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Australian Notes

Australian notes

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

A last word on the US elections: any disappointment I had with the result was tempered by the thought that throwing out America’s first black President after only one term would have deeply embittered American blacks, with grim consequences in US politics. Still, many, perhaps most, American conservatives expected Mitt Romney to win. A few pundits, stressing the poor economy which Barack Obama had made worse, predicted a landslide. There were all sorts of explanations why they were wrong. One is that non-economic issues like immigration, abortion and same-sex marriage carried more influence than, say, jobs or housing. For some voters they did, and one or two dopey Republicans made electorally damaging statements on immigration and abortion. But in the end ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ still remains as good a guide as ‘It’s the culture, stupid.’ Obama’s appeal to auto workers, blacks, unmarried women and the young was more directly economic (bailouts and handouts) than anything Romney would offer. There were other factors. The Democrats outfought Republicans in voter turnout, attack ads, social media and mobilising minorities (especially Hispanics). What now? Sensible Republicans recall the famous concession speech of the Democrat Dick Tuck in California in 1966: ‘The people have spoken, the bastards’ — and then start work on the next election, with Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush as their candidate. Meanwhile there are lessons for over-confident Liberals in Australia. No hubris. It’s not in the bag.

I have to correct and update something I said a few weeks back about same-sex marriage (or ‘marriage equality’). I wrote that whenever the issue has been put to the public in a referendum, it has been defeated. But in the US Presidential election, four states put the question to voters. In all four, majorities supported same-sex marriage. They were Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota (where to be precise the electorate did not positively support same-sex marriage but turned down a proposal to ban it). More to the point, President Obama in his victory speech endorsed gay rights: ‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.’ These American developments will not change the minds of supporters of traditional marriage but they will influence Australian public opinion.

A lot of blood has flowed under the bridge since I first came across Peter Manning back in the Sixties when I was editor of the Bulletin and he was a lively writer for the Sydney University students’ paper Honi Soit. I sought him out and encouraged him to write for the Bulletin. (As I recall, his preoccupations were Vietnam and teach-ins.) He went on to great things in radio and television (and is now Adjunct Professor of Journalism at University of Technology Sydney). Our paths diverged as he took up causes I thought either wrong (green bans) or both wrong and reckless (campaigning against Israel). But he popped up again last week at the Palestinian Film Festival to brief us on the documentary Number One on the List. It is about Mossad’s assassination in Rome in 1972 of the PLO representative Wael Zwaiter. He was said to be at the top of Golda Meir’s list of terrorists to be killed (‘Operation Wrath of God’) in retribution for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. The doco, Manning told us, meant a lot to him personally. It helped him understand an iconic, ‘non-violent’ Palestinian intellectual who could never forget ‘the Israeli theft of his country’ and was murdered for his beliefs. His life and death influenced the book Manning wrote about his travels in the Levant, Us and Them. Even more to the point, he said, was the presence in the audience of Janet Venn-Brown, the Sydney artist prominent in the film, who was Zwaiter’s partner and edited For a Palestinian, a set of tributes by people like Alberto Moravia, Edward Said and Jean Genet. When the doco ended, the friendly audience — more Old Australian than Arab — gave her a standing ovation. But Manning’s warm recommendation of the film did not win me over. It is too propagandistic. I preferred the two shorts in the same session. Both are metaphors that linger in the memory. One is Hasan Everywhere, a beautifully animated film about the love of an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy that flourishes when they are abroad. But back in Israel the boy dies, drowned at a beach off Jaffa. The other is Eye Drops, a sad story of a Palestinian family in Tel Aviv who help a Jewish neighbour, a Holocaust survivor, administer her daily eye drops, without which she cannot see. After her death an Israeli transvestite moves into her apartment and the bond is broken. Both films tell Palestinian stories — the first is Irish, the second is Israeli!

Roslyn Arnold has emerged as the public hero of St John’s College in Sydney. Her resignation over student brutishness brought the issues to a head. Another reformer is Professor Jim Franklin, a liberal alumnus of the College, who suggested one possible solution: let Opus Dei take over. It already runs the University of NSW’s Warrane College whose students (all men) come from much the same background as those at St John’s. Warrane has a good name, with none of the scandals that have destroyed the reputation of St John’s. Franklin says he is not advocating this solution, only canvassing it. But it may be the way to go. Better than letting the State legislature take away St John’s self-government.

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