Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bipolar Nation: How To Win The 2007 Election, by Peter Hartcher

This is the best Quarterly Essay I’ve read in ages. Peter Hartcher divides the country up into the good and the bad. When he criticises the bad half of Australian society and politics, he doesn’t fall into the bitchy carping of critics from the left. He offers solid, irrefutable examples to back up his arguments.

I also really liked the way he structured this essay. He’s put a lot of thought into it. Better than that even, he obviously had a clear idea of all the things he wanted to say. With so many of these essays it seems the authors are casting around for things to say. They waffle on, and most of their essays end up being a big bubble of nothing.

Bipolar Nation: How To Win The 2007 Election is really divided up into two parts. Part one you could call the lucky country. It discusses the Australian economy against the background of the warnings Donald Horne sent the country in 1964 with his book The Lucky Country.

In that ironically titled book (we were lucky to have so many natural resources to sell to the world he said, yet our leadership was mediocre), Horne warned that unless we started doing some real work instead of just digging resources up, our standard of living would take a huge dip. It did. Then along came the Hawke-Keating government, which stripped away the tariffs and other protections our economy hid behind. Australia had to work, and in doing so we lifted our standard of living.

Peter Hartcher says that, happily, this did not mean that we ditched our welfare safety net. Hartcher writes:

‘It is a country that seems to have achieved a sweet spot, combining the vigour of American capitalism with the humanity of European welfare, yet suffering the drawbacks of neither.’

Lucky us.

Part two you could call ‘the frightened country’, after a book thus titled by former diplomat for the Fraser government Alan Renouf. This section of the essay outlines our national xenophobia, and our steadfast clinging to America in the belief that the US will come to our rescue when some Asian country inevitably invades us.

Yet when we have invoked the ANZUS treaty, America has not come running to help us.

In 1964 Australia invoked the treaty when Australian forces faced the Indonesians during the Confrontation crisis. Washington refused.

In 1999 during the East Timor crisis Washington initially rebuffed us, then relented. Bill Clinton’s national security adviser Sandy Berger compared Australia’s problems to his daughter’s messy apartment – not his problem. Nice.

In 2006, the US Ambassador to Australia Robert McCallum was asked a question about the ANZUS treaty. He responded by cheerfully telling his audience that he’d never read the 840 word document!

Hartcher finishes the second part of his essay by saying that Howard is brilliant at evoking our fears, then calming them down afterwards with some soothing words.

So how to win the 2007 election for Labor? Show us your credentials on the economy and national security.

This is a worthy and informative essay on Australia’s weaknesses and strengths.

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