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March 02nd 2011 print

James Allan

Why did I do it?

I’d decided to forego ever again reading anything, anywhere written by Peter van Onselen. I realised I could quite enjoyably read through my morning’s Australian without even a glance at anything running under his by-line. That was my new resolution.


There I was thoroughly enjoying my new resolution. You see I had decided to give it up completely. Never, never, never was I going to do it again.


Henceforth, not for me the ‘expense of spirit in a waste of shame’, and the awful feeling of regret that I’d indulged in doing it. I was making a clean break, a new start, and a better beginning to each day loomed.

What had I decided to give up? I’d decided to forego ever again reading anything, anywhere written by Peter van Onselen. I realised I could quite enjoyably read through my morning’s Australian without even a glance at anything running under his by-line. That was my new resolution.

Don’t get me wrong. In my line of work as a legal academic who is against bills of rights, likes federalism, supports small government, and thinks John Howard was an excellent Prime Minister, I read people all the time whose views differ from mine. And that’s putting it mildly.

Yet sometimes the best things I read in a day are pieces with which I strongly disagree. But they’re interesting. And informative. Sometimes funny. And they take a strong point of view. With Mr. vO, though, there was none of that.

Still, my resolution to run and hide from anything by him came from more than that. It hit me just after the last election. I’d simply by then grown tired of reading yet another Peter van Onselen opinion piece telling us Labor under Julia would win a landslide, or (early election night) had won a landslide, or was more moral, or oozed humanity, or was setting an example of wonderful female leadership for his daughters, or had saved life on earth as we know it – the details all run together in my head.

This was generally combined with a host of backhanded compliments about Tony Abbott. This wasn’t just damning the Opposition leader with faint praise. That alone would hardly be a new thing for the Canberra press gallery and is probably a prerequisite to working for the ABC. No, it was the seeming pretence that really Mr. vO would so like to be a Coalition supporter, if only this, or that, or something else, all the while putting the subtle knife into Abbott in as many new and intriguing ways as any Libyan secret policeman (now no doubt worrying about future unemployment) could imagine.

I just got thoroughly sick of the same old, same old, same old. Hence my resolution late last year never to read another word written by the man. And it was all going along so well. The world as we know it hadn’t ended. I wasn’t any more uninformed or misguided than before. And I had a bit more time each day for maybe a Thomas Sowell column here or the economics and science sections of the Economist there.

And then this morning I went and fell off the wagon. I have no real excuse. I can’t even claim the ancillary and compensating benefits that Charlie Sheen can when he falls off the wagon.

No, this morning I was reading the paper and there in the bottom left corner of page 4 was this tiny, tiny little piece, no more than 250 words or so. Sure, it was running under the van Onselen by-line. But it was so short. So brief. Just a little taste. Surely that couldn’t hurt? Why not give it a quick read?

That’s how it happened. And wouldn’t you know it. Herr vO managed in 250 words to make this wonderful argument of moral equivalence. You see, and I think I have this correct, both Labor AND the Coalition are equally guilty in how they’re portraying the fact that Julia Gillard before the last election stated ‘There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead’ and now she is doing precisely the opposite of what she pledged and actually bringing one in.

Wow! It was magnificent really. Here’s how it works, this van Onselen exercise in sophistical and Jesuitical spin. You don’t start with what Julia did and how Labor is hopelessly trying to explain that. No, you leave that for second. Instead you argue that Abbott’s claims she’s a liar are wrong.

Why? Because lying is a claim about one’s state of mind. And, points out the Master, no one can possibly know this unless that person can look into someone else’s mind and know her thought patterns.

Of course that quibble is true, though in a rather pedantic and useless way. On that argument we can’t know that Hitler was lying to Stalin when they signed their pact; we can’t know that Brad was lying to Jennifer, that anything Gaddafi says is a lie, or even whether anyone was lying about their role in the knifing of Kevin.

Sorry old chap. No can do this throwing around the word ‘lying’ unless you can provide me with authoritative access to that person’s mental state. Can’t do that? Bad luck. Stop using the word. Mr. vO says so.

But of course that’s all rot. When we humans make an accusation of lying we are doing so based on the external evidence to hand, and sometimes that only becomes clear retrospectively. In a parliamentary democracy when the leader of one of the main parties (and more so again in a system where minority governments are very rare) makes an explicit campaign promise just before an election, an unequivocal one, and then after the election breaks that promise, and does not call another election to put that change of mind to the people – the way Mr. Howard did with the GST – then only the most quibbling, closet Labor cheerleader could complain when the allegation of lying is cast about.

To equate that to the Labor party spin trying to justify that broken promise, to lump them both together when there is no moral or political equivalence of any sort on this matter, is pathetic.

Of course I have no one to blame but myself. I fell off the wagon and for what? I think I’ll give Mr. Sheen a call and switch to booze, fast women and drugs. That would be easier on my blood pressure.