Issue 1, 2006 | Michael L. Ondaatje

The Intellectuals and their Ideas

2006 Perth Writers’ Festival
Moorhouse and Manne: Intellectuals in Contrast

Let me start by congratulating the organisers of the 2006 UWA Perth Writers’ Festival for bringing together such an impressive array of intellectual talent to discuss and debate some of the key political, cultural and social issues of our time – from sexual relations and ‘happiness’ in an age of plenty to religious fundamentalism and national security in an age of terror. For the most part, the programme was well organised, the speakers stimulating, and the subjects they addressed pertinent to the complex and increasingly unpredictable world in which we now live. Several imposing international guests were in Perth this January to tackle issues of profound global importance, yet arguably it was the presentations of two local Australian commentators – the political scientist Robert Manne and the award-winning novelist Frank Moorhouse – that provoked the most discussion and debate.

That Manne and Moorhouse were the focus of such attention was of little surprise to those familiar with intellectual life in this country: both men, after all, enjoy high profiles in the media and both were addressing issues of fundamental significance to modern Australian life. Recently honoured as the nation’s top ‘public intellectual’, Manne spoke to the title of his latest book Left, Right, Left, explaining his political journey from ‘Left to Right and Back Again’ in the context of broader shifts within Australia’s political culture. Moorhouse’s assignment was rather different: he asked, and tried to answer, the more specific question of whether freedom of expression was possible in a country such as Australia, where fear of terrorism had already led to restrictive anti-terror laws curtailing free speech and civil liberties. As it turned out, Manne and Moorhouse represented the best and the worst of the 2006 Festival. Whereas the former spoke with precision and poise about some of the most pressing matters in politics today, the latter stumbled clumsily (and at times incoherently) from one cliché to the next, his analysis of the fragility of freedom in a national security regime rarely rising above the banal and fatuous.

Moorhouse’s failure to deal effectively with arguably one of the central dilemmas confronting western democracies may have been demoralising for the politically conscious progressives in the audience that night, but it was a failure that was perhaps not altogether surprising. Who, after all, is Frank Moorhouse, and what were his credentials to speak on such an important subject? The first thing to say here is that Moorhouse is no orator: he is a writer who started out as a cadet journalist on the Daily Telegraph before going on to edit the Australian Worker and City Voices, a Sydney journal modelled loosely on New York’s Village Voice. Since the 1970s he has written on a full-time basis – novels, short story collections, screenplays – and in 2001 his work Dark Palace won the prestigious Miles Franklin Award. With such glowing literary recognition, Moorhouse had, according to Quadrant editor Paddy McGuinness, ‘established himself as one of the most serious and powerful contemporary Australian novelists’.

Perhaps. And yet nowhere, as far as I can see, has Moorhouse established himself as one of the most serious and powerful contemporary Australian social commentators. Nor will he ever, if his Festival performance is an accurate measure of his ability to engage an audience. Controversially identifying two (and only two!) previous threats to freedom of expression in Australian history – the anti-communist crusades of the 1950s and the backlash against feminism in the 1960s – Moorhouse argued that we now face a third challenge from political and media elites fixated with national security. The push to censor and drive underground dissenting viewpoints must be resisted, he insisted, because freedom of expression is sacrosanct and must be protected at all costs. No problem here. But where was Moorhouse’s probing investigation of September 11, the ‘War on Terror’, Iraq – arguably the reasons for the stifling intellectual climate of today that he and others rightly bewail? Why no serious discussion of the need to address very real national security concerns, but in such a way that does not impede free speech or trample individual liberties? Why, in other words, in an area crying out for further analysis, no analysis at all? Only Frank knows.

One thing I know is that, in contrast to Moorhouse, Robert Manne confirmed his status as the nation’s pre-eminent public intellectual: his talk at the Duxton Hotel was sophisticated in both style and content. From the Cold War to the Iraq War, from Reconciliation to Refugees, from Howard to Hanson, Manne cast his intellectual eye over Australia’s political landscape and offered a treasure-trove of insights into the most complex matters in contemporary public life. But this one-time Cold Warrior told first of the political transformations that he himself had undergone: from student social democrat during the Vietnam War to anti-communist academic in the 1980s to the public intellectual of today so renowned for his work in the area of social justice. Shifting from left to right during the Cold War because of a committed anti-communism, he had shifted ‘back again’ when communism collapsed and the ‘new issues’ generated by the cultural revolution of the 1960s – feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, indigenous rights, anti-racism, sexual liberation, postmodernism – revealed clear and deep divisions between himself and his former intellectual allies. While some on the ‘left’ remain sceptical of his political transition, Manne’s explanation of this personal journey at the Festival was both forceful and compelling.

‘Liberated’ from the Cold War’s ‘distorting lens’, Manne was now free for the first time to investigate the history and political culture of his own country. And what he discovered deeply disturbed him. The legacy of Aboriginal dispossession, the shameful treatment of refugees and the wider ‘culture war’ became his principal areas of inquiry, and he spoke powerfully – and with great analytical insight – to these issues at the Festival. What, Manne asked fundamentally, had gone wrong in Australia? In one sense, John Howard and the Murdoch Press had ‘happened’ to Australia. So too undoubtedly had 9/11. The ‘right’, moreover, now spoke the language of ‘ordinary people’ (‘tax cuts’, ‘interest rates’, ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘national security’ etc.) through a media empire that rigged the rules to deliver victory to the forces of neo-conservatism at home and abroad.

And what of the ‘left’? Shut out of the dominant Murdoch newspapers, compromised by its uncertainty over communism, and in turmoil since the end of the Cold War, the ‘left’ had ceased to be taken seriously by most Australians, who had come to associate it (and ironically not the Howard Government!) with the degradation of our social and political culture. If Frank Moorhouse is indeed representative of the ‘left’ in Australia today, the refusal of many people to listen is perhaps understandable and even warranted. Not so with Robert Manne. Humane and profoundly decent, his is a voice that must continue to be heard. Without it, Australian democracy would be the poorer.

Michael L. Ondaatje is currently an Associate Lecturer in the History Department at the University of Western Australia.