Tagged: Andrew Bolt

The Drones: Feelin Kinda Free

When right-wing columnist/performance artist Andrew Bolt heard the Drones’ single Taman Shud, he wrote that the band was “stamping on the ashes of the West’s musical traditions”. Supposedly offended by the thought that singer Gareth Liddiard didn’t give a toss about anything he said, he added: “critics like these make me feel like I’m offending exactly the right kind of people”.

Naturally, the Drones were delighted. First, they would no doubt feel exactly the same way about offending Bolt and his tabloid constituency. Second, the group has taken a serious left turn with their seventh album, Feelin Kinda Free. “We said ‘fuck it’ and went spaz,” Liddiard told The Guardian last October. He couldn’t have dreamed of a better critical endorsement than Bolt’s “stamping on the ashes” line.

“It’s a pretty weird record and you can dance to it,” Liddiard said of the album. “It’s time to have a groovy Drones record. We’re sick of being a bunch of drags.” With respect, Bolt’s description was pithier, more accurate and more complimentary. Taman Shud was one of the most compelling singles of last year, but good luck to anyone who hit the dance floor to its skittish rhythms.

Boredom, the sixth track on Feelin Kinda Free, is in a similar vein. If the Drones once came on like the mutant, brawling blues-punk offspring of the Birthday Party and the Beasts of Bourbon, this sounds more like the mostly forgotten Australian post-punk of Pel Mel and Sardine v. Frankly, it’s a lot more interesting and original, stamping all over the Drones’ own musical traditions.

“The best songs are like bad dreams,” mutters Liddiard in Private Execution. It’s a fabulous opening line – and what follows is a succession of nightmares. Always fascinated by Australian history, the Drones were once the musical equivalent of a McCubbin painting; pioneers trapped in foreign landscapes. Here they take a step into the avant-garde world of the Angry Penguins, Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan.

The Angry Penguins movement was an interrogation, and rejection, of an earlier kind of Australian nationalism represented by the bush balladeers. Feelin Kinda Free is as decisive a repudiation, both of the Drones’ past and of the mythic, monocultural Australian vision of John Howard, Tony Abbott and, yes, Andrew Bolt: “I don’t give a fuck if you can’t stop the boats,” Liddiard sneers in Taman Shud.

The dominant themes here are immigration and its attendant cousin, paranoia. And Then They Came For Me finds Liddiard “feeling like I’ve overstayed”. On the album’s final track, Shut Down SETI, he imagines Fortress Australia overrun by aliens: “Do we need an overlord that finds us underwhelming? You don’t defend your house and home by jumping down a rabbit hole.”

Taman Shud and Boredom aside, Feelin Kinda Free slithers by like a serpent in search of its next meal. The feel is unhurried, but menacing. While the songs still stretch out like elastic, there are only eight of them, so at 41 minutes, the album doesn’t outstay its welcome. The emphasis is mostly on bass and percussion: guitars are heavily treated; frequently, you’d be forgiven for thinking there are no guitars at all.

The closest thing to anything from the Drones’ past is the agonised To Think I Was In Love With You, which sits squarely in the album’s centre without dragging it down. Otherwise, Feelin Kinda Free sounds like the work of a less dour and far more subversive band. Despite the subject matter and often funereal pace, it’s anything but a drag.

First published in The Guardian, 18 March 2016

With a little empathy, Turnbull changes the tone

Whatever you thought of Leigh Sales’ interview with Malcolm Turnbull on The 7.30 Report last night, it had a defining moment; one that has the potential to recast the fortunes of his government. It was a moment of empathy, and empathy is a quality that’s become an endangered species in public life.

Turnbull recalled when he was a partner at Goldman Sachs in New York. Everyone, he said, was earning big money. But he queried the CEO about whether they were deserving of their good fortune, pointing out that in the streets below them, there were taxi drivers working far longer hours for a fraction of the rewards they were receiving.

I nearly fell off my chair. As someone who’d driven a taxi for many years – and who occasionally had to shrug off barbs from those who clearly regarded my line of employment as a reflection on my intelligence, as well as my station in life – this was an extraordinary thing to hear. Especially from a conservative politician.

Turnbull readily accepted Leigh Sales’ proposition that he’s been lucky. He has been gifted with high intelligence, a good education, good health, a beautiful family, and he’s been able to convert all of it into enormous wealth, which only a tiny few are able to do no matter how lucky they are, or how hard they work.

But Turnbull wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His mother had deserted his family at a young age. And perhaps that’s given him another gift: the emotional intelligence, as he called it, to have the imagination to walk in somebody else’s shoes. It was, he said, was the most important quality for someone in his line of work.

“The fact that we have to recognise is that much of our good fortune is good fortune,” he said. Such a statement must have burned the ears of many of his conservative colleagues. Turnbull is richer than most of them put together, but his words signalled a huge shift in rhetorical emphasis away from the brutishness of his predecessor.

Empathy has been in short supply in the so-called land of the fair go these last two years. It was what went missing when Peter Dutton joked about rising sea levels in the South Pacific. It was missing from his apology, too, for not realising there was a boom microphone over his head at the time.

It was missing when Joe Hockey said that poor people don’t drive cars, and if they did, they didn’t drive them very far. It was missing when he said the key to breaking into the housing market was to get a good job that paid good money. (Frankly, empathy was missing on most of the occasions Hockey opened his cigar-hole.)

It was missing when Christopher Pyne opined that women would not be disproportionately effected by changes to higher education, because most of them would only go on to be nurses and teachers anyway. It was missing from the Abbott government’s attitude to same-sex marriage.

It was missing when the government attempted to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. All of the government’s empathy on that occasion was reserved for the very white Andrew Bolt. It was missing when George Brandis said people had a right to be bigots. It was missing when Bronwyn Bishop took that chopper to Geelong.

Symbolically, this collective lack of empathy can be summed up in Tony Abbott’s words: “Nope. Nope. Nope.”

Inevitably, this lack of care for others has spilled over into other aspects of our national life. The incessant booing of Adam Goodes. The continuing degradation and dehumanisation of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. Where once we found the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” we instead find fault.

The proof, of course, will be in the policies the Liberal Party takes to the election and, in the longer term, their outcomes. But with just a little empathy, Turnbull has changed the tone of the national conversation. It’s the first step towards saving his party from the sort of ideological drift – unhinged from the vicissitudes of life that effect ordinary people – that’s turned the US Republican Party into an unelectable circus.

Giving oxygen to thieves

In early 2007, I found myself on the Atherton Tablelands, researching a story about politics in far north Queensland for the late, lamented Bulletin magazine. This was the year of John Howard’s demise and Kevin Rudd’s ascension, and I wanted to see how the men and women of the frontier saw the up-and-comer from their corner of the world.

The piece was called “The Seventh State of Mind”, an acknowledgment that, yes, Queensland is different, and north Queensland even more so. It also stemmed from a long conversation I had with Bob Katter, who neatly showed me how he would partition the state from Rockhampton up, with the aid of a folded serviette (which looks a bit like Queensland) and a knife.

Katter practically left me with my ears bleeding that day, but naturally I couldn’t resist leading my story with this prominent and long-serving politician’s call for secession. I reported plenty of other interesting views in my travels, including those of a Yungaburra lady who was convinced tampons were laced with asbestos and who sold “rainbow rags” (colourful sanitary pads) in her shop as an alternative.

But there was one person whose opinions I chose not to report. I encountered him in the township of Mt Molloy, and he regaled me with some startlingly racist views, including a claim that Aboriginal people had smaller brains. You don’t have look hard to find such views in the far north, but I decided that airing them would colour the entire piece. And anyway, why give oxygen to an oxygen thief?

I’m still not sure that was the entirely right thing to do, especially considering I also approached Pauline Hanson for a quote (as if her opinions were somehow less flammable). True, she didn’t say Aboriginal people had smaller brains, but the mere presence of the most polarising political figure of her generation had a way of enlivening any story back then. These days Hanson seems rather quaint.

I’m reflecting on all of this because I’m thinking about the ABC’s decision to invite Andrew Bolt onto The 7.30 Report last night, to talk about all the ways Adam Goodes is supposedly dividing the country. And the mother of the 13-year-old girl who called Goodes an ape, who thinks he is the one who should “man up” and apologise. At least she is part of the story, but did we really need her to kick the can of hate further down the road?

I’m also thinking about Kim Vuga, the “star” of SBS’s Go Back To Where You Came From. Vuga was recently invited to share her views on The Project, which were in turn widely reported upon. Vuga wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near a microphone not so long ago, her opinions so divorced from any quantifiable reality and so incoherently expressed that they amount to little more than spasms of rage.

Now, rage being the currency of our times, those opinions amount to ratings and clicks. Reporting someone’s views doesn’t have to mean endorsing them, of course. But the decisions made by producers, editors and journalists to allow one person’s views invariably means someone else’s silence. What public interest is being served by elevating Vuga, however temporarily, to national prominence?

Even if it was paranoid about being seen to be balanced, surely the ABC had other options available to it than Bolt, a man with more than enough platforms of his own from which to spruik. Lord knows we heard from enough white men yesterday about what racism really was, what it meant and what it felt like. If someone hadn’t bothered to ask Stan Grant, we might never have known.

We don’t ask Holocaust deniers their views about what really happened in World War II. We don’t ask anti-vaccination campaigners about autism. For the same reason, many media outlets are increasingly refusing to give climate change deniers inappropriate levels of airtime, for to do so would be to be guilty of  “false balance”, a recognition that someone’s media profile should not be out of proportion to their credibility.

And if you’re a contrarian or a conspiracy theorist, be you on my left or right flank, have at me. Because of course in the hyper-democracy that is the web the truth is out there – on the hundreds of fringe news sites, and thousands of Facebook pages, and the millions of comments attached to articles.

That’s where the views of Vuga and my old mate from Mt Molloy belong. And where they should remain.

Baiters, haters and spivs

In the online edition of Melbourne-based publication King’s Tribune last month, editors Jane Gilmore and Justin Shaw came to a radical decision. They resolved – after a few months of earnest consideration was capped by one post of anonymous, misogynist bilge too many – to turn comments on their website ”off”.

Given the magazine deals mostly in robustly expressed opinion, and not wishing to discourage debate, Gilmore and Shaw made an even more radical suggestion: letters could be sent by email or Facebook, or even (are you sitting down?) by post. The most cogent, topical and witty of them would be considered for publication.

It’s important to note the Tribune is a small venture. It began five years ago as a newsletter for a St Kilda bar and became a ”real” magazine last October, extending its reach through newsagents into Sydney and Canberra. Its circulation is less than 1000; Gilmore and Shaw keep day jobs.

There are practical reasons for a small publication like the Tribune to disable comments: neither the editors nor individual writers have the time, energy or inclination to monitor and moderate, much less reply to them all. There are more pressing things, such as getting out the next issue.

The Tribune is not alone. Many bloggers are heading down the same path, which seems counter-intuitive, given immediacy and interactivity were two of the key attractions of blogging in the first place. But how many people are actually bothering to read the so-called bottom half of the internet, let alone add to it?

My guess is that it’s a tiny minority, but it’s a minority that’s having a disproportionate influence on both the tone and direction of the print and electronic media.

The key question for older mastheads in particular is how much immediate, non-considered, anonymous commentary enhances public debate – after they’ve spent valuable resources weeding out the spammers, trollers, and astro-turfers that deliberately seek to distort and/or poison it.

There’s some evidence the astro-turfers, in particular, are on the march. British writer George Monbiot recently told of being contacted by a whistleblower that worked as part of a PR team paid to infiltrate comment threads and forums, doing the bidding of their corporate clients. The whistleblower worked under 70 different usernames.

The implications for debates on contentious topics such as climate change – which is not actually scientifically contentious, unless you have an enormous vested interest in convincing the public otherwise, or at least sowing the seeds of confusion and doubt – are obvious. And alarming.

Then there’s the issue of anonymity. This might be vital if you’re a Chinese or Syrian dissident or, for that matter, a spambot turned corporate whistleblower. Mostly, though, it just allows people to indulge their worst tendencies, not only towards individuals but entire social groups.

In this respect, a culture of widespread online bullying – particularly towards female writers – actually has the potential to drive some of our brightest voices out of public life altogether. Writers have always needed thick hides, but for some the price of your anonymity can be measured in their therapy bills.

It’s true that people haven’t changed in their tendency to be biased, ill-informed, unreasonable or at times plain inarticulate, and that we shouldn’t blame the technology (which can also be such a transformative agent for good) for the shortcomings of those who abuse it.

After all, people can also be wise, considered, challenging and eminently reasonable, and they too can reach a wider audience than ever before. In practice, though, this rarely happens. Mostly, comment forums remind me of children’s playgrounds, where the bullies always win – because everyone else scarpers.

The sad truth is that controversy outrates reason every time. We live in an immoderate age. It’s why Ray Hadley, Kyle Sandilands, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt are among the best-paid and most powerful media personalities in the country.

Does the popularity of The Drum, The Punch and even, for that matter, Q&A depend first and foremost on the talent of their writers and guests? Or do they live or die on the extent of the frenzy they generate? This is a difficult dilemma for mainstream media publications, which (unlike The King’s Tribune) base part of their online business models on advertising pageviews.

The genie is long out of the bottle, to the point that it’s both impossible and undesirable to stuff it back in. But, were the genie able to grant three wishes, I’d request genuine transparency of identity (why can’t names and addresses be withheld, where clearly necessary, on request?), a much tougher line on personal abuse and a greater weighting towards comments that actually expand discussion.

All of which takes time, money and human resources. But with the nation’s political and personal manners increasingly coarse, it might help elevate the tone of how we speak to each other, and provide at least some protection from an army of baiters, haters and spivs.

First published in The Age, 12 April 2012

Pokies: rent-seekers win again

The gnashing of teeth over Julia Gillard’s betrayal of Andrew Wilkie over pokies reform has been entirely predictable. Is this some kind of political masterstroke? Is it just another demonstration of Gillard’s fundamental untrustworthiness? It’s all as telegraphed as an old boxer’s jab, and irrevocably lashed to the 24-hour news cycle. About the furthest anyone’s looking into this situation is the polls, and what it does to Gillard’s chances of re-election.

The far more important point about what Gillard’s backdown says about Australia’s rotten political culture has been almost entirely overlooked. And that is that the rent-seekers have won again.

They won in 2010, when some of the world’s largest and richest mining companies saw off the Resources Super Profits Tax with a $22 million advertising campaign that, in the end, helped kill off a popularly elected Prime Minister (not that Kevin 07, perhaps soon be be known as Kevin 12, was exactly blameless in his demise, but that’s another story).

That occasion saw the likes of Gina Rinehart, Twiggy Forrest and Clive Palmer marching in the streets and carrying on like they’d all be rooned, I tells ya. The sight of Australia’s richest men and women playing the victim card – Rinehart (wealthiest of the lot) leading the chant of “Axe the tax!” – was so galling in its cheek that it’s a wonder the #Occupy movement didn’t start in Perth 2010, instead of New York 2011. Haven’t we heard all this somewhere before?

Let me digress for a minute longer before I get back to the pokies debacle. As reported yesterday, Rinehart’s wealth practically doubled last week by a cool $10 billion. She is so stupidly rich (it helps that she’s the dual beneficiary of her father Lang Hancock’s estate, and the longest resources boom in the country’s history) and her fortune growing so fast that, according to the revealing profile by Jane Cadzow that accompanied yesterday’s story, “it’s difficult for financial analysts to keep track of it”.

These days, when she’s not digging stuff up and squabbling with her children over control of her empire, she lends her considerable financial influence to matters of public policy. And it’s not just the millions she and her buddies poured into the anti-RSPT campaign. It’s the $165 million she sunk into buying a 10 percent stake of Channel 10, money seen as crucial to arch-brute Andrew Bolt getting a TV pulpit to add to his print and radio platforms. Then there’s the $120 million that’s bought her about four percent of Fairfax.

There’s also the money she’s used to fund the tours of fellow climate change sceptics like Christopher Monckton and lunches with Ian Plimer last year, as she railed against the introduction of the carbon tax.

Had the RSPT been introduced, according to 2010 Treasury modelling, the average worker would have been $450 a year better off. Gross Domestic Product would have increased by 0.7 percent; investment would have increased by 2.1 percent and prices on food, clothing, housing and transport were all expected to fall. This was meant to be the cure to our current two-speed economy, where mining of finite resources is galloping ahead of a field otherwise stuck in the starting blocks.

In an excellent op-ed late last year, Sydney Morning Herald economics writer Jessica Irvine wrote that rent-seeking used to be carried out away from the public eye, through political donations and long lunches. Now, with well-meaning laws aimed at circumventing such bribery, it’s done in public, through advertising campaigns.

Which brings me, finally, to Clubs Australia’s expensive and very successful “Won’t work, will hurt” campaign, despite polling showing overall support for the introduction of mandatory pre-commitment technology to poker machines running as high as 62 percent – but perhaps not in the marginal seats where the organisation is targeting its campaign.

Like Big Tobacco’s absurd astroturf-fronted putsch against plain packaging of cigarettes (which, in the interests of balance, I should mention that the government has so far stared down), “Won’t work, will hurt” is based on a logical contradiction: that a measure aimed at restricting the amount a person is able to gamble, via mandatory pre-commitment, can be completely ineffective – according to Clubs Australia boss Anthony Ball, it “won’t help a single problem gambler” – while at the same time killing off businesses, jobs and entire communities.

It’s an argument so inherently rhetorically unstable that it totters before you even need to produce figures to blow the whole teetering edifice over, starting with the fact that, according to the Australia Institute, Clubs Australia has overestimated the cost of implementing the technology by a factor of 10. Add to this deception the leaked industry document which revealed that the estimated drop in gaming revenues through the pre-commitment scheme would be 10-20 percent – half of that publicly estimated by Clubs Australia.

While not as obscenely cashed up as the mining industry, Clubs Australia hasn’t minded splashing the dough around in protecting its interests – around $3 million for its public campaign so far (remember “It’s UnAustralian“?), with plenty more in the bank. That’s not including the $200,000 it poured into the New South Wales Liberal and National Parties last year, according to The Power Index. Forty percent of the nation’s pokies are in New South Wales. In the lead-up to the NSW election last month, Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell signed a memorandum with Clubs Australia giving them $300 million of tax breaks on pokie revenues.

As Bernard Keane pointed out in Crikey yesterday, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Gillard has bailed on Wilkie as soon as it was practical to do so (ooh, about as long as it took for Peter Slipper to get comfy in the Speaker’s chair). Taking on the the clubs lobby in search of a meaningful solution to problem gambling was never Labor’s idea of a good time.

But as Irvine wrote back in October, we need to work out that we’re the ones ultimately being played for mugs by an advertising industry that’s helping to convince the public that what’s good for business is good for the country and good for you, too.

Because, well, they would say that. Wouldn’t they?

You can’t say no forever

IN case you missed it, the carbon tax bills were passed by the House of Representatives yesterday. I’m pleased to report the sun came up this morning. I presume it will set again tonight and in spite of the nation’s dilemma, the world will most likely move on.

Julia Gillard and her minority government have a lot of problems and a lot of faults, but they’re correct when she says they’re on the right side of history here (or, more accurately, that Tony Abbott is on the fag end of it). It’s just a shame it took so long to get to this point, and that the debate over this issue in particular has exacted such a shocking toll on rational and civilised political discourse – not that things were exactly tea and biscuits inside or outside the parliamentary chamber when John Howard was in charge, mind you.

I am, in some ways, almost a cartoon stereotype of the lapsed Labor voter: having voted with not a little optimism, goodwill and hope for Kevin Rudd in 2007, my faith collapsed after his abandonment of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in early 2010. It was bad enough that the legislation was so utterly compromised in its desperation to appease big polluters that it offered virtually no incentive to change their practices at all. The fact that Rudd was by then already running scared of a craven chancer like Abbott – who has already supported all possible positions on this issue depending on which way the political wind was blowing – only made it more galling.

For me, Abbott’s ascent – his relentless cynicism, his willingness to all but sell his arse for power that would be singularly dangerous in his hands – has made Australian politics all but unbearable. Taking his cues from the US Tea Party Republicans, Abbott’s tactics since taking on the opposition leadership, almost by default, have been simple and brutally effective: oppose everything.

Unfortunately, the times suit him. Anne Summers, in her Monthly profile on Andrew Bolt, notes that to succeed in the media today, you need to create controversy: politics is less about a conflict of ideas than an increasingly shrill, rolling conflict of opinion. I’ve already written that, in this environment, expertise counts for nothing in the face of a howling mob – the kind that stormed the parliamentary gallery yesterday screaming that “democracy is dead”.

Abbott, an old rugby prop forward, is perfect to lead a mob. It’s the extreme language that he uses – most recently, yesterday’s “pledge in blood” to repeal the carbon tax if and when he takes office. It’s this sort of thing that gets him into trouble sometimes, such as when he stood in front of placards demonising Julia Gillard as a witch (and worse) at an earlier rally against the tax. I doubt it would even have occurred to him, until it was pointed out, that implicitly condoning such behaviour was less than prime ministerial; that it was his own fitness to govern that would be called into question.

But what’s Abbott to do now? You can’t say no forever, as the Go-Betweens once said. One wonders if this pledge in blood is a “carefully scripted remark”, or just part of the cut and thrust and bloody gore of politics, Abbott’s way. The business community at least now knows what it’s getting, and the smarter elements of it have been preparing accordingly for some time.

This is an issue that isn’t going to just go away. Everyone, including a large percentage of the same business community, knows Abbott’s so-called “direct action” policy to mitigate against climate change is a joke and at any rate, the legal obstacles against repealing yesterday’s legislation are formidable.

Former Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley never got the chance to keep his promise to roll back the GST. Abbott may be luckier than Beazley, but he is creating an almighty rod for his own back should he take office. If his pledge in blood turn out to have been made with his fingers crossed behind his back, the mob he has proved so adept at whipping up will surely turn on him.