It reads like a humorous monologue from a witty David Williamson play. Here is a wealthy playwright, with homes in Noosa and Sydney, on a cruise to Noumea which he has won at what appears to be a distress sale at a charity auction. It is soon evident that what Williamson describes as Cruise Ship Australia is heading for stormy seas. The story is told in the latest issue of The Bulletin.
There were "oodles of children" on board and "the adults didn't seem to be discussing Proust or George Eliot". Fancy that. What's more, the passengers enjoyed popular American culture but were interested in neither history nor architecture. Shame. So much so that, on Cruise Ship Australia, "there was no inquiry into anything". Even the games supervisor was best described as "our activities Oberfuhrer" - indicating an all-pervading fascist influence even during "deck parties".
Pretty amusing, eh? The playwright regards his shipboard experience "as a kind of metaphor for Australia". Here's why: "Cruise Ship Australia, all alone in the South Seas sailing to God knows where. And like Australia, many of the passengers didn't care where we were headed."
The evidence suggests that Williamson is in alienation mode. He came to detest his fellow travellers just as soon as he found out that "the ship was stacked to the gunwales with John Howard's beloved aspirational Australians". They were interested in holidays, new cars, kitchen refits, renovations and private education for their children.
What's more, it's all the prime minister's fault. According to Williamson, "we're all living on borrowed time" since "an obsessive focus on material acquisition, encouraged by governments who worship economic growth and little else, have locked us into a probable long-term disaster scenario for Cruise Ship Australia and for the planet as a whole". Phew.
The concept of blaming elected leaders for Australia's perceived social and political woes is a long-standing phenomenon. Unlike Williamson, the late Donald Horne was not alienated from his fellow Australians. Indeed, in his most influential book, The Lucky Country, Horne complained that "Australian intellectuals always expect too much of Australia" and condemned "the continuing serious alienation of Australian intellectuals from their own people".
Horne was far too critical of government. The theme of The Lucky Country was that "Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck". In fact, Australia was relatively well governed before, during and after World War II.
As John Edwards points out in Curtin's Gift (Allen & Unwin, 2005), John Curtin's wartime Labor government engaged Australia in negotiations with its allies Britain and the US which led to the creation of the global economic institutions that played a key role in postwar prosperity.
Robert Menzies' coalition government in the 1950s and 1960s declined to go down the nationalisation path, instead positioning Australia somewhere between the British-New Zealand welfare state and the harsher American model. The Menzies Government can be criticised for not being more reformist but it made few serious economic errors.
As is evident from his 2001 book Looking for Leadership, when Horne bemoaned the lack of leadership in Australia, what he really meant was that he did not agree with the decisions our elected leaders were making. In his view, the leadership had let down the citizenry. Williamson goes much further in blaming the passengers on Cruise Ship Australia for electing the captain. That's real alienation and there is a lot of it around.
The letters columns of broadsheet newspapers and contributions to ABC Radio National's Perspective program are replete with alienated types banging on about contemporary Australia and condemning both the prime minister and the opposition leader, Kim Beazley.
On August 13 The Canberra Times published a rant by Robin Gollan who declared that "we have become a country which is governed by lies and fear" and condemned the Australian-American alliance as a "militaristic plutocracy". The letter writer's journalistic friends did not bother to mention that, as he acknowledged in his book Revolutionaries and Reformers, Gollan was a member of the Communist Party from 1936 to 1957. In those days he had a different attitude to lies and fear, apparently.
Then on Perspective (September 2), actor and producer James Bourne described Australians as "heartless and indifferent". Soon after, during a soft interview on the ABC's The 7.30 Report (September 5), writer Richard Flanagan depicted Australia as a "particularly selfish and mean-spirited nation". Even Mark Latham has got into the act. According to The Latham Diaries, we live in both "an intellectual backwater" and "a sick society". The author has now turned his back on the aspirational politics which he once promulgated.
What the alienated have in common is their opposition to both Howard and Beazley, whose political parties enjoy the support of at least 80 per cent of the Australian population. That's why those on board Cruise Ship Australia seem happy. And that's why their critics are so alienated.