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Cate Blanchett, Peter Garrett and other endangered creatures


Cate BlanchettFans of the Greater Bilby (macrotis lagotis) were probably surprised to find that their normally reclusive hero bobbed up in the news recently despite vigorous competition from roof insulation, maternity leave, Michael Clarke, Lara Bingle and the Fev.

Macrotis lagotis — Mac for short — is an endearing character. Long-eared, silky-furred, wide-eyed, an indefatigable burrower, this largest member of the marsupial Bandicoot family is quintessentially the diffident, unassuming good citizen of the animal world.

As omnivores, Mac and Mrs Mac make no gourmet demands on the food chain but eat just about anything and, as dedicated nocturnals, they are thoroughly unobtrusive — out in the pitch black, back home before dawn.

Mac's close relative, the Lesser Bilby — let's call him Les — hasn't been seen since 1931 and grave fears are held for his and his family's welfare. As far as is known, Les went out one night, as was his wont, perhaps to put the rubbish bin out, perhaps to burrow and forage, and was never seen again.

It looks like Les is extinct, but Mac's not out of the woods either, as the Prime Minister might put it. Habitat loss and unequal competition with introduced predators have led to Mac's being listed as a vulnerable species in all states except Queensland where, like so much else, he is officially endangered. The pressures have also forced Mac inland, into deserts and arid scrub.

How did this inoffensive, by and large un-newsworthy bandicoot surface in the maelstrom of public affairs, gossip and parliamentary punch and counter punch? Well, like this.

In a conversation on 26 February with Dennis Shanahan, political editor of The Australian, the ABC's Sonia Feldhoff remarked of Peter Garrett's crisis that 'the axe had fallen'. Then, altering her image — because Garrett had not actually been chopped he'd been demoted — she changed 'axe' to 'knife'. Shanahan, with great gusto, amended the image further. Garrett, he said, had been 'gutted'.

Hitting his straps, Shanahan characterised Garrett as 'the Minister for Bilbies, Arts and Heritage'. Maybe this line came to him there and then but more likely he'd been working on that one, giving it an off-Broadway run among his press gallery colleagues before rolling it out the moment the unsuspecting Feldhoff pressed his buttons.

Perhaps he is of that school of quirky patriotism that insists Mac should replace the Easter Bunny. With Easter imminent, Shanahan could have had such weighty matters in mind.

Whatever the explanation, he was unstoppable. Before you could say 'National Bilby Recovery Project', he went on to elaborate how Garrett would henceforth have almost nothing to do — with the clear implication that the Arts and Heritage were about equal to Bilbies in importance, that none of them mattered much anyway and wouldn't keep an honest-to-God backbencher away from his tweeting, texting, covert photography or catching up on Proust and Dostoevsky.

All this was pretty rough on Mac but it was also a worry for Arts and Heritage which, like the Bilby, have survival problems. Only days before Garrett's gutting, Cate Blanchett gave the keynote speech to the Australian Performing Arts Market on the Arts, Culture and Heritage. 'The arts operate at the core of human identity and existence,' she said. 'After gravity, culture is the thing that holds humanity in place ...'

An edited version of her speech on the Sydney Morning Herald website attracted more than 70 responses, most of them astonishingly hostile. Here are some: '... elitist claptrap'; '[the Arts are] a charity kept afloat by the taxpayer'; '[the speech was] a sickening display of ego and self-importance'; '... look at us, we're so bohemian, special and important! Not like those philistines the great unwashed. Apparently Cate and her posse of luvvies change history, government, and humanity itself. Pass me a bucket please'; '[you must understand] how pretentious and unimportant you and your industry really are'. And so on. Talk about 'endangered'.

Peter Garrett made some grievous mistakes during his insulation saga, but he was also at the mercy of some people who were unscrupulous and others who were thoroughly incompetent. Now he's been dropped in it again. As Minister for the Environment (read Bilbies), the Arts (read bleeding the taxpayer) and Heritage (read pretentious and unimportant) he is not on the sinecure Dennis Shanahan described, he is on a hiding to nothing.

In our economy-obsessed society few give a toss about Bilbies, the Arts or Heritage, but the moment someone rediscovers them (and someone will, Oscar, someone will) and deems them indispensable, only to find that Bilbies are disappearing and Arts and Heritage are in palliative care, Garrett's a goner — again.

Now's the time for him to learn from Mac the Bilby: burrow down hard and deep, come out only at night and, above all, abandon a predator-riddled habitat and relocate to the Tanami Desert.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: brian matthews, peter garrett, cate blanchett, dennis shanahan, arts, heritage, bilbies



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Existing comments

How lovely to see a balanced article supporting the Arts! Thank you

Helen Konynenburg | 25 March 2010  

Beautifully said. Well done! Man cannot live (fully or well) by bread alone.

eugene | 25 March 2010  

Thanks Brian, really enjoyed this.

Previous governments talked of Small Business in hallowed terms as if it embodied everything good, honest and worth preserving in our society and definitely would be endangered by any Labor Party polices. Now some of those in roofing insulation small businesses have been shown to be crooked, irresponsible and incompetent, causing deaths of workers and customers, yet ironically it is a Labor government minister who is getting the blame.

Obviously the media has promoted the Teflon-coated Shonky Business (let's call him Shonks) from Endangered to Totally Protected Species. Puts Shonks right up there with bilbies and opera.

Eclair | 25 March 2010  

As Brian says, mighty intriguing the feral energy which is released by anything that challenges the mundane, and the ecstasy of joy when it hits the dust.

peter matheson | 26 March 2010  

Man cannot live by bread alone. The arts are of supreme importance. However, is it government's job to decide which srt works deserve funding? Possibly, the greatest novel of the twentieth century is James Joyce's "Ulysses". I doubt that it would have been published had it been dependent on government funding.

The arts are important. Therefore they should not have government funding.

David Fisher | 29 March 2010  

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