In the last, few tumultuous weeks we have seen emerge an irresistible metaphor for all that is wrong in Australian politics.
In perfect harmony with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the original RMS Titanic, events in modern Australia have taken on an uncanny resemblance to the disaster of so many years ago.
The unsinkable Labor government, once sitting so proudly high in an ocean of polls, has been holed and appears to be going down.
Maker and un-maker of Prime Ministers and governments, Rupert Murdoch, has seen his credibility mortally breached. Disaster awaits him, not immediately, just as the Titanic did not sink immediately, but surely, as his spin and lies to the Leveson inquiry attract rebuttal by an army of critics, ex-employees and eye witnesses who are queuing up to testify to his wicked lies and evasions. The legendary omertà of Murdoch's organization, the "watertight holds" of his own personal Titanic, have been breached. Is it now only a matter of time until the freezing waves start gushing over the Murdoch bow?
The ever-shrinking Australian press industry, beset by falling stock prices and dwindling sales, has compensated by turning a once robust tradition of objective reportage into a farce of cheap opinionation, amateur forensic analysis and wilful omission.
A bellowing rump of political commentators, the prima donna, preening elite of journalism write, without the slightest sense of the absurdity of their outpourings, increasingly bizarre, self-referential and nonsensical analysis. The pampered prognosticators, their feet still dry, waving their first class tickets, claim a right to seats in whatever lifeboats are left, even as they repel survivors still in the water, seeking rescue. In a tighter than ever market for their shallow skills, even the non-News Ltd journalists, those from the nearly bankrupt Fairfax and the cowering ABC, work effectively for Murdoch as when their own lifeboats go under, they believe there will always be a welcoming News Ltd there, ready to take them on-board.
And as if to cap off the farce with sheer, head-shaking insanity, Clive Palmer has declared he will build a new RMS Titanic, promising, as did the builders of the original ship - now at the bottom of the Atlantic - that it will be unsinkable, even with his bloated, morbidly obese frame aboard.
Murdoch's grand vision of profitable chaos is coming to fruition in front of our eyes. It is a race to see who will disappear first: yet another Labor government, the corrupt, criminal News Corporation empire, the incestuous group thinking press, or the entire nation of Australia, once a "lucky country", now one of the last remaining laboratories where the Murdoch family is still permitted to conduct its vain, stomach-churning political experiments.
A hundred or so years ago Murdoch's father, Sir Keith, fell victim to the then elite of British Imperial class system. Sir Keith was set upon by generals and politicians alike for his reporting from the front at Gallipoli and later on The Western Front. In one of the most revealing pieces of evidence given by his son, Rupert, at the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, Sir Keith's ghost was resurrected as the now white-haired and wizened son told the Committee of his lifelong quest to vindicate his father, by taking on the elites of whatever country in which he chose to do business, either as a citizen or (mostly) as an alien, and pulling them down to suit his business interests and victimhood simultaneously.
Murdoch has been on this self-imposed mission ever since, or at least that is what he would have us believe. Maybe he half-believes it himself. But in place of the old elites, he has positioned himself, his family, his companies, and those to whom he gives his political patronage, as the new elite. Murdoch works for no person. People work for Murdoch, whether those people be individual staffers, editors or entire political parties and governments. Shareholders and voters in those companies and countries respectively are the pawns in his game of megalomania and iron-fisted control. Godfather-like, he runs News as a private dynasty.
On Sunday Murdoch tweeted that it was time for an election in Australia "to make a fresh start", away from the sleaze and corruption of the Labor government. That the "sleaze" had been mostly promulgated through his own newspaper outlets Murdoch omitted to mention. Perhaps it was Twitter's 140-character limit that prevented him from doing so.
Dutifully, on Monday we saw bootstrapped calls for the resignation of the Prime Minister, even from the Fairfax papers.
Michelle Grattan, the doyen of the Canberra Press Gallery, made her now infamous call for Julia Gillard to "fall on her sword". By that afternoon a commentator on ABC TV's The Drum
had told viewers that such a call, by someone no less than the "respected" Michelle Grattan, was a serious development indeed. Grattan's obvious hatred for Gillard (who is known to dismiss convoluted Grattan questions with the word "Next!") was not even mentioned.
Katharine Murphy, Grattan's groveling clone, and acolyte, acknowledged that her readers want policy discussion, not dissertations on political belly-fluff. She responded, exasperated, by telling them there is no other story than belly-fluff, and then proceeded straight onto leadership challenges that might be mounted against Gillard in the coming months.
Dennis Shanahan wrote in Murdoch's sentimentally favourite, but wholly unprofitable flagship, The Australian
(po-faced, presumably, could Dennis be anything else?) that Gillard's reluctance to abandon her Prime Ministership was causing tangible damage to the Australian economy, as if the Opposition had not been callously talking down the economy - one of the most prosperous in the world - for the past 36 months.
Graeme Morris, a panel member with Sky news on that same day, suggested Gillard should be "kicked to death." This added to a suite of calls for her physical demise, made over the last year or so: being "drowned in a chaff bag" from Alan Jones; "burnt at the stake" as a witch by members of the astroturfed Consumers And Taxpayers Association (CATA), so beloved of the shock jocks on 2GB that they give it hours of free time every week; and for a target to be placed on her forehead (all the better for the people of Queensland to take aim), an assassination concept put out by Tony Abbott in the House of Representatives itself. This is a man who, without irony, constantly tells us that the dignity of the Parliament is being destroyed by the government.
The utterers of these close-to-seditious homicidal suggestions have mostly apologized for them afterwards - the Sydney Morning Herald called Morris' comment a "quip" - claiming to have temporarily taken leave of their judgement, in the heat of debate. But of course the damage is already done in the uttering, not the apologizing, and their corrections of the record were buried by a media obsessed with their own assigned mission: the demise of the Gillard government before any of its key legislation can kick in. In their wild enthusiasm to see the government fall they seem to believe that an election, or handover of power from Labor to the Coalition, on the eve of the Budget session, would be good for the country.
Ladies and gentlemen: I give you our responsible, professional media, "fair and balanced", non-judgemental and reporting only objective fact.
Speaking of facts, what is this "sleaze" everyone is talking about?
It seems that a Labor MP, Craig Thomson, allegedly had his hand in the till of the Health Services Union, abusing its credit cards on prostitutes and lavish expense account expenditure. But for this supposedly "criminal" activity, Thomson has not even been charged. Police investigations in two states and a series of inquiries have found he has no case to answer, and that is when his name has been mentioned at all. He is presumed innocent by the law, but clearly the media thinks the law is an ass and have convicted Thomson anyway. the Opposition calls for his standing down, but when he does finally resign from Caucus and the Labor Party, they say it's not enough. They say Gillard should "refuse his vote", whatever that means. The Opposition does not tells us, either.
Peter Slipper, in main composition a creature of the Queensland Liberal and National Parties, a "colorful character" by all accounts who has cut quite a swathe with his razor's edge use of parliamentary entitlements in the past, is up before the Federal Court on charges - actually at this moment mere assertions - of homosexual-based discrimination against a staff member James Ashby. Ashby alleges that homosexual advances were made to him by Slipper, and that when they were rebuffed Slipper said he was too fat and refused him access to a Harbour cruise he might normally have attended. It is claimed that these "spiteful" discriminations, made only because Ashby is homosexual have caused Ashby psychological harm and real career damage.
Ashby also asserts that Slipper "forced" him to witness a crime: the handing over of signed but otherwise blank Cabcharge dockets to a mysterious limousine driver on three occasions. This, alleges the apparently fragile Ashby, breached the Commonwealth's duty to him to provide a pleasant workplace, free of such shocking occurrences as the filling out of blank chits. The sensitive Ashby wants a lot of money to be paid as compensation for both affronts to his delicate mental constitution.
If this leaves you scratching your head, you are likely not alone.
Slipper has been charged with no crime. He has not been charged with "sexual harassment", (as many in the media have suggested), either. Sexual harassment charges involve compulsory mediation and conciliation, not something that Ashby's expensive "gun" lawyers, Harmers, are famous for. Ashby has set his case around establishing his undoubted homosexuality and then alleging Slipper treated him discriminately because of it. When you think about it, the charge involves closer to the opposite of sexual harassment. Ashby appears to be going for the main chance: a lucrative Federal Court damages award which could, if everything goes well, set him up for life, as similar awards have set up others.
Indeed there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for at least the Cabcharge incidents: they were and remain within Slipper's entitlement, plus the practice of using Cabcharge dockets for limo rental is ubiquitous among parliamentarians. The rest is administrative detail.
Slipper is reserving his case on the discrimination matter. Much has been made, by some who should know better and by some who are proud they couldn't care less, of a supposed "reversal of the onus of proof" in these matters by "Julia Gillard's Fair Work Act", but this does not detract from Ashby's duty to prove the asserted actions by Slipper occurred in the first place. Guilt must still be proved at law, and moral innocence should always be assumed. The concept of "innocent until proven guilty" forms the basis of our legal and jurisprudential system, another convention sought to be trashed by the media and the Coalition.
As to Ashby's state of mind, we know very little. Perhaps after today's revelations (referred to in Ashby's court documents, although without the "Pyne" context) that Christopher Pyne met with Ashby for drinks a month before Ashby dropped his bombshell, Pyne knows more. No wonder Ashby did not seem to want Pyne's name brought into his case - preferring to leave the identity of the person he met with as an "enemy" of Slipper's.
How Ashby turned from a dutiful employee, reportedly fiercely defending his boss's reputation against enemies everywhere (indeed right up to a couple of days before lodging his complaint to the Court), into a psychological wreck in hiding, too scared to front the media he has sent off looking for a moral "nigger" to lynch is a mystery.
James Ashby has disappeared from the face of the Earth, and no one is trying very hard to find him, at least not anyone from the ranks of the media. They are too busy vying with each other for the loudest, most clamoring negative connotation of Slipper's behaviour, thus, indirectly, condemning the Gillard government, to worry about checking out James Ashby's bona fides
, much less his motivations, by interviewing him directly. They let his publicity manager act as a firewall between them and him. Maybe the commentators believe this satisfies their professional obligations. After all, they seem to adjudicate everything else among themselves, right down to handwriting analysis. Why not evaluate their own performance "in-house", as it were?
In the panicked rush to the lifeboats the last vestiges of decency, fairness, and justice in Australian political life have been swept aside. The presumption of innocence has been thrown overboard as so much unnecessary baggage.
The media lifeboat, full to the scuppers with by-lined opinion writers, tries to distance itself from the suction that will be generated by the sinking of the traditional medium of the printed page. In the meantime, any poor wretch who tries to climb aboard to have their side of the argument heard is mercilessly shoved off with the sharp end of an oar for their trouble.
In the Murdoch lifeboat the scene is similar. As his empire distils down from a world wide enterprise, a floating palace full of promise and profit to a grubby, fetid bilge in the bottom of a sinking rowboat, anyone not "family" is unceremoniously thrown overboard: staff members, managers, ministers and, in Australia, entire governments and political parties have become expendable. Australia was Murdoch's first and, now it seems, has become his last redoubt, a lifeboat of last resort where his final desperate battle against the marshalling forces of ethics and objective truth will be fought.
What of the government? Despite the challenges to its integrity and the vicissitudes of its existence, the government lifeboat continues to stay afloat. It went into the water launched in haste, upside down (film buffs will note that this has been a scene in most "Titanic" genre movies, but ominously not in Murdoch's recent version), and has had to be kept afloat by deft maneuvering of its crew, striving to keep a delicate balance between basic survival against political and policy achievement. There have been dissenters and challengers to the newly promoted Second Officer's authority (as the Captain has already drowned), and there may well be more challenges to come, perhaps even from the same source as the previous ones. Will the political body of Captain Kevin Rudd rise to the surface still breathing, as the opinionistas speculate? Or will it sink like a stone, as common sense dictates? Whatever, for the moment there is no option for the government lifeboat but to stay as shipshape as possible, ignore the weather and try to be above water in the morning and the one after that, if necessary.
So much is changing, so much is at risk. There are icebergs everywhere, for everyone. Any mistake means certain death. A poor choice of rowing companion can mean temporary dry feet, but no ultimate rescue. A failure to grasp an oar of opportunity can mean being left to drown. If you're already in the water, what do you choose to be under: the funnel as it topples from its gantry, or Clive Palmer jumping for his life? Decisions, decisions...
If you've read this far, then thank you for your perseverance, but you really do belong in a submersible.
I think I've done this metaphor to death, except to ask: when the unsinkable Titanic does finally hit the iceberg, who will end up on a life boat, who will be adrift in the water, and who will go down with the ship, never to be seen again?
UPDATE #1 May 1, 8.45pm
The UK's Guardian reports as follows:
Rupert Murdoch is “not a fit person” to exercise stewardship of a major international company, a committee of MPs has concluded, in a report highly critical of the mogul and his son James’s role in the News of the World phone-hacking affair.