THE AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION is often accused of pandering to stupid left-wing urban intellectuals. To refute this stereotype, the ABC (completely taxpayer-funded, of course) recently gathered together a bunch of stupid left-wing urban intellectuals to discuss 2001, and their hopes for the future.
They were novelists Matthew Reilly, Tom Keneally, Linda Jaivin, John Birmingham, Marion Halligan, and Robert Dessaix. All of them agreed with each other on almost everything, but that didn't stop Sylvia Lawson from describing the horrid luncheon event (hosted by Maxine McKew) as a "debate".
MAXINE McKEW: Tom, let me say, perhaps start with you. If you could characterise 2001, as some have, as the year of living cautiously, what would you say about 2002? What are your hopes?
THOMAS KENEALLY: Well, I hope it's the year of living incautiously. We haven't resolved the question of whether we're a brave or a timid nation yet.
We are simultaneously bronze Anzacs and tenuous maidens likely to be raped by foreign strangeness and we have to decide which we really are.
TIM BLAIR: Can't we be sort of half one thing and half another? You know, like your beard?
MAXINE McKEW: Matthew? How do you see it? Do you think that Tom's right, that we're a mix of the timid and the brave?
MATTHEW REILLY: I think 2001 can be characterised as a year of fear and, if I'd like to see anything change in 2002, it is, I'd like the dialogue in Australia to change from our first response to some new challenge, not being fear, but being understanding, trying to know something first before you're afraid of it.
TIM BLAIR: That made no sense at all. Are you feeling all right?
MATTHEW REILLY: I think we leap and under the current sort of political leadership, I think our first instinct - or from 2001 - is leaning towards fear.
ROBERT DESSAIX: But aren't some things worth being afraid of?
TIM BLAIR: Yes! Your books. They're almost as bad as that history of Sydney by …
JOHN BIRMINGHAM: Well, some things are but nothing in our experience the last year or so.
LINDA JAIVIN: Refugees aren't worth being afraid of.
JOHN BIRMINGHAM: No, I mean this whole country's built on refugees.
TIM BLAIR: My whole lawn is mowed by refugees.
LINDA JAIVIN: Exactly.
JOHN BIRMINGHAM: Two hundred years of them coming in. This place has always been the last best hope for people coming from the most wretched holes all over the face of the globe.
MARION HALLIGAN: In a way, we are them, aren't we? I mean, my grandfather was a boat person. My great-great-grandfather was a boat person of a kind.
LINDA JAIVIN: I'm a migrant.
TIM BLAIR: I'm a moon alien.
ROBERT DESSAIX: Well, why do you think - I mean, I think that that's a very simplistic sort of thing to say. Why do you think people are anxious? I mean it's not necessarily irrational.
LINDA JAIVIN: I think the current leadership has set up a whole atmosphere of name-calling and other people have responded to it. You know, the whole thing about all this name-calling is so destructive, it's polarising, it's really terrible and it also means that we're incapable of actually sitting down and having real dialogue within the society.
TIM BLAIR: Will you please stop looking at me like that? I'm trying to eat.
LINDA JAIVIN: I think to achieve courage, compassion, justice - which would be my wish for the next year, all of these things - I think we all have to pull back from that and I would really, really like to see the Prime Minister show some serious leadership in this regard and stop calling everybody who doesn't agree with him 'elite' or 'politically correct'.
MATTHEW REILLY: Un-Australian.
LINDA JAIVIN: Un-Australian.
TIM BLAIR: Un-derpants.
MARION HALLIGAN: See, I think this is a language problem. Really, I think that's what we have.
TIM BLAIR: No kidding!
MARION HALLIGAN: I was very interested after the events of September 11 how that noble, American, patriotic speak immediately swung in and people could put their hands on their hearts and sing noble songs and say noble things, which I found utterly chilling.
TIM BLAIR: Chilling?
MARION HALLIGAN: But I think we're at the other end of that spectrum. We don't have any words in which we can say noble things.
We're so fond of being cynical and world weary and self-critical in a whole lot of ways, that we lack that language.
And I think that, in fact, what happened at the last election was that Howard commanded a kind of language that got him elected and none of his opponents could find words of their own for dealing that.
MAXINE McKEW: Well, I was just going to say, aren't you putting a lot on one man? I mean, why do we only look for leadership from the political class?
LINDA JAIVIN: I think, you know, Australians never look to cultural figures for leadership. You know, we look to sports figures for leadership.
TIM BLAIR: Linda, given the quality of cultural figures around this table, it'd be more sensible if we looked to sports equipment for leadership.
MARION HALLIGAN: We don't look to articulate people for leadership but I suppose we are thinking of this because we've just had an election where I think there was no vision, there was no imagination and I felt it was a very low point, that there was no sense of any ideas, let alone ideals.
TIM BLAIR: (whispering) Marion, take your hand off my knee!
MAXINE McKEW: Let me just interrupt there because I mean the assumption here is that the country then is, if you like, less dynamic, less interesting than it once was. Is this right? I mean, do you all remember a more dynamic Australia? Say, John? I ask you as a fellow Queenslander.
JOHN BIRMINGHAM: Having grown up in Queensland like you, I mean, I know what a repressive right-wing government's like and I know that it's very, very different from what we're living under now.
In Queensland, when I grew up, if you stepped out of line or stood against the system, it would reach out and touch you in the night and it would take you away and you know, you might have to flee the state.
TIM BLAIR: Yes … the Killing Fields of Paddy Gully. I know of them well.
THOMAS KENEALLY: There are some things that happened in the last year which, as a child of a digger, I find a bit sinister - the SAS being sent out to the Tampa, the Armed Forces, which are a noble and very highly trained force in Australia being used for reasons that aren't really military …
And, so, we've taken the first step, on the way, the first couple of steps, in a way that we never did before. We've taken the first couple of steps along the long railway line that leads to an oppressive regime …
TIM BLAIR: Walking on train tracks leads to oppression?
THOMAS KENEALLY: … and I think that's why we members of the elites … God help us, any elite Linda and I belong to is in real trouble!
MAXINE McKEW: Chardonnay-drinking elites!
LINDA JAIVIN: Absolutely.
TIM BLAIR: You sicken me.
THOMAS KENEALLY: But the elites and the 'chattering classes' are always chattering because we don't want to go down that railway line.
TIM BLAIR: Well, at least not without a train.
MATTHEW REILLY: Are we not noble or are we just apathetic? Are our politicians preying on the Australians' natural apathy towards political matters?
MARION HALLIGAN: Can you be apathetic and noble at the same time?
MATTHEW REILLY: I think you can.
TIM BLAIR: I think you can be pathetic and in this room at the same time.
MARION HALLIGAN: I think if you're apathetic you're not noble.
MAXINE McKEW: Robert?
ROBERT DESSAIX: Well, think that we're less apathetic than cynical and I think that part of our cynicism and part of our lack of interest in the elections has to do with the fact that we understand that, basically, it doesn't matter who's in power.
The Australian Government isn't running our lives and what they do doesn't matter very much. Our lives are run from over there.
MAXINE McKEW: Over where?
TIM BLAIR: New Zealand? Chad? Honduras? Where, Robert?
ROBERT DESSAIX: They're run from Washington, of course. We're a satrapy of the great American empire and we have been for a long time.
MAXINE McKEW: Robert, if this is right - if we're a satrapy of the US. And, Tom, if you're right, that we've taken the first step along the path to, perhaps, a more oppressive regime. Like, if you're right, let me say to you all, that this is great raw material for writers. You are talking the stuff of tremendous conflict and tension. And I'm - you know, I risk buying into a tremendous argument here, I'm aware, but why is it so few of our writers are addressing these big contemporary issues?
TIM BLAIR: Like, you're kinda old lookin' to be talking like, you know, a teenager.
THOMAS KENEALLY: You're absolutely right. We - there was no novel by Australian writers on the Timor situation.
MAXINE McKEW: John wrote a history.
TIM BLAIR: Did anyone buy it?
MAXINE McKEW: Let me then move this conversation on to this. Do you think, in this new century, that the myths, the symbols that have sustained us, the fair go, egalitarianism, I suppose, the Anzac tradition.
Is this going to be enough for us in the 21st Century as the country changes even more?
LINDA JAIVIN: I think 'Tampa' will become a symbol.
MAXINE McKEW: Symbol of what?
TIM BLAIR: Symbol of a big fucking boat (gulps wine). Could I have another bottle over here, please?
THOMAS KENEALLY: I'm fascinated, Marion, by what makes people extremists. Because I think we incapacitate ourselves by calling it 'inhuman', 'barbarous', 'insane', because that means these people are not part of the fabric of our life and we can't do anything about it.
Whereas the origins of extremism have a basis in very concrete conditions of injustice which we need to understand so we can deal with it, purely for our own self-interest. It's not good enough for America to say, "These people are not like us. These people are fanatics."
TIM BLAIR: So what are they? Come on, writer dude. You're meant to know lots of words.
MARION HALLIGAN: We're all novelists and I think that the way we work as novelists is having an imagination that makes us able to see other people's points of view and I think that's the really important thing we can do.
Terrorists, whatever - I was appalled when they were described as 'terrible cowards'. I thought they were incredibly brave, actually. They might have been totally misguided and clearly extremely dangerous, but they were not cowards.
TIM BLAIR: A toast to Mohamed Atta, heroic killer of office workers, fire fighters, women, and children!
MAXINE McKEW: Let me bring you back, perhaps, to where we started, because we're almost out of time. 2002, from the way you're talking could be the year of living violently again. Would anyone put their hand up for the year of living imaginatively?
MARION HALLIGAN: I would put my hand up for that.
MAXINE McKEW: Creatively?
JOHN BIRMINGHAM: How about honourably?
MAXINE McKEW: Honourably?
LINDA JAIVIN: I like that. Courageously, compassionately.
TIM BLAIR: Retardedly?
ROBERT DESSAIX: It's interesting that it's people like us who are talking about these ideas normally. No-one would look to people like us in this country to talk about these things.
MAXINE McKEW: That's my hope for 2002, that we do a bit more of this.
TIM BLAIR: (throws self under passing truck)