Update: Rachel MorleyWeek in Review

Tony Abbott and Fifty Shades

philipstallard taronga zebra totem 182X90
Phil Stallard, Taronga Zebra Totem, Acrylic and Mixed Media on canvas, 182 x 90 cms. Courtesy Traffic Jam Galleries.

Two remarkable things happened this week that cannot pass without mention. The Liberal Party proved to the Australian people that it wasn’t at all like the supposedly ‘dysfunctional’ Labor Party by behaving uncannily like the Labor Party, and one of the world’s worst best-selling novels, Fifty Shades of Grey, turned a nightmare into reality by showing up in Australian cinemas daring to call itself a movie.

For what it’s worth, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott has read Fifty Shades of Grey. He thought it was ‘a bit of an eye-opener’. As are the events of the last fortnight, which demonstrate that far from ‘ending the uncertainty and disunity which destroyed two Labor governments’, the Liberal Party is providing what would have to be described as one of the most convincing cases for the existence of karma that Australian politics has ever seen. As Dominic Knight wrote for The Drum a few days ago, Abbott’s current woes are ‘laden with multiple ironies’.

Leaving aside any shuddersome suggestions of a comparison between Australia’s Prime Minister and Fifty Shades of Grey’s male protagonist, Christian Grey – the wooden, one trick, man-stallion with a predilection for his own version of the Captain’s Pick – it is interesting to note that there are some similarities between the book and contemporary Australian politics, as exmplified by our current leader. Both display a distinct lack of wit, a tendency towards bluster and hyperbole, and an increasingly unabashed tendency to bludgeon standards and style to new lows. Both are one-dimensional and punishing. If there is any pleasure to be found in the government’s recent and ongoing behaviour, it is overwhelmingly of the sado-masochistic variety.

‘Questions show the mind’s range, and answers its subtlety,’ wrote Joseph Joubert. One wonders what the French essayist and moralist would have made of the book routinely named the ‘worst book ever’, or indeed of Australia’s dire current situation. Or even just of Question Time this week, which included yesterday’s pearler, ‘a Holocaust of jobs’ – a clanger that was dropped on the same day as the news that an American think-tank had branded our Prime Minister ‘incompetent’.

In Darwin one politician at least has the courage to call it like it is. After surviving a failed political coup that saw perplexed and tired journalists swapping pyjamas for raincoats and thongs just before 1am to hear about the little coup that wouldn’t, the Northern Territory’s Chief Minister Adam Giles went on to label the whole debacle as ‘bullshit’ – a reasonable assessment that would seem to have general applicability.

Good government starts now, announced the Prime Minister at the beginning of the week. But as Steven Patrick Morrissey so poignantly asked: ‘How soon is now?’

After this week’s political rumbles, it feels timely to turn our attention to our feature essays, which this week focus squarely on politics and the media. In ‘Strengths and Defects’, Matthew Ricketson, former Media and Communications Editor for the Age, looks at two seasoned journalists’ accounts of the Rudd and Gillard governments. Paul Kelly’s Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation examines the 2007-2013 years of Labor rule and the rise of Tony Abbott. In the second book under consideration, Power Failure: The Inside Story of Climate Politics Under Rudd and Gillard, Philip Chubb charts the Labor government’s mismanagement of  the climate change issue, both publicly and behind closed doors. Both works, Ricketson argues, raise questions about the relationship between politicians and the media, and highlight some of the problems with insider accounts:

What shines through Chubb’s book is his effort to take readers well beyond the simplistic dichotomies of Kelly (and many others) to a fuller appreciation of the complexities of resolving this global issue. Where Kelly cloaks his journalistic tradecraft in a Delphic aura, Chubb is at pains to develop a rigorous method for dealing with politicians and advisers who are highly practised in the dark arts of persuasion and manipulation.

Our second essay, by Helen Trinca, is a review of the recently published A Companion to the Australian Media. Edited by Bridget Griffen-Foley, director of Macquarie University’s Centre for Media, the Companion is ‘the first comprehensive work of its kind, focusing on the history and contemporary practice of our newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and new media industries’. Included within its 543 pages are entries from academics, journalists, commentators and historians. While Trinca finds the compendium generally fulfils it ambition, particularly with regard to its historical accounts, she argues that a fast-changing media environment leaves the volume already feeling like an historical document. For Trinca, some of the most telling contributions are those that offer insider accounts, such as Nicolas Rothwell’s reflections of Paul Kelly’s time as editor-in-chief of the Australian, which she describes as the most perceptive description of that newspaper’s culture that she has read.

In keeping with this week’s theme of politics and the media, From the Archives returns to Kerryn Goldsworthy’s expansive review of five books on former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, all published in the final months of Gillard’s Prime Ministership and united by their interest in the sexism that contributed to Gillard’s downfall. ‘The Unseemingly Splatter’  makes a compelling companion to Ricketson’s reading of Triumph and Demise.

Our second essay is by Ben Eltham. ‘High Drama, Low Farce’ considers the contributions of biographers Paul Barry and David Folkenflik to the ongoing analysis of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and the News of the World phone hacking scandal, focusing in particular on the character of the media baron himself – a man who was once labeled by British journalist and novelist John Lanchester (echoing Frederic Jameson), as the personifaction of ‘a kind of “cultural logic” of postmodern capitalism’.

Finally, our image this week is from self-described ‘gonzo’ artist and musician Philip Stallard. Taronga Zebra Totem’ is part of an exhibition now showing at Traffic Jam Galleries in Neutral Bay.