Gosh, I am enjoying the latest season of 18C, aren’t you? Been a binge-watcher of the series for years. It has had its up and downs, but it’s really coming on strong this year, with a new premise, and a taste for absurdity. I think it’s only a couple of seasons away from jumping the shark, but I plan to enjoy it while I can.

There’s a great central plot motif in 18C, and it’s this: what begins as an ostensible attempt to abolish the law entirely, in the name of a classical liberal minimisation of state controls on speech, becomes, with each new twist, a move to make the law more convoluted, cumbersome, and baroque. I liked the bit where that guy who failed the audition for the Flight Centre ads got a gig on The Drum, and having called for the abolition of the law, then joined the body that runs it, before entering parliament in order to try and abolish it afresh.

The inquiry called to give a pretext for abolishing the law that recommended no change to it was a cliffhanger. Then they had a second inquiry which made no recommendations at all! Risky to pile comedy on comedy, but they pulled it off. The death of the “Bill” character was pure melodrama, real Packed To the Rafters stuff, that was a bit disconcerting — but now they’ve turned the demise of a self-styled larrikin and free-spirit into a symbol of the sort of whiny victimhood he used to satirise in his cartoons.

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The “death of Bill” arc looks like it’ll run and run, and they’re doing something really interesting with it: having argued that 18C is an illegitimate law because words aren’t acts, they’re now saying that mean words killed Bill. Which is a pretty strong argument for laws that exactly treat words as acts. That’s your classic crossover there, and not everyone can manage it — but I think we’re a couple of episodes away from the “Friends of Bill” saying that be called “a racist” can kill you, and someone from the AHRC mounting a libel action based on the premise that words are not capable of having that sort of effect. That trial would be a cracking end to season, what is it, five? Nine? Seventeen? Imagine the scene where Senator James “sprog” Paterson is called by the plaintiff’s lawyer to say that words not being things — with thing-like effects, e.g. a fatal heart attack — is the foundation of liberalism.

Of course, amidst all the serious stuff, there’s a light touch, too. These characters Turnbull and Brandis, have you seen them? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern types, two hapless boobies trapped behind a single podium like a couple waiting for a free table at Movida, trying to explain the latest screw-up as a victory. This is a very modernist device, where the characters comment on their own failure as characters, a Beckettian touch. Watch that press conference again and pretend it was written by a dissident East European absurdist playwright around 1967.

Really, the hits just keep on coming. Episode 233 yesterday was a corker, in which the government released a document criticising multiculturalism as a force for difference, and emphasising a new drive to integration — and then this Guildernstern/Estragon/Turnbull character calls all the multicultural “community” leaders to reassure them that the changes to 18C really won’t change anything.

What am I looking forward to in future seasons? Well, the “reasonable person” test is a corker. Here’s how it works. You have a principle you don’t like — laws controlling free speech, including a sectional community standards test — and, failing to abolish the law, you make that principle even more powerful by convoking an abstract “reasonable person” from an abstract “general community”, to assess whether the words in question fall this side of the law or not.

I do like the motif here, cos there’s a real whiff of Italian corporatism, whereby the organic body of the social whole is held to be more important than the individual. Fun to see it smuggled into a drive for free speech. And then, the kiss of the whip. Having proposed the idea of a “general community” and a “reasonable person” free of all attributes of race, ethnicity, etc, this PM Guildenstern type rang all the leaders of “communities” based on race, ethnicity, etc, to see if that was alright with them! Spoiler alert.

What am I looking forward to in future eps? The High Court case in which we test whether a single racist slur is by itself “harassing” or “intimidating” will be a hotter ticket than the Book of Mormon musical. Constituting the “reasonable persons” — well that’s your 2018 reality game show blockbuster right there. Would a panel of reasonable people think that Andrew Bolt and Bill Leak were defiant champions of the right to free thought, or a pair of demented weirdos spewing out vicious bile? That would be exciting, because of course, if the verdict went against them, or people like them, there would be absolutely no comeback — the “reasonable people” had spoken, and we had, as a community, decided. Those of us who think that what is “reasonable” is created and recreated by speech and dialogue, and transformed over time, would be disappointed. But clearly we’re not liberals. Sorry, Liberals.

Some people say the show has no suspense in it, given that the same “community” leaders PM Guildenstern spent all yesterday calling — thus magnifying their power — will today be calling Labor, the Greens and NXT to oppose changes to the law, and promise delivery of votes in exchange for such, and it’ll go down like a lead wossname. Should that happen, changes to 18C will have failed, by my count, for a fifth time, and I’m getting worried that the scriptwriters will be able to keep this up.

But hell, most of us thought this show would collapse under the weight of its own absurdity years ago. After all, the premise — that a party defining itself as the home of free speech as an expression of courage, is too cowardly to act on it — should barely support more than a single episode by right. But here we are, years later. Let’s enjoy it while we can, though that may not be long. When they premiere Shorten Labor — the world’s only lack-of-variety show — we’ll know what we were missing. Unless it’s just reruns of Tony Abbott. Or they write that Bill character back in, and the whole thing was all a dream.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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