Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The gloriously flawed humanity of our federal politics

  • 20 August 2015

Sometimes a windstorm of events on the political seas cast you adrift without a compass.

That has been so in recent weeks. A target for emissions, a fleet of frigates for Adelaide, a temporary ban on a free vote for Coalition members on allowing gay marriage, following a temporary allowing of a free vote for Labor members, and both followed by advocacy for a plebiscite or referendum, the revelation that the retired judge conducting the politically portentous Royal Commission into trade union corruption had been booked to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser, and assertions made by former security guards that Senator Hanson-Young had been spied on in her Nauru bedroom when visiting the asylum seekers there. There was much sound and fury, but signifying — what?

In order to find meaning in such a maelstrom we would once have looked for auguries: an eagle attacked by a sparrow, for example, an outbreak of headless chooks, or thunder on the left. In our less superstitious times we seek historical parallels. In that spirit I sought wisdom from Google, the almanac of all things historical, to ask what past events might be overshadowing our world this week. It disclosed to me three salient anniversaries.

They are the start of the Burke and Wills Expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria, the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, and the race that saw Fine Cotton unravel. One was a public disaster, another was a personal tragedy followed by a miscarriage of justice, and the third was a comedy of errors.

But for all the differences, each of these events was characteristically Australian. In Les Murray's memorable phrase, they all had sprawl: the mingling of excess, overweening self-confidence, and the cutting of corners. And each featured a cast of thousands.

The Royal Society of Victoria, for example, was riven by factions; the explorers loaded on to its wagons, among other things, an oak table, chairs and a Chinese gong. Burke, who had no experience in the bush, made confident decisions to split the party and to race to the gulf during the summer heat.

The hounding of Lindy Chamberlain was marked by a series of coronial inquests, the decisive one of which began with a fixed conviction of her guilt; a dingo seen variously as emblem of evil and as an innocent national treasure; an expert witness whose certainty was matched only by his capacity for error; a chorus of commentators