While the MEAA, the union representing journalists and clowns, disapproves of going undercover in pursuit of stories, blending in with the natives has a venerable place in journalism’s ink-stained annals. George Orwell got himself nicely shickered in order to report what it was like to spend a night in the cells. John Howard Griffin slapped on the bottled suntan to live as a negro and report first-hand a black man’s lot in a segregated America. And not to forget the great Nellie Bly, one of the first female reporters, who exposed the mistreatment of the mentally infirm by feigning madness and having herself committed. To this day, the New York Press Club honours the brightest up-and-coming reporters with an annual award in her name.
But in Australia, the MEAA says that sort of intrepid investigation shouldn’t be pursued: “…identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast” is how Article 8 of the Code of Ethics puts it. If Bly had followed that guideline she would have been told all was well in the Blackwell’s Island Asylum , that rumours of abuse were vile slurs on selfless civil servants. Then she would have been sent on her way with a press release to re-write, plus a warning that any stories depicting supervising officials as less than exemplary would prompt a flurry of career-ending defamation writs. Modern journalism would resolve the problem with an interminable series about the root causes of mental illness, with the asylum’s principals quoted at length about the need for more funding to “raise awareness” of the need for, yes, more funding. When it comes to the public’s right to demand answers of empire-building bureaucrats, we may have lost a little ground over the past century or so.
Bly’s exploits were niggling at the back of my mind on Sunday’s sunny morning while trying to impose some order on a garden that has welcomed the Melbourne spring with a tangle of weeds and disorder seldom evidenced outside the space between Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s ears. A community radio station was babbling from the transistor as I yanked at thistles – listening to feral lefties assuring each other of their worth and wisdom is, I admit, a peculiar and perverse pleasure – and those self-congratulatory ejaculations were punctuated by reminders that the People’s Climate March would shortly kick off from the steps of the Melbourne Library. I’d fallen asleep the night before with a copy of Nellie Bly: Dardevil, Reporter, Feminist and, earlier in the week, had finished The Yellow Kids, a first-rate account of Bly’s fellow muckrakers and their derring-do in reporting the Spanish-American War. As Radio Ratbag promoted the upcoming march, a notion grew that it would be instructive to make like Bly and join the lunatics for a spell. A stroll down Swanston Street in colourful company seemed the perfect excuse to stop pulling weeds, which only grow back in any case.
By this stage it was late, less than an hour before the big parade’s 11am start, and that presented a choice: swap the gardening duds for something more respectable or whip up a quick sign to better mesh with the crowd? There was time for one or the other but not both. The sign won, as previous experience of leftist rallies suggested a great tolerance for sartorial innovation. While covering the G20 protests in 2007, bizarre fashions were the norm. A little girl in as tutu beat coppers with a stolen truncheon while squads of anarchists in white boilersuits flung bottles, smashed police trucks and, at one point, heaped obscenities on a woman of a certain age who had the temerity to appear in public with her fluffy, bourgeois lapdog. There were clowns, some of whom dressed deliberately as such, and scurrying bands of youths with bandanas pulled up to just beneath their eyes.
A couple of months ago, when the March in Marchers denounced Tony Abbott for not being Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Bob Brown or Leon Trotsky, the regalia was equally flamboyant — so my orange board shorts, fluorescent green work socks and tattered flannelette shirt were unlikely to occasion adverse comment. The sandals were a bit of a worry, though, as they had been purchased in Jerusalem and Israel is not a favoured spot with the modern left. Still, lacking a label or yellow star to identify them as Jew shoes, I figured they would probably go unnoticed. Anyway, what could be more appropriate for a day of marching and chanting than comfy, organic leather (admittedly Semitic) sandals?
The sign, though, that demanded some thought. It had to express the latest top-of-the-pops memes, the sort that I hear amplified daily with the help of the taxpayer dollar on the ABC, SBS and my local community station.
Polar bears drowning … Muslims vilified … climate carnage coming soon …. the bottomless evil of Tony Abbott’s black Catholic heart.
The sign wrote itself. On one side, the simple and direct, “Abott (sic) = Mega Death”. On the other, “Polar Bears Now Muslim Victims”. The latter really needed a comma after “bears”, but as many of the marchers would be teachers or the recent products of their classrooms, it was safe to assume only a handful would be fluent in basic grammar. Daubed on a sheet of surplus wallpaper with left-over fence paint and bent for display over the tines of a lawn rake, those messages demanded to be waved high and proud.
AT THE Library there was quite a crowd, a good 7000-or-so by the unoficial estimate of one policeman with whom I spoke, although the organisers insist it was 30,000. Mind you, Tim Flannery was leading the march, along with Christine Milne and Adam Bandt, so that gross over-estimate may well have been the work of his climate-modelling cobbers at the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology. In Perth, the city Flannery predicted might be reduced to a ghost town by warming’s droughts, an ironic rain would bucket down on the climate crusaders, but in Melbourne, where our infamously variable weather could do with a good deal less climate action, it was a classic blue-sky afternoon.
The warmth was good news for the bare-chested Samoan dance troupe in their green laplaps and grassy gaiters, who had flown all the way to Melbourne to intimidate Gaia’s foes with belligerent chants and choruses of grunting. Why Samoans should be so exercised about the climate seemed odd, as a considerable body of research suggests most Pacific islands are dynamically stable or getting larger, not sinking as the protesters prefer to believe. And if they are destined to go under, Samoans can rest easy in the knowledge that their bowyangs will be amongst the very last to feel the damp. The tiny nation’s two main islands, Savai’i and Upolo, are volcanic peaks rising respectively to 1858 metres and 1113 metres above sea level. It seems the carbon-spewing jet that brought them to Melbourne will not greatly have increased the perils their grandchildren are going to face.
Not that Flannery’s words would have re-assured them. In a short speech before the march set off he asserted that climate-change’s drivers are already saddling the Australian taxpayer with some $2.5 billion in health-care costs. He was talking about coal and particulant pollution, presumably, but neglected to note that cold spells claim many more lives than heatwaves. But the crowd wouldn’t have appreciated that, nor heard it above the applause for the palaeontologist’s intimations of dire and terrible things. As someone who recently lost his $180,000-a-year part-time job (and travel expenses) fronting the disbanded Climate Commission, Flannery is a bona fide expert on the pain that a change in the wind can inflict.
To fit in with the crowd I took another lead from Nellie Bly and cheered lustily, pumping my sign with a madcap passion. There was even an attempt to shout “Put Tim in The Lodge”, but no one took up the refrain. My fervour must have been seen as some sort of preliminary mating display, because there next came a tug on my elbow. I turned and found no one there, then looked down and observed a short, round, ruddy-faced, sixty-something lady gazing upward from beneath a Paddington Bear hat. She liked my Abbott sign, she said, and wished she had made one of her own as “homegrown is always better” than the printed placards organisers distribute to the congregation.
This presented a moral dilemma. In joining the rally I had decided against opening conversations with my fellow marchers. It would be just too easy, I figured, to prompt outrageous quotes, and I wanted the afternoon to be an observational exercise, rather than a catalytic one. By this point, Ms Bear was making what I can only conclude were romantic overtures, telling me more about herself than I cared to learn and, at one point, giving my elbow a lingeringly affectionate squeeze. It must have been the green socks. Fortunately, at that very moment, the march began in earnest, so we drifted apart in the shuffling throng and Cupid’s dart was never fired. Still, you lonely re-cyclers, don’t give up hope of love. She’s out there somewhere, this cuddly little ball of lentils and noble intentions, awaiting her good, green man, who will likely discover that a wealth of sustainable sentiments is not her only home-grown stash.
At Quadrant we are inured to the left’s disdain, never getting invitations to join in the fun at writers’ festivals, nor receiving very much in the way of Australia Council grants to pay our way if we were. Why should the Jeff Sparrows and Overlanders, who won’t publish a poem by anyone whose verse has appeared in Quadrant, get to rub against the likes of Flannery and Milne while poor conservatives languish in the unfunded leprosarium to which arts administrators have consigned us? I resolved to change that, at least the proximity bit, and worked my way to the very front of the procession, where Flannery, who may have put on a kilo or two about the waist since splitting with his wife, had waddled with Milne before falling behind. She seemed happy enough without him, those eyes crinkling like a pair of cats’ bottoms when she smiled, and she was forever smiling. Out for a sunny stroll, an entire city stopped in its tram tracks as she and 7000 friends put moral superiority on display, why wouldn’t Senator Milne wear a satisfied grin at perpetrating such disruption?
No disagreements nor discord in this assembly of the virtuous. Ferals and doctors’ wives, glowing vegans, colourful ethnics to be patronised in their lovely native loincloths, doctrinaire socialists of several different factional persuasions, unionists and students, advocates of animal rights, concerned grannies, Age readers and other, even more trusting children convinced by their parents that, really and truly, mankind’s biggest problem is his own presence on the planet. Once upon a time children were put to sleep with fairy tales; now the Sandman comes with lists of public enemies and nightmares of extinction.
Surely someone will take exception to my sign, I thought, ask me to drop back or put it out of sight. But, no, that didn’t happen, perhaps because my slogans were far from the only example of idiocy on a stick. There was the man with the sign saying “Stop Killing Us” — a plea that must have been heeded, as he made it to the Treasury gardens safe and sound. The crowd was somewhat more middle-class than those responsible for the G20 riots and it evinced nowhere near the level of anger that characterised March’s sullen schlep to protest “the Abbott regime”. Instead, after turning into Bourke Street for the Treasury Gardens, it was all jolly little schoolyard rhymes, like this number:
Down with coal and gas,
Up with wind and sun.
The power shift
It has begun
Warmists must have poor memories because a fetching young woman in a tight GetUp T-shirt, dark eyes a’blaze, was obliged to walk backwards in front of Milne all the way to the gardens, leading the chants. Alas, neither my double-fronted placard nor cheerful socks captivated her as they had the vanished Ms Bear, so the pleasure of whispering logical argument in her delicate ear did not progress beyond a climate marcher’s footsore reverie.
Her cheer squad’s fading chants as the march progressed suggested they could have used some help from the Tongan chest-thumpers, but distant cries to make a missionary tremble established that the islanders were well to the rear. Perhaps they had captured the attention of CBD shoppers and lingered to put on a show, which would have made them the exception to the rule, as the footpath crowd’s reaction seemed to be one of bored indifference. Actually, that’s not entirely true. There was that much-pierced young man in the leather jacket who responded with a sneer and the single digit when I implored him to join the mob and do his bit for the planet. He could have used a shower and a blacksmith, but it was nevertheless encouraging to see such rudeness directed at my fellow paraders and the conceit of their conspicuous enlightenment. There is hope for the younger generation yet!
Oh, and there was also the young woman in the Mazda econobox who was blocked by the march at the corner of Collins and Spring streets. It was impossible to hear her full opinion of the campaign for climate justice, but one word – “morons” – was clear and audible. She waited quite a spell for the march to pass, her car pumping out big mobs of CO2. But practicality and real-world considerations (“We can replace all fossil fuels today, right now, with wind and solar…”) were not to the fore. As Walter Russell Mead, writing of the weekend’s parades in the US, put it for The American Interest,
“…street marches today are to real politics what street mime is to Shakespeare … an ersatz event: no laws will change, no political balance will tip, no UN delegate will have a change of heart. The world will roll on as if this march had never happened. And the marchers would have emitted less carbon and done more good for the world if they had all stayed home and studied books on economics, politics, science, religion and law. Marches like this create an illusion of politics and an illusion of meaningful activity to fill the void of postmodern life; the tribal ritual matters more than the political result.”
What really mattered on Saturday in Melbourne was solving a mystery: what was the story with this new superannuation fund, FutureSuper, being advertised by clean-cut young men and women with handfuls of promotional material to distribute? The fund, the flyers explained, is “Australia’s first fossil fuel free” retirement initiative and, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported, it stands to benefit from the sage advice of seasoned business leader and former Liberal spearhead John Hewson, whose involvement may or may not inspire confidence, depending on how closely one followed the Elderslie bankruptcy. Malcolm Fraser’s business insights must not have been available.
The fund’s other leading light is the much-loved (by the ABC) Simon Sheikh, whose woozy swallow dive into the desk on Q&A provided some of the ABC’s best viewing since Bellbird was taken off on the air. Sheikh, the former chief of GetUp, whose members were so prominent and noisy on the march, has not had a good trot lately. There was a foray into the fund-raising business and the recent abrupt closure of his operation’s Melbourne and Sydney offices and, before that, his losing run as the Greens’ ACT candidate for the Senate. Such adversity might have deterred a lesser man, but not the Face-Flop Kid. He was waiting at his booth in the Treasury Gardens with a Mr Ed smile, a glad hand for all comers, of which there were many, and plenty of aditional promotional material that included a handy palm card of anti-carbon chants.
As Sunday’s marchers are so savvy about the way the world needs to be run, preferably by them, one assumes they paid attention to Sheikh’s prospectus, which detailed annual fees of $1044 (plus the possibility of additional charges) on a super account of $50,000. Coal, oil and gas may or may not be “sustainable” but, draped in green or red in tooth and claw, the profit motive marches ever onward.
FOOTNOTE: It was never the intention to mention my attire or the fact that I jumped the fence and joined the climate justice zoo, but the blogger Tim Blair changed all that. On Saturday afternoon he published a picture of the march that framed my green socks and me as incidental figures in the background.
One of his readers took exception to my footwear and the caustic comments began to flow. I was “old” and “scary” and, according to one instant expert, none too healthy, which simply isn’t true. Indeed, since swearing off the fags and limiting alcohol consumption to health-giving reds (the science is settled, or close enough to be settled), I am the very picture of vim and vitality. And, as Ms Bear demonstrated, a figure of immense sexual magnetism.
These are slights I cannot allow to stand, as they are unfair to me and – a bit of climate justice here – Sunday’s true believers as well, who would take umbrage at being associated with a climate-change sceptic, especially one unfunded by the Australia Council. They might live in mortal fear of farting cows, swear blind that global temperatures are rising when the global trend has not registered a significant upward movement in almost two decades, retain a pristine faith in peer review and persist in believing The Economist is still a credible source of information, but be snapped with a denier?
Not on your Nellie Bly!
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online. He left the climate rally early to watch Footscray trounce Box Hill and win the VFL Grand Final, the first premiership flag to grace Whitten Oval since 1954.