JERRY ROBERTS. Sir Joh and The Donald

Queensland’s longest-serving Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, cultivated the public image of a country bumpkin. A book about his career was called The Hillbilly Dictator. Donald Trump has taken a similar act to the international stage. Has the world ever seen such a performance? No Hollywood star goes close to The Donald. The President of the United States wins all the Oscars.  

In the 1970s the Premiers of Western Australia and Queensland – Sir Charles Court and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen – were dominant figures on the political stage. They presented a sharp contrast in styles. Sir Charles, an accountant and musician, was the epitome of smooth professionalism, a rare combination of confidence and competence. With never a hair nor a word out of place, he knew the deadlines at Channel 7 and West Australian Newspapers better than the journalists who worked there.

The dishevelled Sir Joh, a peanut farmer and Baptist preacher, spoke in a sing-song voice. “Don’t you worry about that!” he clucked when questioned about government decisions. “Feeding the chooks” was how the Premier described his media conferences. Sir Joh’s back-up act was his wife, Lady Flo, with her favourite pumpkin scone recipe. Together they looked a picture of bucolic bliss. It was easy to imagine them seated at the kitchen table listening to Blue Hills on ABC radio’s Country Hour.

When Sir Joh held talks with Sir Charles in Perth my colleagues in the WA Department of Industrial Development attended the meeting. I asked them later about Sir Joh’s performance, in particular, about his manner of speech. They said he spoke perfectly normally with no lack of sophistication and not a trace of country bumpkin. Feeding the chooks was an act he maintained for decades, to powerful effect.

Donald Trump in today’s mass media world of reality television makes the era of Sir Joh and Lady Flo look like the age of chivalry. The President of the United States makes one outrageous statement after another. The more criticism he receives the more outrageously he responds. There is a method in his madness as explained by Fintan O’Toole in his review of The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis (Pearls and Irritations 30 November). Trump is putting up a massive distraction while the financial parasites he represents complete the project commenced by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Auguste Pinochet guided by their academic gurus, Friedrich Von Hayek and Milton Friedman, to cede control of society to a dynastic aristocracy to whom the rest of us must doff our caps.

This is how Fintan O’Toole explains the phenomenon: “If you keep saying that government is not the solution but the problem, that “Washington” as a generic term for all the institutions that manage the public realm is just a swamp to be drained, you will end up wanting to destroy it. And if this is what you want to do, then the aspects of Trump that seem most like political weaknesses – his ignorance and his incompetence   — are not weaknesses at all. They are powerful weapons of political destruction. The best way to undermine government is to make it as stupid and as inept as your rhetoric has always claimed it to be.”

I hope the Democrats in Congress are not so stupid as to impeach Trump. In this eventuality the divisions in American society will explode into violence not seen on home soil since the Civil War. Already the normally inscrutable Chinese and stoic Russians can’t hide their smiles as they look at the self-destruction of their enemy. I’m sure Trump will serve out his term. It is too early to say whether he will stand for re-election.

There is no point in hammering away at Trump, the Republicans and the Tea Party. We know where they are coming from. Trump will be no great loss but the Democrats have to beat him fair and square on policy, not with childish hide and seek looking for Russian spies under the bed. As far as I can see there is no hint of policy or leadership from the Democrats. The triumph of neoliberalism was achieved by the duchessing of former social democratic parties such as the American Democrats, British Labour and the ALP. The Americans had their Clintons and Obama. The Brits copped Tony Blair and in Australia it was Bob Hawke and Paul Keating who introduced the Margaret Thatcher rhubarb and created the banking disaster by flogging off the Commonwealth Bank without so much as providing briefing papers to Cabinet.

The Australian commentariat is still jumping on the corpse of the Liberal Party. Relax fellas, you can’t kill it any deader. The focus now should be on Labor. We have a de-facto One Party State in Australia. The major Parties take turns to destroy themselves. In 2010 the mining industry acquired what stockbrokers call a controlling interest in the ALP to get rid of the mining tax by getting rid of Kevin Rudd. I thought then that the succession of Labor MPs who stood up in public and tore their former leader to pieces gave an unparalleled exhibition of political indiscipline and self-indulgence. Now the Liberals are trying to match them in destructive treachery.

So, what is the issue for next year’s federal election? I can’t see one. There is an attempt to re-float the boat people issue. It isn’t working. Kids and Greens voters are worried about climate change but most of us doubt if we can do anything about it. Likewise, electricity prices. I think the issue is the Liberal Party. Australians have zero interest in politics. We only vote because it is easier than paying a fine. Generally, we prefer to watch cricket and leave politics to the politicians but the Liberals with their Turnbull fixation have put on such a spectacular show that even the comatose Australian electorate is looking up from the television screen long enough to say “these blokes have to go.”

There is an underlying issue not quite bubbling to the surface in Australia but boiling on the streets of Paris. That is the state of the world economy. The French elected Macron because they didn’t know him from a bar of soap and they thought anything would be an improvement on the usual suspects. Now they see he is a slimline, short-haired Margaret Thatcher. He never pretended to be anything else. Australian economics professor Bill Mitchell summarised the situation in his billy blog of 10 December:

“The illusion that we could borrow to the hilt in an environment of flat wage growth, limited saving balances and ever-increasing wealth flow from rising house prices is now revealed to be folly. I don’t expect many yellow vests to appear on the Australian streets just yet but the same sense of dislocation is building”

Bill Shorten gives the impression he knows the Hawke-Keating stuff was rhubarb and Sally McManus is nearby to remind him. The question is where do we go from here? Michael Keating in his three posts of 26, 28 and 29 November trotted out the standard Thatcher TINA excuse for privatisation and deregulation. I’m inclined to let the class of 83 get away with that line of conversation provided we are heading in the right direction and Michael’s analysis of aggregate demand and inequality and his policy recommendations sounded good to me. I hope Chris Bowen is reading them.

It is interesting to see the curse of Identity politics contributing to the Liberals’ downfall. When Julia Banks deserted her Party in its hour of greatest need and joined the cross bench, she did no good to her career or for the cause of feminism, if that is her cause. These are confusing times. Girls are urged to climb into the hierarchical structures that have been giving blokes a pain for thousands of years while boys are told to be more like girls, or something.

I am sure we would all like to see more women bring their warm, caring, kindly, charming, nurturing qualities to the Parliament just as we saw with the leading female politicians of our time, such as Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Bronwyn Bishop.

Ideally there should be a balance within the Parliament not just of gender but of age, occupation etc. However, it is not the parliaments that govern our society. The parliaments and the society are governed by the prevailing ideology of the era — a blend of ideas, principles and policies backed by academic theories that just happen to serve the interests of whatever group holds power, whether it is a landed aristocracy, a military junta or the international financiers of our era.

If successive governments continue to deregulate, privatise and corporatize giving us garbage like public-private partnerships, toll roads and Fred Hilmer’s competition policy it makes no difference if the parliaments are full of girls, boys, giraffes, camels, orang-utans or kangaroos. I have a personal preference for kangaroos because they are dignified and they are Australian.

I was driving north on the coastal highway on a clear, starry night – perfect for driving. Near Minilya a tall kangaroo stood stock still by the side of the road. I stopped the car. You’re never sure which way they are going to jump and it was after the mining boom so there was no traffic. Besides, I just wanted to look at this magnificent animal. The halt in the journey woke up Ludwig in the back seat. Ludwig was my athletic German short-haired Pointer. He stuck his head out the window, saw the kangaroo and started barking. The kangaroo gave a short hop then jumped clean over the high bonnet of the four-wheel-drive vehicle. Ludwig for once in his life was lost for words. He stared at the spot vacated by the kangaroo, a look of stunned amazement written all over his handsome face.

Jerry Roberts when reporting from the gallery in Parliament House, West Perth, was heard to mutter that there should be more women in the House and then the blokes might behave like grown-ups. We live in hope.

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1 Response to JERRY ROBERTS. Sir Joh and The Donald

  1. David Allison says:

    An informative article and a good summation of simple truths surrounding politics and politicians. Good to be reminded that it isn’t parliments that govern society but parliments and society are governed by the prevailing ideology of the era.

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