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Eyes wide shut

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Friday, 9 November 2007


What are the real human, social and spiritual values of our land?
And where the starved and barren places in our life?

Sir Paul Hasluck

In the opening scenes of Un Chien Andalou (1929), the Spanish director, Luis Buñuel sharpens a cut-throat razor under a night sky. Buñuel then parts the eyelids of a woman who gazes at the audience. Her eye, lids parted, staring at us, is slit with speed. To quote the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, who knew Buñuel well, "Vision overflows. Vision becomes contagious".

Not in Australian politics.

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Here there are no parted eyes; the lids remain shut. This is because vision, far from being contagious, is an allergy. The Federal election campaign of 2007 - a time when vision should be flowing - remains purely a matter of political survival. 'Vision' is not the inconvenient truth of melting polar ice caps, but whether John Howard will retain Bennelong, or the Democrats survive a massacre at the ballot box.

Labor and the Coalition embraced each other with open arms over a pulp mill in Tasmania - as, indeed, they seem to be doing on almost everything else. So, to survive at the polls, the major Parties mimic, parrot and dance to the tune of the Centre, where they hope swinging voters congregate. But where politics is a battle for the sacred Centre, rather than a battle for the virtues of the Left, or the mummified shibboleths of the Right, vision is a damn hard thing.

We are left with a tussle over such a bland slogan as "Going for Growth", which immediately conjures up images of endless shopping. Matters such as the war in Iraq or the environment, let alone medical health and education, are incidentals.

The blurb on Ron Conway’s 1971 book on Australian society, The Great Australian Stupor, goes some way to explaining this: "Material Wealth equals Pleasure equals Happiness equals Reason for Living equals the notion on which the whole Australian way of life is based".

Howard perhaps read Australian society better than most when he returned like Lazarus with a triple bypass to lead the Coalition back into government in 1996. Despite being a killjoy, he accurately took Australia’s political pulse and found what many had always known: a mix of materialist urges and hedonistic craving tempered by moral cant.

Australian politics is genetically programmed against vision. How could it be otherwise in a society so averse to revolution and muddled by the neuroses of suburbia? The latter struck the Hungarian intellectual Arthur Koestler as a wife-swapping playground rather than a vision-breeding factory. Humphrey McQueen, casting his mind further back in A New Britannia, found Australia’s nascent lumpen proletariat keen to rise up the social scales by getting pianos. With their revolutionary instincts neutered, their vision was socialism sans Marx, which some might say was no vision at all.

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In the act of rebellion, whether through ballot or bullet, the light may be visible of an alternative future. Howard’s victory in 1996 was the reassertion of the norm - a far less exceptional feat than Paul Keating’s victory in 1993. To have even placed Australia on a trajectory that would be described as the "Big Picture" period of Australian politics, was itself miraculous.

The tone of Australian politics in 1996 sounded much like US politics in 1919: the progressive vision of the ailing Woodrow Wilson (physically paralysed and a lame duck because into his second term) doing battle with the conservative and ultimately triumphant ‘dark horse’ Warren G Harding. The former was brimming with vision: the League of Nations, the need for international arbitration, transparent diplomacy — the latter wanted limits, the USA to draw itself in, and curtail those visions: know thyself before shoring up the world.

The result was a word slip: "A return to normalcy" was Harding's campaign slogan and promise for the USA.

Howard, in 1996 and since, has been obsessed by this same normalcy - fearing anything that moves beyond the political.

Perhaps the visionless have a point: rebels may have a cause, but they often have bad foresight. And perhaps it is better to discuss the next interest rate rise rather than the next car bomb that may bring a peaceful day to a calamitous end.

Sadly, when market forces also dictate life forces, when the measure of a nation’s performance is dictated by the spending hand, we should not be expecting our politicians to do much. The message in this election is, of course, spend. The Australian public will gets its tax cuts, a policy as visionary as a ComSec update.

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First published in New Matilda on 8 November, 2007.



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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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