Kevin Rudd comes from Queensland. So do I. Unlike Kevin, I didn’t become a diplomat or learn Mandarin. In fact, I have always lived in Queensland and never left the shores of this great land of ours, girt by sea.
Maybe, that is why I still feel the shame of Queensland, the laughing stock, the State where police and politicians interfered in artistic matters with heavy hands and jack booted feet.
The late Alex Buzo’s early play, Norm and Ahmed, was, perhaps, before its time or, maybe, for our time. It dealt with issues of race relations. The ethnicity and background of the two protagonists are reflected in the title of the play: Norm is a broadly Caucasian “normal” Australian and Ahmed is a young Pakistani student. The play had a dramatic climax involving Norm striking Ahmed and using the phrase “Fu~cking Boongs”.
In 1968, at a time when the relationship between politicians and the police force in Queensland exhibited little awareness of the concept of separation of powers, the play’s performance at the Twelfth Night theatre in Brisbane was interrupted by a number of police officers walking on stage to arrest Norman Staines, the actor playing Norm, for using obscene language.
The forces of free speech did leap into action. In a celebrated court case, the police force was unsuccessful in seeking an injunction to prevent further performances of the play. But the damage was done. The world was aware that Queensland was a place where the forces of the State would suppress culture in the name of prosecuting obscenity.
Another celebrated instance occurred in the following year when the left-wing Red and Black Book Shop was raided by police and prints of Aubrey Beardsley’s nude sketch, Lysistrata, were seized.
Again, the world was told in the clearest terms: “Queensland is a cultural desert”.
I have always resented those actions by police in Queensland acting with more than a wink and a nod from its politicians. I have hated the way those actions reflected over subsequent decades upon everyone who lived in or hailed from Queensland.
It is clear from Kevin Rudd’s “absolutely revolting” remarks in the face of the Henson photographs that those dark days of conservative rule in Queensland do not weigh so heavily upon him.
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It is clear from Greg Barns’ articles in these pages that there is a strong circumstantial case that the police who seized the paintings had little idea of the law they were purporting to enforce. There is an equally strong circumstantial case that, having had the law and their mistake pointed out to them, rather than admit their error, they will offload their “problem” to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
But it is Kevin Rudd whose actions puzzle me.
Surely, he is not the same narrow-minded populist as was his predecessor in office. I can only put it down to “capture”. Just as attorneys-general get captured by the security agencies; just as energy ministers get captured by the fossil fuel and metals industries, I think most politicians get captured by their media minders.
As a result, their neurones become soaked in ideas of “how this will play out in the 24 hours news cycle”. Ideas of “how this will make Australia look in the eyes of the world” are pushed to one side. Equally, the thought that goes with organising 2020 Conferences, “how will I look in 20 years’ time” also loses out.
I leave the artistic value of the Henson photographs to others to judge. I am no more qualified than Kevin Rudd to make such judgements. There are, however, others who are so qualified and they have been prepared to speak up.
My concern is that, once again, I and many like me are being cast, on a world stage, among the Philistines.
Can I say to politicians, everywhere, practise these words: “As for the art, I will leave that to others to judge. As for the legality, that is a matter for the police and the courts”.
It’s not that difficult.
To do otherwise may just turn out to be “absolutely revolting”.