The thesis of this book is that there is something wrong with politics in Australia. Bryant is right, but not in the way he thinks, and his book is more part of the problem than part of the solution. Bryant, from the BBC, purports to understand Australian politics but a glance through the pages reveals that his approach is skewed and his knowledge is superficial. After all, this is a person who approvingly refers to Julian Burnside, Robert Manne and Phillip Adams. If he is unaware of where these people are politically located, then he can hardly be taken seriously as an investigative journalist. Or perhaps he shares the view of the Left that they are really the centre, and that Australian politics consists of the ALP… and some other guys.
In fact, Bryant appears to have swallowed the gamut of Left myths whole, and is happy to regurgitate them. In this view, Howard was a secret racist, when he wasn’t being a closet Anglophile. The Hawke government represented the apex of achievement and Keating was, well, almost too wonderful for words. Bryant falls quite happily for all this revisionist guff, even saying that the Left supported the Coalition’s acceptance of Vietnamese refugees in 1975-76. No, Nick, Whitlam and the ALP opposed it, as a little research beyond speaking to Robert Manne would reveal.
But not even Bryant, when discussing the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments, can escape the descent of political debate into name-calling and slogans. Strangely, he ignores the cascade of schoolyard insults aimed at Abbott by the ALP — they must have had a unit somewhere dedicated to thinking up plays on his name — and spends a fair bit of time looking at criticisms of Gillard. Personal attacks are terrible, he says — and then he dismisses Bronwyn Bishop, not for her performance as Speaker but for her hair. That’s right: her hair. Scott Morrison also comes in for a swipe — for being a Christian.
Aside from attacking people for their faith and their hairstyles, Bryant also looks at issues such as the declining quality of parliamentarians, arguing that it has become an incestuous and insular elite. Closer examination, however, reveals a different picture. True, the Labor side is dominated by people who have only ever worked in politics. There are some on the Coalition side who have worked as parliamentary staff but Bryant skips over the point that they have also done other things. In other words, Bryant is presenting a corrosive pattern on one side as a general problem.
This is a recurring theme in the book, as if Bryant were intent on spreading the blame. But to make it work he has to ignore a lot of things, especially when he talks about politics being too dominated by personal attacks. For example, PUP senator Jacqui Lambie recently hurled a volley of insults at Abbott, calling him a liar and psychopath. Abbott responded by saying that he would treat the cross-bench senators with ‘respect and courtesy’, as they were democratically elected, after all.
‘Respect and courtesy.’ It just doesn’t sound like a man determined to drag politics into the mud. It sounds, rather, like someone ready to be civil even to people who do not appear to deserve it.
It looks like Bryant is going out of his way to not give the Coalition an even break. He seems to see the Coalition’s policy on border protection as inherently racist, and appears to even dislike the idea of policies on illegal entrants — let’s call them what they are, and not Bryant’s preferred ‘asylum seekers’ — being decided by the government at all (as per Howard’s famous, enduring line). He apparently thinks that the whole thing should be handed over to the UNHCR. Interestingly, he refers to the Houston committee but fails to mention its conclusion that the current crop of illegal entrants are not political refugees at all. Did Bryant even bother to read the report, or would citing its findings fall into the category of an inconvenient truth?
Equally, he is content to give the ALP a pass mark without asking questions. He does not mention, for example, the ‘Not Habib’ campaign run by the Labor government against a Liberal candidate of Lebanese background in the South Australian election — something which speaks volumes for the way the ALP plays politics these days.
Bryant’s pattern of ignoring information that might disrupt his paradigm comes out most starkly when he discusses policy issues. He notes that the Rudd government was concerned mainly with media manipulation, ‘announceables’ and polls. Anything that did badly in a focus group was dumped, which means not much was left, certainly nothing that might involve electoral risk. System-wide problem, says Bryant; everybody does it.
This is silly. Is he saying that the recent budget avoided hard decisions and big ideas? The budget might be criticised on many grounds but timidity is not one of them. Nevertheless, the responses to it are indicative. Take, for instance, the policy to establish a $20 billion fund for advanced medical research, funded by a co-payment for doctor visits. A Big Picture, forward-looking, risky idea if ever there was one. The response from the Left? To talk about the possibility of children not being taken to the doctor (deliberately ignoring the point that Hockey had clearly spoken of special provisions for children and concession-card holders). Of course, Bryant is not the only journalist to go for the lazy story. The hard one would require research and analysis rather than a couple of populist quotes.
Indeed, the budget theme of paying down the deficit and debt is itself a Big Idea. Nowhere does Bryant talk about the staggering debt left behind the Labor government. He apparently buys the line that a debt that requires a billion dollars a month to service is, you know, not worth mentioning.
The overall impression given by this book is one of slipshod dishonesty. Yes, the Left might be intellectually bankrupt and hopelessly in-bred, but that is a problem for that side of politics, not the system as a whole. It must be said, however, that the vacuity of the Left has now turned into simple obstructionism. The people who caused the country’s economic problems are now standing in the way of solutions, as well.
If Bryant believes that the country has lost its way, then he would do better — and would have written a better book — to do some proper investigation and seek a range of opinions. Act like a professional, in other words. He chose not to. This book should be treated accordingly.
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