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Kay has two blogging roles on the AIMN. On the one hand she is a book review blogger, critiquing a range of genres from detective, to literary, to romance and non-fiction. Her book review blog, is a great place to choose your next book. On the other hand, Kay has a PhD in history and is a life-long feminist who also shares her daughter Victoria’s passion for politics and occasionally writes blogs analysing political policies and media performance.

Book Review: The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black

The-Silver-Swan-by-Benjamin-Black-e1427876201146When the first Benjamin Black crime story appeared – Christine Falls (2006) which I reviewed here – there was no mention anywhere that this name was a pseudonym for John Banville, the highly acclaimed Irish novelist, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Sea – reviewed here. Banville had told the literary world that he was going to write a crime story, but there was nothing to alert an unsuspecting public that this was it. With The Silver Swan (2007), Black’s second crime story, the cover makes it quite clear that this is John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. And this is fair enough, because what Benjamin Black writes isn’t your normal crime story – there’s too much Banville in it for that.

This book is again set in Dublin in the 1950s and features the pathologist Quirke – he doesn’t seem to have another name. He is asked by a man he knows slightly not to perform an autopsy on his wife, who has been found dead in the sea. Quirke initially agrees, but finds suspicious circumstances, and does one anyway. So he knows she didn’t drown. But what should he do about it? He gets as far as talking to Detective Inspector Hackett, who he met in the first book, but doesn’t tell either him, or the coroner the truth, and the verdict is death by misadventure. Why does he not speak out? Both he and Hackett are still bruised from the outcome of events in the first book; we now find that the corruption they discovered – ‘the wave of mud and filth’ – has been hushed up. Quirke doesn’t feel like sticking his neck out again, but he suffers from an ‘incurable curiosity’. So will he be drawn into the mystery whether he wants be to or not?

Quirke shares the story with the dead woman, Deirdre Hunt. Black is very clever at managing transitions between past – recent past in this case – and present, not stooping to giving dates and times as some authors do. It works smoothly enough, so we read about events leading up to her death mixed in with events after it. The story is also told through Quirke’s daughter Phoebe, and to a lesser extent through Deirdre’s business partner Leslie White. This provides an opportunity to get inside these characters’ heads, to understand their motivation. This is essential, because this book, like the previous one, relies on characterisation rather than fast-moving action for its interest. Quirke does a bit of traditional detecting, such as asking questions and putting pressure on people. Black also uses the crime story tactic of misdirection to keep the plot ticking along; ‘Nothing,’ he warns, ‘is what it seems’. There’s also elements of family saga, carried over from the previous book; they make more sense if you’ve read it. But overall, the reader is primarily being asked to engage with the disordered psychology of the main characters. Black says of Quirke: ‘he is a very damaged person, as many Irish people are from their upbringing’. And is what he seems intent on showing – with somewhat mixed success, in my opinion.

For all that Banville continues to insist that he and Black are ‘two completely different writers who have two completely different processes’, the writing is that of someone with a literary sensibility. Where else would you find a crime writer describing a character’s eyes darting with ‘an odd, hindered urgency’? Or feeling ‘the touch of a cold tentacle of unease’? And these are just two random examples. In an interview, he describes Dublin as ‘a beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty’; in the book, the smoky, shabby presence of the city is almost palpable. Banville explains that ‘Quirke lives in the apartment in Dublin which I inherited from my aunt and he moves around in that area where I was when I first moved to Dublin … it’s soaked in my recollections.’ And so it’s not surprising that the language he uses to describe it is sensuous and evocative. Banville says ‘I certainly like the Benjamin Black books more than my Banville novels because they are pieces of craft work and I like to think they are honestly made.’ Maybe the Black books are less verbally dense, but you could read this book just for the pleasure of the writing.

I find this story to be ultimately pessimistic, both in terms of the fate of the characters and the society in which the action occurs. The society Black describes is narrow and stifling; he has an American visitor comment critically on ‘The way you go about in cowed silence, not protesting, not complaining, not demanding things that should change or be fixed or made new.’ We know from the start that Deirdre Hunt’s attempt to change her life ends in disaster; is she being punished for asserting herself in a male dominated society, or simply a victim of it? And Black ignores the common premise of most crime novels that justice must be seen to be done, and order restored. The Dublin of the 1950s may be beautiful, but in Black’s hands it’s not a very nice place.

I was interested to see that the first three of the Black stories (there’s now seven of them) have been made into a BBC TV series, Quirke, and though it doesn’t seem to have been shown yet in Australia there’s a DVD available. You can find out more about the series here. And you can read more about the work of Benjamin Black here. The most recent Benjamin Black book is a Phillip Marlowe fanfiction, The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014). The most recent Banville book is Ancient Light (2012); after reading The Silver Swan, you might not be too surprised to find it’s a story of obsessive love. Two completely different writers? I don’t think so.

The End of Politics? What absolute nonsense.

What’s with all these ‘end of’ theories? First we had Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (1960), then there was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992), and more recently, The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy (2012) by Tory MP Douglas Carswell. Now it seems we in Australia have our own ‘end of’ prophet – the ABC’s Jonathan Green. Last week he suggested that ‘The next great reform will be of politics itself’, and this week we have ‘We need to subcontract the budget process’. What he seems to have in mind is an end to the two party system – which is roughly true of all these other ‘end of’ writers to which he is a footnote. They all assume in their different ways the end of the two competing sets of political ideas that underlie the two party system.

In last week’s article, Green is arguing that the work of economic reform has been done, leaving governments seeking for purpose. ‘We are stuck with the theme so elegantly essayed in the ’80s and ’90s, of open economies and liberated markets,’ he writes. ‘And next?’ All that is left is apparently ‘fuss around the detail of an economy now making its way in the world.’ ‘[W]e now have an economy working in fundamental accord with accepted best practice. The liberation of an open market economy is pretty much a one-time reform: that job is done, unless some future fashion or orthodoxy should decide that renewed central intervention makes more sense.’

Fundamental accord with best practice? Forgive me, Jonathan, if you are being ironic, but I fear you aren’t. What can this possibly mean? Best practice according to neo-liberal economists like Hayek and Friedman? Fortunately our economy isn’t anywhere near as free from ‘central intervention’ as they would advocate. Best practice in terms of a balanced budget? Even if such a policy were best practice – and it isn’t – we don’t look like achieving it any time soon. But even if we were achieving some sort of ‘best practice’ compared to other countries, this ‘liberation of an open market economy’ would still be an economic system which left unchecked, institutionalises inequality and encourages destruction of the environment and dangerous climate change. It’s pretty easy to answer his ‘And next’ question.

This week, the management of the federal budget has become ‘mired in politics’; ‘the increasingly serious necessity of making our national ends meet, whether through a trimming of largesse, a deepening of the revenue pool, or a combination of the two, seems continual hostage to the siren call of popularity and power.’ The answer? Take it away from those nasty politicians bent on personal advantage, and give it an independent body, for example, ‘an office of Budget Balance’. As Green describes the role of such a body, ‘It might suggest to government that revenue needs to be raised by a certain percentage, or conversely that cuts of a certain severity need to be made: the choices would be political, but there would be no escaping them, and the blame, fundamentally would lie outside of politics, in independently expressed fiscal reality.’

I almost don’t know where to start with this. There’s a lot of evidence that successful societies – ones where there are not great disparities of wealth – most commonly run budget deficits. Modern Monetary Theory teaches us that surplus budgets come at the cost of increased private indebtedness. An ‘independently expressed fiscal reality’ doesn’t exist; the desire to achieve a deficit, a balance or a surplus are all themselves products of a particular economic world view, which results in quite different opinions about what is good for the economy at any given time. Green’s idea sounds a bit like the Republican Balanced Budget Amendment campaign. He says he is concerned about the ‘structural deficit’, and quotes former Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson on the dangers of failing to deal with it. But anyone who describes government spending as ‘largesse’ has me worried.

What Green seems to wilfully ignore in both these articles is that there are winners and losers in market capitalism. The winners are the large corporations, the banks, those already well off and a few entrepreneurs who have made personal fortunes. The losers are the dispossessed, the young, the unemployed, and increasingly the working poor. And also the environment. Anyone taking what Green says at face value would assume that the whole political class is interested only in power for themselves, and that they have no concern for the rest of ‘us’, as if all of our interests were the same. Which they are not. This ‘us’ versus ‘them’ attitude reduces politics to the self-interest of politicians, rather than being a battle between competing economic and social interests. He talks of ‘the hollowly unrepresentative calculus of Liberal versus Labor’, and of ‘the mistrust and misrule into which we have slowly stumbled.’ This is another version of the two party system is terrible, Labor and Liberal are both the same, and as bad as each other. (And while we’re on it, it’s all their fault. The electorate and the media bear no responsibility for the situation.)

Of course politics is about power. You can’t do anything without it. And yes, many of the people we’ve elected to represent us do seem to have a sense of personal entitlement. Disliking politicians is a national sport. But what we don’t need is to confuse not liking them much with seeing them as all holding the same ideas, or representing the same interests. They don’t. That’s why there are two main parties. The Liberals are for low taxes, small government, private provision of services and minimal government intervention in the economy (except in the interests of their major corporate supporters). Labor is for intervention in the economy to promote employment, including through public/private partnerships, public provision of services like health and education, an adequate safety net to reduce inequality, a progressive taxation system and an appropriate response to climate change. Neither side always adheres to their basic philosophies, and this is usually because of the need to get elected. But why are these fundamental differences so hard to grasp? One reason is that journalists like Green wilfully ignore them.

There isn’t a clear distinction in Australian politics between the haves and the have nots; people vote as they do for any number of reasons – some well-thought out, some shallow, some focussed on their own needs, others on the community. What separates the two sides has changed significantly since the implementation of Green’s ‘open economies and liberated markets’. Labor and Liberal have had to respond to a changed electoral dynamic, and aren’t finding it easy. But that doesn’t mean that the policies they espouse are now the same, or in some way more trivial than during the period of economic ‘reform’. The challenges are greater than they ever were, as we struggle to find an equitable response to climate change – not just within Australia, but across the world. The current options are the free market versus the ‘renewed central intervention’ Green speaks so dismissively of. What political battle could be more important? Like it or not, we haven’t come to the end of politics.

Book Review: The Shark Net, by Robert Drewe

The-Shark-Net-e1427188699108This highly acclaimed memoir was published in 2000, and has since been made into a TV series released in 2003. Robert Drewe, first a journalist and later a novelist, has an arresting tale to tell, and the literary skills to tell it with affection, humour, some bitterness and a good deal of drama.

The memoir tells the story of his coming of age from a child to a man in Perth, then the remotest capital city in the world, during the 1950s and ‘60s. When Robert was six, his father Roy, who worked for the Dunlop Rubber Company, was transferred from Victoria to Western Australia and the whole family had to make the adjustment to life in the raw suburbs built on the sand hills around the city. After a short period of transition – where his mother makes him wear shoes and socks instead of the bare feet favoured by the other boys, and warms him against sunstroke (or boiling brain as she calls it) – Drewe finds much to love about his new home. Through the prism of his family life, he tells of experiences that were common to boys growing up in this period – adventures with neighbouring children, Saturday afternoons at ‘the pictures’, interaction with girls and a growing interest in sex.

Through the specifics of his own family, Drewe also manages to give a fascinating picture of the social setting of suburban life in Perth at the time. Roy rises fairly quickly to become branch manager for Dunlop – it is ‘a branch manager town’ – and the family mixes with all the other middle class business people who live nearby. Since Dunlop makes sporting goods like tennis racquets and sponsors sporting events, Roy and his wife often entertain famous tennis players and other sportspeople; Robert rubs up against fame much more often than most boys. But his picture of family life also has darker currents running beneath it. Roy is bluff and hearty to his mates, but bad tempered and demanding with his wife and children. Does he hit her? Is he unfaithful to her? Possibly and probably, though Drewe never says so directly. He grows up alienated from his father, and at odds with his mother. Because he is such a good writer, this combination of family concerns and social backdrop works seamlessly.

But there is an additional element to all this; right from the beginning of the book, we are aware of the fear and horror caused to the people of Perth by a serial killer who murdered eight strangers between 1958 and 1963, and committed a number of other violent crimes. The story starts with the man’s committal hearing; Drewe is present as a junior crime reporter, watching with terribly mixed feelings. One of the people he killed was a friend of Drewe’s and one of the murder weapons belonged to another friend. Drewe has met and spoken with the man a number of times. At several points in the book Drewe adds sections in which he imagines what the man might have been thinking and doing at various stages of his life. Not till quite a long way through the story, with all the suspense-building skill of a good novelist, does he eventually reveal who the murderer is.

Like many coming of age stories, this one can be seen as a loss of innocence, by both Drewe himself and by Perth as a result of the murders. The book’s title is clearly a metaphor on a number of levels. Near the end, he ponders the usefulness of shark nets –nets set up to keep sharks away from beaches and swimmers. The distance – mostly desert – between Perth and the eastern states, from which all things bad emanate, is its own protecting shark net. Perth beaches don’t have shark nets; the shark was in any case inside the society, killing at will. And in his own life, Drewe thinks that there are sharks cruising just below the surface of everyday things, just as there are in the sea he loves. Yet the book concludes on an optimistic note, as Drewe leaves Perth for a job on the eastern sea board, passing, if you like, to the other side of the shark net which may protect, but also stultifies.

In his author’s note, Drewe says ‘this is a both a book of memory and my portrait of a place and time. Memory may falter and portraiture is a highly subjective endeavour, but I have tried to tell a truthful story.’ I guess this pre-empts my usual gripe that no one can possibly remember so much of their childhood, including conversations, in such detail. The novelist doesn’t have to. It’s a case of creative remembering that adheres as best it can to the truth. But I did note what is left out, even if I didn’t really miss it. Some of his experiences ring true to my upbringing in another small provincial state capital at much the same time – bearing in mind the gender differences of course. But one huge dissimilarity is that the first question anyone in Adelaide asked then of anyone else was what school they went to. There isn’t any reference at all to Drewe’s life at school, or his intellectual life. Obviously he must have read more than the comics he admits to. But school? He’d never have got away without mentioning it in Adelaide.

You can read more about Robert Drewe and his work here. He doesn’t seem to have a web page, but here’s a long article about him – which fills in some of those school details. Perhaps he thought he’d sound like he was blowing his own trumpet if he put them in. The article was published at the time his second memoir, Montebello appeared in 2012.

The headlines we should have had…

Do you ever look at the way the mainstream media constructs its headlines and shake your head? I think they call it ‘agenda setting’. Here’s some agenda setting we could have had, but didn’t.*

Cyclone Pam: Climate Change in action

It’s scientifically indisputable that climate change is causing ocean warming, and that warmer oceans lead to more intense cyclones. But how many of the stories about the devastation caused to Vanuatu by Cyclone Pam have even mentioned climate change, let alone given it prominence in a headline? Oh, I forgot. It’s bad manners to play politics so soon after a disaster. And anyway, there’ve always been cyclones. Rising sea levels? Poor countries bearing the brunt of global warming caused by rich countries? Nah. Not interested.

And while we’re on climate change – or rather not on it – how about Labor fights to Save RET, instead of ‘Renewable Energy Target: Negotiations between Government and Labor over future of target break down’ (ABC 12/11/14).

Victory over unaffordable university fees

Oh that irresponsible Senate! Now the Vice Chancellors will have to find some other way of funding higher education. How about we reverse that, and acknowledge that the defeat of university fee deregulation – for which the LNP had no conceivable mandate – is a victory for common sense, and that this is a problem caused by the LNP which should be solved by them restoring the 20% funding cut imposed in last year’s budget? No doubt a case could always be made for increasing funding for universities, now that uncapping student places has led to a significant increase in the number of higher education students. We are already not particularly generous to higher ed; in 2011 Australia ranked 30 out of 31 OECD countries for public investment as a percentage of GDP. Australian university students already pay high tuition fees by international standards, so further milking them doesn’t seem a good idea. But defeat of the LNP solution – ‘ideology in search of a program’, as Stephen Parker, the dissenting Vice Chancellor of Canberra University put it – deserves media acknowledgement. What do we actually get? ‘Abbott Vows to Push on with Uni Reforms’ (Advertiser 18 March, paywalled.)

Liberal Policy Fail

This could be an alternative to the above headline. It could equally well apply to the Abbott government’s various back-downs on the Medicare co-payment, or the ditching of the Paid Parental Leave Scheme. For a short period when it seemed that Abbott might be toppled from the leadership, some criticism of policy failings was allowed to creep into the mainstream press, but that has all but disappeared in the wake of single improved opinion poll. I don’t think we ever got ‘Leadership Chaos’ or ‘Liberal Party dysfunction.’

Federal Health Cuts Hurting State Health System

The 2014 budget announced that the Coalition will dramatically shrink the Commonwealth’s share of hospital funding, cutting its annual contribution by $15billion by 2024, with the deepest cuts beginning in 2017. I’m not sure where this measure is in legislative terms, but State governments have no alternative but to plan to cut health costs on the assumption that that they will now have to bear more of them. But any attempt by the SA State Labor government to rationalise hospitals is met with angry headlines from the ABC as well as the Murdoch press and the leader of the opposition. I’m not arguing for or against specific proposals in Labor’s Transforming Health plan, but it’s obvious that whatever cuts a state government has to make will be unpopular with someone. Today’s ABC headline was ‘SA Government response to health plan feedback dismissed Repat concerns, veteran says’. Where is the federal LNP government’s responsibility in all this?

Abbott Fluffs Budget Emergency

We’re hearing that the 2015 budget will be ‘dull and routine’, and without the major expenditure cuts that marked the 2014 budget. This is of course an exercise in expectation management, and not to be taken too seriously. But even so, what has happened to the budget emergency? Are we supposed not to worry about that anymore? Since we know that headlines set the agenda, is it OK to quietly change the conversation we were supposed to be having? That there never was a ‘budget emergency’ is irrelevant. Whatever one’s personal view of the state of the budget and its role in the economy, most commentators have argued that it needs some structural adjustment – like raising more revenue. We’ll see what Hockey produces this time, but whatever it is I’m betting against a headline like ‘Contractions in Government Spending Weaken Economy’. On the other hand, I do have to pay the Australian Financial Review headline of 19 March: ‘Abbott loses the plot on debt’ (pay-walled).

Corporate Crook Rorts System

This one arises from the arrest of a former Commonwealth Bank IT executive. If we can have ‘Union Thugs’ can we please also have corporate crooks? I know the man is pleading not guilty and is therefore not at this point a crook, but when did that ever stop any editor? Remember Craig Thomson? And Peter Slipper?

Shorten’s Labor a unified, happy team

Good news never makes the headlines, but given how enthusiastically the disunity of the party was emphasised before the election – and ever since by Abbott’s ‘blame Labor’ mantra – this one is surely worth a run. But no. Even from The Monthly we get ‘Labor’s love lost. Which hill is Labor’s light on again?’ It’s worth reading, and has a few optimistic things to say, but presumably the editor thought none of the Greens would read it if the headline was even faintly positive.

Negative Gearing Results in Higher Housing Costs

This is a headline we never see because hardly anyone ever talks about negative gearing in the mainstream media. It’s not that we get ‘Negative Gearing the Best Thing since Sliced Bread’; we just don’t hear about this particular distortion of the housing market – and who benefits from it. If you want to find out more, try this. And as if he’s been reading my mind … Greg Jericho in the Guardian, ‘Negative gearing: a legal tax rort for rich investors that reduces housing affordability’. Thanks Greg.

Red Tape Repeal Day: stripping away protection

It was the Abbott Government’s second Red Tape Repeal Day on Wednesday, and it seems to have been so underwhelming that it didn’t generate any headlines at all. We did get the headline on the ABC: ‘Australian National Produce Monitoring System, safety net for monitoring chemicals in Australia’s domestic food, axed by Government’, so I suppose that’s something.

Having said all that, I do have to give credit to the Sydney Morning Herald for this: Tony Abbott’s government by shambles: something has to change.

*Since I rarely read/pay for the Murdoch press, my sample is a bit limited. But they often set the agenda for both Fairfax and the ABC.

Book Review: Ulverton, by Adam Thorpe

Ulverton was published in 1992, and won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for the best regional novel of the year. It has recently been republished as a Vintage Classic, an honour which puts it in the company of Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby and War and Peace to name but a few. You can check out a list of Vintage Classics here. Thorpe has published a further nine novels, which have been favourably reviewed, but have not sold well, or won any further literary prizes. What is it about Ulverton that makes it, as one critic claimed in the Sunday Times, a masterpiece – if indeed it is?

Ulverton is certainly an unusual book – or to use Thorpe’s own description – ‘eccentric’. It’s made up of a series of what you might call short stories, as each is complete in itself, though each is told in a different voice and takes a different form, such as letters, or evidence for a trial, descriptions of a series of photographs and the script for a TV documentary. They cover the period 1650 to 1988 and all relate to life – and love and death – in the village of Ulverton on the English South Downs. Family names and locations recur across the whole period, but what primarily ties it together – in addition to the continuing exercise of human passions – is that each segment adds something to an understanding of the lost social and economic history of this part of the English countryside.

There are too many voices to give an outline of the story each tells. But the themes that subtly emerge begin with the aftermath of the English Civil War, and move through the improvements in agriculture that are loosely called the agricultural revolution, the Captain Swing riots against the introduction of agricultural machinery, the onset of the First World War, and ultimately the struggle between the romanticised preservation of ‘village life’ – which we have seen mostly in its horror, but sometimes in its pleasure and achievement – and new forms of economic development in the guise of new housing estates. Religious differences, class differences, the state of technology, relations between men and women – we see them all changing across the period. Thorpe is never dogmatic. There are few heroes or villains, at least in the foreground of Ulverton itself. The lawyer taking evidence about the riots may despise the rioters, but he has problems of his own; he never triumphs. The lady photographer’s excessive nineteenth century sensibility is balanced by a sad love story delicately sketched in. Thorpe is very conscious that the life of an agricultural labourer was in Hobbs’s phrase ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, and his sympathy is clearly with the downtrodden and oppressed. But he is never sentimental about it. On the other hand, this is not an account of the gradual betterment of life; no one seems to have learnt much.

As you can see, this is a complex and subtle book. Thorpe does a wonderful job of bringing the varied voices to life. He seems to have captured perfectly just the sort of thoughts and feelings each of his characters might have had, and also the language they use to express them. Thus the late seventeenth century vicar lost in the snow on the Downs: ‘On Furzecombe Down I tasted of despair. Yea, on Furzecombe Down the whirlwind came and filled my mouth and the snow stopped up mine ears and I chewed on ashes and was blind.’ Or the improving farmer: ‘I asked why should the iron poison the soil. He said it was common knowledge. Ah, how common knowledge vitiates all attempts at individual Improvement of husbandry, and of the science of its betters!’ Or the lady photographer for whom ‘nothing is more profoundly salubrious than an old stone wall, nothing richer than a bedraggled plum tree, nothing more enticing than a raven’s discarded feather, or a dust filled barn spread with ancient sacks’. This is ventriloquism of the highest order.

But it’s not an easy book. It is made even harder by the fact that Thorpe tries to give a voice to the voiceless of the past. He gets round the problem in the segment dealing with the Captain Swing rioters by having the lawyer ‘persevere in the translation of but thick grunts into some semblance of Rational discourse.’ But two other of the stories are told, perforce, in an almost unintelligible dialect. The first, from 1775, concerns a mother who is communicating with her son in London. He has been convicted of an unexplained crime and is expected to be executed. Being illiterate, she has engaged the services of the local tailer to write her letters for her; he is scarcely more literate himself. It is actually very funny, and very worth persisting with. Reading it out loud helps, but it is hard going. The second dialect section is even more difficult. It is a monologue from 1887, directed, as far as I can tell, by a carter to his passenger, a boy on his way home from boarding school, but I’m guessing here. It is one long sentence with no punctuation, making even reading out loud difficult … ‘oh Heaven boy certain sure an sometimes they wheel groanin out of a field that brashy an thin I have seed they harrers a-blizzy off they tangs athirt it come harrerin time aye’ … and this goes on for several pages. I see the point, and on a third or fourth reading I get the gist of this bit, but must it really be that hard?

So is it a masterpiece? Despite misgivings about the dialect, and the length of a couple of the segments, I think it is. The subtlety and delicacy of the connections Thorpe draws both within and between the segments is masterly. The varied voices are clever, but it goes beyond that; here is imagined history that is fully alive.

You can read more about Adam Thorpe and his work here. Asked why his later books – which many critics admire – haven’t proved popular, he says “I don’t know. One can hardly say I’ve been unambitious.’ You can read the rest of the interview with him here.

Book Review: From Blood, by Edward Wright

A reviewer of From Blood (2010) in the Sydney Morning Herald thought the book ‘may well catapult Wright into the front line of crime’. And then again it may not. Wright has received awards for several of his earlier novels, but while this is a good read, I don’t think it’s a great one.

I categorise From Blood as being a mystery story, one where an ordinary person – more or less – becomes involved with crime by accident. Such stories often arise from a collision of past and present, where a character seeks to explain how present circumstances have been affected by past events. They often take the form of a search or a quest. This book has both these characteristics. It also has a good idea for a story.

Shannon Fairchild is a mess. She’s dropped out of university, feels alienated from her family and can’t stay out of trouble – most recently a court appearance over a bar room fight. She knows her parents love her, and she doesn’t want to hurt them, but can’t seem to be what they want her to be. Then disaster strikes. Her mother and father are shot, and their house is destroyed by fire. But before her mother dies, she manages to tell Shannon that she must find ‘them’ and warn them. Who are they and warn them of what? That is her quest.

She soon finds that her gentle, academic parents have a past, having been involved in violent student protest against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s. We know from the prologue that protest against the War involved violence and murder, promoted by a tiny faction of revolutionaries. Some of her parents’ friends from that time are wanted by the FBI and are still on the run. Could these old allegiances have something to do with their deaths?

As in all quest stories, Shannon receives both help and hindrance from people she meets in the course of her search. She has particular difficulties in dealing with the local police and the FBI; what can she tell them? Are they friends or enemies? The trajectory of her quest is well done: there is progress, there are setbacks and there is a twist, all leading to a tense and dramatic conclusion. In retrospect, you can see the twist is subtly hinted at along the way.

The question of what motivates the protagonist to continue with a difficult and dangerous quest is also at play here. In this case, Shannon’s family circumstances are what motivate her. But are these sufficiently convincing? I felt doubtful about this, and went in search of material about memory in infants. It seems the way Shannon feels has some basis in the scientific literature, so maybe it’s just that Wright isn’t quite convincing on the topic. He initially goes into quite a lot of detail about Shannon’s state of mind and her sense of alienation, but then lets psychology be subsumed by the action when her psychological state should be central to her further motivation. Some other admittedly minor aspects of the plot also get dropped and don’t in any case seem to contribute much to the story. Furthermore, the motivations of some other characters may suit the action but aren’t really psychologically convincing.

In earlier books, Wright has used 1940s Los Angeles, including the House Committee for Un-American Activities’ pursuit of Hollywood writers, producers and actors, for the background to his stories. (He even has an Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award to show for it.) The Red Fist anti-war organisation mentioned in this story is imaginary, though the Weather Underground is real: here’s more about them. Though events of the 1906s and 70s are the springboard for the action, the book is set in the early 2000s during the second Gulf War. There aren’t a lot of historical markers tying it to this period, but there is mention of the war, and of the bombings in Oklahoma City and the underground garage of the World Trade Centre, and the destruction of the Twin Towers. Are these different in nature from the earlier anti-war violence? Can violent protest ever be justified? ‘When all else has failed … how do you deal with this kind of arrogance?’ asks one character. It’s an interesting question. But there is only marginal discussion of it. No specific distinction, for example, is drawn by any character in the story between home-grown and foreign terrorism, or between the ends to which these acts were directed. I find this limits any depth the book might aspire to. I wondered at times just what Wright was saying about violent protest in the cause of social betterment – he doesn’t use the word terrorism – as I don’t think the story constitutes an outright condemnation of it – though others may disagree on that.

I’m hardly knowledgeable about American literature, but the only other well-known book that I’m aware of that deals with violent protest against the Vietnam War – ‘indigenous American berserk’ – is Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which I reviewed here.

Edward Wright is a former journalist. You can read more about him and his work here.

Is it a fact that all you need is the facts?

George Wright, Federal Secretary of the ALP is to be congratulated on, Labor’s attempt to use social media to connect with supporters, and to give them answers to some of the misinformation the Liberals and their media friends perpetuate. With 70% of the mainstream media against Labor, this is a good way to try and fight back.

However while it may be useful in energising the Labor base, it’s not going to do all it could to change non-Labor voters’ minds. This is because facts alone rarely change anyone’s mind.

It’s traditional to think of the electorate as divided between rusted-on Liberal/NCP voters, rusted-on progressive voters either Labor or Green, and an indeterminate number of swinging voters in the middle. It’s generally acknowledged that this last group is now larger than previously, and not necessarily centrist in its political opinions. You can’t ignore your base, but overall the pitch has to be to the swingers or potential swingers. The rest will vote for or against you anyway.

It’s equally traditional to assume that the main basis for these divisions is economic; that people vote as their hip pocket dictates. Much rhetoric from both sides of politics is directed at cost of living pressures for working families; for example, the mythical $550 saving to ‘average’ families from the repeal of the Carbon Tax was central to Abbott’s 2013 election campaign. I’ve heard young women say they voted for Abbott because of his paid parental leave scheme; sucked in on that one.

But a quick glance at the distribution of wealth and income in Australia shows that there must be many more factors in play than rational economic self-interest. For example, eighteen of the twenty poorest federal electorates are in rural or regional Australia, and of these ten are represented by National Party members, six by Liberal or LNP Qld members and only two by Labor members. You can see the same thing in America; 95 of the 100 poorest counties are located in Republican ‘red’ states, the 10 poorest all being in red states. The fact that neo-liberal economic policies don’t lead to increased prosperity for voters – and may even cause further impoverishment – in these electorates doesn’t seem to stop them voting conservative.

According to research, there are identifiable differences in the brains of conservatives and progressives. Apparently conservatives have demonstrably ‘a more threat-oriented and reactionary mindset than liberals’ (ie progressives in the US.) This will hardly come as a surprise. Clearly Tony Abbott – or maybe it’s Peta Credlin – already knows this, and you can almost certainly see a response in the latest polls to his fear- inducing ‘rising dangers’, ‘ominous signs’ and ‘new dark age’ tactics. As Mike Seccombe points out in his article in the Saturday Paper titled ‘Tony Abbott’s new leadership plan: panic’: ‘The relevant point is not so much that conservative people are more fearful, but that fearful people are more conservative.’ Expect more of the same.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has written extensively on the way in which voters interpret the political messages they hear. He postulates that we all have two competing frames in our heads, though one is usually more dominant than the other. One is the ‘authoritarian father’ frame. Lakoff argues that for some voters, the metaphor of the nation as family and government as parent evokes the strict parent, who provides discipline, and values responsibility, morality and self-sufficiency. Such voters favour independence from government, patriotism and aggressive foreign policy, and abhor welfare and public spending on things like health and education. The other is the ‘nurturing parent’ model, where parents – ie the state – work to keep citizens away from ‘corrupting influences’ such as pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc. He’s not suggesting that these frames are completely inflexible, but he is saying that the concept of ‘welfare’, for example, will be seen quite differently according the frame of reference of the voter.

All this suggests that ‘the facts’ may be of limited value in changing people’s minds if they interpret them according to pre-existing frames. Your Liberal mate won’t care if you give him facts that show that Australia’s budget deficit is low by international standards; he just excludes those facts from his frame of reference.

This is further illustrated by Mark Kenny’s report in The Advertiser in 2010 that Labor tacticians had undertaken market testing on their strategy to communicate the mining tax and found ‘a central concept they wished to convey, captured by the presumably positive words “fairness” and “fair”, failed to impress. The words “tested like dogs***” an insider revealed. Respondents apparently found the idea of making something “fairer” meaningless because what is considered fair depends on where you stand.’ In Lakoff’s terms, being ‘fair’ to people on welfare is the opposite of being ‘fair’ to hardworking taxpayers. You can see why ‘Labor for a Fair Go’ won’t work as a slogan.

So back to ‘How to Talk to Your Liberal Mate’. Here’s just one example.

Liberal Mate Says: Tony Abbott has to make cuts because Australia is living beyond its means.

Fact: Since Joe Hockey & Tony Abbott’s Budget was announced, business confidence has slumped. Unemployment has hit a 12 year high under this Government. On top of that, youth unemployment is at a 13 year high with around 14 per cent of young people unemployed. Over $80 billion in cuts to health and education in the last Budget won’t help grow our economy because no country ever cut its way to prosperity.

Don't think of an elephant George LakoffAll true, more or less. But will it change anyone’s mind? If your Liberal mate frames his/her political values around the metaphor of the strict father, then living beyond one’s means is anathema, and no amount of information will change that. There is an alternate frame being presented in the answer: that we should be concerned about the young unemployed. But if the Liberal mate believes it’s the fault of the young unemployed that they haven’t got a job, then that’s not going to sway him/her.

This answer also buys into the whole notion that Australia is living beyond its means; Tony’s just made it worse. I’d like to see an answer that interrogates this conservative economic interpretation, rather than simply accepting the neo-liberal metaphor. Though I guess this answer at least points out that austerity doesn’t work, and you can’t say that too often.

I’m not saying it’s not worth trying to change people’s minds. And if you have to talk to Liberals, it’s useful to have some facts at your finger-tips. Lakoff certainly doesn’t give up hope; he wants progressives to find different language that allows them to re-frame their position without using metaphors owned by the neo-liberals. There are some people whose frame you’ll never change, but there are many others worth working on. Don’t we all want to nurture our children?

Lakoff’s best known book is Don’t Think of an Elephant, 2005, revised and significantly updated in 2014. He has a blog called ‘the Little Blue Blog’, and in 2012 published The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide To Thinking and Talking Democratic. Perhaps all Australian progressives should read it.

Keep trying, George.

Book Review: End of the Night Girl, by Amy Matthews

End of the Night Girl was published in 2011, as part of the prize attached to an Adelaide Festival Award for a Best Unpublished Manuscript. Apparently it had been turned down by a number of other publishers before this. I find this hard to understand; I think it is a very good book.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how well written it is. I just wanted to keep reading. It made me wonder yet again what makes some writing seem so entirely appropriate to the story it is telling. Is it the right word in the right place? Do the images the writer uses evoke the feeling or the place in a particularly striking way? Or is it because of the story itself touches something specific to the reader’s experience or imagination? Whatever it is – a combination of these perhaps? – I would have thought the book worth publishing just for the power of the writing. Some readers might not like some of the language – I don’t much like the C word myself – but Amy Matthews has a great ear for dialogue, and for language appropriate to character. She captures how people do think and feel.

So what of the plot? Molly is a waitress in an Adelaide restaurant. She has dropped out of university, had a number of boyfriends, drinks too much after work, and is drifting, directionless. Much of the story is made up of small incidents to do with her work and her family, and finally her decision to take on a bit more responsibility. Molly has a sharp tongue and is given to feckless behaviour, but is an interesting and engaging character. Yet if the book consisted only of the daily round of her life – however sensitively portrayed – it might leave the reader saying so what? Is that all there is to it?

But Molly is haunted by the Holocaust. And she writes down bits of a story about a young woman, a Polish Jew, that come, seemingly unbidden, into her head. ‘I’ve been writing this stuff for a couple of years,’ she says, ‘just little scribbles on spare bits of paper.’ The fragments that she has written, set perhaps unnecessarily in a different font, are interspersed throughout the book. They are not in strict chronological order, but start in the 1930s. They tell – or at least indicate – the story of Gienia a village girl, from the death of her father to an arranged marriage in Warsaw then all too soon to the Nazi death camps. The back cover of the book talks of ‘a murdered Polish Jew’, and Molly does write of Gienia’s death. I thought at first that there was sufficient ambiguity in Molly’s account to suggest that she has allowed Gienia to survive. But I guess that whoever wrote the notes for the back cover knows better than I do. Matthews has certainly shown Gienia suffering deeply, and perhaps more unexpectedly, shown her battling for survival against other Jews in the camps.

There is a constant tension between the stories of Molly’s and Gienia’s lives. On one level, they are totally different. Molly’s urban hedonism contrasts with Gienia’s peasant upbringing. When Gienia is starving, Molly is throwing away uneaten food. Gienia tries to hold onto her family, Molly pushes hers away. Gienia has a fierce determination to live while Molly just drifts. But while Gienia’s story has its own outcome already to a large degree predetermined by our – and Molly’s – knowledge of the Holocaust, it also reflects Molly’s own circumstances. Through what she writes about Gienia’s life, Molly is examining her own. ‘I don’t know why I find this life so hard, when it should be so easy,’ she thinks. ‘Standing before the cliff-face of the Holocaust the wild fear I feel sometimes makes perfect sense.’ ‘I build horrors, to make mine trivial, and send her into hell.’ And ‘There is no equivalence, a little voice hisses, but not wanting to listen, I let my thundering heartbeat drown it out.’

So is there an equivalence, and if not, what point is Matthews making? I’m just not sure. Maybe it’s a case of ‘read it again’, or maybe Matthews isn’t clear enough. What worries me is Gienia’s death. Why show all that suffering, all that determination to survive, only to kill her off? If there isn’t a link, an ‘equivalence’, between the two stories, then Molly’s story is diminished. If there is – and surely this is the case – then what is it in Molly’s story that is equivalent to Gienia’s death? We’ve known of that death from near the beginning of the book (to say nothing of the back cover). Sometimes Molly seems scarcely able to control the story she has created; she fears ‘the flurry of words will bury me alive’. But she has chosen that outcome for Gienia; quite early in the story, she says that Gienia’s death ‘has become a constant in my life, something I can depend on when all else falls away.’ Perhaps the point of equivalence is that by the end, Molly no longer needs her? I feel this would be perverse, though I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps I’m just being sentimental about wanting her to survive. Or maybe just too literal; there are ‘non-realist’ elements in the book. I’d love to know what other people think.

You can read a little more about Amy Matthews here (strangely she doesn’t seem to have a web page), and here is an interview with her. She worked for a time as a waitress, so really knows what Molly’s life was like. And just out of interest, here’s another opinion of the book which doesn’t differ all that much from mine. But I was interested to see that it cites a critic from a major Australian newspaper who thought that Molly’s and Gienia’s stories could be considered separately. I think that’s missing the point.

Now for something completely different …

When in the past I’ve written about why the prevailing ‘debt and deficit’ narrative is neo-liberal rubbish, people responding to my blog have asked why it is so difficult to get commentators, progressive politicians and the pubic to accept this. Obviously getting the neo-liberals and their media cheer leaders to question that narrative is impossible; it’s in their DNA and their political lives have come to depend on it. But you’ll still find relatively objective commentators, to say nothing of Labor front-benchers, not buying into it. Why?

Clearly not because it is ‘true’, or makes economic sense, because it isn’t and doesn’t. It doesn’t take much understanding of economics to see that cuts in government spending, depressed business confidence and investment, flat wage growth and increasing unemployment suggest we’re going in the wrong direction, and that even easing the cash rate further isn’t going to help much. And it presumably isn’t that hard to see that at least some of this arises from political decisions, such as those embodied in the last budget.

Ah, but the commentators say. There is a structural problem. Revenue is down. Health and welfare costs are rising. We can’t afford the ‘nice’ things we want. Even if this is true – and there are those Modern Monetary Theorists who say it isn’t – dealing with it remains a political problem. Need more revenue? Change the taxation regime. Too much spending? Stop spending on wasteful things. We’ve all seen recently just how hard it is to increase taxation, or stop spending on people who’ve come to expect it. But who and what you tax, and who and what you spend on are political, not economic decisions. Labor is freaked by it, understandably so, given the success of axe the tax and Labor waste throughout Labor’s term in office, and at the last election. How can they escape the current pervasive narrative?

The only way to change the politics is to change the language we use.

Modern Monetary Theorists, who think that budget deficits are and should be the normal state of affairs, and presumably neo-Keynesians, who accept the necessity for budget deficits in some circumstances (like now) all have to contend with this problem of language. Professor Bill Mitchell, a leading MM Theorist, did a great job in this article in the Guardian on the ‘unemployment industry’. Following on from his appearance on 4 Corners program The Jobs Game, he slammed the privatised employment services sector, and the thinking behind it: ‘The unemployed cannot search for jobs that are not there. It is a cruel hoax to punish the victims of the jobs shortage.’ He also pointed out the particular use of the the language in which the debate is conducted: ‘Since January 2013, employment has grown by a pathetic 2.1%, while the working age population has grown by 3.7%. Yet the public narrative still focuses on the supply-side – the allegedly “lazy” and “unskilled” unemployed.’ He also criticised both Liberal and Labor for their use of terms like dole bludgers, cruisers, job snobs and more recently, leaners –all terms that blame the unemployed and suggest they depend on tax payers’ generosity.

Professor Mitchell has also tried more generally to change the way economics is discussed at a popular as well as at an academic level. In his blog in November 2013 titled How to discuss Modern Monetary Theory, he looks at ‘the use of metaphors in economics and how Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) might usefully frame its offering to overcome some of the obvious prejudices that prevent, what are basic concepts, penetrating the public psyche.’ I hope he won’t mind my sharing an amended version of a chart he included:

Focus of AttackMetaphorIntent
Government spendingLiving beyond means, maxed out credit cardIrresponsible, excessive, need to stop spending at once
Budget deficitBudget black hole, running out of money, ballooning debt and deficitGovernment budget like household budget, running out of money
Public debtMortgaging the future, burdening grandchildren, intergenerational theftNation is a badly managed insolvent firm, being horrible to children
Income supportWelfare dependency, dole bludgers, leaners etcLazy, undeserving, parasitical


These are the metaphors we day in day out from the LNP government and their supporters in the media, but regretfully also at times form more neutral commentators and the Labor front bench.

There’s much more to Mitchell’s post than discussion of these metaphors, including another table comparing mainstream – neo-conservative – macroeconomic prescriptions with MMT ones.

But the post also acknowledges that it’s one thing to recognise when the metaphors about the economy are serving a particular political agenda. It’s another thing to find different words. As Mitchell points out, ‘deficit’ always sounds bad, as something lacking, though a budget deficit can be either a useful tool or bad economic management, depending on the circumstances. Some of the other terms he thinks may be in need of different metaphors for explanation, or at least alternative terminology, are budget balance, budget surplus, public debt, government spending, government taxation, national income, Income support payments and full employment. Some of those commenting on the blog – and there are lots of them – recognise the need to ‘sell’ a different version of economics, but few have any really good ideas how. For example, if you can call government spending national investment, it is harder to equate it to waste, but it still doesn’t challenge the pervasive metaphor that government budget is just like yours.

Whether or not progressive politicians and commentators come to accept MMT, or remain neo-Keynesians, we still need different language to talk about what really happens in the economy, who wins and who loses, and what role political decision really play in it. If I hear the phrase ‘budget repair’ one more time, I’ll scream.

Any suggestions?

Book Review: The Raven’s Eye, by Barry Maitland

TheRavensEyeThe Raven’s Eye (2013) is the twelfth in Maitland’s series featuring Detectives Brock and Kolla – now risen through the ranks to Chief Inspector and Inspector. It is a textbook British police procedural – despite the fact that Maitland, a retired professor of architecture, now lives in Australia. Unlike most of the earlier books, architecture doesn’t play a part in this one, except, perhaps, by way of an analogy.

The story begins with the death of a young woman on a canal boat. It appears to be the result of an accident, but to Inspector Kathy Kolla, there was ‘something troubling about this death, something that didn’t smell quite right.’ But why are senior police so unwilling to pursue it further? The action then shifts to another, much more high profile case: Jack Bragg, a vicious criminal, is bent on revenge against his ex-wife and former business associates. Kathy has a crucial role in the plans to capture him, but what is it that neither she nor Brock is being told?

Readers of crime stories know that where there are two cases, however disparate, in one book, they are likely to be in some way connected. You could argue that this is artificial; in real police work, very few crimes of such different natures would ever be connected. But the genre has certain conventions, and this is one of them. While each case has its own trajectory, establishing the connection between them is central to the plot. ‘What the hell,’ wonders Brock, ‘did those things have to do with one another?’ Maitland uses failures in personal and organisational communication to build tension – what are Brock and Kolla not being told? Will this lead to disaster? And they don’t always communicate properly with each other – just tell him where you’re going, I wanted to shout. Maitland is a very competent writer, so the connections are cleverly woven, and if at the end I did think this is a bit over the top, well, it’s no more so than in most police procedurals.

Furthermore, the connections relate not just to events, but to a major theme of the book – technology and the nature of police work.

It seems that as well as dealing with a crime or crimes, most police procedurals flesh out the story with reference to material not directly related to the crime itself. Often it’s details from the detectives’ private lives: they are loners, with shattered family relationships, eating badly and listening to a lot of jazz. In this book, Maitland doesn’t spend much time on private lives. His ‘extra’ element here is the police force itself, and how it copes with restricted resources. And it’s an interesting study. The path he suggests policing is taking is in direction of stringent control of spending and greater reliance on technology. Chief Inspector Brock is uneasy about this. He feels that police on the ground – not police bureaucrats – have the best sense of what’s necessary. ‘More computers?’ he thinks. ‘Nothing to compare with a smart detective with a smart eye.’ Is he, as his boss suggests, being ‘stubborn and intransigent’, not being ‘a team player’?

But technology is pervasive. Bragg is tracked not by informers or whispers on the grapevine, but using technology to collate ‘information from social networking sites, financial transactions, IP network logs, satellite navigation equipment and mobile phone traffic’. Kathy makes extensive use of the internet and aerial photography. Clearly the police must make effective use of the available technology. But the question asked in this book is how far should they go? What is the boundary between public safety and abuse of civil liberties? This is surely a very relevant question for today. One of the senior police officers has an architectural drawing on her wall of the Panopticon, a prison dreamed up by Jeremy Betham in the late eighteenth century, in which a single watchman observes all inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly. Is creation of a modern Panopticon a legitimate aim for modern police surveillance? Maitland seems to be acknowledging that technology is vital, but that there are boundaries that shouldn’t be overstepped.

I’ve previously reviewed Maitland’s Chelsea Mansions (2011); you can read the post here. I had reservations about the end of that one, and thought some of his earlier books were better. This one is a fast-paced and engaging read, and the ending, if not perfect, does work better. I see that Maitland has now published Crucifixion Creek (2014), the first of what promises to be a series of three books set in Australia, featuring Sydney homicide detective Harry Belltree. I’m looking forward to it. You can read more about Maitland and his work here.

Book Review: The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, by Roddy Doyle

RoddyDoyle-e1424162047288It took me a while to get into this book, but when I did I found it packed a real punch. On one level that is a terrible pun, because as you can tell from the title, it’s about domestic violence. On another level, the casual violence of that metaphor is entirely appropriate to a subject too often hidden or ignored – even language condones brutality. It is nearly twenty years since Doyle wrote this book, and I fear that little has improved for victims of such violence. But hopefully change is at least being discussed. There’s currently a petition doing the rounds against letting the repeat domestic violence offender and millionaire boxer, Floyd Mayweather, into the country; so far, he hasn’t been given a visa. The Australian of the Year for 2015, Rosie Batty, is a campaigner against domestic violence. The new Victorian Labor government has announced that a Royal Commission on Family Violence will begin in February, though the Federal Liberal government is still refusing to establish a national enquiry. I am grateful that my book club chose to consider this book at this time.

Paula Spencer lives in Dublin with three of her four children. John Paul, the eldest boy, is doing drugs in a squat somewhere. Paula begins telling her story at the point, a year ago, when the police came to her door to tell her that her husband Charlo was dead. Although she had thrown him out a year before that, she is still married to him. The story then goes back to Paula’s childhood, her meeting with Charlo, their marriage and her subsequent tendency to walk into doors. It is not told chronologically, but as a reflection on her life, told as the memories arise. And memory is unreliable and selective. ‘It’s all a mess – there’s no order or sequence,’ she says. ‘Listen,’ says her sister, ‘I’ll tell my version and then you can tell your pack of lies.’ Paula wants to find happy memories where there aren’t many, to rework her past to show there were good times. But she can’t. ‘That’s the thing about my memories. I can’t pick and choose them. I can’t pretend. There were no good times.’ The reader is forced to conclude she’s largely right.

Paula doesn’t say so, but looking at her life, the reader can’t help but see the ways in which she is doomed to domestic violence. From a young age, girls are either ‘sluts or tight bitches’. Her confidence in herself as being any good at anything is undermined by her terrible secondary schooling; getting boys attracted to her is her only way of gaining status. She comes to believe that she is ‘a dirty slut in some way that I didn’t understand and couldn’t control’ – though at the same time, she’s proud of her sexual encounters. Her parents offer her nothing by way of support or advice – indeed it seems likely her father hit her mother, though she pushes this thought away. All her hope for the future rests with Charlo, the man she has fallen in love with and married. At first things go well, and he seems to love her equally, but soon enough – when she is pregnant with their first child – her starts hitting her. She blames herself; it is all her fault. She still loves him. ‘There was nothing wrong. He’d be fine. He’d get a job and everything would go back to normal.’ And he continues to hit her for seventeen years. ‘He beat me brainless and I felt guilty. He left me without money and I was guilty …The kids … went wild, they went hungry and it was my fault.’ No one offered her help. No wonder she becomes an alcoholic. ‘That was my life. Getting hit, waiting to get hit, recovering; forgetting.’ But she is a survivor. One day she finds the strength to throw him out.

Doyle is a great story teller, in a style Terry Eagleton has characterised as ‘laconic Dublin-Northside realism’. He has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and tells quite a bit of the story through conversation. He eases the reader into the narrative; there are hints of what is to come, but Paula begins by recalling the more ordinary details of her life – though as I’ve said, they are in retrospect what prepares the way what happens later. Her memories become more and more explicit until violence erupts on two fronts; Charlo is shot by the police and Paula describes his treatment of her. This makes for traumatic reading. Does Doyle overdo it? I don’t think so. Furthermore, the double nature of domestic violence – the love/fear relationship, the dependence built up on the perpetrator by the victim now sound commonplace, but must have been much less understood twenty years ago, in Ireland of all places. The way the book is written doesn’t give a voice to Charlo; we only know that he comes from a brutal and dysfunctional family. (The Spencer family first appeared in the RTÉ/BBC miniseries Family in 1994.) But I don’t miss insights into his motivation.

One of the boldest things about this book is the way Doyle writes from a woman’s perspective. He is no stranger to taking on the voices of others; his Booker Prize winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) tells the story from the perspective of a ten year old boy. He has also honed his dialogue skills though writing a number of plays, and the screenplays for the films of several of his books. This book has also been turned into an opera. In 2006, Paula Spencer, a sequel to this one, was published, picking up Paula’s life ten years on from the death of her husband. I do hope, without much foundation, that things have improved for her.


Debt and Deficit Duplicity

Once you’ve seen through the ‘debt and deficit’ mantra, (which incidentally is all Labor’s fault, according to leaked government speakers’ notes) you can’t go back to believing in the sort of economic analysis that underpins it. But the mantra is everywhere. Whoever is leader of the Liberal Party, you can be sure a promise to ‘repair’ Labor’s debt and deficit will feature in their rhetoric.

In the last election campaign, Tony Abbott said that:

‘The first priority of an incoming Coalition government will be to end Labor’s waste and get debt and deficits under control as quickly as possible.’

It’s been the mainstay of Liberal rhetoric ever since. Here is Treasurer Hockey on the subject: ‘we will be ruling a line under the fiscal damage that Labor has done, sadly the economic damage will continue for some time but we’ll be ruling a line under the fiscal damage that Labor has done and we’ll be starting the repair job’.

More than a year later, Labor’s debt and deficit was still one of Abbott’s main justifications for everything his government has done. Here he is on the ABC’s 7.30 in December 2014:

we are determined to push on because it is absolutely necessary for our country’s future, for our children and our grandchildren’s future that we don’t saddle them with mountains and mountains of debt. I mean, how would we like it if our parents saddled us not with assets, but with debts? How would we feel if suddenly we were working part-time and we had this massive mortgage to pay and that’s the situation that our country was left in by the former government?

And I can’t resist these comments from recent his National Press Club address:

‘Under Labor, government was spending too much; borrowing too much; and paying out too much dead money in interest alone … Our problem is not that taxes are too low; our problem is that government spending is too high …We are writing cheques that our children and grandchildren will have to meet through higher taxes, higher interest rates and poorer services …Governments should never spend more than they must because every dollar government spends is a dollar you don’t spend, now or in the future’.

‘Cleaning up Labor’s mess’ is one of his main arguments about why he should keep his job.

Even those moving against Abbott use this language. The West Australian MP Luke Simpkins is moving for a spill, because he ‘wanted to make sure that the economic vandals do not get back into power and our children and grandchildren are not left to pay Labor’s bill’.

And if you think Malcolm Turnbull would be any different, he’s perfectly happy to talk about’ budget repair’ and how ‘governments, like households, have to live within their means’. And what’s his view of the 2014 budget?

‘I support unreservedly and wholeheartedly every element in the Budget. Every single one.’

This is what you’d expect from the Liberals, but Labor’s not immune from an obsession with debt and deficit either. Aside from muttering about ‘structural deficits’, Bill Shorten and Labor have mostly kept quiet on the subject so far, but the governments of both Rudd and Gillard felt they had to promise if not a surplus, then at least a plan to get back to one. As Ross Gittins notes:

‘So bogged down and obsessed by the budget has our elite become that, in all our fiddling with government spending and taxation, an attitude is developing … that it doesn’t much matter what measures we take so long as they reduce the deficit.’

The Liberals will never give up on it. Having the budget in surplus is a necessary component of their neo-liberal economic world view, and their concomitant election strategies: tax cuts to the rich, spending cuts for the poor, and bashing Labor as big spenders burdening future generations with debt.

It’s tempting to crow about the Abbott’s government’s failure to achieve a surplus – either this year, or for several years into the future. It is, after all, a broken promise that ‘we will achieve a surplus in our first year in office and we will achieve a surplus for every year of our first term’. But to do so buys into the idea not just that a surplus is desirable, but that the surplus/deficit argument is even central to good economic management.

It’s also easy to mock Hockey’s double talk about a ‘budget emergency’. This was the excuse for an unfair budget pursuing the ideological goals that the Abbott government didn’t tell voters about before the election. The LNP government is due to double Labor’s debt by the end of 2015. I’m not saying we shouldn’t criticise their obvious double dealing, partisanship, and the ‘reforms’ themselves. But let’s not forget that the government’s overall – if unstated – economic strategy will inevitably result in weaker growth and higher unemployment. Why did the Reserve Bank have to lower the cash rate? Again, concentrating on the fact of deficit or surplus is obscuring what really matters.

And what does really matter? The notion that a surplus budget in Australia at this time is an economic necessity is plain stupid. We do not have an unmanageable debt. We are not burdening future generations. There is no budget crisis. We have economic challenges – but they are in making the economy work for society, not the other way round. What really matters are those policies that will generate a productive and sustainable economy. Policies which will promote full employment and greater equality, which of itself will promote growth. These are the yardsticks by which good economic management must be judged – not the simple fact of surplus or deficit. This is the alternative narrative that Labor has to learn. It’s not hard; it ought to be in their DNA.

Budget surpluses or deficits are not economic decisions forced upon us by economic ‘facts’. They are political decisions. Decisions around the level of taxation (revenue collection), service provision (government spending), inflation and unemployment are also political decisions – not economic ones. It’s just a different kind of politics.

My point is that we have to change the narrative around debt and deficit to one about full employment and equality. The task is urgent.

If you want my take on the economics behind this, read my recent post on Modern Monetary Theory. It contains links to economists who argue the case far better than I can.

Book Review: Sunshine from the North, by Nancy Sarre

Subtitled A true Australian love story of the 1920s, told mostly through letters (2014), this modest book is Nancy Sarre’s tribute to her parents, Cherry and Horace, and to the families of her mother and father. Letters between the young couple and other family members tell mostly of personal circumstances but also touch on some of the broader social issues shaping Australia at the time.

The book starts dramatically with a letter recounting the death of Cherry’s mother in childbirth in 1893. ‘”Behold thy house is left unto thee desolate” is a quotation which might be applied with awful truthful literalness to one today,’ writes William, the bereaved husband. Cherry was their second child, and it was William’s second marriage, his first wife having died leaving one child (two others having died in infancy). We follow the story partly through letters, and partly through Sarre’s commentary. William married again quite quickly – hardly surprising since he had two babies to deal with – and fathered five more children. They lived in Coolah, as small town in central NSW, where William worked as a saddle and boot maker, among other things. Sarre suggests that the family was a happy one, but the prospects in Coolah must have been limited, and when she was 17, Cherry left to work in Sydney, living there with an aunt. She worked at first at David Jones, but in her twenties, trained as a nurse, and worked at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She said she expected to be an ‘old maid’.

She met Horace in 1926 when visiting a friend – a former fellow nurse – in Albury, a town on the NSW bank of the River Murray. Horace’s family were partners in a hardware store, where he worked. Cherry’s and Horace’s story is something of a classic romance: boy meets girl, there are obstacles, but these are eventually overcome. The obstacles are partly the good old tyranny of distance, and partly, it seems, hesitation on Cherry’s part. Horace begins their correspondence correctly enough – ‘Dear Miss Cole’ – but moves quickly from ‘Your humble admirer’ to “My dear Cherry’ … ‘Your ardent swain’. Cherry isn’t comfortable with this. ‘Horace,’ she writes, ‘we don’t know each other, and we should not discuss, anything other than friendship, now.’ Horace bows to the inevitable. ‘I must possess my soul with patience, and be happy with the privilege of exchanging thoughts with you’. So over the next six months they write about work in the hospital, friends in common, the weather, gardening, birds, poetry and music. Horace plays the piano and the organ; he likes Schubert and reads Joseph Conrad and Robert Browning. Cherry likes the Messiah – though neither has much time for reading or listening. They write about friendship – ‘it depends a lot on the number of things two people have in common’ – but nothing more profound. Cherry even wonders whether she might join the Bush Church Aid Society – an evangelical organisation providing pastoral and spiritual services in the outback. ‘It is the work I’m most interested in,’ she writes – but such a project wouldn’t have included a role for Horace. Then just before Christmas, Cherry changes. Suddenly it’s ‘Horace dear’, and ‘my Dear one’. Horace is delighted, and in a couple of weeks they are engaged – though for the time being Cherry is still at the hospital. ‘It is a beautiful letter,’ she writes in response to one of Horace’s, ‘and you are very wonderful to love me so and to tell me so.’ Nancy Sarre, who unfortunately can’t say what brought about Cherry’s change of heart, writes that her parents’ love affair continued for the rest of their lives; she was his ‘sunshine from the North’.

Amidst the family concerns, there are some letters that shed an interesting light on wider concerns. There is, for example, a letter from Roy, Cherry’s brother, from a hospital in London to which he has been repatriated after being wounded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. ‘It cannot go on for long at the awful cost we suffered in the Somme. The Australian public will get an awful shock when the particulars and casualty lists are published in full’. But he goes on to praise his comrades: ‘we, as a whole, did our jobs without thought of the reckoning.’ Just out of the front line and undergoing a series of painful operations, his comments seem frank, and without any over-blown patriotism. Then there is Cherry’s endorsement of prohibition: ‘I have always been keen for prohibition,’ she writes. Poor Horace prevaricates: ‘There are arguments on both sides, of course’. But he inevitably comes down on Cherry’s side …

The letters of Cherry, Horace and their families have a further historical importance in showing just how impossible it is to generalise about life in rural Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century. They are not the bush workers of the Australian legend – itinerant, unionised, disrespectful of authority. Nor are they the inhabitants of Don Watson’s The Bush (2014), who ‘battle to drive back nature and eke a living from the land.’ Cherry and Horace and their family were distinctly of the middle class of their country towns. Their letters show them as reflective, literate people who appreciated and participated in ‘high’ culture. They were beginning to engage with new technologies like wireless and motor cars. They loved the Australian bush, and noted with approval moves to preserve it. They moved freely between city and country – though increasingly the opportunities for work outside the home for women lay in the city, as shop assistant, nurse or teacher. I find it interesting that Cherry was thirty-three when she married; this challenges the idea that before World War II, marriage was the only acceptable role for women. They worked hard, and enjoyed the company of family and friends. They were certainly not rich, but could afford travel to visit relatives and for holidays. If public affairs or politics were important to them, they didn’t write about it.

Collections of letters like these are immensely valuable for teasing out such nuances in the social history of rural Australia. If you’d like to read more about country towns, try Struggle country: the rural ideal in twentieth century Australia, edited by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie (2005). And here’s Professor Davison’s summary of the history of country life in Australia. If you like family letters, you could also try Growing Together. Letters Between Frederick John Cato and Frances Bethune, 1881 to 1884, edited by Una B Porter.

Can Tony Turn it Around?

imageWhat does it mean to ask whether Tony Abbott can turn it around? Here’s my amateur take on it.

There are two ways of looking at ‘turning it around’. Is it Abbott? Or is it the LNP government’s policies?

The Abbott factor itself has two sides. One is whether Tony Abbott can be seen to operate more effectively as the leader of his party. Can he placate his back bench by being more consultative etc? Well, he can consult till the cows come home. And possibly sack his chief of staff. But the real issue for the back bench isn’t whether they like Tony Abbott; it’s whether they can keep their seats come next election if he is still leader. This is the ‘Tony is out of touch’ argument. But is the backbench any less out of touch? Given the policies they support, (see below) it doesn’t seem so.

The other ‘Abbott factor’ is whether he can regain the trust of the electorate, which, with an approval rating of only 24%, he has clearly lost. As John Hewson says, Abbott will never be popular with voters. This means he has to show that he is a competent leader. He’s said he believes that the electorate wants more explanation of his government’s policies, what problems he’s trying to solve, and why his solutions are the right ones. How he will do that we’ll have to wait and see. Better spin? More support from the Murdoch press? This is the ‘we need a better sales job’ argument.

But what if ‘turning it around’ means changes in policy? What if the electorate don’t like what’s being sold, however much Abbott listens to his backbench or however palatably LNP policies are wrapped?

What changes could he make? Clearly he’s not going to undo anything he’s already done, for example on the really important issue of carbon emissions reduction. An LNP government will never put a price on carbon and Direct Action is an underfunded lemon so there won’t be an effective emission reduction policy. This would be the case whoever was leader; Turnbull has repudiated an ETS in favour of Direct Action, and he’d never get to be leader if he did support an ETS. It’s not clear how much the electorate cares about this, but failure on climate change isn’t going to win the LNP any votes.

It seems unlikely that Abbott will back away from deregulating university fees. It may not get through the Senate, or may be watered down there. If implemented in any form, this policy is likely to be unpopular with just the sort of middle class voters he needs to vote for the LNP.

On the other hand, it seems possible that the Medicare co-payment will be shelved. This would be popular, and would get the doctors off his back. But you can bet Hockey will cut health spending somewhere else to make up. And Liberal Treasurers love their price signals (except on carbon emissions), so maybe a co-payment will be promised for a second Liberal term – though backbenchers wouldn’t be happy about the electoral implications of that.

And here’s where it starts to go pear shaped. They’ve cut things that bring in revenue, like the carbon tax. They are having to ease up on spending cuts because they are so unpopular. So where does the money come from?

Abbott said in his Press Club address just last week that the problem was ‘government spending’. But he also said : ‘Because we have done much of the hard work already, we won’t need to protect the Commonwealth budget at the expense of the household budget’. He’s also suggested the next budget could contain tax cuts. There’s so much there that’s contradictory I almost don’t know where to start.

Hardly any ‘hard work ‘ has been done; much of the government’s cost cutting agenda – $28 billion of it – hasn’t yet got through the Senate and may not do so. And even if it does, there will still be deficits for the foreseeable future. This is in a context where the Liberals have identified good economic management with having a budget surplus.

And the ‘hard work’ they have done isn’t popular. Cuts to welfare and pensions are disliked, being widely seen as unfair to the poor and disadvantaged (as well as being broken promises). But in the context of a budget deficit, Abbott certainly won’t reverse them. Nor will he reverse cuts to health and education, or to the ABC and SBS. The budget is one of the main reasons for the LNP’s unpopularity; even in the unlikely event that there are no further cuts to services, what’s already been done will still rankle with the electorate. And if government spending still has to be cut further … Backbenchers may find electors don’t like it – but it’s their policy.

If ‘the household budget’ is not to be targeted, what is? Business? The wealthy? But in a Liberal world, it is rich people who create jobs and needs tax cuts. Even the suggestion that Abbott will keep the company tax hike intended to fund the defunct Paid Parental Leave scheme is outraging business. Does anyone really think he – or any other Liberal – will tax the rich?

Running a ’small government’ pro-surplus agenda is inherently deflationary at a time of weak economic grow – ie what we have now. Abbott might talk about 2015 being a year of ‘jobs’, but where does he think they are going to come from? Even Kate Carnell from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, speaking on the ABC about the Liberal spill, admits that the economy is sluggish. (She still wants a budget surplus, though.) Private enterprise isn’t generating enough jobs to stop unemployment rising. This is a great time to cut government spending further. What will be the result? More unemployment. How popular will this be in all those Liberal electorates?

Trying to reduce penalty rates and the minimum wage on the grounds that they are to blame for unemployment – apart from being economic nonsense – is likely to spark a popular campaign against the government. I don’t think this is a vote winner.

In other words, it seems to me that the Australian economy needs stimulus, greater than can be delivered through cuts to the cash rate – which can’t go that much lower anyway. Stimulus is the opposite of the Liberal policy of cutting spending. Their only answer is tax cuts to the rich, since they believe that wealth trickles down. It doesn’t. And just at the moment, significant numbers of the electorate can see it doesn’t; what is needed is increased government spending.

So which is it? The Abbott factor or the LNP policy factor? It’s a bit of both, and so far as turning it around is concerned, I don’t think either will work. While LNP policies are unpopular, and the opinion polls are bad, Abbott will be unpopular in the party room, however much he sucks up to them. The Liberals can’t afford to reveal to the electorate their unpopular neo-Liberal agenda of cutting spending and hence services, so their policies will continue to be contradictory. This makes it hard for Abbott to appear to the electorate as an effective leader. It also makes it hard for the party to successfully sell a coherent narrative. And the deflationary policies they’ve tied themselves to – including emphasis on a surplus as the badge of good economic management – weaken the economy and alienate voters. (Turnbull as Prime Minister wouldn’t alter this dilemma; he can smile more nicely than Abbott, but he’s wedded to the same economic world view.)

This doesn’t of course mean that they won’t find ways of lying or bribing their way back to power at the next election; look what they and their cheer leaders in the mainstream media managed last time. Asylum seekers and terror come to mind. And maybe Labor will find ways of stuffing it up. But the LNP won’t hang onto power on the back of sound and equitable economic policy. There are sensible political and economic paths out of this quagmire, but the Liberals will never find them.

PS And if you don’t believe me about the quagmire, read Ian Verrender’s analysis of the situation here.

Barrie Cassidy and Jonathan Green are wrong and this is why . . .

Abbott’s main argument against those in his party who want him out is that to get rid of him now would be to return ‘to repeat the chaos and instability of the Labor years’. This is understandable; after all, what else has he got going for him?

My question is, rather, why do elements of the mainstream media buy into this narrative?

Even commentators who are not nominally part of the right-wing commentariat, such as Jonathan Green and Barrie Cassidy, are basing a large part of their argument about how Abbott got there in the first place on the electorate’s haste to be rid of the Gillard/Rudd governments. Cassidy could be channelling Abbott when he talks about ‘the failed, disunited and chaotic Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments’; he says there was ‘a six or seven year period of dysfunctional and chaotic governments’. Green says Labor was ‘a government we had come to hate’.

Sure. Labor lost the 2013 election, 46.51% to 53.49% on a two party preferred basis. So I’m not sure who the ‘we’ is that Green is talking about. Some of us, certainly. But others of us both valued what Labor had achieved, and feared – rightly as it turned out – what an Abbott government was capable of.

It would be foolish of me to dispute the impact of the changes in leadership, the public backstabbing, the vengeful backgrounding of journalists and the mistakes in policy and its implementation made by these governments. Possibly it was Rudd’s back-down on climate policy which most undermined his public authority. The governments were certainly spooked by Abbott’s relentless negativity, rarely seeming able to get clear air to promote a more positive agenda. And there were disastrous policy failings, such as that on asylum seekers.

On the other hand, much of this was blown out of all proportion by the Opposition and the media. Why is a minority government that has the support of independents illegitimate? Will this be the case if the LNP scrapes into minority government in Queensland? Does anyone really think there are no factions in the Liberal Party? Or that they aren’t crucial in deciding who leads the party? Why is only the negative side of the Rudd government’s insulation scheme ever mentioned? Even Tony Abbott’s Royal Commission didn’t manage to blame Rudd for the deaths of the four workers whose unscrupulous bosses abused this program. Yet you’d think Rudd went out and murdered them himself from the press treatment it received. And why is so little credit ever given to the Labor government for the stimulus package that saved Australia from the worst of the GFC? Instead, there has been a relentless and damaging talking down of the economy.

So did these failed and chaotic governments really not achieve anything? I’ll just list some of what they did achieve, as Cassidy and Green, and no doubt others, seem to have forgotten about these. The fact that some powerful vested interests didn’t like them doesn’t make them any less important reforms. The fact that some of them were used against the Labor government doesn’t make them wrong either. Nor does the fact that Abbott has repealed or undermined many of them. It’s impossible to say which if any of these policies those who voted against Labor were rejecting, but aren’t government supposed to act in the national interest regardless of popularity? Labor governments:

  • Saved Australia from the worst effects of the GFC
  • Put a price on carbon, which resulted in a decrease in carbon emissions.
  • Began implementing the Gonski reforms to base educational funding on need
  • Began building a world class NBN
  • Introduced a mining tax to share the benefits of the resources boom more fairly
  • Introduced paid parental leave
  • Supported an increase in the minimum wage – modest, but still an increase
  • Introduced the National Disability Insurance Scheme
  • Achieved the Tasmanian forest deal
  • Achieved plain cigarette packaging
  • Won a seat on the Security Council to give Australia a stronger international voice

Why are Cassidy and Green and their ilk ignoring these positive achievements? (It’s OK Barrie I don’t really hate you. I just think you should know better.)

My guess is that it is only by portraying the Labor governments as incompetent and hated that they can excuse their own failure to look properly at Tony Abbott and his policies, and to publicise what they would have found if they looked at all.

It’s true that Abbott made himself a small target. But there were still things you could have analysed. Did you ever look in detail at Direct Action and how it might work? Did you ever wonder in print whether a price on carbon was a good thing? Did you ever suggest that it would be wise to look more closely at the effectiveness of an NBN based on fibre to the node – and therefore on Telstra’s aging copper network? Did you ever question the inequality of Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme? Did you ever consider what would be lost if the mining tax was repealed? Was government debt really a problem in Australia?

And even if Abbott’s agenda was relatively limited, couldn’t you have probed a bit deeper into his political agenda? He laid it out for you in Battlelines. Small government, trickle-down economics, culture wars and social conservatism. It was all there for you.

Maybe a bit more work from journalists on sites like The Drum wouldn’t have made any difference, given the torrent of anti-Labor venom pouring out of the Murdoch press. Maybe the disunity and policy mis-steps of the Labor government would have led to an election loss anyway. But what I find hard to understand is the wilful denigration of Labor’s achievements, a perversion of the narrative if ever there was one.

While I’m on the subject, please don’t go on making the same mistake over and over again. Apparently, according to Green, Labor still can’t do anything right. Bill Shorten is ‘carping’ in opposing not just the destruction of Labor’s achievements but also the demolition of Medicare, cuts to funding for health and education, the farce of Direct Action etc etc. And for Cassidy, ‘Malcolm Turnbull is immune; above it all’. Really Barrie? He’s voted for every piece of the Liberal agenda so far. How about you start reporting facts not fantasy?

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