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The gloriously flawed humanity of our federal politics


Sprawling man

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 who happily combined wild speculation with biblical illiteracy.

The Fine Cotton affair had three horses competing to run under the one name, a cast alleged variously to contain con-men, dodgy trainers, a dodgy police commissioner, dodgy bookmakers, a dodgy priest laying bets on Fine Cotton at the dogs, and half of Australia in on the punt. The plot thickened and curdled when ringer A fell ill, so demanding that ringer B — which lacked the markings of the original Fine Cotton — was painted. It finished the race with white paint dripping down its leg as its trainer went missing.

Throw in the effect of prejudice — Burke's antipathy to Indigenous Australians who tried to help him, the depiction of the Seventh Day Adventists as a cult dabbling in black magic and of Lindy Chamberlain as a cold woman who did not show public emotion, and Burke's antipathy to the Indigenous people who tried to help him - and all these stories are inevitably about failure.

But beneath the excess of the stories lay real human loss. A young wife and mother not lost, not only her child, but her freedom, her marriage and her reputation. The Gulf expedition took the lives of Burke and Wills, as well as five other men. Those who bet on Fine Cotton lost only money — but money was what mattered to them.

What does this trio of stories tell us about recent events? Oracles, of course, as Croesus discovered are notoriously hard to interpret. So the South Australian frigates may not turn out to be tarted-up rowing boats, and the Royal Commission be remembered for its fairness and propriety.

But the three stories do invite us to notice and laugh at the richly comic aspects of our world. The gap between the high rhetoric of the Royal Society of Victoria and the shambles it presided over, the gap between the serious money wagered on Fine Cotton and the clownish implementation of the scam, and the gap between the self-assurance of those convinced of Lindy Chamberlain's guilt and the reality, invite mirth. In each story lurks the Emperor who has no clothes. As he lurks in the events of the last weeks.

But laughter and tears run together. As people once wept for the explorers who died and for the young mother who lost her daughter and her freedom, so today's stories invite us to feel for the people who sought our protection only to be locked up on Nauru, with the workers and their families whose lives are so precarious in Adelaide and elsewhere, and for the people on both sides of the bench at Royal Commissions.

Ultimately we share with them all a common and gloriously flawed humanity.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 

Sprawling man image by Shutterstock.



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, federal politics, poetry, history



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew. You might like to edit out a repetition "Burke's antipathy to the Indigenous people who tried to help him"

Peter Sellick | 20 August 2015  

Thanks Andrew.

Matt | 20 August 2015  

Thankyou Andy for reminding us of the folly of humanity. It helps as we struggle to comprehend the cruelty of the nations leaders.

Pamela | 20 August 2015  

There is another story that illustrates the same flawed humanity and even greater tragedy; "the mingling of excess, overweening self-confidence, and the cutting of corners. And each featured a cast of thousands". That is the Biblical story of the Tower of Bable- which unfortunately is still ongoing; with various religions seeking to establish, or claiming to possess similar 'hot-lines' to heaven or to God; and presenting them as exclusive God-given links to them as God's unique 'chosen' people, with the implication that 'others' are at best mistaken, or at worst perverse. All of which implicitly denies God's universal Fatherhood and Love for all. Only when we see that God calls everyone by paths attuned to their cultures and situations will we be able to live in the peace and harmony needed to see and embrace God's invitation

Robert Liddy | 20 August 2015  

Good one on the follies and foolhardiness so prevalent in humanity. But seriously, the frigates promised, if they ever eventuate, will be little compensation long-term for the impending loss of the car industry in SA and Victoria. Has anyone calculated the direct and indirect job losses and the devastation to the whole economy from that lunatic decision?

Karen | 20 August 2015  

Robert Liddy rightly addresses false consciousness which always invites our liberating attention. At the same time anthropological faith will always need good exemplars in what helps us to be human in the world before our God. Among these Jesus of Nazareth will continue to stand out; maybe some thanks there to the Syrophoenician woman who chatted to him, even chatted him up.

Noel McMaster | 20 August 2015  

I have no wish to "laugh at the richly comic". I see no mirth, only tragedy. We all need to hold up a mirror to our prejudices, inaccuracies and behaviour.

Jane | 20 August 2015  

Ripper article, Andy, and so much more effective than earnest complaints about the treatment of asylum seekers.

Anna Summerfield | 21 August 2015  

No. This is not good enough at all. Why gloss over our faults in order to excuse those who have the power to right wrongs and care for the poor and disadvantaged yet continue to do the opposite. To glorify mediocrity is to stifle talent and intelligence by allowing tertiary education only for the wealthy. To smile at our human foibles is not appropriate when people are tortured in detention centres, or treated as second-class citizens because they are homeless, disabled, elderly, women, asylum-seekers, Muslims, Aboriginal, or unemployed youth, - to name just a few of the people suffering injustice in our communities. This article is whistling into the wind. It's a useless meaningless distraction from the real world where people need help and compassion. There is no mirth in any of this. Flawed we all may be, but let us not condone greed and bigotry and inhumanity. A smile and a slap on the wrist amuse those who unwittingly support the abuse of power. Perhaps it also relieves us of any guilt about standing by and doing nothing.

Annabel | 22 August 2015  

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