You’ll be familiar with the idea of the Wizard of Oz moment, that giveaway event when the operator behind the scenes finds himself in plain view, as if we suddenly discovered God himself furiously pushing the cosmic scenery around, and it turns out he’s an ordinary bloke from Pennant Hills.

And really, to properly deconstruct the exposure of revelation of the eponymous Wizard, one would go further to note that the Wizard is not merely a dud travelling magician who lucked his way into Oz but an actor — veteran Frank Morgan — on a set of a film being made in 1939, at the fag end of the Depression and on the eve of the worst conflict ever known.

Wizard of Oz moments are rare in Australian public life and politics generally, usually because it’s in the interests of the mainstream media and politicians to keep them hidden, or at least offer some shiny things to distract the punters in the event the set falls down and reveals what’s going on backstage. This is not to posit an elaborate Chomsky-style conspiracy, because if there is one we’re all in on it. Most of us don’t actually like seeing backstage. We’d rather keep watching the actors on stage, convincing ourselves they’re real people.

But we got two Oz moments last week, points at which, if you were on the ball, you would have been given a sudden revelation of what was going on behind the scenes.

But here’s the thing. They were unlike any we’ve had for decades, because the sets gave way, the curtain was pulled back, and we realised no one was actually in charge at all. The Wizard was just an actor on a set, and he had no more idea what was going on than we did.

I have a thing about narratives in politics, and have written about them at mind-numbing length before. Usually when there’s a “debate” going on, we’re actually talking about competing narratives.

“Debate” is one of those quaint euphemisms in politics. We pretend that politicians “debate” issues — formally, in Parliament, and in public. We pretend that commentators and experts “debate” issues in the media. Debate implies an engagement of different perspectives, or at the very least that the debaters are listening to one another. We don’t so much have that as people trying to push one narrative or another. Winning the debate is about having your preferred narrative accepted as the most legitimate account of events.

Politicians, journalists, commentators — they’re all pushing a narrative, and they’re pushing them like drug dealers, because they’re selling to addicts. It’s via narratives that we make sense of the world. That’s why there’s only ever about half a dozen stories on the news, no matter what has actually occurred — because we make sense of the world through the same stories, repeated over and over. ‘Twas ever thus.

The bushfires provided a further opportunity for crafting narratives. I’m not talking about the tales of heartbreak and heroism so readily retailed by the media, or the efforts to coopt the tragedy through, say, telethons — all that goes without saying, particularly from the commercial media which has a strong interested in squeezing absolutely the last drop out of such tragedies. But you would have noticed that the conflagration provided an immediate opportunity for proponents of various views to push them, regardless of any actual evidence. We pretend that this is a “debate” about, say, fuel loads and forest management, but it’s not a debate at all, it’s simply advocates for various views, firmly held prior to last weekend and even more firmly held now, trying to establish the dominant narrative.

News Ltd, in particular, displayed considerable alacrity and determination in having both journalists and commentators push the story of the bushfires being caused by environmentalists. But it was no monopoly of the politically conservative. Germaine Greer, like a time-travelling broadcast from early ’60s liberalism, gave utterance to her convictions of prelapsarian Aboriginal wisdom to condemn white Australian civilization, happily unencumbered by any acquaintance with the facts of the matter, which remain to be determined by a royal commission.

The absurdity of this was shown up by, of all people, Steve Price, a gentleman not normally associated with reason and moderation. Yesterday, Price eloquently argued the case against such frenetic blame-allocation.

Before blaming the greenies and councils for how the fire happened, they ought to do the right thing and go to Whittlesea — where I spent the early part of last week — and find a few of the following people and tell them the time is right for the blame game.

Price’s criticism pulled the curtain away to show a stage-managed rush to judgement.

The other revelatory moment came in Federal Parliament, that most carefully-orchestrated of performance spaces. Again, there is no exchange of views in the “debate”, but rather a ritualised attempt to succeed in imposing the dominant story of political discourse, which at the moment centres on the economic downturn. The lack of subtlety with which Kevin Rudd — in this case less a Prime Minister than storyteller-in-chief — has sought to construct a favourable story (with some cutting and pasting from other sources) of himself as occupying the mainstream of economic debate while his opponents cling to outdated ideologies hasn’t blunted his effectiveness in doing so, particularly when his opponents insist on playing into his hands.

The Opposition’s own story isn’t nearly as compelling, possibly because it invokes old villains such as debt and Gough Whitlam, who may have scared the voters in decades gone by but no longer pack much of a punch. The sheer theatricality of this process was shown when the Opposition had a brief moment of triumph on Thursday evening after the Senate temporarily rejected the Government’s stimulus package. Inexplicably, given its wiser heads must’ve known there was a strong chance that Nick Xenophon would reverse his veto the following — the Coalition made merry at the Government’s expense about the rejection “by the people’s Parliament” of its package.

Joe Hockey, breaking the rule that a large man should never use food metaphors, declared the Government “had egg on its face”. It was barely 12 hours later that the Opposition had to reverse its rhetoric and return to its Whitlam and debt bogeymen, while Kevin Rudd was keeping Parliament back on a Friday to lecture the Opposition about how only the Government was committed to doing something about the crisis.

Rudd and Turnbull’s narratives about the economic crisis have all the evidentiary value of the right-winger who avers that bushfires are caused by urban greenies. And like that fable, they more accurately reflect the ideological bias of the storyteller than what is going on in the real world. If conservatives have delighted in the opportunity to exploit the bushfires to attack environmentalists, left-wing commentators have thoroughly enjoyed the financial crisis as a means to attack capitalism, declaring that it is the final evidence that government is the solution, not the problem, and that more regulation, a bigger role for government, more restraints on capitalism, are the way of the future.

In the face of manifest market failure, the Right has struggled to craft a response. One of the few sources of real pleasure from the crisis has been watching conservatives wriggling about trying to find a plausible argument to mount. At least with climate change, reality could be denied for years on end via junk science and obscurantism. That wasn’t an option with the events of last year. A few conservatives gamely tried to pin the blame on governments — and liberal governments at that — insisting the whole debacle was caused by governments trying to encourage low-income earners, and particularly darker-skinned ones, to own their own homes. This story has dropped from sight in recent months, having been repeatedly discredited.

And in the middle, Third Way-types like Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama (not that they’d ever use so quaintly ’90s a term as “Third Way”) have insisted the issue is not more or less regulation but better, or smarter, regulation. This is less a philosophy than a speechwriter’s cliché (I should know, I used to use it when I wrote speeches).

Like the scene in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the mice devise their own questions for which the answer is “42”, it sounds good but doesn’t actually mean anything. “Smarter government” has no implicit meaning. Smarter how? Smarter according to whom? It’s a good line in a stage play, not a recipe for economic recovery.

And therein lies the really disturbing aspect to all this storytelling: it is just storytelling. The storytellers have no better idea what’s going on than anyone else.

In this, the economic crisis, and the great tragedy that overtook Victoria last weekend, are similar. They have in common that no one was in control, that some natural forces, temporarily in abeyance and unknown in their design and purpose, had reasserted themselves, entirely overwhelming our pitiful efforts to mitigate them. We are barely able to understand what is occurring and why, let alone successfully intervene. In time, that understanding will grow, if only because events in the past acquire a patina of harmlessness that hindsight invariably provides. But for now, we can barely comprehend them, let alone control them.

The stories our politicians and journalists and commentators were so blatantly telling each other and us last week weren’t only about the game of trying to convince people of your own version of reality. It was about providing the illusion of control and comprehension in the face of forces we barely understand, let alone can effectively manage. But the Wizard has been revealed, and he hasn’t got a script to tell him what to do.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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