Federal Politics

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Anzac echoes in defence debate

THE idea of a voyage re-enacting the convoy of late 1914 that took Australia's first big expeditionary force (Sudan, China and South Africa were more colonial affairs) across the Indian Ocean will intrigue many as a way of celebrating the centenary of the Anzac landing on Gallipoli in April 1915.

The fleet of steamships, escorted by a Japanese cruiser, carried the contribution of the new nation to the imperial war effort. After rigorous training in the deserts around the Egyptian pyramids (and some raucous carousing in the Cairo fleshpots), the raw soldiers showed their mettle in the poorly conceived Dardanelles campaign alongside the experienced British, Indian and French armies and against Turks defending their own territory.

The martial tradition continues to enthral Australians, even as our armed forces struggle to find enough of the right calibre of recruits. The coming three years are sure to see mounting interest in the Anzac story. Yet we should hope that the $83 million allocated to marking the centenary is not entirely an exercise in looking back, especially in any complacent glorification of the military achievements and noble failures of the past century.

For one thing, the next two or three years will also see an appraisal of Australia's defence posture for the coming century, in which the experience of past war reverberates. Already, jostling has broken out again over the resources likely to be available. The army's lobbyists are worried about cutbacks once the main force is pulled out of Afghanistan, fearing a rundown similar to that after Vietnam. Boots on the ground, in small regional contingencies or as part of a coalition force further afield, will be the main call on our defence forces, they say. Against that are the investments in pure war-fighting capabilities - submarines and combat aircraft - needed as insurance against high-intensity conflicts that might never come, but might blow up too quickly for those capabilities to be hastily acquired.

For another, some historians say the 21st century is shaping up similar to the multiple rivalries that developed in Europe after the breakdown of the ''concert of powers'', leading to the First World War that now seems such a futile waste. It would be good if some of the Anzac funding goes to building more bridges to the peoples we once fought, and the peoples coming into the strategic picture this century.

All the world's a stage for men


ROUGHLY two out of every three general managers of major theatre companies are women. Women have a substantial presence on theatre company boards. Yet when it comes to the artistic output of Australia's major companies, men are overwhelmingly in control, both at the level of artistic director (deciding what plays a company will perform) and director (staging the productions). Such are the findings of a study commissioned by the Australia Council. It would be small wonder if in the artistic output which resulted, male attitudes, concerns and sensibilities were more often represented than female. In this respect art, it is rather depressing to find, imitates life.

As we reported yesterday, the study by the Australia Council was commissioned after controversy arose over one season's offerings from the Belvoir Theatre. The problem clearly is not confined to one organisation.

What then is to be done? There are obvious improvements that might give women a more even chance: better childcare, more transparent selection procedures, and so on. But that the report was commissioned by the Australia Council implies some sort of officially sanctioned program to promote women in theatre, women's ideas, women's themes. Funding might be withheld unless companies fulfil quotas. The report doesn't go that far but that is how things are done elsewhere. Positive discrimination may be regrettable, but it is necessary because left to themselves gender-based systems of privilege and control do not change, however sympathetic male-dominated hierarchies may claim to be to gender equality.

Things may indeed come to that in theatre too, if the companies themselves cannot correct the imbalance. But just describing the possibility is depressing. Political correctness is much over-used as a criticism, but this would be political correctness of a familiar and unpleasant kind - a faint, but still clumsy 21st century echo of the philistinism visited on artists in last century's totalitarian regimes. That artistic directors might not be allowed artistic freedom, but must submit their thoughts for approval to some committee of the right-thinking, would almost guarantee a second- or third-rate result.

Australian establishment theatre must mend itself. If the most intelligent, creative, progressive and politically aware element in modern society - those involved in the creative arts - cannot see and fix a problem of this nature in their own industry perhaps it is genuinely unfixable. The very failure is an artistic comment on modern society all by itself. It is a negative one, certainly. It speaks in silence, not in words. But it is as eloquent and as damning as anything written into a script.