Reading essays and works on 19th and much of 2oth centuries politics it is difficult to avoid the frequent classical allusions and the strong sense of historical context that gave events.
This is partly, of course, because the protagonists and commentators shared classical educations but partly because the comparisons are often so apt. Indeed, over the past few days, doing radio interviews about the current political situation, I frequently found myself using historic examples — some from Greek and Roman times — in a bid to explain what was going on.
Thus, being asked about the rhetoric being used, or the “people power” push, the obvious thing to mention was how much Rudd’s major speech was modelled on a Ted Sorensen or Graham Freudenberg speech. The “people power” push recalled the Roman Catiline conspiracy, although people power today is about tweets rather calling out your own army or indulging in the 18th century British tradition of negotiation by riot.*
And it is hard not to draw a parallel with Greek tragedy when you see a party tearing itself apart — particularly when you think it is more likely to be an Aeschylus trilogy than a one-act play. It may even go one better and produce something that could replace the long-lost fourth in his series.
But while the current events resemble historic events, the current consumers of news about them (the people) simply have a different sense of context, a different frame in which to view things and different sources of news. More importantly, other than voting every few years, the vast majority of the Australian public has, in some ways, no more direct engagement with current politics than did disenfranchised Romans and Athenians. Conservatives would argue that this reality is what makes the rule of law the real underpinning of our system but access to the law (try struggling to stop a major development that will damage your interests under most states’ planning laws, for example) is not as easy as all that and laws are often tilted in the powerful and the wealthy’s favour.
So while the political tragics have followed events blow-by-blow, interpretation by interpretation and speculation by speculation, the bulk of Australians have not. I must confess I haven’t been moved to read or see much either — hardly any of the print media coverage; almost no television coverage other than news snippets during the cricket; and have relied on dips into ABC Online and radio news coverage. Life is just too short and too much of the coverage is formulaic and boring. It is probable that the average Australian has done exactly the same — skipped the detail and formed opinions from the general tenor of what was going on aided by some word-of-mouth throwaway lines from friends along the lines: “God it’s been hot/wet/windy today and what about the Labor Party?”
One of the bizarre and almost inexplicable results of this is that — despite all the polling about preferred PMs (which are a notoriously unreliable guide to election results) — the polls so far suggest the two-party preferred vote so far hasn’t moved much at all in the past few days. While they are well within the standard margin for error, the Morgan poll and Nielsen polls even had the ALP a bit better than it was a short while ago. But the reality of leads and lags — issues percolate into the public in a meaningful way about the time the media are getting bored with them — mean the ALP two-party preferred should take heavy hits in the next month.
Conversely, the public is finally hearing why the ALP knifed Rudd and perhaps Mark Latham’s claims that Rudd public support is wider than deep and comes from people who don’t know him could be proven right. Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that the media won’t get bored with it and the Rudd-Hawker forces will keep the issue on the boil if they don’t win (as looked likely at the time of writing but who really knows?).
The most likely outcome, nevertheless, is a re-run of more modern tragedies such as Coriolanus, Hamlet or Lear — lots of blood and gore (perhaps even literally rather than metaphorically if Alan Jones and Ray Hadley keep saying some of the things they have been saying about Gillard) and few of the main protagonists left standing. But it might make a great film — we could get the new Coriolanus film team involved with Ralph Fiennes as Rudd. Not a lot of parts for women in this play to start with, and this film version has cut it down to a choice of two main ones to play Julia — Vanessa Redgrave or Jessica Chastain.
Perhaps the one who misses out could reverse the way it would have been performed originally and take on a pants role — although not even the great Vanessa would make a convincing Bruce Hawker or Anthony Albanese.
*The author has “borrowed” the “negotiation by riot” phrase from former Tory minister and wonderful historian Ian Gilmour