Wherefore wit and intellect?

I’ve been reading a book on notable Australian speeches on an occasional basis. There are some cracking speeches, and some just a bit meh. They make you think many of them, and some of them make you proud. I read one the other day by Noel Pearson, the aboriginal lawyer and activist. It made me ponder the state of Australian politics.

Pearson is one of the smartest blokes going around, and it showed. It wasn’t a stirring speech like many in the book, but rather a highly intelligent, considered and nuanced commentary on the state of Aboriginal support. It’s a subject that draws a lot of black and white opinions, most of them doggedly held. There are a few, even the best intentioned, who seem free of the politics the subject stirs up.

Person’s speech was free of that. It read like the words of a man who had thought deeply on the matter, who was completely his own man and confident of his view. Somewhat contrarily he argued for tougher measures in his speech, and less coddling. He did not seek to promote a political angle – just the truth.

I was impressed, but immediately found myself thinking about Australian politics, and in particular the state of the Australian Labor Party.

Pearson was once close with Keating, and instrumental in the watershed Mabo legislation, pushed through in the Keating years. Reading his speech Pearson reminded me of Keating, though not because of what he said or even how he said it. It was the clarity of vision that brought Keating to mind, and how both spoke with purpose and confidence, and with the commensurate belief that good could be achieved and would be with the right will. Both set high standards, and approached their work with an intellectual rigour rare even back in those days.

These days it’s not rare, it’s virtually unknown – which is why I came to ponder the ALP. Labor leadership has been a thorny crown for many years, and unfortunately the party has been beset by a succession of mediocre and flawed leaders. A lot of that is because the talent pool these days is no more than ankle-deep. Gone are the days of the eighties when the ALP had the best political talent this country has ever known. The other reason is the populist nature of politics these days, for which the politicians, the media, and of course we the people, share equal blame.

When policy decisions are measured by public opinion we’re in strife as a society. Shallow media analysis and an electorate that for the most part couldn’t give a fuck (as they have been conditioned) makes for an ordinary polity – and that’s what we have today. Unfortunately that’s reflected in our political leaders. The woefulness of Tony Abbott has been well documented, but the utter insignificance of his Labor counterpart, Bill Shorten, deserves some comment.

Bill Shorten was always the anointed one, largely by himself. He was viewed as talented, but also hugely ambitious. I was never a fan because I thought his ambition too manifest. Like most I figured he always had one eye out for what was best for Bill Shorten. Given the catastrophes of Labor in recent years it’s perhaps inevitable that he became leader. AS a government minister he was always a vocal and available commentator on the affairs of the day. As opposition leader I expected that and a whole lot more, but it seems that Shorten either lost his nerve or has a bad dose of the statesman’s disease. The country has been crying out for a strident opposition, and instead we get a mealy-mouthed, unconvincing, barely visible leader of the opposition.

I’d kill to have a man of Keating’s wit in opposition right now. The government fumbles and stuffs up and doesn’t know what day it is half the time, yet Shorten gives them a free pass most of the time, and attacks them feebly the rest. This is a government that has been fit to be gutted, but Shorten hasn’t the wit, the energy or the conviction to go them with the ruthlessness required. Had it been Keating this government would be dead now – instead they live to govern another day.

The bigger concern is the lack of political conviction and intellect in the ALP today. Once upon a time the Labor party stood for something. Then it decided to play safe, play for the middle, and go along with the populist rhetoric of the day. Once upon a time they where like the girl you either fell for big or not at all because she had individuality; these days they’re like the bland girl easy to talk to but with nothing to say, and who no-one remembers 5 minutes out of sight.

The ALP has lost it’s soul, though there are still some in the party trying to reclaim it. It’s unfashionable, and a losing battle, but the ALP would be nothing without the true believers like John Faulkner.

A lack of soul goes hand in hand with a lack of intellectual rigour. If you believe in little what is there to think about? How do you frame an argument, a belief, when you have no position to argue from, and no beliefs?

The ALP as it is at the moment is soft and meaningless. There’s little fibre to it, no overarching theme, and the narrative it once held true to – the light on the hill – seems to have been dispensed with as being anachronistic. In comparison with the great Labor governments of the past there is no vision among the senior leadership, and no appetite for to contemplate one.

This is what I thought as I read Pearson, and remembered Keating. Where is that keen intellectual perspective? Pearson exhibited a measured and considered passion, none of which seems apparent in the Labor party of today. In an age of soundbites and slogans the nuanced view is archaic, and perhaps a little too sophisticated – but given we are electing these people to run the country – to protect and enhance our future wellbeing – shouldn’t we be demanding the very best from our representatives? Soundbites and slogans are great for the nightly news, but they don’t cut the mustard when it comes to the real business of government, which must be maturity, judgement, compassion and intelligence.

This is what the ALP must get back to. They’ve just had their annual conference, where questions such as this are raised and generally dismissed. They all drink their own bath water; Shorten, who couldn’t get attention in a crowded bar, is greeted like he is the messiah, and proceeds to speak the high-sounding rhetoric of one. Spare me. Give me a boring speech and real substance. I’m sick of hearing, I want doing. I want sincerity and vision and belief I can see.

It’s a hard time to be a Labor supporter (not something I would have claimed once, but have become in default because of the sheer awfulness of the LNP). Labor has lost its way, but the people who might do something about it won’t believe it. Practically all of them are out of touch.

Things will change. They must. Someone will rise from the mediocre ranks and inspire change for the better. For now I’d much rather Plibersek (canny, tough and smart) than Shorten; and in the future I’ve got my eye on Ed Husic – super-impressive, but, alas, a Muslim. There’ll be others though. For now we endure.

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