Sunday, October 07, 2007

His Master's Voice, by David Marr

David Marr has written some terrific books in his time, most notably his peerless biography of Patrick White, and Dark Victory (co-written with Marian Wilkinson) about the Tampa Affair. The only other David Marr book I have read besides those two is The High Price of Heaven, in which he criticised his religious upbringing. That book I felt quite a let down.

David Marr is certainly an excellent journalist, but once he starts whinging about a subject, he does just that, whinges. Some sections of his latest Quarterly Essay made me cringe. He's prone to making sweeping statements that sound petty and carping. When he makes statements about the state of the nation, he wants us to accept them as facts, but I needed specific examples to back up Marr's arguments.

I needed more structure, more marshalling of material, more solid and irrefutable arguing. In short, I wanted to read a fascinating and compelling essay. The weakly titled His Master's Voice (do we all answer to whatever Howard says?) did not deliver.

Quite often, Marr contradicts himself, and knows he's doing it to boot.

For example, he says that 'we don't protest anymore', then straight after this he describes the huge anti-war protests and the million people who marched for reconciliation.

Marr's approach is almost lazy. For this essay he merely took day-to-day examples of government excesses during the period he wrote his essay. The effect is like reading a bunch of stringed together opinion pieces from the daily newspapers. I mean, Marr had 11 years to range over and ponder. Why choose just one month to show how rotten things are? (I guess the reasoning was to say that you can pick any day in Howard's Australia and it's dire.)

There was one part of the essay that I really loved though, where he says we're not the 'larrikins of our imagination', but 'an orderly people who love authority'.

'We grumble instead of challenging. We despise politicians. Belittling them as a class is a cover for our own passivity.'

I have myself much pondered Australians and their attitude to their politicians. We go to work and give up a third of our income to fund this system, but take little interest in it, only to bag the people we elect to represent us. At the constitutional convention in 1998, Australians could voluntarily vote to elect a representative at the convention. Only 46.93% of Australian's bothered to vote.

In Australia, even the politicians are anti-politician. Think Tony Abbott. Pauline Hanson prided herself on not being like a politician. Judith Brett, in a Quarterly Essay, had research showing that your typical Howard Voter was none too interested in politics, but just voted for him because he was a kind of bland, inoffensive creature. Maybe this is the recipe for his success.

I wish I'd liked this essay more. I thought it would have an interesting perspective on the Howard years. I hate to say it, but I liked Paul Kelly's recent essay in which he criticised Marr better. I know Paul Kelly has a Hobbesian view of politics, but I found some of his criticisms of Marr valid. (Of course there is much to criticise in Kelly's essay.)

What a squandered opportunity for David Marr to mercilessly nail Howard. Why can't the so-called left develop a strong and appealing enough rhetoric to unsettle Howard? Good words are all that's needed.

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