Quarterly Essay

Not for forty years have Australians had real arguments with their governments about international relations. Many marched in 2003 against the Iraq invasion, but were ignored. Now, if the national obesity rate is any guide, Australians spend more time eating, partying and sleeping than having the earnest pre-breakfast discussions about foreign relations that Fukuzawa recommended.

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The political assassination of Kevin Rudd will fascinate for a long time to come. As with Duncan’s murder in Shakespeare’s play it was done, as Lady Macbeth cautioned, under ‘the blanket of the dark’, literally the night of 23–24 June 2010. The assassins heeded Macbeth’s advice: ‘if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.’ And as in Macbeth, the assassins were in the shadow of the throne. Even the old king approved: Bob Hawke, himself deposed in 1991, recognised at last that the removal of a Labor prime minister is sometimes necessary.

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Exit Right by Judith Brett & Poll Dancing by Mungo MacCallum

by
February 2008, no. 298

Since the November federal election, kicking John Howard while he’s down has become something of a national pastime. While Howard’s take no-prisoners-except-on-Nauru behaviour has now exposed him to gleeful mass taunting, the idea that the end of his resilient political career has instantly created a noble Australia, its citizens and institutions cleansed and renew ed, is wishful thinking. In this context, Judith Brett’s new Quarterly Essay injects some welcome clear-headedness. Brett rains blows on Howard, but she is not a Howard-hater in the counterproductive and grandiose style of, say, Phillip Adams. Instead, she takes aim at the former prime minister in a characteristically nuanced and astute way. She bridges a gap – too often in Australia, a gulf – between scholars and interested laypeople, offering prose that is accessible and lively but that avoids dumbing down complex issues.

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The continued success and quality of the Quarterly Essay series has done much to promote the long essay as a legitimate forum for detailed, informed and accessible political discussion. That this has occurred during the Howard era suggests that all is not lost in the quest for genuine public debate. In the latest Quarterly Essay, David Marr acknowledges that, ‘[s]uppression is not systematic. There are no gulags for dissidents under Howard.’ Nevertheless, His Master’s Voice is born of, and fuelled by, exasperation. Marr makes little effort to mask his personal enmity towards John Howard. And his disgust at the manner in which the federal Coalition has governed for more than a decade is palpable: ‘Since 1996, Howard has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra’s mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers.’

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Some time before the sun set on the British empire, ‘British justice’ took on an ironic meaning. In the colonies, we knew it was a charade, like that doled out to ‘Breaker’ Morant during the Boer War. The dice are loaded in favour of a prosecution that nevertheless insists on carrying out its cold-blooded retribution in an apparently value-free legalese, thus preserving the self-righteousness of the empire and tormenting the condemned. Yet, as Robert Manne and David Corlett make clear in this latest Quarterly Essay, the larrikin land of Australia can now, through its treatment of asylum seekers, fairly be said to lead the world in the practice of traditional British justice.

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First, a small tribute to Peter Craven and his colleagues for the establishment of Quarterly Essay (of which the above is the eighth issue). It is such a good idea that one wonders why it is such a recent innovation. A 20,000-word essay on an important contemporary issue, followed, in later issues, by responses to that essay, enable one to get one’s teeth into a matter of moment while it is still topical. The production is nicely done, too.

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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 ...

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