At least in the United States, they know their democracy is in trouble. They watched the insurrection of January 6. They watched much of the Republican Party attempt to cover up Donald Trump’s role in it. They watched Trump continue to control the GOP, which has grown still more extreme in the ensuing 11 months.
They’ve seen the evidence emerge recently that Trump’s inner sanctum actually planned a coup, however incompetently — Seven Days in May, perhaps, but directed by Stanley Kubrick as a dark comedy. What fun Peter Sellers would have had playing Mike Pence, a figure straight from under Kubrick’s microscope — half Merkin Muffley, half Lionel Mandrake, reluctant to admit to himself that his chief has gone — indeed had gone a very long time ago — absolutely barking mad.
Stan would’ve had Trump launch the nukes, “We’ll Meet Again” at an irradiated Mar-a-Lago — a place that, like most of Trump’s buildings, would be improved architecturally by nuclear detonation. The possibility of that ending crossed the mind of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, who had to ring the Chinese to assure them there was at least one functioning adult between Trump and the red button.
In this history-as-Kubrick-film, with a cold forensic gaze that stretches plausibility to absurdity and keeps going until it becomes inevitability, the ruthless logic of systems becomes apparent, especially when the input is the illogicality of humans. Create a political movement fed on relentless demonisation of opponents, ensure no attack on them too outrageous, to the point of urging their murder, feed it with a relentless diet of affirmation from one of the world’s most powerful media companies, and watch one side of democratic politics abandon the prissy sensibilities of electoral contest for storming the Capitol and re-imposing Jim Crow laws to prevent voting. There’s no point removing the democratic brakes unless you intend to drive as quickly and as recklessly as possible.
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The same logical absurdity of our systems has become more apparent here, even if we’re more Adventures of Barry McKenzie than Barry Lyndon. Make political parties reliant on donations, cloud donations in a fog of obscurity, make regulation and fiscal policy more and more central to corporate profitability, and watch the inputs to government decision-making swing slowly but smoothly from a non-partisan, competent public service to corporate lobbyists and executives, who become the drafters of policy on everything from climate to financial regulation to proxy advice.
In the federal government now, policy is transparently bought, and the price is tax deductible — you get to subsidise the perversion of policy against your interests. Fossil fuel companies, banks, big consulting firms and media companies are just some of the large corporations purchasing access to and influence over decision-makers; the same goes for gambling companies at the state level.
But that’s just the set-up, the mise-en-scène, for the film of 2021. The plot is that once you make government a pay-for-play operation, you forget how to govern when there’s no one paying. Required to act in the public interest rather than deliver what his donors want, Scott Morrison and his government are all at sea.
Let’s reel off the greatest hits — led inevitably by a badly botched vaccination rollout predicated on stuffing up both the sourcing and the rollout (privatised, natch) such that state governments had to step in and do the Commonwealth’s work for it.
JobKeeper — a triumph of government waste that added several zeros to the much-heralded “debacle” of the Rudd stimulus program.
The toxic work environment of Parliament — particularly that of the ministerial wing, where an alleged rape victim is a “lying cow” and the cesspit that is the prime minister’s own office badmouths her partner, where anonymous donors are welcome to hand you hundreds of thousands of dollars, and staffers are for kicking out of bed in a rage.
Such was the decline in basic governing skills that Morrison couldn’t even mount his own culture war — the sort of thing John Howard could do in his green-and-gold tracksuited sleep — with a religious discrimination bill grinding to a halt in his own partyroom (rather like how Morrison claimed electric vehicles work?).
For that matter, by the end of the year even legislating the simplest measures became an unachievable feat for Morrison.
There’s only one facet of governing that Morrison can do well, and it’s the easiest one of all — spending money. If the fiscal faucets need opening, plumbers Scott ‘n’ Josh will be there in a trice to get the dollars gushing — usually in the direction of business rather than voters.
In another of those moments that make you double-check what you’re reading because what you’re reading is so absurd, we now have the biggest government since John Curtin was in the Lodge, to the blithe indifference of most of the commentariat. The party that continues to insist it’s all about small government and low taxes is running the biggest operation in three-quarters of a century, and will be for years to come.
Admittedly, even here, the standard level of competence applies — most of the rorted car park money from 2019 remains unspent years later, with a strong chance many of the projects won’t start before Alan Tudge’s ministerial career is over. When you can’t even spend money, you might need to find a different job than pork-barrelling.
As for complex policy issues, well, you don’t even need to ask, do you? Any energy or climate policy not written by the fossil fuel industry was a debacle — witness CoalKeeper, the Angus Taylor jape in which every household would pay an electricity tax to prop up coal-fired power stations to keep burning coal even when no one needed their power. That got a decidedly frosty reception from the states, and the “triumph” (thank you, press gallery) of Morrison’s net zero commitment, which magically needed no policy changes of any kind, just a sunny (though not solar-powered, please) optimism that some techy thing would show up.
Or there was the truly inspired moment of madcap military manoeuvres, when Morrison hit upon the one solitary way to make the Coalition’s own Naval Group submarine contract even worse — cancel it, lying to the French along the way, and vaguely commit to look at nuclear submarines from the Brits or the Americans. One can only imagine the bright spark in the PMO checking off the list of requirements for this exercise: later — check. More expensive — check. Less local content — check. Can’t be serviced here — check. You don’t need to think it’s a terrible decision — you know.
And we’ll go into yet another parliamentary term without any sight of a referendum on Indigenous recognition, despite Ken Wyatt — one of the few people of good faith in the government — labouring mightily to craft some compromise Voice to Parliament. Wyatt, at least, has pushed the government to embrace partnership with Indigenous communities on program design and delivery, ideally laying the foundations for a reversal of a decade of failure on Closing the Gap — a signal of what can be achieved if someone with expertise and experience can work in a portfolio where there aren’t powerful corporate interests dictating policy.
With a prime minister unable to lead when he has no corporate donors to dictate policy, the burden of leadership has fallen on the states — on vaccination, on public health, on climate and energy, on tax reform, even fiscally, with NSW and Queensland heading back to surplus and Victoria to minimal deficit by the middle of the decade, while the Commonwealth balance sheet remains awash in red.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet now talks of a states-led reform agenda in which the Commonwealth is a bit-player, a prominent “wasn’t that X from that show?” cameo. What was once a mostly arcane debate about federalism, centralisation and states’ powers has transformed into a very real shift of power, driven by the principle that nature abhors a vacuum, and particularly a grinning, babbling nullity like Morrison, presiding over a new era of big but pointless government, all cashed up but unable to lead.
Like the good Jungian he was, Kubrick was obsessed with the shadow self, and his films are littered with them, always men, stalked by the parts of themselves they deny and fear, sometimes triumphing over them, though never without compromise and ambivalence, and sometimes succumbing to them, like Jack Torrance, always the caretaker at the Overlook, eternally beaming from the photo on the wall.
Australia ended up governed by our shadow self, with Scott Morrison embodying the laziness, emptiness and small-mindedness we like to pretend we’ve left behind. In this movie, the final, trademark Kubrickian stare is of Morrison smirking out at us forever from our screens, the shadow self triumphant. He’s always been prime minister. No need for a coup when our worst impulses occupy the highest offices in the land.