Why the Sea of Malcolm has lost its sparkle

I once had afternoon tea with Paul Keating, á deux on the verandah of Kirribilli House. Over crustless cucumber sandwiches, the PM outlined the art of political landscaping, as mentored by Jack Lang. Warming to his subject, Keating detailed the technics: how to keep this cauldron bubbling and that lightly searing while bringing yet another to simmer in a distant corner. He seemed to target a Mrs Beeton's cookbook kind of flavour but to me it was more Hieronymus Bosch, an intense moral chiaroscuro where some folks frolic naked picking fruit and others are devoured feet-first by bird-faced monsters.

The current political landscape is a post-modern Bosch update, a Grayson Perry meta-folly centred on a large illusory landscape feature known as Disappointment Malcolm.

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari 

Grayson Perry is the artist behind the MCA's wonderful current show, My Pretty Little Art Career. His 2004 mock-mediaeval Map of an Englishman shows a brain-shaped land-mass comprising an island of Dreams, a castle of Normal, a sea of Agoraphobia, a massive headland of Cliche, a river of Authenticity and a range of spiky mountains called, simply, Bitch - all outside the tiny bounds of consciousness.

Perry's Print for a Politician (2005) extends the idea. A psychogeographic map shows Western modernity as a mountainous urban landscape peopled by loose tribes of Couch Potatoes, Male Chauvinist Pigs, Thick People, Smokers, Communists, Sunnis, Paedophiles (preaching to no one), Minimalists (with rocket launchers), Elitists. The Old World is dead in the streets, the Modernists have crashed and burned, Perverts dance on picnic tables and al-Qaeda inhabits a Corbusian domino-house. On the far western shores, boatloads of Methodists and Conservatives disembark while, nearer the centre, a pretty WWI bi-plane called "Blacks" is stuck in a tree.

Map of an Englishman  by Grayson Perry.
Map of an Englishman by Grayson Perry. 

So how about a contemporary Australian psychogeography?

It's dominated of course by (what we took to be) the great, life-giving inland sea, the Sea of Malcolm towards which we have half-blindly trekked for years. In recent months, fired by flickering hopes, eager for the promised breeding event, beckoned by the lofty, waving Groves of Seeming Care (spring-fed by Water, Equality and Climate Change), we quickened our pace.


But where we sought fresh water we found only acid, boot-sucking soils. Where we'd anticipated new life, hostile salt crust. Where we'd hoped for access we found our passage barred by the Spiked and Reedy Thickets of Bernardi, Morrison and Pyne. So even if the Sea of Malcolm did miraculously generate life, we'd never witness it.

Slowly it became clear. The entire promise was a mirage, conjured from the Fens of Desiccated Yearnings. Eventually, inevitably, popular use renamed it the Mal of Disappointment. Or simply, Disappointment Mal.

In a sense we've been marching all our lives, since our forced eviction from the Great Grasslands of Gough, seeded as they were with Equality and Decency and now lightly wooded with mature, shade-giving Oaks of Grace, Wit and Imagination.

There were always going to be trials en route. We had to survive the seemingly endless Desert of Howard and the briefer but more treacherous Abbottian Swamps, where poisonous vapours could balloon without warning and turn all they touched to stone. Indeed, the closer we came to the Sea of Malcolm the tougher the terrain seemed to get, the bogs boggier, the chasms more sinister, the paths cruel with dead-ends and switch-backs.

In July 2011 Malcolm had tweeted, "the Liverpool plains are an agricultural treasure which must be protected through science and hydrology". He'd attacked climate denialists who oppose "action to cut emissions … because it does not suit their own financial interests". As new PM he'd even signalled change by attending the Paris Climate talks. Or so we thought.

Then we hit the slippery Shale of Shenhua. Malcolm's Environment Minister Greg Hunt gave the eco-tick to the massive Chinese coal mine, destroying our most fertile soils, threatening agriculture, groundwater, koalas and – oh yes – climate. At first it seemed like a slip, a wrong turn – until they also approved the Adani coalmine on indigenous land in the Galilee Basin, threatening native title, habitat and the Great Barrier Reef. In December, Turnbull even had an hour-long tete-a-tete with Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, letting him plead for anti-protest laws despite his company's long history of massive bribery, destruction and condition-breaching in India and elsewhere.

The Sea of Malcolm was starting to look less than sparkling. Then came the Slicing of Science. Within weeks of creating the Prime Minister's Science Prize, where he heaped praise on the CSIRO and pictured scientists "at the very fulcrum of destiny" – and despite protests from 3000 scientists in 60 countries - Malcolm gave the CSIRO a Cruel Pruning. Destroying over 100 jobs, he gutted two of the organisation's most admired and future-critical divisions; climate and land-water.

It wasn't just science. Our path brought us next into the shadowy Tribulations of Trove – $20 million was cut from six major cultural institutions, all already pared to the bone. These included the National Museum, the Film and Sound Archive, Portrait Gallery and National Library, which will cease collecting our national memory via the amazing and invaluable Trove. (Simultaneously, in an increasing militarisation of our national story, we're spending $100 million on yet another Anzac museum abroad – this time in France – above the $330m of last year's centenary and ongoing refusal to cut the War Memorial budget).

There were the Great Fogs of GST and Negative Gearing, that blossomed like real entities but vanished without trace. There was the Media Miasma, in which Malcolm appeared boldly to risk Murdoch's wrath while actually scrapping the "reach rule" that stops broadcasters grabbing 75 per cent of the nation. And there was the Great Marriage Equality Wasteland, where Malcolm seemed to support sexual fairness but insisted anyway on a costly and hate-generating plebiscite.

Sure, the Sea of Mal must sustain its Spiked and Reedy Thickets, and Shorten the Lesser seems meagre threat. But if he cannot dredge that old slimed and crusted moral backbone from lake bottom, Malcolm's Double Dissolution will pit Hummock Shorten against a handful of sand.

Twitter: @emfarrelly


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