Simon & Schuster

In 2016, New York Times correspondent Damien Cave moved his young family to Sydney to establish a foreign bureau for the newspaper. As he writes in his new book, Into the Rip, the experience has been transformational, teaching him among other things that ‘None of us is trapped within the nation we come from or the values we picked up along the way’. Despite political and economic alliances, Australia and the United States are not clones of each other, and in many ways Australia proves ‘the healthier model’ for a society. Cave learned these life lessons, he reports, through ‘the combination of fear, nature and community spirit’.

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On 19 November 2020, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, released the findings of the Brereton Report, so named for the New South Wales Supreme Court Judge and Reserve Major General Paul Brereton, who led the investigation into war crimes allegations against members of the Australian SAS. The report had been a long time coming – with good reason. Over four years, Brereton and his team scrutinised more than 20,000 documents, examined 25,000 images, and interviewed 423 individuals – Afghan victims and their families, eyewitnesses, whistleblowers, and the alleged perpetrators. The final eight-volume, three-part report came in at 3,251 pages. Everybody knew it would be bad, but few had anticipated quite how confronting its findings would be.

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Three recent novels by Australian women deal with current and increasingly urgent political questions about female identity and embodiment. They each use the conventions of popular realist fiction to provoke thought about the causes of female disempowerment and the struggle for self-determination. Coincidentally, they are also set, or partially set, in Australian country towns, although their locations are markedly different, and their plots culminate in the revelation of disturbing secrets.

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There are two famous statues in the Gundagai area. One is the Dog on the Tuckerbox. The other is of two heroes, Yarri and Jacky Jacky, who, with other Wiradjuri men, went out in their bark canoes on many exhausting and dangerous forays to rescue an estimated sixty-nine people from the Great Flood of 1852.

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The most difficult thing for white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, cis women to accept seems to be that feminism was designed for them. But the reality is that from a suffrage movement that forced Black marchers to walk at the rear to the ‘girlboss’ CEOs who bully their poorly paid underlings, the cause known as ‘feminism’ has long been dominated by the aspirations of an élite group of women. 

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Late January 2021 brought a moment of anger and anguish for many liberal Australians. Margaret Court, the erstwhile tennis champion turned Pentecostal Christian preacher, had just received Australia’s top honour. Court may have won more grand slam tournaments than any other player, but her record cannot erase a history of derogatory comments about gay and transgender Australians. And yet, I wonder if most Australians didn’t just mentally check out of this latest chapter in a thirty-year kulturkampf over sexual identity. This is a country increasingly willing to live and let live – but not obsess – over such matters.

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On 4 November 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. The former radio announcer, Hollywood actor, and governor of California (1967–75) beat Jimmy Carter by four hundred and forty electoral college votes. No contender had beaten an incumbent by that much since 1932, when in the midst of the Great Depression Franklin D. Roosevelt triumphed over Herbert Hoover. And much like FDR’s victory, Reagan’s win in 1980 permanently altered the course of US politics. The welfare state that had existed under both Democratic and Republican presidents was diminished, if not entirely dismantled. The religious right, previously a nonentity in American politics, gained major clout. And the economic tenets of neo-liberalism, dismissed as fringe ideas in previous decades, took centre stage.

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Kate Mildenhall’s confronting new novel, The Mother Fault, is set in an alarming near-future Australia. Climate change has left refugees ‘marking trails like new currents on the maps as they swarm to higher, cooler ground’. Sea levels have risen, species have died out, farmlands have been contaminated, and meat is a luxury. Unprecedented bushfires occur regularly; technology and surveillance are ubiquitous, with bulbous cameras hanging ‘like oddly uniform fruit bats from the streetlights’. The media is controlled, and Australian citizens are microchipped and monitored by a totalitarian government known as ‘the Department’. The ‘Dob in Disunity’ app offers ‘gamified’ rewards to informants (‘Even kids could join in the fun!’), while troublemakers can be relocated to ‘BestLife’ housing estates where the reality is far from the Instagram hashtag. Reflecting on the events that led to this, protagonist Mim notes that the world ‘shifted slowly, then so fast, while they watched but didn’t see. They weren’t stupid. Or even oppressed in the beginning.’

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Body Count by Paddy Manning & Fire by Stephen J. Pyne

by
October 2020, no. 425

Last spring, as the harbingers of a dangerous season converged into a chorus of forewarning, I decided it might be a good idea to keep a diary of the period now known as ‘Black Summer’. The diary starts in September with landscapes burning in southern Queensland and Brazil. Three hundred thousand people rally across Australia, calling for action on climate change. I attend a forum of emergency managers where, during a discussion about warning systems, a senior fire manager declares: ‘We need to tell the public we cannot help them in the ways they expect, but we’re never going to tell them.’ Next week, Greg Mullins, the former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, comments on ABC radio, ‘We’re going to have fires that I can’t comprehend.’ Federal politicians assure the nation that we are resilient.

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In year four of their respective terms, George W. Bush and Barack Obama enjoyed a mixed press. Some accounts lauded them, others were sceptical. The assessments were uniformly partisan. The titles of contemporary books reflected how Republicans backed Bush (he was ‘The Right Man’), Democrats Obama (for successfully ‘Bending History’). Donald Trump, on the other hand, stands as one of the most vilified presidents in American history, from all points of the spectrum. Indeed, these books together make the case that the forty-fifth president is a man so psychologically flawed he poses a clear and present danger to American democracy.

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