On the eve of Germany’s reunification we were in the East German countryside and lunched in the small town of Prenzlau. Crossing at the lights, we saw there was no traffic so walked across against the red. The locals stood fast, glared at us and muttered. Our German guide said they were scornful. But there are no cars, I protested. We walked on and left two small groups, stuck to opposing footpaths, gazing at each other across an empty street. Decades of oppression, the omnipresent Stasi or even broader German duteousness – whatever the reason – it was anathema to easy going, anti-authoritarian Australians. This strange memory floats back almost 25 years later over a sneaky lunchtime beer in Sydney’s glorious winter sunshine. With me, a couple of blokes who live their lives strictly in accordance with Gore Vidal’s famous advice to Christopher Hitchens – never pass up an opportunity to have sex or appear on television. To be fair, I know nothing of their sex lives but Rowan Dean’s twisted locks and direct logic, and Brendan O’Neill’s eloquent contrarianism, are often broadcast from any TV studio foolishly left unlocked. Visiting from the UK, O’Neill laments the gradual demise of Australia’s larrikin spirit. We are, in his eyes, becoming more predictable, more politically correct. The BBC’s Australian correspondent Jon Donnison has noticed; after being fined for jaywalking he reckons we’ve become a ‘bit uptight’. We aren’t as easy going as we once were, or as funny. Once we not only spoke truth to power but took the piss out of it. Filming away among the throng on the steps of Old Parliament House during the crisis of Remembrance Day, 1975, was Norman Gunston. Now, we have furrowed brows and conformity among the political/media class. The new dogma is the zeitgeist. Still, we three freedom fighters manage a few laughs about the contortions this produces.
Seemingly above ridicule is Julia Gillard, an atheist, feminist, unmarried, former radical socialist, former prime minister who opposed gay marriage on the grounds of traditional family values but now reveals a post-political conversion to progression. Former independent MP Tony Windsor, too, is revered after installing a Labor/Greens government to impose a carbon tax and save the planet, while he sold his farm to a coal mine. Billionaire would-be coal magnate, Clive Palmer, is a favoured critic who shared a stage with Al Gore, even though his nickel refinery ran foul of environmental watchdogs and he helped scuttle the carbon tax. And dam spillways flood Tim Flannery’s permanent drought predictions but don’t dampen the ABC’s enthusiasm for his latest forecasts. Protected species, all.
Fresh from campus talks, O’Neill says rather than mock the established order and challenge orthodoxy, university students are the praetorian guard of acceptable thought. No longer do they rail against lecturers but enjoin their post-material concerns. O’Neill’s contrarian views on gay marriage are not to be debated but silenced. The progressives are the new wowsers we decide, and order another round.
Fitz is sitting in the SkyNews studio, under a swathe of red cloth, and we chat before going on air. We’d clashed on twitter over his appointment as chair of the ARM. I’d suggested his ‘bandana republic’ was doomed if spruiked by ‘Abbott-hating lefties.’ Peter FitzSimons argues republicanism with the sort of anglophobia I shared in my youth, railing against a head of state from ‘one family of English aristocrats living in a palace in England’. I’m an Aussie Rules proselytiser (and a republican) so all this seems incongruous coming from a bloke who made his name playing a game created for upper class, English, private school boys and their colonial imitators. When he rises to his newly lean six foot plenty, I think Fitz would’ve made a fair ruckman not to be trifled with. So you’re for the republic but against me, he accuses. Ah, I’m all in favour of you. Just think you’ll struggle to win over the conservative mainstream. A week or so later Fitz announces his good mate Joe Hockey has joined the Republic revival. It’s a fillip for Fitz and the media but doesn’t help the government, or Hockey. I’d seen Hockey that morning at the National Reform Summit where the editors of the two national dailies, the Australian’s Chris Mitchell and the Financial Review’s Mike Stuchbury, as well as Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens, union, business and community leaders all conspired to try to smooth a path for economic reform. Yet Joe stole that night’s headlines with the republic. That wasn’t the kind of reform the summit had envisaged – Hockey had slipped on a bandana skin.
Some people can’t wait for good government. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, of Transfield fame, has founded newDemocracy, aiming to shake up the system with a return to its ancient Greek roots. We join a Thought Brokers session in Surry Hills to debate the option of a citizen jury-style senate to break our polarized political impasse. I argue our system isn’t broken; it is just that we have an obstructionist Senate and politicians too timid to outline reform proposals before an election. There is no show of hands or citizen’s jury to declare a winner, so I assume the bottle of red was a victory prize.
This weekend I’ll join the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The program suggests little to fear except an adherence to the progressive zeitgeist. I don’t think there’ll be too many people crossing against the lights. O’Neill is right, Australia’s new ideological wowserism needs a dose of old-fashioned larrikinism. Mark Latham has tried but whenever someone gets under his skin he tries to put their reputation in a plaster cast. Perhaps I could line up against Fitz – that could be dangerous.
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