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Australian Notes

Australian Notes

27 October 2012

9:00 AM

27 October 2012

9:00 AM

It is hard to go as far as Nick Minchin, who condemns as ‘disgusting’ the general jubilation over Australia winning a seat on the UN Security Council. He is right to mention the vote-winning shonky deals and the distortion of priorities from Asia/Pacific to Africa that were part of the Australian campaign. But in the end it is better to have a seat, however temporary and powerless, than none at all. Better — but not much.

Extraordinary how little editorial comment there has been about Foreign Minister Carr’s suggestion — it amounted to a call for action — that only the assassination of President Assad would end the war in Syria. Imagine the press reaction if Shadow Minister Julie Bishop had called for Assad’s assassination. The commentators would have yelled themselves hoarse proclaiming that anyone who sees murder as a form of foreign policy is unfit for office and her party unfit for government. But now, except from a few bloggers, there is only deferential silence.

‘I issue a formal challenge to debate me face-to-face about my claims!’ So declared Chris Puplick, former Senator and board member of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). His challenge was to the artistic director of NIDA (Lynne Williams) who presides over what Puplick calls the ‘intellectual bankruptcy’ of the famous school. He was addressing at Currency House in Sydney some 50 critics of NIDA’s new order. It was like the old days in the Senate, with Senator Puplick putting the boot in. He also called on the federal government, which funds NIDA (about $9 million a year), to set up an inquiry. There is no doubt that both the artistic director and the federal minister for the arts (Simon Crean) will ignore Puplick’s calls. But the argument rages on.

Most of the assembly at Currency House honour NIDA’s great past under the inspired leadership of John Clark and Elizabeth Butcher, and angrily reject the new ‘modernising’ directions. Some have devoted their lives to NIDA and had resigned in protest or, they claimed, been bullied into leaving. There were some who support the new directions and said bluntly that the critics are ‘a nest of vipers’ more concerned with undermining the new management than helping students. But they were a small minority.

NIDA has from its beginnings more than 50 years ago had two sometimes conflicting aims. One is to train theatre professionals of all kinds (not only actors). The other (with the emphasis on ‘dramatic art’) is to produce artists who will ‘filter out’ into Australian cultural life generally. The complaint now is that it is not giving enough attention to producing artists and spending too much time churning out job-fodder for television soaps.

At the Currency House soirée — which launched Puplick’s pamphlet Changing Times at NIDA — the actor and director Jeremy Sims, a voice from NIDA’s great days, wondered what influence the turbulence of the moment is having on NIDA students. ‘I hope for their sake they are not unduly affected by all this. We need them to work and play and learn and create with each other and with their teachers.’

Puplick is a punchy spokesman. He clearly enjoys his role as tribune of the disaffected. But it is not apparent that polemics and inquiries, what Sims dubs ‘name-calling and self-righteous blame games’, are helping students. At Currency House there was a third small voice calling for calm. It did not see the new establishment as intellectually bankrupt or its critics as vipers. It wanted to lower the temperature and give the new NIDA enough clear air and time for students ‘to work and play and learn and create’. It may be a hopelessly wet position or it may be the best or only way ahead. It would require both sides in the current furore to compromise. No sign of that.

It is a sign of the times that the quarterly magazine Policy published by the Centre for Independent Studies has devoted its Winter issue to the defence of federalism against the thrusting centralism of the Commonwealth, not least under the Howard government, which was always impatient with the old federalist Liberal party. But now even leftists are beginning to see merit in divided power. Greg Craven attributes the change to WorkChoices. If this is what centralism means, the Left now believe it may be far better to return to ‘states’ rights’. James Allan complains about ‘a series of awful decisions’ by the centralising High Court, notably on taxes. ‘I can’t think,’ he says, ‘of another functioning federal democracy where the states don’t have income tax powers.’ The problem is that state premiers have usually been only too willing to hand unpopular taxing powers to the Commonwealth. Meanwhile John Hirst reminds us that the defeat of the Labor government in 1949 was due to its socialist commitment to nationalisation, especially of the banks. But under the current High Court, he argues, a Labor government would have no trouble in nationalising them all — and much more if it so chose.

Good to see the English novelist Ian McEwan speaking up for the novella as opposed to the blockbuster. Why is there supposed to be something unmanly, he asks, about a 25,000 word novella whereas the whopper of 250,000 words is considered more profound? Some of the most enduring novels have been novellas by major writers from, say, Henry James to David Malouf. The prose is so often sharper and the structure clearer. McEwan is not so foolish as to dismiss the great tradition of long novels. But he prefers James Joyce’s The Dead to his Ulysses. Why not both?

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