By their tens and hundreds they streamed down Martin Place last night, well-heeled professional women, a smaller number of their (considerably less phoofed-up) male partners, the lights of the Central Recital Hall beckoning them to one of the most sought after events of the Sydney Writers Festival, Professor Germaine Greer’s Overland-sponsored address on Rudd, Ruddism, Australia, Britain, and as it turns out, considerably more besides. If it was a crowd shifted towards the boomer end of the spectrum, they did not lack for enthusiasm. “There’s a lot of oestrogen in the air” someone said behind me in the queue for the slowest champagne bar in history. “Yeah not all of it slow-release patch form” remarked someone else who, yes, I made up.

Fair to say there was a lot more energy before than after, because while Greer’s talk was full of interesting points and arguments about the current financial crunch, its global roots, the wider environmental crisis here and elsewhere, and a certain style of contentless labour politics (“the most surprising thing for Kevin Rudd would be if his reign saw the revival of… the labour movement!”) … well, it was not what the audience had come for. They had come for the greatest hits, for the bold statements about what is to be done, about the possibility of a female prime minister, about why we weren’t storming Canberra, water divining, dilly bags, indigenous wisdom and much more.

Standing tall against the spacey decor of the Recital Hall, weird half-moon up lights in the back and a giant burst of greenery hanging pendulously above her, Greer’s anatomisation of Kevin Rudd’s political, his Monthly essay and Margaret Thatcher proceeded was getting heavy ten minutes in. By fifteen minutes there were slight stirrings of dissatisfaction — the susurrations of expensive-ish materials shifting in chairs. By twenty, we were into the long stretches of the banking crisis and the 1865 crash in Queensland and the hacking coughs had started. Most of the audience kinda liked Rudd, and pretty much agreed with his diagnosis of greedy neoliberal brutopias — a wider systemic explanation wasn’t going down too well.

This is going wrong, I thought to myself, looking around seeing half a thousand hennaed heads drooping, tortoise-shelled eyes wandering the room? The energy had left the room. The problem of course is parallax — the real Germaine Greer, the versatile commentator, is not the Germaine Greer of the audience’s beloved memory, the louche outrageous, liberatory author of the Female Eunuch, sudden and startling global figurehead. The bulk of her continued output ranges wildly and only touches on gender issues about one time in five or six these days.

For the rest she has to a degree, gone back to the themes that informed her thinking pre-Eunuch and were the context from which her feminism arose — a much broader critique of western civilisation, of its alienation, waste and now manifest unsustainability, of the split and sundered nature of modern subjectivity by which consumption comes to take the place of existence — something she linked, fairly neatly I thought, to the way in which an overvaluation of home ownership (of decaying housing stock) has been the cultural means by which the current financial bubble was created.

It’s not so much that she lost the audience, as that she was talking about things they didn’t want to hear, or indeed, profoundly disagreed with. For many of them Greer’s work had been one of the influences in shaping a life they kinda like — professional, independent, creative, with vastly more personal power, choices and more, than an earlier generation could have hoped for. Kevin Rudd, Labor, our team in, is, however half-arsedly, part of that movement, and most of Greer’s audience would see his elevation of some sort of affirmation of all they’d believed, some of it got from Greer.

So to hear that a) Rudd is just a part of the problem, and b) the revolution hasn’t even begun, is a bit of a piss-off, when you got your party frock on.

But it’s also a measure of the deep impasse in western society between the perception that our pursuit of one interpretation of our way of life — more — is undermining the possibility of any sort of way of life at all and the reluctance to take the steps that would really do anything about it.

Here Greer is hardly best placed to make this happen, because she is, when all is said and done, part of a global elite for whom green themes are a form of legitimation. Flying back and forth between a UK farm and an Australian subtropical property doesn’t really put you in best spot to talk about the loss of a sense of place. Talking about the habits and predilections of “my workers” — on her Queensland property — tends to defeat the content of the message with its form.

Greer’s chiliasm (I tend to agree with Hanrahan “we’re all rooned”) is the opposite of the sort of energy her audience wants, but nor is there any positive programme she could put forward that would not be contradicted by her lifestyle, a not unfamiliar problem for the liberal-left and other dying political formations.

Fortunately, the questions were nuts. Some of the old Greer returned. When would we get a female PM? “Does it matter — Margaret Thatcher became PM because she married a millionaire. I don’t think the plumbing is the issue.”

The only moment she lost the audience was when she took a question about orienting ourselves to Asia rather than Britain and got off on a riff about no-one speaking Asian languages.

Came a single voice from the back: “Kevin Rudd does”. And the place exploded in deep laughter, a release that suggested that the audience felt closer to Rudd’s modest gradualism and sense of what was possible here, than with the formerly-inspiring, energising scrutiny of an errant daughter forever judging it as falling short.

Whatever the case, The Australian (“I can’t get a good newspaper on the Gold Coast so I have to read The Australian“, another good get) will have a field day. As usual.

Watch Rundle’s Writers’ Festival eviction here.