Minding your “R’s” and “Q’s”, Michael Morley

Letter from Australia

It is one of the oddities in the history of Australian drama that over 200 years of writing for the stage have produced few political plays of either substance or wit. This is all the more intriguing when one recalls that the first play performed in the new colony was Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, presented in 1789 by convicts to mark George III’s birthday. Between Louis Esson’s The Time Is Not Yet Ripe of 1912 and Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant Is Dancing of 1983, about the only work that looks at politics and the behaviour and personalities of those involved is Michael Boddy’s and Bob Ellis’ knockabout musical melodrama/satirical extravaganza from 1971, The Legend of King O’Malley.

Over the past months I can’t help thinking that I am surely not the only observer of the political and theatrical scene who might have longed for some latter-day Boddy and Ellis to treat the topic of the Great Debate as a subject for a comic opera or musical burlesque. The Land of Oz has a fondness for Great Debates and pithy phrases (“clever country” has recently been replaced by the loftier “knowledge nation”); but the current long-running debate is, we are told, the most crucial of all – on the topic of the (“don’t mention the WAR!”) “R-(epublic) word”.

It would be, in one sense, reassuring to infer from some of the contributions to this debate that one or two of the participants might possibly have been aware of a passage from the first substantive reflection on the topic, where its author wonders whether “we could contrive … some magnificent myth that would in itself carry conviction to our whole community.” Alas, reading and listening to most of the yes/no/maybe/perhaps-yes-but-not-this-one/no-now-but-yes-in-the-future-to-a-different-model advocates, one is tempted to conclude that Pluto rather than Plato is the reference point for the participants. Or maybe Mickey Mouse?

After all, in this debate on the question whether Australia should become a republic, it was first of all the most vocal spokesman for the yes movement who seriously proposed that neither the “R-word” nor the “P-(resident) word” be mentioned in the actual wording, for fear it might scare off the voters. Some of his opponents – and there are plenty of them throughout the country – have regularly accused Malcolm Turnbull, R-advocate extraordinaire, millionaire merchant banker, stock market player and Chardonnay (Bollinger?) Socialist, of being somewhat out of touch with the “common people”. However, although his normally ruddy countenance clearly blanched at the initial thought of the herd actually seeing the “R-” and “P-words” in print, more sensible and down-to-earth counsels seem to have prevailed since the first fluttering of tailfeathers and keening cries of dismay from the peacock park.

I’m not quite sure what led to the change of heart (or rather linguistic sensitivities): it may have been the fact that, encouraged by the R’s, the anti-R’s in their turn started to demand that there be no mention of the “Q- word” in the referendum question. In other, well, words: don’t mention what you might actually be voting for or against, in case the plebs might make a connection between those letters of the alphabet and what they actually represent, or, to be really up to date, signify.

Now surely someone with an irreverent cast of mind and appreciation of Offenbach, Gilbert and Sullivan or even the Gershwins (as in their political musical Of Thee I Sing) might have thought about the possibility of turning all this into Act I of a comic musical? And somewhere early in the show one would have to find space and a melody for one of the more colourful exchanges between two participants in the debate – the remark by Christopher Pearson, editor of The Adelaide Review, and a nay-sayer, which he addressed to R-advocate Turnbull; viz, that he “would love to see him in blue satin skin-tight pants.”

The average reader could be pardoned for assuming that Pearson had detected qualities in Turnbull that nobody, least of all his macho R-allies, had hitherto expected. But, as it turned out, this wish for some colourful camp(aign) costuming emerged as a perfect instance of the old intentionality vs new critical/close reading debate. Before the media could embrace the image and turn it overnight into a fully-fledged Down Under version of all those British tales of politicians’ unusual preferences and performances, Pearson hurried to explain that his frame of reference had nothing whatever to do with sexual drag-wardrobe fantasies. He was merely hinting at links between citoyen Turnbull and the rather better-known citoyen Robespierre from an earlier R-.

In case all this might suggest that I am a monarchist manqué, let me add that the only reason I haven’t found space to say much about the nay-sayers is that their drabness and mediocrity don’t actually lend themselves to colourful re-telling. After all, the chief defender of the faith in the Q- and M- was Little Johnnie Howard, he who discouraged his ministers from taking each other on in public (Treasurer Costello, for example, is pro-R-; Foreign Minister Downer is pro-Q-). “This is a free vote”, he declared. On the evidence so far, pretty well free of anything like a case.

All a bit odd really, coming from the same great philosopher and constitutional draughtsman who called
in poet Les Murray to help with the preamble to the Constitution, and who overruled his preferred scribe by insisting on the inclusion of the word “mateship” (!) in the meandering text. If he wasn’t going to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, argument-to-argument with his Q-mates, where was he going to stand? Presumably on Bob Menzies’ old reliable, deep-toned desk, which he caused to be brought forth from the dungeons of Old Parliament House, to replace the all-too-modern, custom-designed, light-hued model at which his predecessors had happily seated themselves.

Don’t let anyone say that John Howard has no sense of tradition or symbolic values. Perhaps Act I of the wished-for musical could close with him leaping onto the Menzies desk and launching into a stirring musical number built round those immortal words borrowed by Bob and bestowed on Young (or, in those days, Younger) Bess II: “I did but see her passing by/ And yet I love her till I die.”

This is also the politician who upheld the case for East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, while at the same time not-arguing (yet) for the status quo in his own country. Connoisseurs of double-speak, rejoice and be, if not gay, then happy that the Politics of Oz has so much to offer the observer – even without the whole sorry history of Labor and Liberal support for what a former diplomat has referred to as the “mendacious” Indonesian regime. For that tale, now complicated by former Prime Minister Keating’s ill-calculated attempt to make Howard solely responsible for the events in East Timor, deserves at least two acts of a less-than-comic operatic treatment. It would need to feature Placido Domingo Keating (his own preferred and frequently proffered comparison) in a lead role locked in a soaring quartet of mutual admiration with former P- Suharto, former Foreign Minister Evans, and former Foreign Minister Alatas, possibly with an offstage chorus of generals.

How would it go? Probably along the lines of a combination of Cole Porter’s “Friendship” with Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul’s “The Treaty’s (which was, after all, kept secret in 1995 from most of the Cabinet as well as the whole country) in the Very Best of Hands”.

Michael Morley is a New Zealander teaching in the Drama Department at Flinders University, Adelaide.

On 6 November Australians rejected the republican model put to them in a referendum.

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