Laughter, said Henri Bergson, in his great work, erm, Laughter, “laughter is a social sanction against rigidity”.

Thus one classic type of comedy sketch is the “X at home”-type sketch. What is a taxi-driver like at home? Do they face backwards from the dinner table and talk about the news of the day over the back of their chair? Do they take the dishes to the table, via the hallway and the living room? Etc.

Or consider the old visual gag of a man slipping on a banana skin. The humour is in the sudden shift, from being a purposeful human being, full of projects and intentions in control of one’s destiny — and then suddenly being nothing more than a sack of guts, subject to gravity.

The art of the physical comedian consists of maintaining the same attitude — purposeful, marching ahead — even as the world slips from under you and up you go.

The question there is — is Bergson a better guide than Bonhoeffer to the current behaviour of the Rudd government? Is a pattern developing, that of a team that is not so much clever as too clever by half?

The Oceanic Viking is one example of this. The whole idea seemed so cute, so neat — not only live up to the idea of not landing refugees, but emphasise multilateralism and a regional solution.

Too clever by half. In Australia the moral discourse comes back full force and flips them up in the air. As they land, a grinning Indonesian governor mows them down in his jalopy, with remarks about looking forward to the “display of human rights we are always hearing about”. Staggering up, we see someone unloading anvils from a third-storey window, marked “suicide threats”. Uh oh.

You can also see the pattern in the appointment of Costello to the future fund. Great idea, at first. Grab a couple of moderate Liberals that the trog party core never liked much anyway, Robert Hill, Bonkers Nelson (“thank you”).

To keep going is to misunderstand the effectiveness of what you have done. Rich Hall once remarked that it’s impressive to see someone sing, play guitar and harmonica at the same time — but the moment you strap cymbals to your knees …

The Costello thing may be that moment. Or it may not. Excuse that paulkellyism, but there’s no way to tell. Paul Keating may be right — the government severely compromises its ability to hack into the last government if they’ve employed the chief architect of the alleged brutopia.

On the other hand, Keating may be seeing this in the terms of the ore direct combative politics that reigned during his era. What Rudd seems to be trying to do is to make his team look like the unquestioned natural government of Australia — a government so unquestionable that it extends from the upper reaches of the public service, through the actual Labor party, and all the way over to a series of Liberal grandees.

The hope would be that this sharp transition from an insurgent oppositional force — standing against the brutopians armed only with our Ideas! — to a massive administrative managerialist operation would make the voting process quasi-automatic. The Rudd government is just there and you vote for them. Who else could you possibly vote for?

Very clever. Too clever? What do they do if Costello takes the piss? Finding safe harbour aboard the ship of state, he refuses to leave, despite continuing to denounce the government by means of messages in bottles?

There’s a bit of this going on around the joint — witness the mess in Afghanistan, with Abdullah Abdullah throwing the re-organised run-off election (guaranteed 37% less corrupt) into chaos by refusing to contest it. Knocking back the role of performing monkey, cymbals strapped to his knees?

What if our wonkette leaders are faced with people less interested in being cute than in being determined, resilient, crafty, and uncompromising?

What if cleverness is not enough?

Who’s laughing then?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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