[Fifth of a series of blog posts about sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas on Saturday 22nd October]
Barry Jones really is a living legend. The list of his achievements and honours is very very long. But…
When Jones gave the Don Dunstan Oration today (Dunstan was a game-changing Labor leader of South Australia in the 60s and 70s), he did not deliver an explanation of “climbing up out of the political abyss” that the title and blurb promised, but rather described that abyss and how we got in it. That description was erudite and entertaining- this is Barry Jones, after all – but it was not what the audience had come for (I spoke afterwards to a couple of people who left half-way through it). The audience was mostly elderly, described to me by one entertaining person as “Whitlam’s offspring; the rat in side the boa constrictor of the system” [Whitlam introduced free tertiary education during his 1972-1975 Prime Ministership].
All that Jones said; that Labor has been the party of change and reform; that the debate has become infantilised and reduced to the purely economic and the personal; that there seems to be an inverse relationship between our access to knowledge and the capacity of our political systems to deal with the concatenating wicked problems – all this was true.
But we in the audience knew that, I think. We had come to hear how he thinks we should get out of this godawful mess, not to hear (entertaining) comparisons between Trump and Lincoln, enumerations of all the silences (on class, problem gambling, the power of lobbying groups, growth as an end in itself, the destruction of human rights, the environmental collapse, the rise of surveillance etc). and an enumeration of the toxicity of media, digital media and social media cycles. And yes, political parties are hollowed out (representing, at best, 0.6 percent of the population, and state funding is simply ‘ armour plating for existing structures’ and factions being – in the words of Robert Ray ‘a whole production line of apparatchiks” Yes, all true (although he didn’t mention it, Jones lost his Minister of Science gig because of factional bargaining, back in 1990).
Yes, the EO Wilson quote on our species having paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technologies was entertaining, but it’s still just an aphorism of the apocalypse. Yes I will look up Mark Thompson’s “Enough Said” but there just wasn’t – to paraphrase Gertrude Stein – a there there.
The word courage in politics is always an excuse (not used by Jones) to refer to the classic scene in Yes Minister about ‘courageous decisions’, so here goes.
I think Jones very probably does have many important and interesting things to say on the question, but he spent so very long outlining the problems that we just didn’t get to hear any of those things. Nor was there a chance for any questions from the floor, which is a bit ironic, since one of the problems is surely a lack of dalogue, no?