The Age newspaper pays me to write about civil society. So I try to serve up small portions of the slice of rich political and cultural life that lies below or beyond the blip-register of most recognised radars. Subjects are generally easy to find, ironically because the mainstream diet seems increasingly skewed towards junk.
Please believe that I hold nothing personal against headliners such as Paris Hilton (infamously jailed), Eva Longoria (just married Desperate Housewife) or Princess Isabella of Denmark (recently christened babe of retired real estate agent Mary Donaldson, and gifted with gilded apple pips by the crown prince of Tamar Ridge - oops, Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon). But also understand that there's nothing much more meaningful to know about any of them.
Back to that deeper, larger life. Lately the cupboard's felt unusually bare. It's not as though nothing's happening that invites drill-down comment. Worthy topics abound, such as the continuing machinations surrounding Iraq, the health and security of our Indigenous children, and a national crisis in housing affordability.
There is also a range of scarescapes ripe for factual or fictional treatment. Take that union scare - shock! An Electrical Trades Union hack preselected as a federal Labor candidate filmed urging political action on the Coalition's IR laws! Hardly big news bikkies, compared with the fact he was named by the 2003 Cole royal commission on the construction industry as having engaged in unlawful conduct while a senior operative in that union, which raises provocative questions for Labor leader Kevin Rudd about solidarity and social justice (never mind rule of law).
Now there's the brown doctors scare - horror! Are we safe in our hospital beds from the clash of civilisations, breaking like a tsunami wave on our suburbs? Again, we might be better served querying Prime Minister John Howard's role and responsibility as culture warrior, including the battle he's long run pitting integration against multiculturalism.
And don't forget the global warming scare - the icecaps are melting, our backyard gardens are parching to crispy cellophane! So they seem to be, but the main event on that front's hardly Madonna rehashing Ray of Light at Live Earth and thanking Al Gore for starting a "revolution" (om shanti, om shanti, shanti shanti, shanty om - oh never mind, ASIO, she's not from Pakistan).
I withdraw that last snipe. Sure, downloading bytes of Live Earth from YouTube won't save the planet any more than turning off the light switch in the second guest bathroom of your faux Tuscan McMansion. But our mid-winter malaise can't be laid at the feet of dodgy Paris, spangled Eva or drooling Isabella.
Nor is it due to any dire shortage of reported news pointing in scary directions. ABC TV still gets to deliver Lateline, where you can tune in and watch lawyer Peter Russo's fairly stunned account of the little he knows about the detention without charge of his client, Gold Coast-based medico Mohammed Haneef. Legal experts including Sir Gerard Brennan, Professor Clive Walker and Phillip Boulten, SC, still get to appear on public interest platforms such as the Gilbert + Tobin Centre's recent Law and Liberty in the War on Terror symposium (so how come its talented director didn't score Labor preselection?), and their critical analyses still get picked up by broadsheet newspapers and ABC radio, and uploaded to the Internet.
You can still pull a Quarterly Essay off the shelf and find someone such as David Marr elegantly lamenting the state of public life in Howard's Australia, lately in His Master's Voice.
What's been missing for a while is - well, rays of real light. If you happen to be part of the population who give a stuff about something outside your own front door - and maybe even beyond the capital value of the bricks and mortar it's currently screwed to - increasingly they're what counts. So what's to be done?
Stop waiting for leadership from people like Al Gore, Madonna, or even Kevin Rudd. Just get out there and do something. Civil society's a lot like a macrame owl - you start making it at home. Write a letter to the editor, call talkback radio, visit your local parliamentarian. Watch the spunky Aaron Pedersen on SBS in The Circuit and talk about it in your office. Wear a T-shirt or sing a song (om shanti … well, maybe not) that moves people around you. Turn up with your kids and parents to a protest rally. Or organise one. Just remember to turn off that light switch if no one's really and truly home.
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