Pol­i­tics kicks farce

STEPHEN MATCH­ETT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

YOU need, at a cer­tain age, to ex­er­cise your mind. Some peo­ple play bridge, oth­ers learn a lan­guage and then there are those of us who are ad­dicted to cryptic cross­words. To be a suc­cess­ful cryptic cross­worder, you need to get into the mind of the com­piler, men, as a rule of thumb, who use only their ini­tials or an alias be­cause they are well aware they could come to a sticky end at the hands of a frus­trated solver.

I lis­ten to Ra­dio Na­tional as a mat­ter of habit be­cause this sta­tion does its bit for my brain, es­pe­cially in the morn­ings, al­though I’ve prob­a­bly for­got­ten most of it by the time I get to the train sta­tion. Re­cently I was tuned in and some­one was in­ter­view­ing a cryptic com­piler. I felt a flush of mur­der­ous rage be­cause it was DA, the mas­ter tor­turer of cross­words, whose mind re­mains un­tapped, al­though car­toon­ist Bill Leak and one or two other ge­niuses seem to have edged their way in. Bleak, as we fondly call him, didn’t get away without pay­ing; he broke a toe run­ning to find a the­saurus to look up a word. As far as I’m con­cerned DA may as well be speak­ing dou­ble Dutch.

Talk­ing of for­eign lan­guages, I used to be pretty good at Latin. In fact I did hon­ours in Latin at school, so it was with a great shout of joy that I re­ceived a book in the mail called Home­work for Grown-ups: Ev­ery­thing You Learned at School and Promptly For­got . There are 10 chap­ters, each cov­er­ing a school sub­ject: English, maths, home eco­nomics, his­tory, sci­ence, re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion, ge­og­ra­phy, clas­sics, phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion and art.

Au­thors E. Fo­ley and B. Coates are in dan­ger of tak­ing over from DA in terms of show­ing up how lit­tle grey mat­ter you have left. In fact, it was an eye-opener. I am an air­head or, as they would say in Latin, a ca­put va­cans . I am a self-con­fessed Luddite, but I’d for­got­ten that the Lud­dites were a group of crafts­men who, be­tween 1811 and 1816, car­ried out night raids to de­stroy the tex­tile ma­chin­ery they be­lieved was rob­bing them of their liveli­hoods. They have my un­end­ing sym­pa­thy: to my ut­ter cha­grin I was told the other day that my two-year-old grand­son can do his own DVD-ing. Ad­mit­tedly, he put the discs in the toaster a few times be­fore he got the hang of it.

Did you re­mem­ber that in the pa­tron saint depart­ment, St Ni­cholas of Myra was the one to pray to if you were a brewer, mur­derer, pawn­bro­ker or shoeshiner? You’ve prob­a­bly for­got­ten how to climb a rope at the gym, what com­prises the ge­o­log­i­cal timescale, how many sides an icosagon has and the way to play grand­mother’s foot­steps.

And while you’re at it, writ­ing to Santa that is, you could im­press him by men­tion­ing his rein­deer by their Latin names: Ful­gens, Cometes, Cupido, Sal­ta­tor, Pro­volans, Toni­trus, Ex­sul­tans, Vulpes et Ru­dol­phus Naso Rubro. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.

fraserj@ theaus­tralian. com. au

SUR­VEYS of pub­lic trust put jour­nal­ists be­tween car sales­men and war crim­i­nals, but there is one group that rates even lower on the re­spect scale: po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers. The premise of The Hol­low­men, screened on the ABC ear­lier this year and avail­able on DVD, is that peo­ple in po­lit­i­cal offices have at­ten­tion spans as lim­ited as their am­bi­tion is bound­less, and their idea of the long term is the next news cy­cle. And the ABC has just run the first se­ries of The Thick of It, a show set in a Bri­tish min­is­ter’s of­fice, in which the jokes are fewer but the cyn­i­cism is thicker.

The hard-edged hu­mour of both se­ries makes them much tougher than the show that spawned the genre a gen­er­a­tion ago, Yes, Min­is­ter . Re­visit this se­ries when it next turns up on the cul­tural arche­ol­ogy dig that is pay tele­vi­sion. Its spec­tac­u­lar cyn­i­cism clearly es­tab­lished the con­ven­tions of the way the po­lit­i­cal process is pre­sented in pop­u­lar cul­ture.

The ex­ec­u­tive sum­mary of the se­ries was that no­body was in charge and the best we could hope for was that gov­ern­ment would mud­dle through de­spite, rather than be­cause of, the peo­ple sup­posed to be run­ning the show.

And that suc­cess in pol­i­tics con­sisted stay­ing out of strife.

Even pin­striped power­bro­ker Sir Humphrey Ap­pleby was much more in­ter­ested in hang­ing on to what he had than ex­pand­ing his em­pire, let alone im­prov­ing any­thing. It was a se­ries that suited a Bri­tain in de­cline. But it es­tab­lished themes that con­tin­ued into a world of ac­tivist gov­ern­ments where we as­sume the state can and should change things, and that the only thing that stops re­form is the tyranny of the timid.

Cer­tainly some things have changed from the days when Sir Humphrey spent all his time con­spir­ing to stop his min­is­ter do­ing any­thing. The bu­reau­crats in The Hol­low­men are dull but de­cent, ac­tu­ally be­liev­ing that pol­icy mat­ters. In con­trast, just about the only eth­i­cal char­ac­ter in The Thick of It is the civil ser­vant sec­onded to the min­is­ter’s of­fice, whose com­mit­ment to process in­fu­ri­ates the po­lit­i­cal staff.

Now the Met­ter­nichs are the min­is­te­rial min­ders, a class of peo­ple that did not ap­pear to ex­ist when Jim Hacker ran his port­fo­lio with the help of a cou­ple of civil ser­vants. ( The min­is­ter’s elec­toral ad­viser, Frank Weisel, was seen off by Sir Humphrey in an early episode.)

This change says a great deal about the way pol­i­tics has al­tered since the early 1980s. In the years when min­is­ters drove eco­nomic re­form, the idea took hold among ad­vo­cates of a bigspend­ing state that it was only the apo­lit­i­cal pub­lic ser­vice that de­fended process and dis­pas­sion­ate pol­icy against min­is­ters in thrall to the mar­ket and their staff who be­lieved in noth­ing other than their own am­bi­tion.

And so the orig­i­nal idea of Yes, Min­is­ter , that pol­i­tics is a strug­gle be­tween politi­cians and bu­reau­crats, has been su­per­seded by pro­grams that poke fun at po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als who do the par­ti­san tasks the of­fi­cials will not.

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There is no deny­ing that The Hol­low­men is amus­ing; in fact it is very funny. The episodes in­volv­ing Maw­son’s Hut and wel­fare crack­down are clever car­i­ca­tures of the sorts of stunts that are now stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure in pub­lic life. And The Thick of It is cringe-mak­ingly cruel in the way it cap­tures the char­ac­ter of po­lit­i­cal types, from the prime min­is­te­rial en­forcer who has never seen a face he does not want to kick to the idiot ad­viser who thinks he gets pol­i­tics but is com­pletely clue­less. In the first episode, the way the min­is­ter and his ad­vis­ers con­vince them­selves they have spun their way out of a hu­mil­i­at­ing back­down would be sad if the char­ac­ters were not so ap­palling.

Both pro­grams are so well done it is easy to watch them as drama­tised doc­u­men­taries: it’s easy to for­get their casts of dills and des­per­a­does, pa­tron­age ap­point­ments and party play­ers are car­i­ca­tures of the peo­ple who work in the po­lit­i­cal process.

As such they un­doubt­edly up­set all man­ner of min­ders. This doesn’t mat­ter all that much; pol­i­tics is a ro­bust trade, even for peo­ple who op­er­ate un­der the radar. But both shows do democ­racy a small dis­ser­vice in the way they re­duce the po­lit­i­cal process to a farce acted by am­bi­tious in­com­pe­tents. In re­al­ity the is­sues the hol­low men blun­der through are in­cred­i­bly com­plex, and the pace and prob­lems the peo­ple in The Thick of It deal with will al­ways over­whelm any­body who does not un­der­stand how the pol­icy process, pub­lic opin­ion and the press all op­er­ate.

The Amer­i­cans ap­pear to un­der­stand this bet­ter than we do. Cer­tainly they have made their share of po­lit­i­cal come­dies that present most of the par­tic­i­pants as hope­less, notably Spin City and the not es­pe­cially mem­o­rable de­mo­li­tion job on the Volde­mort of Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue, That’s My Bush! But for a bea­con bathing the craft of the min­is­te­rial min­der in the most golden of lights it is im­pos­si­ble to go past The West Wing . Granted, it was not a com­edy but, like The Thick of It, this se­ries tried to com­mu­ni­cate the end­lessly ex­haust­ing chaos of a po­lit­i­cal of­fice.

Nor did The West Wing ide­alise where the other shows de­monise. In re­al­ity the core char­ac­ters would not have got on as well for so long as they did in The West Wing , but the cred­i­bil­ity of the se­ries is con­firmed by last month’s elec­tion. In the se­ries, His­panic con­gress­man Matt San­tos emerges from ob­scu­rity to be­come pres­i­dent, rather like Barack Obama. And San­tos’s chief of staff Josh Ly­man was based in part on Bill Clin­ton staff mem­ber and in­com­ing White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

There is a les­son in The West Wing missed by other shows that as­sume pol­i­tics is a cruel farce and look for laughs on that ba­sis. Democ­racy is about deals and com­pro­mises, about in­evitably im­per­fect plans that, in solv­ing some prob­lems, cre­ate new ones. The art of gov­ern­ing is a con­tin­u­ous process, not deal­ing with dis­crete is­sues that ex­ist in iso­la­tion.

And staff who be­have like the hol­low men one day will per­form like the bril­liant ide­al­ists of The West Wing the next.

The dan­ger in The Hol­low­men and The Thick of It is that peo­ple mis­take them for por­tray­als of the real thing. Ob­vi­ously all as­pects of pol­i­tics are fair game, but think­ing that pre­sent­ing the in­com­pe­tence of the po­lit­i­cal class is all it takes to satirise gov­ern­ment is like as­sum­ing that any­body who watches TV can write a hit se­ries. Pol­i­tics, like com­edy, is harder than it looks.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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