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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Rick Mor­ton

Aman with a par­lia­men­tary pen­sion of $80,000 a year called me elite this week, just over a decade since I took a half-eaten chicken from out­side a stranger’s ho­tel room be­cause I had no money for food. Now it is pos­si­ble I achieved this myth­i­cal elite sta­tus in the in­ter­ven­ing years; I am writ­ing this col­umn. But my as­sailant is a Well Known Com­men­ta­tor whose only stum­bling block in his many well­paid me­dia gigs is that he holds on to them like a man in a greasy pig com­pe­ti­tion.

I do un­der­stand where he is com­ing from, how­ever, hav­ing grown up in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances. Mum raised me and my two sib­lings on her own while work­ing for mea­gre pay. Our fa­ther paid $21 a month child sup­port for most of that time. Were it not for the lo­cal Catholic Church and its com­mu­nity, we would have had more than one des­o­late Christ­mas.

This man, whose fa­ther died when he was a teenager, be­came mayor at 30 and leader of the ALP be­fore los­ing an elec­tion. His wife is a lawyer. He breeds race­horses for fun. None of th­ese are bad things, un­less you’ve glazed your per­sona in the re­sent­ment of never fit­ting into the class you’ve now be­longed to for decades.

What com­men­ta­tors — well-read, well-con­nected — never dis­close is that elitism is built on cul­tural cap­i­tal. Not just the big stuff, ei­ther. By the time I’d fin­ished high school I had read only three classics. I never fin­ished Pride and Prej­u­dice, as man­dated, but nailed the es­say based on the four-hour BBC drama. I knew of some art­works, but only by in­di­rect means. Whistler’s Mother was fa­mous, I knew, be­cause Mr Bean ru­ined it in a movie. I saw a few for­eign-lan­guage films on SBS, but only be­cause we had dial-up in­ter­net and I stayed up late to see naked peo­ple. Such were the times.

We laugh, but there is an acute shame in all of this. I won a schol­ar­ship to a pri­vate univer­sity, about which I cared lit­tle, but it came with a news­pa­per cadet­ship so I went. Dur­ing one of the vale­dic­tory speeches I lis­tened to a stu­dent give a speech in which he lamented the rise of schol­ar­ships “di­lut­ing the elite sta­tus of the univer­sity” for the full-fee pay­ing among them.

I cried when, in my late teens, I sat next to some of th­ese stu­dents at a tep­pa­nyaki restau­rant dur­ing an of­fi­cial func­tion and went hun­gry be­cause I did not know how to use the chop­sticks and was too em­bar­rassed to ask. Days be­fore, I’d never even heard of such a restau­rant. It’s enough to make a man an­gry, I get it. My provo­ca­teur must have known this feel­ing. It has riled him for decades. I sus­pect not, how­ever, out of con­cern for the mil­lions of other Aus­tralians to whom this con­tin­ues to hap­pen but on ac­count of his own wounds, which have fes­tered.

Both Mark Latham and I made it out of this mi­lieu, whether he wants to ad­mit it or not, though I re­main teth­ered to it in weekly bat­tles to sup­port Mum through the drug ad­dic­tion of a very close fam­ily mem­ber that has raged for years. I have feared for her safety more of­ten than I care to think about. None of us has the re­sources or so­cial lever­age to even start an in­ter­ven­tion, let alone make re­hab work.

There is a cer­tain ac­cess that comes to be­ing in the me­dia, though noth­ing of the sort the anti-elites would have you be­lieve. It is true that when Mum feared our rel­a­tive had been in­volved in a se­ri­ous car ac­ci­dent I called po­lice me­dia to get some ba­sic de­tails and put her mind at ease. It wasn’t him. I did not feel elite.

This is the “real Australia” the com­men­ta­tors claim to rep­re­sent, though of course they do not. They peer in, as if through a win­dow at a zoo, and sketch clown­ish car­i­ca­tures of our lives. I use my ex­pe­ri­ence only be­cause I know it, though there are many whose ex­pe­ri­ences out­side main­stream pol­i­tics and power de­serve to be cap­tured in minu­tiae in­stead of air­brushed by point­less slo­gans.

But I get it, the resid­ual hurt and anger. I know the fis­sures out­siderism can leave on the soul, par­tic­u­larly when you’ve wanted to be­long some­where but end up be­tween the start and the fin­ish. Even now, I find my­self won­der­ing if this might have been more pow­er­fully ar­gued, more elo­quently put, if I’d known more peo­ple who’d read the right books when I was younger.

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