Adieu, David Cornwell
14 December 2020: What’s the loss of just one more life in a decade that has seen cultural icons and landmarks of public life fall away with appalling frequency. Just one more in a year of pandemic, with tens of millions infected, and more than a million dead.
‘When you get to an age,’ I have said more than once, recently, ‘people you knew and loved die more often. Because we ourselves are getting closer to a natural end of things.’ It must be this way for every generation: apparently fixed human landmarks fall away as new things replace them.
I didn’t know or love David Cornwell, AKA John le Carré (John the square). But I knew and loved some of his stories, and his prose, and the insight it gave me into the great British disappointment of winning an existential struggle against Nazi Germany, only to lose empire and national soul.
Le Carré’s George Smiley character was central to my own sense of identity in the later 1970s, and throughout the 1980s. Not as a hero, but as a symbolic landmark in my past, with plot-lines that still let me know today how much things have changed, or not. As a reminder of what seemed to be vitally important then, but doesn’t seem that way now. A reminder, also, that some apparently minor or superficial details in the narratives remain sharply relevant even now. The way we always miss some seemingly minor events and decisions in the present as the triggers for significant outcomes in the future.
My affection for le Carré’s characters aside, he also struck me as a literary great. Bringing an educated sensibility to a coarse subject with prose I wished had been mine. So very observant and analytical, without doing violence to cadence and the development of story and characters.
David Cornwell’s private concerns, reflected in his fictional register, were not mine. The creeping intrusion of personal guilt and search for redemption in the moral finger pointing of le Carré’s later novels struck me as possibly commendable political commentary, in the tradition of British noblesse oblige, but bad storytelling, even if the prose was still consummate.
Cornwell’s death is the end of a literary era, with ideas and values seen, as if by Cold War warriors, becoming remote, not because we find ourselves in a better time, but rather because we live in a less civilized one. Just the way le Carré stories seemed to anticipate.
I think Cornwell was appalled at what Britain has become. Maybe he was even glad to turn his back on it all.
I’m glad I can still remember le Carré, and my younger self, by reading a chapter or two now and then.
I’ve written separately about John le Carré’s fictions generally, and specifically about The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the 1966 film adaptation of Call for the Dead, The Deadly Affair , the novel Call for the Dead, and the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Journalists finally sharpen focus on Morrison gang’s never ending corruption
13 December 2020: After months of soft-pedalling, or completely ignoring, a seemingly endless stream of malfeasance from the Morrison gang, Australian independent* journalists are finally honing in on the overtly, unapologetically corrupt nature of Scott Morrison’s Trumpian prime ministership.
Perhaps it took international blunders to remind observers of just how serious the consequences can be for allowing an astonishingly incompetent kind of corruption become the culture of the Morrison gang. And that’s what we really have in government: gangsters running protection rackets, skimming public funds, and unashamedly pursuing personal advantage to the detriment of the nation.
As UN Secretary General António Guterres calls on ‘on all leaders worldwide to declare a State of Climate Emergency in their countries until carbon neutrality is reached’, Scott Morrison is left having to explain how he came, to first announce he would speak at the same teleconference summit, and then how he was denied a speaking rôle, which went only to nations proposing serious new policy initiatives. Clearly lacking those credentials, it also now seems that Morrison isn’t regarded as much of a ‘leader’ internationally; he’s certainly unlikely to follow Guterres’ call to declare a climate emergency.
This international snub comes immediately after sharply deteriorating relations, and a damaging trade war with China, engineered largely by the trenchant language of a bigoted, populist nationalism, as pursued recklessly and needlessly by Morrison’s gang. It exposes exporters and consumers to the wrath of a highly significant trading partner for cheap political points pitched at Rupert Murdoch’s shrinking Australian audience of closet fascists, and Peter Costello’s equally declining audience of White Australia hold-outs.
Dennis Atkins, writing for The New Daily, commented that Morrison tried to shrug off the climate conference snub as irrelevant to policy, but of course it undercuts Morrison’s own rhetoric to illustrate how Australia is not even close to significant internationally, and lacking the kind of leader Morrison only pretends to be.
Atkins said Morrison’s performance …
… takes having your cake and eating it to new levels of confected guilelessness. In fact, Morrison is the kind of politician who would eat his cake, have some left over afterwards and reach across the room and take someone else’s cake while smiling without shame.
Almost like a symbolic scene in a gangster film, demonstrating at once the narcissism of the gangster boss, and his entitled sense of personal impunity.
Michael Pascoe, for The New Daily, was scathing about the sports rorts affair not costing any political careers.
Politics made an evolutionary leap in 2020 – corruption is now openly accepted.
I still have some hope that Morrison will push his luck too far and his entire empire of corruption collapses around him. However, that seems not immediately likely. Particularly since the ALP seems too timid or toothless to pursue this corruption vigorously and continuously.
Responsibility for anything has been replaced by constant “marketing”, photo ops, and a level of Newspeak that Orwell only imagined as fiction.
Writing about Morrison more explicitly, Pascoe has nothing kind to say:
… Scott Morrison has unlimited form with his three trademark responses to scandals: Simply continue maintaining that black is white whatever evidence is produced, from #sportsrorts to Robodebt; ignoring the evidence with a “I don’t accept the premise of your question”; ignoring the issue with “on water matters”, “family matters” or “I’ve addressed that question”.
But Pascoe’s most trenchant critique is of NSW Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian, whom he credits with normalizing corruption. Brushing aside her ‘upfront and honest’ responses to the political reality of pork barrelling to win elections, Pascoe offered his most cutting words:
Let me translate that from the new political “upfront and honest” paradigm into old-fashioned English:
“Yes, my political machine has helped itself to many, many millions of dollars of your money and used it to buy our jobs so that we can deliver power to our machine’s operators and backers.
“That’s the way it is. If you don’t like it – and I know you don’t – well, too bad. We’re going to keep doing it.”
Just to remind us of the most stunning frauds, thefts, and brazen lies, Paddy Manning, for The Monthly, lists them:
… Josh Frydenberg handing out $444 million of taxpayers’ money unasked for and without a tender process, in #reefgate; Michaelia Cash misleading parliament after her office tipped off the media about a forthcoming raid on union headquarters by federal police; Liberal donor-controlled company Helloworld paying for private travel by ministers including Mathias Cormann; the one-man scandal machine Angus Taylor, whose company Jam Land was pinged for illegally spraying endangered grasses, whose former company Eastern Australia Irrigation got $79 million for non-existent water rights at an inflated valuation from the Commonwealth (#watergate) and whose office distributed an apparently fraudulent document to media in a ham-fisted attempt to embarrass Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, which backfired; and the outrageous prosecution of whistleblower Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery by Attorney-General Christian Porter – seemingly to protect former Howard government minister Alexander Downer. And sports rorts, of course, which ballooned to $2.5 billion in alleged pork-barrelling in programs such as the Community Development Grants scheme administered by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack. Not to mention the questionable track record of Sussan Ley and Stuart Robert, who both resigned in disgrace but have since enjoyed ministerial comebacks. It is little wonder the Morrison government is being described as arguably the most corrupt in Australia’s postwar history. They could truly be called a gated community.
I’d remove that word ‘arguably’. There has not been a more unashamedly corrupt Australian government in the entire history of white settlement.
*It used to go without saying that you were not a journalist unless you were independent, but that cannot now be said for anyone working at Murdoch’s propaganda machine, nor for the Nine Entertainment group, which has wasted no time in undermining the editorial independence of the former Fairfax newspapers it acquired in 2018.
Morrison called out for compulsive lying, wage theft
12 December 2020: This morning I was genuinely surprised to read columns in The Guardian and news.com.au that directly attacked the prime minister for compulsive lying, climate change denialism, and stealing wages and conditions from workers!
Katharine Murphy’s column for the Guardian is the most honest assessment of the PM I’ve seen in the Australian press for quite some time. She takes him to task for lying about being granted a speaking part in a forthcoming climate summit, and about everything he says he’d announce at that summit. Murphy’s language is delicious:
Our prime minister can be fast and loose with what he says in parliament – certainly looser than any of his immediate predecessors.
I’ve long thought Morrison’s mistaken belief that ‘clever’ marketing is synonymous with dishonesty have made him Australia’s most prominent pathological liar.
Murphy goes on to comment on Morrison’s apparent change of heart on using Kyoto credits to meet 2030 emissions targets:
This shift was framed by Morrison as a manifestation of the government’s self-evident awesomeness rather than the Coalition bowing to the loud international objections (the word cheating has been used) about Australia substituting accounting for abatement.
A separate Guardian story by Adam Morton shreds the government’s claims on emissions as artless propaganda that doesn’t generate confidence in even modest emissions reductions. The strategy was to seek positive headlines in the hope most hacks don’t look past the paper-thin claims and hyperbole. Quintessential Scotty-from-marketing disinformation.
Murphy went on to demolish the Coalition’s confected consternation at not being invited to speak at the summit:
Fact: the Coalition has spent the critical decade working against the cause of climate action. The record is there for all to see, and the world knows it.
Fact: to convince the rest of the world we are finally serious about facing up to the existential risks, Australia will have to promise action leading to a specific end point, not just unfurl some caveated hints about crab walking out of pariah corner and wait for the applause track.
Quite so. Why is it so hard for alleged journalists to present this inevitable conclusion in analysing what a known liar says?
Murphy rightly points out that Morrison probably sees lost seats in Queensland when considering climate change policy, and hissy-fits from the more ignorant Coalition right-wingers.
Increasingly, while Morrison is trying determine whether he can creep slowly away from the Coalition’s election-winning formula of neutralising climate change in the cities while weaponising it against his opponents in marginal seats in the regions – a formula he deployed as recently as last year’s federal election – the practical transition is happening without him. The change is already on.
A transition is certainly underway in this country, and that transition is resulting in emissions reductions, but the transition is happening in spite of a government that repealed the carbon price, tried to gut the federal renewable energy target and abolish agencies like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – not because of it.
Morrison likes to get a leave pass. He’s a skilled political operator, so he often gets one. It’s really extraordinary how often he gets one.
But as far as I’m concerned, this prime minister will get due acknowledgement when he earns it – when he does something substantial to change the Coalition’s rancid, partisan, post-truth brinkmanship on climate politics, not when he makes tentative noises about perhaps doing something.
The other critique of Morrison comes from the unlikely right wing, self-promoting nutter, Joe Hildebrand, siding with unions and workers!
Lecturing readers that WorkChoices, the nation’s most hostile labour market deregulation legislation, brought down the seemingly invincible Howard government.
I was front and centre throughout the WorkChoices saga as both a witness and a player. I was the workplace reporter for The Daily Telegraph – Howard’s favourite newspaper before it too turned against him in the end – and I reported on, opined about and exposed almost every aspect of its impact.
The more I saw, the more I heard and the more I learned the more convinced I was that this was an incredibly dangerous, damaging and toxic set of laws that tore apart the working conditions that Australians had come to take for granted and threatened to tear apart the social fabric of Australia itself.
Basic protections ranging from unfair dismissal to liveable minimum wages were effectively struck out with the stroke of a pen. Australian traditions both secular and spiritual – from weekend barbecues to church on Sunday – were treated as no more special than a weekday coffee.
Hard as it is to imagine Hildebrand as a journalist, this assessment is probably not exaggerated.
How dare any government – let alone a Liberal one that claims to defend private property and support lifters over leaners – reach into the back pocket of workers and take their hard-earned money away.
It is therefore jaw-droppingly, face-slappingly and spine-chillingly staggering to conceive that the Morrison government would even consider revisiting that catastrophic government-killing idea.
And yet, here we are.
The new legislation allowing the Fair Work Commission to abandon the Better Off Overall Test – which is the No Disadvantage Test’s resurrected incarnation – is nothing short of insane. It is insane for the workers who will have less money to survive, insane for the economy which will have less money injected back into it, and insane for the government which has just signed its own suicide note if it doesn’t reverse it.
That’s pretty strong stuff for a Murdoch hack. Are we seeing an end to the Coalition-News Corp symbiosis? I certainly hope that Hildebrand is right: scrap the amendment to remove the no-disadvantage test, or lose the next election.
Morrison gang reverts to punitive ideology
10 December 2020: After demonstrating that ideology could, in fact, be suspended for pragmatic politics during the Covid-19 crisis, the Morrison government has reverted to form and is now again strongly pursuing the ideology of punishing the poor to further concentrate wealth in Australia.
- Industrial relations measures to undermine worker rights and conditions are still being debated, but the idea is to strip away even more rights and conditions for the most vulnerable workers in casual rôles. Punitive for working Australians, no effort to improve wages growth necessary for economic recovery, and no emphasis on business actually competing rather than merely pocketing savings from ever lower wages.
- Plans for a permanent and extended cashless welfare card failed to pass the Senate, but existing ‘trials’ have been prolonged for two years, punishing predominantly First Australians, but also other regional residents, by forcing purchases at higher prices through fewer outlets than available with other forms of payment. And with no documented outcomes that address stated concerns about alcohol and gambling expenditure by welfare recipients. But with obscene profits ripped out of welfare funds for the Indue card company.
- The ATO tells us that a third of Australia’s biggest companies pay no tax. How does that compare to Australians taking home between $30,000 and $200,000 a year? It’s evidence that the Morrison government actively promotes upward wealth redistribution and tax fraud.
- A Senate inquiry finds the Morrison government responsible for appalling mismanagement of aged care during the pandemic, calls for permanent increase to JobSeeker allowances, and finds the states deserve the credit for effective management of the pandemic. Of course the Liberal Party denied all these findings, in line with the prime minister’s dishonest strategy of never admitting malfeasance, incompetence, or corruption of any kind, while demanding credit where it’s clearly not due.
The nation deserves a government that puts national interests ahead of ideology and the demands of a foreign media owner.
Morrison’s humiliation by Chinese propagandists costs us dearly
7 December 2020: A relatively junior Chinese foreign affairs apparatchik suckered our prime minister into an artless, damaging, personal tirade with a deliberately confected social media disinformation campaign. The cost to the nation is $54 billion in pre-pandemic trade. Annually. And the most heightened tension in the region since the Korean War in the 1950s.
Has there ever been a prime minister less fit or competent to handle the duties of the highest office in the land?
I have previously pointed at the low-brow, populist, nationalist, crypto-‘White Australia’ rhetoric from Morrison, the Tasmanian closet-fascist Eric Abetz, and the haplessly incompetent Marise Payne as root cause for China’s current ill will.
One the weekend, shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong, arguably the most competent Australian politician, went some way towards saying the same thing.
She accused Payne of grubby but trademark Morrison attention-seeking press coverage in making needlessly abrasive announcement about an international COVID-19 inquiry. That inquiry was already being discussed by far more experienced foreign policy veterans in Europe, didn’t need headlines interpreted by China as an insult.
Speaking on the ABC’s Insiders programme on Sunday, Wong made the point that the Coalition had been in power since 2013, when Xi Jinping assumed the presidency in China, meaning this relationship was entirely in Liberal hands, and its deterioration was not an overnight event.
Addressing the propaganda montage (of an Australian soldier with a bloody knife at an Afghan child’s throat), she came as close to calling the PM an idiot as it’s possible without using those words:
It is a big call to go directly, escalate directly to the national leader, and I hope that Scott Morrison thought very carefully about that decision.
I hope that he took advice and thought carefully before he did escalate it to the national leader level when we responded.
Not mentioned by Wong, but indelibly burned into my memory, was Morrison’s attempt to wrap himself in the flag, as some kind of pseudo-military commander when he suborned Lieutenant General Angus Campbell’s presence at entirely political media briefings. Probably in the hope of stealing a patriotic kind of credibility – summoning ANZAC myths and honour – for his cruelty and incompetence when he was immigration minister in 2013. Call it personal vanity, or unethical political gamesmanship. But I see the same vanity there as in Morrison’s more recent attempts to limit the fallout from the Brereton Report, by intervening to prevent a meritorious unit citation being withdrawn wholesale. And, of course, by his juvenile denunciation of the Chinese agitprop photomontage. Morrison seems desperate to be seen as an honorary soldier of some kind, not as the disreputable, incompetent, corrupt politician he really is.
Senator Wong’s most damning comments were to ask, by implication, whether the government had any strategy at all to address the relationship with China, and to demand that Morrison and co stop playing at creating jingoistic headlines.
Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd made similar points in an interview with The Guardian. He likened Morrison’s headline-seeking marketing approach to a ‘public relations eggbeater’, and condemned the overstatement of routine defence logistics arrangements with Japan into a significant new defence alliance against China. A confected media message which could only be seen as threat and insult by China.
A common thread here is that Morrison’s gang is not smart enough to understand that bigoted dog whistles in Australian media, which they think will boost their electoral support, have hugely negative consequences for Australia’s national interests, which are not narrowly defined by Morrison’s partisan politics or ideology.
A conclusion that might arise also by a separate line of reasoning, as supplied in John Hewson’s comment in The Saturday Paper, that a massive and growing list of bungled frauds, lies, and misbehaviours defines the unsavoury character of the Morrison government.
Politics is increasingly attracting the wrong sort of people, those more interested in making a difference for themselves and their mates than for their constituents or our nation.
Fletcher’s ABC questions none too bright
2 December 2020: When a federal minister tweets a bullying letter to the ABC, we know at once the purpose of the letter is propaganda, not a legitimate request for answers.
Moreover, when every question asked in the letter has been answered extensively by the specific Four Corners report complained of, and in subsequent media coverage, the purpose of the letter is solely to advance the Morrison administration’s relentless war on the ABC.
The substance of the letter from communications minister Paul Fletcher is to complain that the ABC intruded into the private lives of two ministers, didn’t focus on any other political party, and got its facts wrong.
Yet even former PM Malcolm Turnbull has publicly described how senior ministers could be seriously compromised by adulterous relationships, through blackmail, affecting the confidentiality of high matters of state. Information about a pattern of weaknesses in this area is definitively of public interest, and senior ministers are such public figures that claims to invasion of privacy are deliberately dishonest. Particularly in times when right wing extremists in the Coalition are demanding ever more authoritarian powers to spy on ordinary citizens who are NOT public figures.
Had it escaped Fletcher’s attention that other parties are not in power, and can therefore not betray secrets of state or compromise the national interest?
Moreover, it is common knowledge how an adulterous relationship precipitated the downfall of former deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, serving as a warning to all MP’s, regardless of rules specifically prohibiting some types of intimate relationships (the ‘bonk ban’). Meaning there should be no specific rules required to demand the highest standards of probity from ministers of the crown. Do we really need to treat ministers like naughty children by setting out precise rules to break down what the ‘highest standards of probity’ means? Evidently we do.
Worst of all, the childish bleating about not holding other political parties to account as evidence of bias just doesn’t hold up. Barnaby Joyce, Christian Porter, Alan Tudge, the Liberal party, and the Nationals pound Christian Right ideology they call ‘family values’ at every election. Anyone who campaigns on those mores, but engages in adulterous relationships, deserves to be called out as a hypocrite, in the national interest, and for voter information about how they were lied to.
Can Fletcher offer any evidence of any politician outside the Coalition who has campaigned on family values and then engaged in an adulterous relationship? If so, make the information public. If not, just shut up.
Fletcher also alleges that the woman said to have been involved in ‘canoodling’ with Christian Porter, in a public Canberra bar denied any impropriety. Yet no one has yet answered why, then, Alan Tudge found it necessary to pursue a journalist and demand that a photo of the incident be deleted. If there was nothing to see, why pursue the matter?
Also, since the ABC programme aired, Porter has refused on several occasions to categorically deny that he had one or more adulterous relationships leading to the breakdown of his marriage. It would be easy to make it clear, and as the most senior lawyer in the land, the attorney general must know that refusing a straight answer is inevitably construed as an admission of guilt.
Fletcher also questioned why the ABC report focused on Porter’s past. Really, Paul, you don’t think revealing a pattern of misogyny and irresponsibility in an attorney general is pertinent and in the public interest? Is that because you, like many of your colleagues, are a misogynist yourself, and believe it’s legitimate behaviour? More than half the Australian electorate might disagree with you.
So, Paul Fletcher’s letter is really just ideological cant in line with the long-running aim of the Coalition to destroy the public broadcaster, quite likely at the behest of party patron Rupert Murdoch.
Fletcher has a creditable academic career behind him, and is said to have worked as a management consultant afterwards, but since being elected to parliament in 2009, in Bradford, one of the safest Liberal seats in the country, all he has done is make up the numbers in the House.
Contrary to his academic credentials, he seems none too bright, and is not held in high regard in his own party, serving in a string of nothing positions with zero power to alter predetermined ideological policy settings.
All this to say Fletcher was probably told to sign a letter written for him by someone else (staff in Morrison’s, Tudge’s, or Porter’s office?).
The Liberals would do better to look for a more capable candidate in the affluent Sydney seat of Bradfield. And ABC chair Ita Buttrose’s office should draft and publicise an openly contemptuous reply, as is deserved by such an artless ideological ploy.
Morrison hoisted on own petard?
1 December 2020: What’s the difference between News Corp telling lies about Australia and the Chinese doing it? Scott Morrison likes the former kind of lies, and apparently can’t stand the latter.
A montage photo showing an Aussie soldier with a bloodstained knife at the throat of a child holding a lamb isn’t even yet untruthful; the Brereton report contains reports of elite Australian troops tying up, torturing, and cutting the throats of Afghan civilians, including children. There is not yet any definitive proof that this happened, or did not happen.
That the Chinese foreign ministry should use such an image in its propaganda war against the West is not really that surprising. Not nearly as surprising as the dunderheaded move by the PM to personally respond, with juvenile anger.
The smart move would have been to leave it to a relatively junior foreign affairs official to call it a childish move, and to point out that Australian war crimes are dwarfed by the industrial scale human rights abuses by China, which include concentration camp interments, torture, murder, and support for international terrorism.
Australian news media have been silent on the greatest irony here. That the Morrison gang has relied on a steady stream of propaganda, including outright lies that are never retracted, from the Murdoch propaganda empire to cover up their various crimes and malfeasances, while disseminating eye-wateringly dishonest jeremiads about opponents of the right wing in Australian politics.
How does it feel, Scotty from marketing? I hope the Chinese might have some fun with doctored photos of you personally, now that you’ve entered that space with your own propaganda happy snaps.
Trump tests limits of patronage
1 December 2020: If I trusted the American news media narrative, Trump’s refusal to concede defeat is the sulking of a spoiled child which actually believes that early election night leads could not possibly have been turned around in an election made extraordinary by the pandemic and massive voter turnout.
Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda machine is busily underpinning that narrative by citing anonymous Trump staffers to say the president’s intellect is so thin he does not understand how elections work, and consented to transition arrangements for president–elect Joe Biden only when it was explained to him his legal challenges could continue during the transition.
Applying the old ‘follow the money’ dictum permits for a different explanation. One that does not rest on Trump being smarter than an eight-year-old, but accustomed to manipulating the legal power of money, and the influence of patronage. Skills Trump acquired decades ago.
Regardless of Trump’s conception of the election process, he knows from experience that you can shut down and bankrupt opponents by dragging them into expensive law suits. That’s how he managed to avoid ever being tried for sexual assault and business misconduct.
This time, he had the extra gravity of Republican patronage. The idea that right wing judges owe him a kind of fealty that would overlook the baselessness of his election fraud legal actions. Patronage again when he tried to lean on right wing state houses to refuse to certify voting outcomes in the swing states Joe Biden won.
So far, he has been disappointed in the efficacy both of money spent in legal processes and his own personal authority to make Republicans do what he tells them to do.
Yet he tested the very limits of democracy in America by seeking to undermine its institutions and practices. A deliberate and sustained strategy that could have succeeded if right wing judges and state houses could have been relied on to act only on political partisanship.
When 20 January comes and goes, the question that should be followed up on by news media worth that title is how much of this attitude is prevalent in the American private sector, where Trump learnt that corruption is just another word for ‘doing business’. If there isn’t a change of culture in American capitalism, it won’t require another Trump to end democracy there.
Worse for us in Australia, this Trumpian effort to legitimize corrupt and anti-democratic practices has its fans in Canberra. Scott Morrison has long acted on an assumption that getting away with it is all the justification needed for malfeasance, and that ethics is only ever a tool to excoriate the ‘other side’. There isn’t a PM who has worked harder to obfuscate the truth about his government’s actions, or who has brazenly lied more often than Morrison. In a continuous erosion of integrity and honesty in Australian politics dating back to the 2000s.