The problems with democracy are at least as old as democracy itself, and we see the ancient character of this week’s particular problem described in first-century satire. It was the Roman codger Juvenal who wrote of the people’s appetite for bread and circuses; we far prefer, he said, the cheap nourishment of political theatrics to decent policy, and given the choice between civic good and a ringside seat at a brawl with a mouthful of dough, we’ll abstain from a low-carb diet every time.

Politicians have been making bread and entertaining deceit for centuries, and to say that we are hungry for and fed on distraction is hardly a new observation. The president of the Human Rights Commission this week finds herself an unwitting part of this ancient problem. To help a desperate government find a solution to the “problem” of abused children in detention, Gillian Triggs’ value is diminished to the role of villain in a cheap federal entertainment.

It’s not a new form of comedy. But it is accelerated and played on a larger and more frequent scale. This week’s distraction could not be more of a dusty pantomime, with the Attorney-General coming across like the Widow Twankey and parts of the press responding to his “Oh, yes it is!” with “Oh, no it isn’t!”. Here we are in the dark, screaming at a harlequinade, with the topic of children in detention forgotten and debate on our national commitment to accepting larger numbers of refugees buried.

We’ve become inured to this colour-and-movement and less inclined to detect the real problems it obscures. Content to watch the spectacle itself and not the issues it purports to represent, we can be heard less often to shout “He’s behind you!”. I mean. After all. Who can blame us?

The resolution of a cheap debate in Canberra has all but become the resolution of the real itself. This has always happened, of course, and Edmund Barton got bullshit off to a flying start by blaming Asian immigration for everything that was wrong, introducing the White Australia Policy and insisting, “the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman“.

What a dick, who would have no doubt become more of a dick with the increased opportunities for pantomime posturing the 20th century would go on to provide. Limited stages meant limited opportunities for the delivery of bread and circuses, but now, infinite exposure makes for so much more of the stuff Juvenal decried. This brief chronological look at the last quarter century of glitzy obfuscation is by no means complete. But perhaps it will help you make an entertaining sandwich.

5. Infinite mandatory detention. In 1992, the ALP was yet to be led by the soft science of focus groups but was led, often ably, by the gut of Paul Keating, whose taste for an imagined western Sydney led him to introduce section 54ZD of the Migration Act. This legislation, which came into effect in 1994, removed the 273-day time limit on detention and started a big argument about a small problem that continues to the present week. We were compelled to have an opinion about asylum seekers thanks to Keating, who was preparing for the “unwinnable” 1993 election in an atmosphere of sluggish growth and high unemployment. Of course, it was Hewson’s awful “Fightback!” and a poorly sold GST that won him the race, but this sideshow stands as a freakishly low form of entertainment in the cultural liberal’s otherwise tolerable career.

4. Native Title Amendment Act. It was in 1998 that Howard’s 10-point plan sought to undo the Wik decision and reduce the powers of native title to something like a very conditional fishing licence. To argue that this mean-spirited legislation, which was eventually passed after amendments were made to appease Brian Harradine, was set to do any good for the nation is a challenge. To argue that it provided the lurid backdrop for Howard’s cheap History Wars is not very difficult at all. Buoyed by the hot and insubstantial air of the “scholars” at Quadrant, Howard’s out-and-out denial of genocide, characterised as the “black armband view of history”, allowed racist idiots to feel like intellectuals — a tradition that continues to the present week.

3. The apology. Although it is remembered, and often officially archived, as an apology to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008 was limited to the stolen generations his predecessor had so absurdly redacted from history. While many Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous, found the tribute moving, others sensibly criticised its partial and chiefly representational function. At the Marg Barry Memorial Lecture, Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning director Larissa Behrendt civilly warned the prime minister of “the key challenges that lay ahead of him if he wants to leave a legacy that goes beyond the merely symbolic”. In the now de-funded journal of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, Tracker, Gary Foley was less polite when he spoke of the moment’s chief use in the construction of white Australian myths of benevolence. Whatever one’s view of the importance of political theatre, the fact remains that the chasm between indigenous and non-indigenous lives widened under Rudd. That this was a nice moment doesn’t make it less of a deceit.

2. The misogyny speech. A poll spike followed Julia Gillard’s famous parliamentary defence of her gender, which seemed spontaneous rage but was likely a collaboration with her then-adviser John McTernan. Of course, the fact of male architecture does not diminish the angry beauty of the feminist edifice. But what does is the legislation that passed in the Senate that day. Nearly 100,000 sole parents were impacted by passing of the Social Security Legislation Amendment proposed by Gillard. As some single parents, overwhelmingly female, were moved on to the NewStart pittance, they lost up to $160 a week and the advocacy of a leader who claimed to be feminist. Our most vulnerable women were sold out by our most powerful woman on that day.

1. Abbott and everything he does. You can blame the 24-hour news cycle or an atmosphere of anti-politics or the stupidity of the electorate if you like; Juvenal probably would. But the Abbott government, founded in spin and weaned on vaudeville, can’t blame the times entirely for its lack of a relationship to reality. From Hockey’s “age of entitlement” speech to the Prime Minister’s recent Muslim-trolling to the poorly executed diversion of making a Prince Consort a Knight, everything this government does seems to be driven by representation and not reality. We are living in a matrix where evidence-based policy, or any link to the real that precedes its representation, is dead. Tony took the blue pill.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey