.  If they think that George Orwell wrote about ‘Tiny Tiny Train World’, we allow them to be hired as ministerial speech writers.  And–in the strangest case of all–we let Chris Uhlmann reach the height of political commentary in Australia despite the fact there is absolutely nothing but void behind his eyes.

And so it was that the sheep in sheep’s clothing started producing their vapid takes on the Keating-Fourth Estate skirmish.  The skirmish had distracted us all from the real issue: that Paul Keating was actually correct and had important, serious things to say.

In their anger and their pain, many journalists have been quick to turn his responses into a matter of decorum, focussing on Keating’s take-no-prisoners’ language, and sure, you can have that argument.

That was Tim Dunlop, whose brain is so frictionless that that physicists believe it’s a new type of antimatter.  Dunlop’s argument is that, underneath the abrasiveness, Keating actually had a serious point to make.

The idea that anyone could watch Keating’s discussion with Laura Tingle and conclude that he has “nothing of substance to add” is merely to underline how completely Shields—and any other journalist who thinks this—have been unable to separate the form of Keating’s observations from their content. To separate their personal affront from what the man argued.

Except Keating didn’t have anything of substance to add.  He was a thoroughly confused old man who started from the obviously incorrect assumption that our key strategic issue was a foreign power trying to invade Australia’s territory, and then built an insane argument that culminated in casting doubt on whether China had acted improperly towards human rights advocates in Hong Kong and towards the Uyghur population.  When he was asked very reasonable questions to which he didn’t have a serious response, he lashed out.

Contrary to Dunlop’s view, the idea that anyone could watch Keating’s discussion with Laura Tingle and conclude that he had anything of substance to add is merely to underline how completely Dunlop–and any other producer of our political media who thinks this–have been unable to separate their admiration for Keating from his content.

Things got worse when Laura Tingle re-entered the discussion:

But you don’t even have to agree with his assessment to realise he is posing profoundly important questions that have just slipped us by in this current debate.

Mysteriously, the words ‘Uyghur’ and ‘Hong Kong’ were absent from Tingle’s article.  How carefully she had to carve to extract anything that might resemble a ‘profoundly important question’ from Keating’s off-the-planet rambles.  In Tingle’s view, the problem was bipartisanship:

Unfortunately, bipartisanship has robbed us of any serious debate. There is hardly a mention of China in the government’s rationale for what it has done, even if everyone knows that is what is at issue.

What on Earth could she possibly mean by ‘serious debate’?  She was sitting opposite a man who rambled nonsensically about how we won Normandy and then stayed practically silent as Keating refused to answer questions that took him to task.  Even when his response to one journo smelled very strongly of sexism.  At any point, she was in a position to say: ‘Look, this is fun, but could we return to serious discussion?’

And… she just didn’t.

The only time she pushed Keating was over Uyghurs and, even then, it just turned into an opportunity for Keating to engage in mere ‘whatabouttery’.

What do the leaders of our national conversation think ‘serious debate’ looks like?  The ABC gave air time to Steve Bannon, a former Trump advisor, under the guise of ‘serious debate’.  The ABC hosted far-right extremist, Blair Cottrell, to air his political views.  Now, the ABC has given air time to a former politician well past his prime to air views that, actually, nobody really knows what the Chinese are doing to Uyghurs.  If this is what ‘serious debate’ looks like, do we really need serious debate in Australia?

Political debate in Australia is a toilet in desperate need of a flush, and it is clogged by political media giving a platform to shouting matches between two opposing sides of freaks.  On the one hand, we had the ‘Red Scare’ articles published in the Ninefax papers that were, clearly, unhinged and unbalanced.  What utility was there in airing Keating’s deranged pro-China views?  At what point in this discussion do we give the microphone to out-and-out Sinophobes like Drew Pavlou and the Greens’ Cassy O’Connor?  Is ‘serious debate’ really just giving the floor to the most extreme ends of the discussion and watch them punch it out for laughs?

Serious debate is what goes on behind closed doors in Canberra, away from the sensationalist, inflammatory approaches of Australia’s political culture manufacturers.  If an issue is worth discussing, it’s worth keeping it off the front pages of our newspapers where the debate would quickly deteriorate into a discussion about if you can really trust Chinese migrants to Australia, and if ASIO should be doing more to keep them under surveillance.  Bipartisanship helps to reduce populism by increasing the long term costs of short term electoral benefits.

There are good questions to ask about Australia’s submarine policy.  Cost–the one dominating public attention–isn’t one of them.   Better questions are about Defence’s long-term recruitment strategies and how we regionalise security without repeating mistakes of the past.  Another good question is about how we engage seriously with the interests of countries in our region, even when those interests are not strictly aligned with our own (or are a different priority).  How do we remain a reliable partner regardless of our election outcomes?

Keating was absolutely correct to let fly at Australian journos, and it was extremely fun to watch.  Had Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton said similar things, most of the conversation this week would have been about how Australian journalism is perilously under threat.  Instead, we had a pantomime debate driven almost entirely by people’s sentiment towards Keating.  If you dislike Keating, you tut-tutted his comments towards journos.  If you liked Keating, you pretended that he said something worthwhile.  But Keating gave our political culture makers exactly what they wanted: content.  And now we all have to pretend like this meta-debate is in any way interesting or satisfying when we’ve known the problems with our political culture for at least fifteen years and nobody with any ability to fix the problem (like Laura Tingle) is showing any inclination to do so.

At any point, she could have improved the quality of that discussion… and she just sat there and let Keating talk nonsense.


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