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April 19th 2010 print

John Izzard

Moral dilemmas

The notion of doing the right thing has been supplanted by spin, arrogance, and an inability to see anything beyond “the importance of being Me”. Four recent examples of this are the conduct of Peter Garrett, Christine Nixon, Julia Gillard and the artist, Sam Leach.

In the classic WWII film Western Approaches a life-boat is drifting in the mid-Atlantic, its crew occasionally scanning the horizon for sign of a passing vessel. Their own cargo ship had been torpedoed by a German submarine, days before, and their oil and smoke stained faces bare witness to their traumatic experience. Most of their fellow crew-members perished as the ship was hit or were trapped inside as she sank. As the life boat wallows in the dark grey Atlantic a sense of hopelessness sets in. Many of the men are asleep, hunched over their oars, others lay exhausted in the bilge. Then, a half-dozing young seaman spots a thin line of smoke on the horizon. 

Aroused from their misery and pain the crew start to row towards the smoke of the approaching ship. To the smoke is added the tops of the ship’s masts as the life-boat gets closer to it. The sense of a heroic rescue builds as the desperate men row even harder, but this is shattered when one of the crew spots something in the ocean, astern of their life-boat. It is the periscope of the German submarine that had sunk their ship. The moral dilemma is revealed. Do the sailors in their life-boat continue towards their possible rescue ship, and lead the submarine to a new target, or do they change course and lead the submarine away? 

In this selfish, self-centred age, the notion of “doing the right thing”, that terrible corny notion that was represented as one of the now vilified “Victorian values” and revealed so well in Tom Brown’s School Days, is more likely to have you diagnosed as having a mental illness, or at least being slightly odd. The notion of doing the right thing has been supplanted by spin, arrogance, and an inability to see anything beyond “the importance of being Me”. 

Four recent examples of this are the conduct of Peter Garrett, Christine Nixon, Julia Gillard and the artist, Sam Leach. 

Garrett’s performance in overseeing the pink-batts fiasco was a prime example of a man facing a moral dilemma. He had been told of the problems and risks of this hopelessly comprised political project, yet, even as men died undertaking work organised by his department, Garrett steadfastly refused to acknowledge that there was a problem, and when he did, refused accept any responsibility. He had been alerted to the risks and dangers, months beforehand, yet did nothing. In the Rudd government we don’t do resignation. 

Christine Nixon’s position, as Tony Abbott pointed out, “isn’t a good look”. You would imagine that, as the chief government officer in charge of all emergency situations in Victoria, she would crumble under the weight of the revelations that she kept her hair-dressing appointment with her stylist, saw the writer doing her “life story” and went out for a 3 hour dinner as part of her state of Victoria burned and 173 people were dying. And what Christine Nixon found abhorrent in all this, wasn’t any of the above, but the suggestion by the Victorian Royal Commission, that during the nosh-up at the Victorian pub she enjoyed with friends, “she turned off her mobile phone”. Talk about Victorian values!

Julia Gillard’s contribution to the moral dilemma question is subtle, but is equally important for she is the Minister for Education, and has a crucial leadership roll to play in how children travel through the education system. Julia Gillard’s dilemma is how she handles the truth. As William Blake said,

Truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.

Spin is Julia Gillards forte and she does it with consummate skill. Never admit to an error, never apologise, seems to be her guiding light. Nightly television news reveals a constant stream of spin and avoidance of any question that has been preordained to be capable of embarrassment to the Rudd government. Even the Torquemada of the inquisitorial TV reporting, the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien, crumbles at her feet, when trying to get a straight answer to a simple question. As the most likely successor to Kevin Rudd when he eventually crashes and burns, Julia Gillard has a very serious veracity problem.

Sam Leach has been caught out doing a copy of a 17th century Dutch artist’s landscape, of an Italian scene, and passing off his work as an original Australian landscape. Much of the art-world intelligentsia has been keen to jump to his defence — totally ignoring the moral dilemma. For his effort Leach has collected the $25,000 Wynne art prize for an “Australian” landscape. Strangely the Art Gallery of NSW who administers the Wynne bequest, and runs the competition, was most active in exposing paintings done some years ago that were copies of original Australian artists. One of the forgers involved called his work “innuendoes”. The main complaint of the staff of the Gallery of NSW seemed to be that the innuendo artist was making money by copying other artist’s work. 

Leach’s most serious action was to copy another artist’s work and not tell anyone what he had done. Leach knew what he had done and faced a moral dilemma. He chose to be deceitful. 

There is a vast difference, say, between doing a copy of a style, and actually copying a painting, and leaving out certain give-away aspects — like a 17th century boat and people obviously not wearing Nike shoes and a track suit. The other point with a landscape is that the original artists has looked for and chosen a scenic view from a certain angle. It was Adam Pynacker’s choice, that he made in 1668, and Leach should have given him the credit for that choice. Leach claimed; “I’m not sort of ashamed or worried about it.” 

Unfortunately it is the same sort of attitude the Leach seems to share with Peter Garrett, Christine Nixon and Julia Gillard. A prime example of the “Me” society, we seem to be turning into, is the Free-to-Air TV commercial being run on commercial TV stations as well as the ABC and SBS. It is a series of images of various people repeating the phrase, “More for me”. It is all done with a sort of selfish, grasping attitude. If people like Mark Scott, the CEO of the ABC, doesn’t squirm at such arid, self-centred nonsense, what hope is there. 

It is nice to imagine that in a time, not that far back, that Peter Garratt and Christine Nixon would have resigned (without being asked to), Julia Gillard might start being less evasive and Sam Leach returned his prize. But then, that isn’t “the real world”, is it? 

One thing is for certain. I wouldn’t like to be in a life-boat with, Garrett, Nixon, Gillard, Leach or Scott. Oh! By the way, the men in Western Approaches turned their life-boat around.