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Henry Johnston is a full time writer of fictional short stories. Thus far he has published two novellas; Best and Fairest and The Last Voyage of Aratus. Best and Fairest is set in inner city Sydney in the 1960s and follows the fate of 13 young men who come together to play Rugby League. One of their number, an Aboriginal, wins the coveted Best and Fairest trophy. The Last Voyage of Aratus follows a much different path. This journey of redemption across the south Pacific Ocean is cast as magical reality. Henry’s family migrated to Townsville from the U.K. before moving to Sydney at a time when the city sparkled with luminous golden sandstone buildings and low-rise ornate Victorian architecture. Henry’s short stories explore the collision of cultures, and are often told from an immigrants’ perspective. As an essayist he contributes popular culture commentary and political observations to Independent Australia and the Australian Independent Media Network. He divides his time between inner-city Rozelle in Sydney Australia, and Bruny Island Tasmania. During a career in media, Henry worked as a broadcaster and producer with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Henry latterly served as a senior policy adviser in the NSW State Government and as a media adviser with the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Henry also worked as a speech writer for several NSW Government Ministers. A compendium of Henry’s short stories and the novella The Last Voyage of Aratus is published by Forty South Publishing. Best and Fairest is published by Valentine Press.

Website: https://tasmania-40-south.myshopify.com/products/last-voyage-of-aratus-the-by-henry-johnston-pb

Forks in the road

I struggle with long-form essays drafted by economics writers. Like many, I am easily fazed by complex yet important observations crafted by a coterie of well-respected econometricians.

But of all the millions of words written for and against the undetailed or overtly specific party political policies, the truest summation of Australia’s current predicament fell to those who report on the science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods.

On Monday, May 20 the Australian Stock Market recorded a healthy bounce, but within cooee of this breathless fan prose published in The Australian Financial Review, and spurred on by its managing editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury, Prime Minister Scott Morrison AKA the Messiah from The Shire contradicted Simon Benson’s story, saying  tax cuts would be pushed back by 12 months.

Gee that didn’t take long!

The reality of the current state of the Australian economy, repeated ad nauseam throughout the election campaign by respected econometricians of all stripes, is dire. Classicists, demand-siders, macro and micro boffins, monetarists and supply-side champions, mostly agree: the nation is already in recession.

Indeed the good folk of far North Queensland will tell you their daily lives unfold in the midst of a localised depression, exacerbated by a terrible summer flood. Yet these same Australian citizens chose to believe in a non-existent coal rush of jobs set to unfold in an uneconomic financial mess called the Carmichael Mine located somewhere in Queensland’s vast Galilee Basin.

The bleak appearance of shuttered shop fronts in Townsville and Gladstone is now regretfully, a reality in inner-city enclaves in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and other towns and cities. But this is as nothing to a coterie of citizens who made a small fortune on the ALP’s franking credits fiasco as reported by Michael Pascoe in today’s The New Daily.

But to quote the old Sydney race caller Ken Howard, you can bet London to a Brick that not one of those angry, disaffected citizens in the deep north or the far, far west, read Pascoe’s report. Chances are they chose the prognostications of Terry McCrann, who a few days back penned an article with the headline, Why Pauline and Clive are our saviours, published in The Herald-Sun and syndicated across News Corp mastheads.

Like Michael Pascoe, Terry McCrann is also an economics writer.

But I think it fair to say describing Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer as our saviours, pushes the messianic metaphor just a little too hard. But hey; this is the reality of the era of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

To put economic reporting in perspective, it is worth browsing a website which processes trillions of financial transactions a year.

The enormity of the world economy is summarised by the brief of a company which describes itself as, ‘the central nervous system of global finance’.

Each day Bloomberg deploys Big Science to lubricate this central nervous system. Every minute it feeds the most advanced data on the planet to its reporters who then analyse everything from climate glitches such as hurricanes to the likelihood of nuclear war in the Middle East.

And in Australia Michael Pascoe, Ross Gittins, Elysse Morgan, Alan Kohler and many more fine business and finance journalists, distil local sources and Bloomberg and Reuters stories as well as those published in other reputable economic conduits, to keep Australia appraised of real, as opposed to fake news.

And yet when it comes to decoding the science of where our finances are actually heading, last Saturday some Australians chose to elect a scientific sceptic par excellence to the incoming Senate.

I leave you with this lucid explanation of Carbon Dioxide in Perspective by the Galileo Movement and urge you never doubt the stupidity of an electorate which never gets it wrong!

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book, The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale here.

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Moral Equivalence vs Political Correctness

By the time this essay is published the current election campaign reaches the ‘magical’ halfway point. The single quote marks around the word magical, denote the idea, a type of invisible hand is moving the electorate toward a decision which might change the nation’s future.

In fact, nothing is further from the truth. By the time the result comes and goes, the majority will simply tune out of the national debate and move on with their lives.

We are Australians after all; sure of our egalitarianism, our sense of the fair go and sceptical of the American notion of manifest destiny. And yet we are a nation wracked by self-doubt, unsure of our place in the world, and annoyed by pesky politicians foisting this or that paradigm upon us at every local, state and federal election. In short, we just want it to go away, but it won’t, nor will the consequences diminish no matter the makeup of the next government. Unsure footed and election weary, we Australians stand at a cross-road.

For some, the fog of uncertainty lifted momentarily during the first televised debate between Shorten and Morrison, and an address to the National Press Club by Greens Leader Richard Di Natale. Yet within days, both leaders scrambled to defend candidates who displayed their true nature on various social media platforms.

For the Liberal Party, it is a faux explanation of sinister forces at work behind the hate speech of Jessica Whelan.

Whereas for Labor it is the argument Luke Creasey was a naughty boy a long time ago, but all is forgiven now.

Thus far the Greens have avoided the spectacle of crest-fallen spear carriers, but in New South Wales that party’s internal war rumbles along.

And this is the ‘magical’ halfway point.

Creasey and Jessica Whelan are just two of a phalanx of fallen electoral aspirants, with the toll likely to increase by Election Day.

Without realising it, many of those among us charged to make sense of this mess – journalists – dutifully record and report two philosophical tropes deployed by contemporary politicians. Moral equivalence and that darling cause célèbre of the far right, political correctness.

It is a rarity to read journalism which avoids these hoary old chestnuts, and I don’t hold out much hope for the situation to change in the near or distant future.


The best answer comes courtesy of the most incisive analysis of the state of Australian public debate I have read thus far in the campaign.

Writer Richard Cooke lays the blame at the feet of Rupert Murdoch in his essay for the May edition of The Monthly headlined: News Corp. Democracy’s Greatest Threat.

Thankfully there are many splendid, hardworking and honest Australian journalists and writers, but their ranks are thinning fast due to cutbacks, layoffs and redundancies at mastheads big, small, local, regional and national.

My fear is young up-and-coming scribes will not know the difference between moral equivalence and political correctness, or any number of questionable political narratives trotted out by the Jordan Peterson’s and  Milo Yiannopoulos’s of this world. And truth be told I am in two minds about banning them as I am about the jailing of Julian Assange.

But as a long-time member of the old AJA, I agree with Peter Greste’s recent assertion that Julian Assange is no journalist.

And though I know this statement might seem politically incorrect to many readers, calling oneself a journalist and a publisher careens from moral to false equivalence, an unsettling transgression borne equally by both the left and the right.    

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book, The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale here.

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On the cusp

On June 16, 1858 Abraham Lincoln spoke these prophetic words to his peers assembled at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield: “a house divided against itself, cannot stand”.

Lincoln won the presidency of the United States and a civil war provoked by slavery, an abomination known by the recent ancestors of many Aboriginal Australians.

Lincoln’s seven words launched countless political science theses, and to this day his observation remains a moral actuality among those who aspire to the highest of offices.

I do not know if the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten pondered Lincoln’s words when he began his Budget Reply speech in the Australian Parliament on April 4 2019.

But across the despatch box neither Shorten nor the nation, could ignore the self-evident truth of a government utterly divided against itself.

Shorten’s first five words “women and men of Australia” is a deliberate riff on Gough Whitlam’s famous aphorism, “men and women of Australia.” Whitlam’s memorable saying marked the beginning of Australia’s transformation from colonial backwater to one of the most intriguing societies ever to occupy an entire continent.

And yet on the cusp of the most important elections of the century, ABC journalist Leigh Sales concluded her interview by asking; “what would you say to the Australian voter who thinks, “jeez, I just don’t like that Bill Shorten bloke very much. I don’t know if I can vote for him?”

While the full transcript includes Shorten’s response, Sales’ observation poses a raft of questions about how we view ourselves.

No matter who we elect I doubt Australians will ever be fully content with who we are as a people, and the nation will likely continue as “a house divided against itself, [and thus] cannot stand”.


Shorten alluded to the answer during his speech. In the words of the American author Ken Kesey, it is a great notion whose time is yet to come.

But the idea is given short shrift by media, and the majority of the women and men of Australia know virtually nothing about Makarrata.

I have not read one media report on the Budget Reply Speech which reported Shorten’s reference to a Makarrata.

I find this odd given the Uluru Statement is a modern Australian rhetorical masterwork.

Consider this. “How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?

“With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

“Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.”

When asked about Makarrata the former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said; “the constitution cannot be changed by Parliament. Only the Australian people can do that. No political deal, no cross-party compromise, no leader’s handshake, can deliver constitutional change … To do that, a constitutionally conservative nation must be persuaded that the proposed amendments respect the fundamental values of the constitution, and will deliver precise changes, clearly understood, that benefit all Australians.”

Herein is the difference between a conservative right-wing party bereft of ideas and a centre-left party within a whisker of government and led by a man characterised by a senior ABC journalist whose “personal popularity is a bit lacklustre”.

On the contrary.

A politician who opines ‘we owe the Uluru delegates an open mind on the big questions. On the form recognition takes, on treaties, on changes required in the constitution,’ seems to me to have absorbed the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln who said; “I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

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Hubris and its consequences

Type the words ‘train wreck’ into your favourite search engine, and you are more than likely to come up with hits describing the appearance of Teena McQueen on the ABCTV programme Q&A, broadcast March 25, 2019.

I prefer a different word. Hubris. My version of the Macquarie Dictionary defines hubris as, “insolence or wanton violence stemming from excessive pride”.

I contend her appearance on Q&A was not the train wreck described by umpteen media outlets including the Sydney Morning Herald which reported it as Train wreck TV: Q&A features worst panellist in show’s history.

Rather, it was a calculated and deliberate attack mounted by a person who amongst other things, is a paid commentator for the News Corp television outlet Sky News.

Ms McQueen’s excruciating comments were derogatory, possibly defamatory and certainly insolent. Her vulgar rant reeked of ‘wanton violence stemming from excessive pride’.

But it is not new. In 2018 the Sydney Morning Herald reported a stoush concerning Ms McQueen, who is the Liberal party’s federal vice-president. It seems Ms McQueen was called a “spoilt f—ing bitch who has to get her own way”.

Public debate in Australia is light years from civilised, sophisticated dialogism. Rather, the national discourse is sophistry of the worst order, displaying disturbing echoes of an earlier, much nastier Australia.

More about this in a moment

Ms McQueen shared the Q&A set with American author Roxanne Gay who penned a New York Times best-selling essay collection, Bad Feminist.

Needless to say, neither woman struck-up an on-air friendship. Nevertheless, Ms McQueen exulted in the victory of the Liberal Party’s most successful female politician, Gladys Berejiklian, the only person in New South Wales who it seems can get things done.

I doubt Ms McQueen read Elizabeth Farrelly’s luminous, heartfelt homage to her homeland, New Zealand. In her essay Ms. Farrelly says amongst other things, “feminism needn’t be “left wing”. But it’s not just about girls-on-top, either. Simply to replace one gendered cabal with another would be fair, perhaps, but futile”.

Like hubris, the word ‘cabal’ evokes dark, disturbing echoes of the earlier, much nastier Australia I mentioned a few paragraphs back.

As I watch James Ashby of One Nation negotiating with the U.S. National Rifle Association I think about a grainy black and white image secreted in a dark corridor of my old workplace, the NSW Parliament on Macquarie Street Sydney.

It is a portrait of the Labor Premier Jack Lang, eulogised in this essay by Shane Maloney.

The Big Fella as Lang was known, took on the forces of Francis Edward de Groot, an Irish-Australian army officer and commandant of the right-wing paramilitary group known as the New Guard.

In 1932 de Groot at the behest of New Guard leader Eric Campbell, used his sabre to slash open the Sydney Harbour Bridge from horseback, before Lang could do the honours.

Then as now, housing was top of mind for Sydney-siders, and armed fascists were happy to wield the billy clubs against starving squatters especially in the streets and alleys of the Greens’ stronghold of Newtown.

And while much has changed since those colourless days, much remains. Hatred, fear, racism, simmering violence, scorn of the Other; all deliberately articulated by Teena McQueen at the behest of her employer News Corp and its political client the Liberal Party of Australia.

It would be foolish of me to conclude this essay by not considering the word hubris as apt for the current leader of the NSW ALP Michael Daley.

Despite the fact Mr Daley’s odious observations were dutifully reported at the time by local radio news, Ms McQueen’s Liberal dirt unit on behalf of Premer Berejiklian wielded this voice grab with the devastating effect of a 1930s police truncheon.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

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Why Bill Shorten endorses Michael Daley

Optics is everything in contemporary politics and the Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten understands its power.

Shorten takes media advice from among others Dee Madigan of Campaign Edge and Eammon Fitzpatrick of Hawker Britten.

Thus, Bill Shorten’s welcoming of Michael Daley MP at the launch of the NSW ALP election campaign at the Revesby Workers Club on Sunday March 10, bristled with the nomenclature of ‘optics’.

And while various news outlets faithfully reported snippets of the event, the proceedings were streamed via the internet on Facebook and other digital platforms.

Both Madigan and Fitzpatrick are inheritors of the digital age. And winning the votes of those who prefer streaming to free-to-air TV or reading old fashioned ‘inkies,’ could tip the election in Daley’s favour.

Now contrast the Liberal Party launch on the same day with a mute PM Scott Morrison and the Usual Suspects of John Howard et al, dutifully covered by the biggest inky of them all, The Australian no less.

In the optics stakes the winners were undoubtedly Bill Shorten and Michael Daley.

Perhaps the worst example of bad optics is this photograph of the wife and daughter of Ryde ALP candidate Jerome Laxale being mobbed by blue clad Liberal supporters.

So let’s consider what is at stake in Ryde / Bennelong as well as the big Labor seats west of the Sydney CBD. While many of these enclaves remained loyal to the ALP in the Rudd Gillard Rudd years, and stayed faithful to Bill Shorten, their NSW State equivalents, deserted the party in the two previous elections.

Indeed, seats such as Penrith, Revesby, Riverwood and further west Bathurst, must return to the State Labor fold. For it is in western Sydney and its environs NSW will witness the biggest of big infrastructure projects; the construction of the Nancy Bird Walton Airport at Badgery’s Creek.

This is nation building stuff and its impact will be felt for at least a century. Policy wonks and political hard heads are hoping its construction and management is overseen by a sensitive state and Federal government, and not monstered by a Liberal apparatchik such as Max Moore-Wilton, famously given the shortest of short shrift by Anthony Albanese MP.

Labor members in adjacent Blue Mountains seats and local government areas are terrified of an airport built by a Liberal clique currently supervising the Westconnex debacle.

Say what you like about NSW Labor, but it delivered the State, Australia and the world, the best Olympic Games of the age.

Michael Daley knows this and has a Cabinet-level understanding of how enormous projects can be delivered on time, on budget. It is this reason I contend, why he stood up to Alan Jones.

Bill Shorten is familiar with Daley’s Labor pedigree and appreciates the fundamental fact that it is easier to deal with a NSW Labor premier, than a lame duck Liberal premier, whose political future lies in the maw of Alan Jones.

The alternative is a minority Labor State government which may rely on the two Greens State members Jamie Parker (Balmain) and Jenny Leong (Newtown) for Confidence and Supply. Add to this mix Mark Latham as a One Nation MLC and we have a recipe for a debacle.

Given the fact thousands of citizens in western Sydney are about to learn the joys of changing trains in Chatswood to get to the CBD, or losing bus services in and around the Ryde electorate, (see above) March 23 2019 will be one of the most important dates on both the NSW and national electoral calendar.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

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Twilight of the sods

Prime Minister Scott Morrison did away with any semblance of pretence of confidentiality when he announced the appointment of Ita Buttrose as the ABC’s alpha dog.

Accompanied by the Liberal Party’s IPA stalwart Mitch Fifield, Morrison approached peak unctuousness as he welcomed Ms Buttrose to the top job.

In fact the appointment is a classic example of the dark art of psyops, practiced by this Government’s finest exponent, the Minister for Communications and Arts Mitchell Peter Fifield.

I assume most of the readers of The AIM Network know the meaning of psyops, but for the uninitiated it is characterised by this definition: “Psychological operations (PSYOP) convey selected information and indicators to audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning, and ultimately the behaviour of governments, organisations, groups, and individuals”.

Ita would, so the theory goes, soften the perception of the government amongst Baby Boomers, reared on a diet of the Goon Show, Blue Hills and Relax With Me presented by Arch McKirdy.

Ms Buttrose via her father’s association with the ABC kindles fond memories of Talbot Duckmanton, James Dibble and a black and white television gardening programme made memorable by the false teeth sibilance of its presenter.

Left-wing bias did not exist in the glory days of the ABC, nor did right-wing or any other sort of bias, for when talk topics were audited, the number crunchers inevitable informed management it was always 50 for the left and 50 for the right. This is because of the folly of forgetting the output of ABC regional radio and television stations.

But the PM, armed with Mitch’s assurance of an impending blancmange future for the ABC, assured listeners Ita would turn back the clock, and restore balance to dear old Auntie.

Certainly the front page headline of Friday’s Australian newspaper, said as much.

In my 15 years’ service at the ABC I learnt an immutable truth about the national broadcaster. The ABC Charter is sacrosanct. And if there is one thing we can be sure of Ita Buttrose like her father before her, will see to it the principles of the Charter are enforced.

But let’s return to the best news story the government could muster this week.

On cue the TV news outlets rolled sepia-tinted footage of a young, Ita tap tap tapping away at the glass ceiling of muscular Australian media enterprises, so beloved by the Blue Rinse Set.

But the Prozac-like calm of Ita’s appointment as chair of the ABC board, lasted less than Andy Warhol’s dictum, “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Indeed it is worth evoking another art form – the second string of Mitch Fifield’s ministerial bow – to cast a suitable analogy for the current state of this leprous government.

Opera. In particular Gotterdammerung, by Richard Wagner.

As I write the Federal Government now lists five lame duck ministers in its ranks, with Christopher Pyne and Steven Ciobo swelling the list.

And though only three excruciating parliamentary sitting days remain, the master of psyops and others in Liberal ranks will continue to appoint their cronies, mates and fellow travellers to QANGOs, boards and positions of influence, up to and including the day before this parliament is prorogued.

But with a disgraced cardinal holed-up in a Victorian slammer, images of burning, immersion in water, and the unlikely renewal of the Menzian world, swirl at the bottom of crystal brandy balloons, as smirking toffs like Mitch Fifield contemplate the impending twilight of the sods.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

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Independents and Her Majesty’s Opposition

The ABC program Q&A broadcast on Monday February 4 2019, featured a panel of independent Federal members of Parliament.

The Member for Melbourne and deputy leader of the Australian Greens Adam Bandt, not an independent, joined Tony Jones and other panellists for an hour of probing questions from convenor and audience.

Love it or loath it Q&A alone justifies the ABC budget, but the makeup of this particular programme posited a future scenario which might change the topography of the national political landscape.

The next Australian Parliament could see an Opposition bench comprising these independents, and a slew of others. Judging by the tone of the questions and the Twitter comments rolling across the bottom of my television screen, Australians appear likely to choose an independent over an incumbent sitting Liberal or National Party member.

And it is crystal clear the Liberal Party of Australia is ignoring this threat to its existence. The well-funded campaign of high profile candidate Ms Zali Steggall OAM in the Federal seat of Waringah is a case in point.

The possible return to the House of Representatives by former Federal member for Lyne in NSW Rob Oakeshott, revives memories of the Gillard minority government, supported by two of last Monday’s Q&A guests; the Greens’ Adam Bandt and Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie.

It is unlikely either MP will join a minority Shorten Labor Government, but as key players in an Opposition made up of independents rather than members of the Liberal and National coalition, Wilkie, Bandt, Sharkey, Banks, Phelps et al, could sound the death knell of the loony, conservative Liberal rump.

Furthermore strong independents could emerge from both the right and the left.

Ructions within the Australian Greens might see former Greens candidate for the Melbourne seat of Batman Ms Alex Bhathal who quit the party citing ‘organisational bullying,’ recontest as a left independent.

Similarly NSW MP Emma Husar who lost ALP endorsement for the Federal seat of Lindsay is ‘considering her options‘.

On 7 December last year The Guardian reported an investigation by the ALP found, “Husar had mistreated her electorate staff but did not find evidence to support claims of sexual harassment or of her flashing another federal MP”.

The circumstances surrounding Bhathal and Husar garnered substantial media coverage, but other lesser-known independent-minded political aspirants, such as Liberal blue-blood Oliver Yates, snagged media coverage when he announced he would contest Josh Frydenburg’s safe seat of Kooyong.

Add these potential names plus Steggall to last week’s Q&A line-up, then count Cathy McGowan the independent MP for Indi and Bob Katter the independent MP for Kennedy in Queensland, plus others I might have omitted, and a formidable second tier Opposition bench emerges.

But despite this obvious political threat, the Morrison Government acts as if it has the numbers in the lower House while denigrating perfectly reasonable legislation pertaining to refuges in off-shore detention, put forward by the Federal Member for Wentworth Dr Kerryn Phelps.

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison scorns the Phelps initiative by saying it is, “selling out our border protection to get a cheap opportunistic win in the parliament,” he pushes thousands more electors toward independent candidates, and makes my thesis of an independent Opposition bench more likely.

Add to this the PM’s backing of Liberal MP Tim Wilson over a sham franking credits inquiry just days after the fall-out from the findings of the banking Royal Commission, and it is safe to predict 20 to 30 Liberal/Coalition seats could fall at the next election.

While this figure seems high, swings at state elections in Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, resulted in miniscule opposition benches.

Like it or not, this is how the nation voted, and woe betide any political party which ignores the signs.

Speaking of portents, millions of dead, stinking fish befouling the rivers of the Murray Darling Basin, means a cohort of National MPs also face the fate of their smug Liberal counterparts.

The Federal Member for Maranoa in Queensland and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud is I believe, vulnerable to an independent rural candidate who believes in science and climate change.

Speaking of science, Littleproud said this on the ABC Radio AM programme recently.

“This is politics, and when I became the Water Minister, I took the politics out. I didn’t call people names, like what happened in the past. It had to be a mature debate; it had to be predicated on science. The science was predicated, it was put in front of the Parliament, and these people should stop playing politics. They agreed to the science less than three months ago”.


Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

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Gilmore, race, and shameful Liberals

My long association with the Federal seat of Gilmore commenced a few years before 1984, a seminal time for the Royal Australian Navy and the City of Shoalhaven which lies to the south of the industrial hub of Wollongong in New South Wales.

The cessation of the navy’s fixed wing operations in this year, marked the start of a long and painful economic trough for the Shoalhaven, and especially Nowra, the regional provincial city.

Nowra was, and to a large extent still is, a navy town. Nowadays real estate and tourism are the dominant industries. Spin-off businesses associated with the military while important are barely on the economic radar.

When departing neighbouring Kiama and entering the Shoalhaven region, it is easy to mistake the lush surrounds as a National Party stronghold. Far from it. The Federal seat of Gilmore which encompasses Nowra and its satellite towns is or was blue ribbon Liberal. But Gilmore is about to cross into the Labor column for the first time in many decades.

How do I know?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently parachuted Mr Warren Mundine into the seat, metaphorically stabbed the endorsed Liberal candidate Grant Schultz in the back, and earlier allowed the sitting Member Ann Sudmalis, to be thrown under the political bus.

By so doing ScoMo unleashed in Gilmore a full blown death match struggle for the future of Liberals in Gilmore and across Australia.

Gilmore / Nowra tell the tale of two sides of a river. North of the Shoalhaven lie the moneyed bastions of Kangaroo Valley, Berry and Gerringong and Geroa. To the south live some of the poorest, most deprived citizens of New South Wales, who struggle in soul-less housing commission estates. Many of these citizens are expelled from housing commission accommodation in western Sydney.

Nowra, like many rural communities, suffers from the scourge of ice. In my south coast community, a 40 minute drive south of Nowra, 26 houses were robbed in one night. Mine among them. The culprit after an inevitable arrest had his house fire bombed by local vigilantes. In my tiny community, arson, murder, robbery, serious drug dealing, spousal abuse and random acts of violence, are the norm. But most visitors and tourists to the south coast never see this dark underbelly. They are rightly mesmerised by the region’s stunning natural beauty.

Until recently the local Liberal clique of Shelley Hancock (the NSW Parliament’s Speaker), Federal Member Ann Sudmalis and her predecessor Joanna Gash, along with their developer-cum-real estate lackeys were happy for this dreadful state of affairs to continue. Then along came Warren Mundine about whom I make no comment. But I do say this: The Aboriginal citizens of the Shoalhaven / Nowra / Federal seat of Gilmore are among the most put-upon Indigenous people in New South Wales.

Mundine an Aboriginal man who claims ancestral ties to the south coast, lives in Sydney and was the former national president of the Australian Labor Party

There are too many examples of out-and-out racism deployed against the Yuin of the south coast, but the most egregious in my time there, occurred in 1982, when accused anti-Semite councillor Greg Watson, took down and burnt an aboriginal flag made by local auntie, Maude Moore. Watson called the flag a “revolutionary piece of rag’.

Speaking of Jews, Watson reportedly said, “You can say, ‘why don’t you jack the price up? Why don’t you be a good Jew? Why don’t you screw the price of the last dollar out of it like private enterprise would?’” Track down the report on ABC Radio’s PM program of Thursday 1 May, 2008 here and make up your own mind about this less-than-charming individual.

Greg Watson was a key member of the local Liberal clique I mentioned earlier and needless to say Pauline Hanson is very popular in Gilmore. Thus a Liberal candidate of Aboriginal extraction faces endemic racism, even before the poll is announced.

By contrast I make a few observations about the woman whose name adorns this unhappy Federal Liberal seat; Dame Mary Gilmore.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography describes her as a “patriot, feminist, social crusader and folklorist; she has now passed into Australian legend”.

The dictionary also says ,“Mary Gilmore campaigned in the Worker and any other available forum for a wide range of social and economic reforms, such as votes for women, old-age and invalid pensions, child endowment and improved treatment of returned servicemen, the poor and deprived and, above all, of Aboriginals.

“She wrote numerous letters, as well as contributing articles and poems, to the Sydney Morning Herald on these causes and such diverse subjects as the English language, the Prayer Book, earthquakes, Gaelic and the immigration laws, the waratah as a national emblem, the national anthem, and Spanish Australia”.

Read more here.

Of all the aspiring and former politicians who’ve held sway in Gilmore, only the ALP candidate Fiona Phillips comes close to the legacy of the Federal seat’s namesake. And of the soon-to-be-defunct Liberal clique of Gilmore, good riddance to your shameful and wasteful history.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

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Deflating democracy

Earlier this week my neighbour asked, “Is America a democracy?”

I replied, “America is a republic which aspires to democracy via its Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

We continued our discussion from the perspective of white and non-white U.S. citizens, but our conversation eventually ended in stalemate. We agreed Shakespeare’s line, now is the winter of our discontent, best sums up the mood of Republican United States which, if you believe the commentators on MSNBC and CNN, is as far from a democracy as it has ever been in that nation’s history.

But this drift from democratic exceptionalism is not confined to the United States.

On Thursday 6 December 2018 Australia demonstrated the extent of its slide from idealism to the ignobility of brute force. The occasion was Prime Minister Scott Morrison threatening to go nuclear if Labor did not support yet another measure to battle the ongoing war on home-grown terrorists.

I leave the detail of that debacle which ended the Australian Parliamentary year to others. Suffice to say as a democracy our nation seems on the verge of a summer of discontent.

But what triggered this negativity? The answer I believe is the fallout from the Great Recession of 2008, and its most stubborn legacy; deflation.

The fact Australia survived this debacle is thanks to the text book application of Keynesian economic theory, universally derided by Liberal economic rationalists. In my opinion their continued scorn of the finest management of an economic crisis in contemporary Australian history, constitutes perilous wilfulness.

The Liberal Government let the 10th anniversary of the Great Recession of 2008 pass without so much as a mention.

Earlier this week a slew of financial pundits predicted the Reserve Bank of Australia might cut interest rates next year. If this eventuates, Australia is on the precipice of deflation.

In psychological terms deflation deprives individuals of a sense of well-being. No matter how hard people work their goals remain out of reach. Think low pay, the gig economy, casualisation, the marginalisation of women in the work force etc.

One way or another deflation is entrenched in other parts of the world, especially England. But despite a chronically sluggish economy, Brexit looms large for the Old Dart.

The Bank of England recently warned of a catastrophe if an unprepared Britain turns its back on Europe. But gleeful Brexiteers, led by the Conservative Party, insist the winter of our discontent will be made glorious summer by this son of York. This quote by the way is from the play Richard the Third by William Shakespeare.

The deformed body of Richard the Third was recently found buried beneath a car park somewhere up north.

But Europe too is wracked by turmoil, caused by deflation and stoked by the knuckle-duster fists of far-right thugs. And in Eastern Europe there is a real prospect of a full-scale hot war between Ukraine and Russia, over access to the Sea of Azov. Both Ukraine and Russia are also experiencing deflation. Even China with its command economy is sliding backward.

There are thousands of definitions of deflation, but this simplified version sums it up in a way that can be traced back to our disgraceful Liberal government, which continues to embrace a discredited economic rationalist model without question.

Deflation occurs when supply is high and demand low. In other words when people stop buying. Think the current housing market in Australia.

Deflation can also come about when the supply of money decreases, often in response to a financial contraction created by bad investment or a credit crunch. Think the recent Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, with its sensational revelations of predatory lending practices.

Too much competition can also trigger deflation as can and too little market concentration.

Japan is trapped by its quicksand, and no matter what economic tricks it conjures, Japan cannot free itself from its grip.

The last time the world endured a lengthy period of deflation was between 1918 and 1939, when democracy waned to the point where its beacon was almost extinguished.

This must never happen again.

As the season of good will looms, I find it hard to believe there will be a change for the better next year unless Australia rids itself of a truly awful conservative government, and prepares once more to deploy the economic levers devised by John Maynard Keynes.

But this will not happen if the Liberal Party of Australia remains in power in 2019.

Economic rationalists around the world, Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenburg among them, hate Keynes for many things, none the least of which is this pithy bon mot: “capitalism is the astounding belief that the wickedest of men will do the wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone”.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

The neglect of Menzies’ Forgotten People

As the cameras scanned the room filled with the Labor faithful eager to welcome Premier Daniel Andrews on Saturday night November 24 2018, I noticed the citizenry’s remarkable diversity.

Beaming African faces, men wearing the head covering of the Indian Sub-Continent, women with scarves I presume signify adherence to Islam, and smiling Asian male and female faces. Each person roared as the young, slightly stooped and bespectacled Andrews, whom I presume claims Scottish heritage, approached the microphone. With wife and family by his side, Andrews savoured an electoral victory which marks a profound shift in the Australian political landscape. Those in the audience and the volunteers who worked for Andrews’ stunning victory, like the Premier, cherish their family and strive to make a better life for themselves and their community.

Daniel Andrews spoke directly to these men and women whom the Liberal Party has neglected for the past six years. These citizens are the 21st century equivalent of Sir Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People.

The Liberal Party freely cites Menzies, and latterly John Howard, as the talismen of liberal values. Saturday night revealed just how far the party of Menzies has drifted from his ideals of individual aspiration.

Menzies delivered his oft cited speech in May 1942, and used its title as an electoral slogan. The Forgotten People eulogises the thrift of the middle class

It is a matter of fact Victoria has witnessed horrific violence meted out by people with names that do not ring with a Scottish burr; Hassan Khalif Shire Ali killed Sisto Malaspina, and the car mad James Gargasoulas, butchered citizens walking along Bourke Street.

On 20 November three young men were arrested over an alleged plot to carry out mass murder in the name of Islamic State. Earlier in the year we read stories about gangs of African youths running riot and scaring the wits out of Melbournians, on the town for a night of fine dining.

Once again it is a matter of fact the conservative press and the Liberal Party directly and indirectly deployed these incidents to ensure the defeat of the Andrews Government.

And yet the opposite occurred.


Victoria and Melbourne are familiar with violence. Cast your mind back to 1998. This year marked the start of Melbourne’s so called Gangland Killings. By 2010, 36 prominent criminals had been slaughtered. Their murders were cynically celebrated in a television series, Underbelly. One of their kind, Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read, was lauded by the Victorian art world. Now turn back the pages of history to 3 February 1967, and the death by hanging of Ronald Ryan. Next, check out June 28 1880 and the Siege of Glenrowan led by Ned Kelly. Go further back to the Battle of the Eureka Stockade on 3 December 1854 led by Peter Lalor. And of course let us not forget the countless murders of Aboriginal men and women and Chinese citizens working the gold fields. Victoria, like the rest of the nation, is the sum of its history; violent, aggressive, proud and progressive.

But for the past six years the Liberal Party cynically ignored Menzies’ Forgotten People to such an extent, even the most seasoned observers cannot now accurately identify the party’s base.

This morning as I digest the news on the first day of the last sitting week of the Federal Parliament, those forgotten people seem determined to forget the Liberal Party and everything it does not stand for.

Daniel Andrews is now the most powerful premier on the nation’s political stage, but there is one element of his ascendancy that we can be certain of; Dan Andrews will not forget the people who entrusted him with four years of stewardship of their state.

It is apodictic private money pours into Victoria to build electric cars and the next generation of clean, green renewable energy sources. Universities will thrive and hospitals strive to cure the sick, and the young taught about a future with endless possibilities.

I can almost hear Dan Andrews stand up in the Victorian Parliament and say the following, “I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs, or in the officialdom of the organised masses. It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race”.  I can guarantee Andrews will not use these words, but he might be tempted to quote them to the legatees of Robert Menzies who, to their electoral peril, have grievously neglected the Forgotten People.

If you can be bothered, the text of Menzies’ Forgotten People speech is published here.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

Lest we forget to remember

The request seemed simple enough on first reading. The text from a niece said her son, my great nephew, is having an assembly on Remembrance Day, and do we have anyone in the family who fought in World War 1, and if so do we have any photos or memorabilia?

My equivocal response ended with the explanation that my great nephew might find it difficult to describe the story of our family’s involvement with the Great War.

Sure enough my niece did not respond, but when I tried to put her request out of my mind, I could not erase the image of the tale told me by my long dead mother.

It is not a myth of derring-do, or patriotism, or a tear jerker in the mould of Saving Private Ryan. It is a casual observation about two men who returned to Ireland after the 1914-18 war. I think they were brothers; certainly my mother’s uncles. When she first told me the yarn, I imagined them wizened aged men, whereas in truth they were probably a mere decade or so, older than my great nephew.

My maternal grandmother hosted a Hooley in their honour, complete with fiddler, tin whistle player, a lilter, a large jug of poitin, plenty of spuds and a side of pork. Before proceeding, here is a brief explanation for the uninitiated: A Hooley is an Irish party. A lilter is a person who enunciates a form of traditional singing. (If you are curious look up Séamus Fay from Cavan). Poitin is made from cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet, molasses and potatoes.

This Hooley was probably unleashed onto an unsuspecting Irish community, in about 1920. My mother was born in 1918, and was told the anecdote by an elder sibling.

Any gathering of young, strong men in rural Ireland in the 1920s would likely attract the attention of the Dúchrónaigh. You probably know of them by the colour of their uniform; black and tan.

The Tans were ex-British Army counter-insurgents, deployed across the island to fight the Irish Republican Army.

World War 1 had changed the world order, and like Humpty Dumpty, ‘all the King’s horses, and all the King’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again’.

For the Black and Tans service in Ireland meant a suit of clothes, a few bob and a Webley revolver to shoot up the Paddy’s.

It seems the Carrigallen poitin set cheeks ablaze, as the fiddle player urged the young men and women to dance the night away. As my mother recounted it, both men refused to enter the cottage, preferring instead the stand beneath the stout lintel beam of the front door. And here they remained for the rest of the night, politely refusing all urgings to come inside and enjoy the craic.

Years later I asked my mother why the brothers refused to enter. She clicked her tongue and dismissed them as poor, befuddled, amadán’s (pronounced oma-thons) who could not look after themselves. Both relied on the kindness of local women to feed them and do their washing. The Hooley was my grandmother’s way of attempting to reintegrate them into society. Her kindness failed. The brothers had learnt in the battles of Flanders, or the Somme, or Ypres or Villers-Bretonneux, or wherever it was they endured war, the lintel beam of a door was the safest place to wait out a bombardment.

These men, and millions like them, suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder, or shell shock, or in rural nations like Ireland, and across Europe, they were simply known as ‘eejits,’ idiots.

How do you tell a six year old child that your only extant, family connection with World War 1 can be traced back, like a spidery filament, to two young blue eyed men, driven insane by the sights and sounds of the War to End All Wars? It is not the sort of parable one would expect anyone to recount on Remembrance Day 2018, but it is the only link I have with that century old calamity. And when the clock chimes the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 2018, I will recall the sad fable of my great uncles, lest I forget to remember them.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

War, religion, and a half billion dollars

When you do the maths, you realise almost a half billion of your dollars has been set aside by the Morrison Government to redevelop the Australian War Memorial. Add to this $100 million spent on the Monash Centre in Villers-Bretonneux. Now add almost $13 million to document the official histories of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor. Then add the $40 million dollars lavished on the refurbishment of Sydney’s ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park.

So far I’ve tallied almost $653,000,000. I am innumerate, so this figure might be off the mark, but you get my drift. I do not know how much money has been set aside on war memorials or their equivalents in other states of the Commonwealth, but the tally might approach three quarters of a trillion dollars.

So, what is going on? The 100th anniversary of the Armistice of World War 1 comes and goes on November 11 2018, but the question is, does this sad anniversary justify this massive expenditure?

Social media is taking the pulse of Scott Morrison’s largesse, and the indirect beneficiary of this near half billion dollar grant, the Australian War Memorial’s Director and failed Liberal leader, Dr Brendan Nelson. All I detect is a general consensus suggesting the dough be spent on the health and well-being of men and women injured in Australia’s most recent conflicts.

As a writer I’ve woven the effects of war into my novels and short stories. I am of a generation directly affected by World War 2. My father worked in war industry and before him long-dead nameless great uncles survived the horrors of World War 1.

My first reaction is ANZAC Day and war memorials large and small in Australian towns, villages and cities, serve as a substitute for a national religion. The Dawn Service held at Gallipoli, Turkey on April 25th each year, is a rite of passage for thousands of young Australians. These rituals are not uncommon. Young European men and women tread the path of Camino de Santiago in Spain, or complete the five routes to achieve Ireland’s Pilgrim’s Passport.

Religion and war freely borrow one another’s iconography to snare this youthful optimism and I reckon the half billion dollars earmarked for the decade-long redevelopment of the national war memorial, continues this tradition.

I doubt the Labor Opposition will criticise the expenditure because there is no political mileage in so doing. Indeed, former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed Dr Brendan Nelson Director of the Australian War Memorial, and the good doctor will now be comfortably remunerated until he retires.

So on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of World War 1, it is worth considering two examples of religious iconography deployed by propagandists, during that awful period of our history.

The first is the Angels of Mons. The second the Miracle of the Sun, known among pious Christians as the Miracle of Fatima, a village in Portugal. Both occurrences are inextricably linked with the actual apocalypse.

The Angels of Mons occurred shortly after Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914. A mere 19 days later on August 23rd, the British Expeditionary Force clashed with the German Army. After the shock and awe of battle, the BEF somehow managed an orderly retreat, and staved off a major defeat.

An account of events in Mons, written by journalist Arthur Machen, described heavenly bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt shielding the retreating British forces. Machen’s item became a cause celebre among home front spiritualists. His story eventually morphed into the myth of the Angels of Mons, and was deployed to boost morale. The Angels of Mons fantasy is documented by the Australian War Memorial, but not so the Miracle of the Sun, or Fatima. The latter is probably ignored because Portugal’s involvement in World War 1 focused principally on its imperial possessions in Africa. However, the date of the Miracle of Fatima 13 October 1917, is significant. The Russian Czar is in custody. The Bolsheviks in power, and with Russia out of the war, the redeployment of German divisions to the Western Front means defeat. Three of Fatima’s children describe visions of the Virgin Mary. The sun dances in the sky as an accompaniment to the miracle, which remained a powerful example of Marian piety until the reign of Pope John Paul the Second. In reality the Miracle of Fatima was used by the Vatican in its campaign against Communism.

And so to our own great myth; the debacle of the landing at the Dardanelles where 8,709 Australians died. By the end of the obscenity of World War 1, 61,522 Australians perished.

I do not belittle those who take spiritual nourishment from the story of Gallipoli or the Angels of Mons, or the Miracle of Fatima, but I hope a tiny portion of the half billion dollars will be set aside by the Australian Government to valorise the memory of young Aboriginal men and women, killed in battle to defend their Australian home lands. I doubt this will happen because as of now those frontier wars do not fit our view of who we are, and how we became Australians.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

Through the looking glass darkly

October 2019. The Australian Labor Party is the government of Australia holding a whopping majority in the lower house, but it must deal with a pesky senate.

Bill Shorten’s government develops into an effective technocracy. The Federation of Australian States is positive about the carve-up of the GST. Victoria and New South Wales are in the Labor fold. House prices continue to tumble. A stimulus package is mooted courtesy of a fulsome budget crafted by Treasurer Chris Bowen. Wages rise.

Kevin Rudd is short odds to be the next Secretary General of the United Nations. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is gravely ill. Rupert Murdoch is dead. Brexit negotiations continue. Elizabeth Warren announces she will contest the 2020 U.S. elections for the Democrats and Elon Musk reveals a breakthrough in cheap, hydrogen energy.

Back home Prime Minister Shorten enlists Paul Keating as spokesperson for the looming referendum on an Australian Republic. Julia Gillard is the firm favourite to be the nation’s first president. Royalists are outraged. Alan Jones collapses on-air from apoplexy on the day Anthony Albanese turns the first sod on a national very fast rail service.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hosts high-level talks with Foreign Minister Penny Wong. It seems there are ructions about some of the refugees resettled in New Zealand. Peter Hartcher opines in the Western Sydney Morning Herald it has something to do with the large number of Kiwis deported to New Zealand from Australia.

The drought worsens. Oil prices fluctuate. Wall Street is about to crash. Global warming continues.

Parliamentary debate, especially Question Time, is quiet, almost cordial. A large cohort of independents sit in the lower house.

A split looms in the Liberal Party. At the behest of the former Member for Warringah Tony Abbott, Gerard Henderson joins John Roskam writing A Manifesto for Renewal. Meanwhile Malcolm Turnbull enlists Peter van Onselen to craft A Conservative Dialectic: Finding Menzies’ Forgotten People.

Paul Kelly writes a two-volume history of The United Australia Party, and a descendant of Archie Galbraith Cameron becomes leader of the National Party, now arguing to maintain its status as a legitimate political entity.

Near Mt Isa a geologist-cum prospector uncovers an enormous seam of scandium and yttrium also known as Rare Earth Elements. Clive Palmer lodges an Intent-to-Mine document with the Queensland Government. The Australian Financial Review describes the discovery as ‘the next great mining boom of the north,’ and predicts domestic high-tech industries will expand.

Elon Musk meets with Prime Minister Shorten who kicks off a national debate about reviving the Australian car industry by building Tesla electric cars in South Australia and Victoria. China lodges a protest with the World Trade Organisation.

Barnaby Joyce threatens to retire as the Member for New England if a local Aboriginal land council continues to lobby to change the name of his Federal seat to Anaiwan.

Senator Pat Dodson is set to chair a national discussion in Old Parliament House Canberra to define Australia’s first Makarrata.

Sky News announces the Liberal split is underway.

Footnote: An incomplete snapshot of political party splits. The United Australia Party (UAP) forms as a new conservative alliance in 1931 with Labor defector Joseph Lyons, its leader. In 1939 Robert Menzies becomes prime minister as war looms. Menzies resigns as leader of a minority World War II government, amidst an unworkable parliamentary majority. The UAP led by Billy Hughes, disintegrates after defeat in the 1943 election. Menzies calls a conference of conservative parties and other groups, opposed to the Australian Labor Party. From 1942 onwards, Menzies maintains his public profile via an ABC radio series entitled, The Forgotten People.

During the 1954 federal election, Labor receives more than half the popular vote and wins 57 seats to the Coalition’s 64. Two key political players emerge; B.A. Santamaria and H.V. Evatt. In the subsequent election, the newly formed Democratic Labor Party directs its supporters to give their electoral preferences to the Liberals, ahead of the ALP. In 1961 and 1969 Labor wins a majority of the two-party vote, but DLP preferences result in Labor coming up short of the Coalition’s hold on government. The DLP still exists.

Tony Abbott describes B.A. Santamaria as his formative political hero. Herbert Vere ‘Doc’ or Bert Evatt serves as the third president of the United Nations General Assembly from 1948 to 1949 and helps draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain and at Forty South Publishing.

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When Sputnik went ballistic

As its 61st anniversary approaches it is worth pondering the lasting impact on popular culture of a polished metal sphere whose 21-day orbit ushered in the space race and tightened the ratchet on the cold war. The sphere, known as Sputnik, marked the commencement of a new era.

On the 4th October 1957, citizens of the planet fortunate enough to own a radio, myself among them, uttered a collective gasp. The Soviet Union launched the world’s first spacecraft. named Sputnik 1, the 58-centimetre sphere, passed into an elliptical low orbit and forever changed earth’s perception of itself.

Sputnik, which emitted a single watt of power and is written thus in Russian, Простейший Спутник, marked the literal end of one period and the beginning of another.

The successful launch more than 60 years ago of this remarkable example of Soviet technology, is an event worthy of a brief analysis of its lasting cultural impact.

The football-sized satellite emboldened the United States to launch its own venture, which triggered the space race and a concomitant influence on popular culture.

A few years after Sputnik, the Soviets again trumped the United States when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth on 12 April 1961.

I recall imploring a cantankerous father to buy a set of Gagarin postage stamps which if mint, would today be worth a pretty pack of kopecks.

“Communist,” he snorted.

The following month Alan Shepard earned the moniker First American in Space, but it was the clean-shaven and crew-cut astronaut John Glenn who emulated Gagarin’s feat on 20 February 1962. More than a decade later in 1979 American author, Tom Wolfe declared Shepard and Glenn et al had The Right Stuff. Yuri Gagarin and his comrades apparently did not.

Sputnik spawned a new category of heroes. The Soviet cohort, led by Gagarin, bore the prefix ‘cosmo,’ their American counterparts ‘astro’.

Sputnik emboldened post-war children to throw away treasured Davy Crockett coonskin hats, and scour the dictionaries for words commencing with both prefixes. Cosmology, cosmos and cosmonaut entered the lexicon alongside astronomical, Astrodome, astrobiology and astronautics, to name a few.

In 1963 Japanese youth shared the global passion for shiny space-age newness, by empowering Astro Boy to take artistic flight from the pages of manga, onto the black and white screens of nascent television.

Around the world, designers, advertisers — especially for Campari — graphic artists, furniture and light makers and others, drew inspiration from the tiny orb. Meanwhile in the good ole’ US of A Sputnik breathed life into a genre of silly, speculative pulp, written in the preceding decades.

Science Fiction rocketed into a favoured form of escapism when it ‘slipped the surly bonds’ of penny dreadful novels and become a night-time television staple.

The monotonous Mixolydian mode of the beeping Sputnik monitored and re-broadcast by ham radio operators, became a tone poem for authors of the calibre of Phillip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke. And while Gene Roddenberry died before dreaming up the sophistication of an astrometrics lab, courtesy of Star Trek Voyager, I’m confident Roddenberry would’ve approved its creation.

Stanley Kubrick produced Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 to the accompaniment of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss and new music by the Austro-Hungarian contemporary composer György Ligeti. In the meantime in a mysterious cosmos far, far away, Sputnik inspired Soviet writers and artists to dream dreams of a serene, egalitarian space populated by a fragile humanity, with the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, its locus.

In 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky launched the fictional Solaris, Солярис in Cyrillic, (also spelt Solyaris) to the strains of J.S. Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, and the electrosonics of Soviet composer Eduard Nikolayevich Artemyev.

As I sat in the Lido cinema located in a forgotten quarter of downtown Sydney, I imagined wandering the corridors of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a few kilometres from the snow-shrouded Magnitogorsk, a locale I thought the home of Magneto of X Men fame. Солярис, Solyaris epitomised an art-space which I naively believed flourished behind the weirdness of the Iron Curtain.

In the same year of Solaris’ cinematic release, the impact of Sputnik began to slip from popular consciousness thanks to the song Star Man from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Artemyev’s electro plunking did not stand a chance against Mick Ronson’s soaring guitar licks. For chronologically challenged readers this pop milestone, written by David Bowie, is now 46 years old.

So as the second decade of the 21st-century edges to a conclusion, books, films, comics and a myriad of other cultural manifestations of ‘space, the final frontier’, owe an incalculable debt to a tiny device which carried less onboard technology than a $200 drone.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus and other stories is available at https://tasmania-40-south.myshopify.com/products/last-voyage-of-aratus-the-by-henry-johnston-pb

What do think tanks think?

Auguste Rodin’sThe Thinker is universally regarded as a symbol of science and philosophy. But Rodin originally called it The Poet as a detail of a larger work known as The Gates of Hell to be used as an entrance to a Parisian museum. Neither the museum nor the bronze doors — the Gates of Hell — were built.

Rodin was born in 1840 and died in 1917. In 1848 eight years after his birth, Karl Marx wrote The Manifesto of the Communist Party. In the year of Rodin’s death in 1917, communism swept away the Romanov dynasty and changed the world forever.

For more than a century scientists, philosophers, poets and artists – like The Thinker — pondered these and other events.  But a strange phenomenon which evolved in the 1970s, irrevocably changed the way citizens think.

A coterie of American business people came up with an idea to outsource critical thinking. Though not new, the notion was informed by free-market philosophy. Decades on and think tanks impact our lives almost without our knowledge.

George Lakoff an adviser to the U.S Democrat Party published a book entitled Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff has also penned at least seven other books, but Don’t Think of an Elephant goes to the heart of the conservative think tank movement.

Lakoff traces the history of modern think tank to Nixon-era America. The US was wracked by the obscenity of the Vietnam War, and capitalism in genuine peril. During this seminal time, America’s best and brightest turned away from traditional conservative business pursuits.  

Lewis Powell, a doyen of the conservative movement, wrote to the US Chamber of Commerce encouraging the business community to endow professorships and institutes at major American universities. Powell also called for the establishment of lavishly funded private foundations for hand-picked scholars. These foundations would provide their ‘fellows’ the tools to conduct research for subsequent publication in journals and magazines. Powell argued the US business community should own the means of publication and take control of media and communications. Sound familiar? The model has boomed over the last 50 years.

So how does a think tank work? As a cognitive scientist, Lakoff is an expert in the mechanisms behind the framing of public discourse. Consider a ‘frame’ as a conceptual structure. Lakoff uses the simple notion of a bottle. Look at one and you think liquid. No real effort involved. Next, frame a public discourse, let’s say, ‘we must follow the law,’ or as Malcolm Turnbull said, “and the court shall so hold”. But before the discourse is unleashed, a phalanx of media and communications strategists, book expensive TV and radio airtime and ensure acres of coverage in the slower print media. Behold. The rationale is rolled out to an unsuspecting public. Consider programmes such as Q&A and The Drum on ABC TV, talk shows on 2GB in Sydney and its equivalents around the country, or The Project on the TEN Network, not to mention different radio programmes on ABC Radio National and Sky after Dark.

Nowadays the media is awash with think tankers. Gerard Henderson, Parnell McGuinness, Georgina Downer to name a few from the right. From the left, we have Jenny Hocking, Stephen Fitzgerald, and Margaret Wilson, and in the centre, Ben Oquist of the Australia Institute There is the Sydney Institute, the Whitlam and Chifley institutes and Tom Switzer of the Centre for Independent Studies. But the stellar performer of Australian think tanks is the Institute of Public Affairs led by its Magister Ludi, John Roskam.

The IPA website proclaims it, “accepts no government funding, and is supported by thousands of individual members and donors; your tax-deductible donation to IPA research will ensure the IPA remains a loud voice for freedom in Australia”.

The IPA which, like its American counterparts, recruits the best and brightest, (IPA staff list here https://ipa.org.au/people-ipa ) is in my opinion, a defacto policy arm of the state and liberal governments. Over the years Liberal government sacked independent public servants who routinely applied SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to policy development.

The IPA is the antithesis of Rodin’s vision of science and philosophy. If you are sceptical about my claim, read Jennifer Marohasy’s critique of the Bureau of Meteorology. This clap-trap is just one missile in the institute’s arsenal of weapons deployed in the on-going war against climate change science.

The nation’s greatest publicly funded think tank the Australian Broadcasting Corporation remains in the crosshairs of the right. And Australian universities are not far behind. Somehow the Australian National University managed to survive a right-wing onslaught led by Tony Abbott on behalf of the Ramsay Centre, to establish a degree course in western civilization.

Expect more of the same.

If think tanks continue to presume to dictate the national philosophical and scientific agenda, it is only fair their financial backers are exposed to public scrutiny.  Thus if the IPA’s Darcy Allen is prepared to argue The Case for Personal Income Tax Cuts (IPA, 5 December 2015) it follows the status of think tank tax-deductibility should be scrutinised by the Australian Tax Office. Consider this gem by Darcy Allen, albeit out of context; Australia would do well to make our income tax system more simple and transparent – clearing out our attic of special interests. Special interests indeed!

The time is at hand for Australians to think for ourselves rather than outsource our cognitive discourses to privately funded institutions, which do the bidding of unnamed and unseen patrons.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book, The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale here https://tasmania-40-south.myshopify.com/products/last-voyage-of-aratus-the-by-henry-johnston-pb

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