Much current debate on crucial issues facing Australia – the economy, race relations, foreign affairs, for example – is conducted in the opinion pages of metropolitan daily newspapers. And ‘opinion’ pages they now are – with a vengeance. It is a symptom of the times that opinion-page editors have less and less recourse to disinterested authorities (do they no longer believe such exist?). Instead they ‘balance’ stakeholders. Mining interest, Monday. Environmental guru, Tuesday. Sometime Labor speechwriter/media apparatchik, Wednesday and sometime Coalition apparatchik/media adviser, Thursday.
There are honourable exceptions, but the trend is marked and makes for a patchwork of vested interest, for low standards of argument and scant regard for evidence. Provocative journalism – maybe. Enlightenment – rarely.
It might have been a circumstance custom-tailored for Morry Schwartz. Schwartz is a publisher with a keen sense of the market and, with his Best Australian Essays series, a shrewd sense of how to regenerate as well as exploit a market. He also has that rare quality in the world of commercial publishing: a demonstrated commitment to the substance, not just the colour and movement, of cultural debate. So it is unsurprising, though gratifying, that he should have made this latest move. With The Australian Quarterly Essay, he has resurrected one of the oldest mediums of political argument: the pamphlet. And precisely at a time when the Internet, with its overburden of un-sifted information, is paling as the fashionable recourse of intellectual choice.
For their first issue, editor Peter Craven and publisher Schwartz have chosen as their writer Robert Manne, an academic perhaps best known for his newspaper opinion pieces, media commentary, books and erstwhile editorship of the sometimes conservative, more recently (post-Manne) radical, left-wing journal Quadrant.