‘When we lie to ourselves and believe it, truth vanishes and we’re at the negation of the negation,’ wrote Robert McKee in Story, his excellent deconstruction of plot, character and the principles of screenwriting
The negation of the negation, often the climax in the arc of a dramatic story, is when a positive or worthwhile character trait or condition is not only contradicted, but the contradiction itself is contradicted and ends up destroying the very protagonist the trait was supposed to protect. McKee gives numerous examples of how the negation of the negation plays out in classic Hollywood dramas, from Crime and Punishment to Ordinary People: If the positive is ‘love’, and the contradiction is ‘hate’, then the negation of the negation is ‘hatred masquerading itself as love’. If the positive is ‘loyalty’, and the contradiction is ‘betrayal’, then the negation of the negation is ‘self-betrayal’. And so on.
In the inevitable mini-series of the Tony Abbott years, will his Paid Parental Leave scheme provide the climactic negation of the negation that turns deserved triumph into self-inflicted disaster? The positive: an idea designed to build trust with women, to encourage productivity and workplace participation. The contradiction: it’s an excessive and unnecessary entitlement at a time of restraint. The negation of the negation: a stubborn Prime Minister waters down his scheme but still deludes himself that it’s compatible with everything he has rightly said about fiscal prudence.
Arguments for the PPL, even when diluted, remain inconsistent with the urgent need to fix Labor’s debt binge. When I interviewed the Prime Minister on 2UE on the eve of his departure for the Christmas holidays, and suggested that he should lead by example and forgo implementing this worthy but unaffordable plan, he was passionate in his belief that the scheme enhances productivity. He may well be right, to some abstract degree or other. But that’s irrelevant. At the Sydney Institute this week Mr Abbott tried to convince the audience that it was a scheme ‘whose time has come’, despite their being scant evidence to support such an assertion. Ultimately, the PPL comes at a cost of several billion dollars to both the taxpayer and our leading businesses yet has never been touted by the Productivity Commission or anyone else as being of immediate necessity.
Joe Hockey, at The Spectator Australia’s event on 23 April with our UK publisher Andrew Neil, struggled to defend the PPL. Despite a barn-storming performance where he gave as good as he got from the grand BBC inquisitor, Hockey failed to convince an otherwise rapt audience with lines about: ‘help[ing] women to remain engaged with their employer, lift[ing] female workforce participation and provid[ing] a boost to retirement savings.’
‘Helping’, ‘lifting’, ‘boosting’. Hardly edge-of-the-seat, fingernail-biting stuff. But it was Joe’s follow-up comment that was the most disturbing, as well as revealing; in a whodunit script this would have been the carefully camouflaged clue as to who the real villains are:
‘Many small and medium businesses… for the first time will be able to offer female workers a paid parental leave scheme that is as good as that enjoyed by employees of larger corporations or the public service.’
What the…? When the hell did the public service slip this one into their grab-bag of other rorts?
So now we need an extravagant workplace entitlement to match those extravagant workplace entitlements already enjoyed by the nation’s most extravagantly overpaid, overindulged and overentitled bureaucrats? Hmmm. Let me just check the title of this film again. Oh, yeah: The End of the Age of Entitlements.
Now, I’m no economist but I’m not bad at suspension of disbelief and other storytelling devices. This preposterous conceit defies the entire thrust of the plot so far, is completely at odds with the arc of the story and utterly destroys the trust that has been so carefully built up by the storytellers. Imagine trying to put together the trailer. (Cue rousing music and deep male voiceover): ‘In a time of dire economic emergency, when the nation’s savings have been laid to waste by a dysfunctional psychopath, a surfing Springsteen dude and a female union hustler, there rose a hero in red Speedos and blue tie to restore economic credibility, to halt the profligacy, to bring back accountability and common sense to his nation’s finances and to restore faith in sound government, by introducing… [sound of needle scratching across record, followed by jangly ditty and a light female voiceover]… a free wad of cash for every mum who’d like to stay at home and look after bubs even though she’s already pretty well paid and, er, probably would have managed OK without it, but, hey, if somebody else is getting it, why not you?’
My suggestion. Let’s get a big red pen and cross out the entire scene featuring the PPL (not just water it down) and save it for another film; say, a chick flick rom-com in about two years’ time. And while we’re at it let’s really sharpen up our budget script by cutting out all those public service-paid parental leave schemes and other such entitlements that they enjoy at our expense that we ourselves in small business and self-employment can’t afford to indulge in. Then, and only then, can there be even the slightest justification for hitting audiences with that terrifying, completely unexpected, jump-out-of-your-seat ‘debt tax’ scenario. The PPL scheme, worthwhile in its ambitions and potential outcomes, is completely at odds with the arc of the Abbott government story. Aha, I hear you say, but this is real life, it’s not some movie.
Alas, even in real life one single, honestly held but self-deluding conviction can — due to circumstances, events and characters — prove to be the undoing of the entire show. The negation of the negation.