Features Australia

Writers are not moral guides

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

Like Dorothy Parker, I have a decent number of grey hairs from my dealings with the intelligentsia. I’ve had my share of free character assessments from that particular crew over the last twenty-odd years. I’ve probably also earned the right to engage in the provision of a few free character assessments of my own.

That said, I’ve always declined to reach for the lawyers and engage in a little light litigation in response to whatever was being flung my way. Not so Bob Ellis, who was fond of a particular rich man’s tort and used it freely to get things critical of him pulled.

Now news of what Ellis was really like has been published, his fondness for defo can be explained, if not excused. It didn’t take much to learn what he was really like, though, because both he and Dorothy Hewett were habitués of literary festivals at about the same time I was tearing up the country as Helen Demidenko.

One of my enduring memories is of watching Dorothy Hewett faceplant while getting on stage at a literary festival hosted by a posh Gold Coast private school, Somerset College. At 11 am. She was drunk.

I saw the world these people had made up-close, thanks to winning literary awards, and one of the reasons I never took its – and their – criticism of me particularly seriously was its creators’ almost universal moral brokenness. This was far from true only of Ellis and Hewett.

Thanks to Australia’s defamation laws, only the dead and convicted were named in the Australian articles outlining Ellis’s serial sexual predation and Hewett’s facilitation of same. Plenty of the perpetrators are still alive and well and living well. And if you think I’m going to name them here, then I’ve got a giant concrete and steel edifice in Circular Quay to sell you.


Tories have known the Bob Ellis stories for years. Michael Warby – then at the Institute of Public Affairs – wrote about a select few of them in Ellis Unplugged. He had both his book pulped and lost his job in the wake of an Ellis explosion. Writer and musician Chris Gregory also lost his job at the ABC when he dislodged some Ellis dirt, only to be told by Crikey when he presented them with the story, ‘Bob’s our mate’.

There is a serious point about writers and artists in all this, however, and Ellis and Hewett’s behaviour lets me make it.

Do not use us creatives for moral guidance, or if you do, treat our claims with the same caution you would treat claims made by the Catholic Church. I include myself in this because while, like Ellis, I have been a political speechwriter, to the extent that I provided sound advice, I did so on the basis of my experience and training as a lawyer. All my writing skills did was give David Leyonhjelm a polished turn of phrase.

Do, however, keep reading what we write – including stuff by Bob Ellis. Writers may not be moral but we can be insightful. Writers are meant to tell you what an aspect of real life is like. And yes, it’s entirely possible that skill is founded on a passel of character flaws, among them a tendency to insert one’s nose in places where it isn’t wanted.

Writers are not likely to know a great deal about public policy; assuming they do is to impute to often quite amoral people a degree of moral heft and policy knowledge they do not possess, and likely never have. I learnt this in spades during my stint as a policy wonk. The depth of my ignorance – and my utter dependence on the Parliamentary Library – would fill oceans. I mean, Richard Flanagan thinks he knows more about the effect of Australia’s parallel importing restrictions on book prices than the Productivity Commission. Ah, no, he doesn’t. Do read Narrow Road to the Deep North, though – it’s a great book.

And because Australia’s arts intelligentsia is in the tank for the Greens – or at least Labor’s left – they love banging on about refugee policy and demanding Australia ‘Bring Them Here’. Ignore that as well. You’ll get a great deal more sense out of the relevant minister, Peter Dutton. And I say that while disagreeing with Dutton on, well, everything.

Remember, too, the extent to which Australia’s literary community was dominated for much of its history by ardent communists. That is, people who genuinely preferred the Soviet way of doing things. If you endorse a political system that murdered millions, you’re not likely to be in a position to give much help to the inhabitants of that giant Aztec temple on the hill in Canberra.

Also, not demanding authors make moral claims and give sound policy advice on everything from economics to refugees to welfare would free us from the immense burden of performative niceness people want these days. Writers are now routinely expected to be unendingly helpful and pleasant on social media, never to gripe about reviews (even when reviewers review the author and not the book), support lots of ‘right-on’ causes and sometimes to submit to loosely drafted ‘morality clauses’ in publication contracts.

These are clauses that can bring a book deal undone if, for example, a writer says something to tick off Twitter’s mighty army of offendotrons and is then subjected to a campaign of outrage and public shaming.

I confess to not knowing from whence the whole ‘artist-as-moral-shaman’ thing comes. My suspicion is it has its roots in the religion-shaped hole now present across much of our culture. Churches and mosques have been horribly compromised by everything from paedophiles to terrorists, so people have turned to writers and members of the judiciary, those who by virtue of their roles are able to make binding character assessments.

The problem, of course, is the exercise of moral judgement in that way is fatally undermined by hypocrisy on the part of those doing the judging, and while the judiciary isn’t comprised of plaster saints, artists really are statistically likely to be, ahem, ‘morally loose’.

Read what we write, enjoy it for what it is, but do not ask us to make you better people or to give you better politics. Those things are on you.

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