Mark Butler casts an eye over David Marr's critique of Australian public discourse
There are three basic drivers of dynamic politics – fear, greed and hope. Australian politics has traditionally been driven by hope and fear; hope that we could build something special and each generation would do better – and fear that something would interfere to dash that hope.
David Marr’s latest book, Panic, argues that the fundamental driver of Australian political debate is actually panic, “reasonable fear twisted out of all recognition”.
According to Marr, there has always been an “artesian basin of fear” for politicians to bore into and twist into panic. Fear that is fundamentally about race and, especially, invasion from the north.
The “decent compact” between the major parties struck in the 1960s which saw the binning of the White Australia policy and the passage of the 1967 Referendum has evaporated. Marr attributes its demise principally to John Howard and Pauline Hanson and to a fear vacuum created by the almost overnight disappearance of the Communist bogeyman. As a result, race is “back at the centre of Australian politics”.
The second strand to Marr’s framework is that the institutions that are supposed to keep things decent – to soothe rather than stoke our fears – are not doing their job. Politicians are first in the dock and while Marr regards some as more culpable than others, no-one is free of some level of guilt.
Much of the book describes the media as, at best, sitting idly by while the fires of panic burn and, at worst, pouring petrol on those fires.
Marr also develops a case against two institutions not as commonly given a serve in Australia: the church and the High Court. Elements of the clergy (particularly Cardinal George Pell) are criticised for their line on sexuality, drugs policy and a Bill of Rights. The High Court’s failings are more egregious as its role is to remain above the fray, avoid emotions like fear and panic, and decide cases according to good legal principle.
Our Court has a proud record of doing precisely that, during war and at the height of Cold War paranoia. But Marr lays significant blame for the current state of refugee policy at the Court’s feet with the debatable proposition that “… had judges brought calm to this issue [in the early ’90s], governments of all stripes would be looking back now with profound gratitude”.
The third strand of Marr’s framework is that the only reliable bulwark against the role of panic in public policy is a Bill of Rights. Although the realist in Marr recognises the considerable hurdles in achieving that ambition, his prosecution of the argument is one of the more aggressive.
Marr manages to build a strong narrative around race, connecting Native Title debates, through asylum seeker policy to anti-terror laws. Marr also strays from that narrative into cul-de-sacs about drug laws, sexuality and the debate about art and porn resurrected in the Bill Henson affair.
The book contains a number of highlights which, by themselves, make it a worthwhile read. Marr’s exchange with Brian Harradine over euthanasia, capital punishment and the rise of Hitler is a gem, and yields a question in Marr’s mind that would have repaid greater exploration; namely, the interface between principle, popular opinion and political leadership. Marr’s survey of four prominent right-wing commentators on what it means to be “left” is perhaps more entertaining than it is insightful.
Marr is a rare beast in Australia – a prominent journalist with an overtly progressive or “left” outlook. But he also brings humanity, honesty and humour to his work which means you don’t have to agree with everything he writes to enjoy this valuable book.
Published by Black Inc.
Mark Butler is the federal Minister for Social Inclusion; Minister for Mental Health and Ageing and the federal Member for Port Adelaide.