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NOH, Kevin, NOH……A play with five characters

By Garry Wotherspoon - posted Thursday, 28 March 2013

The tumult and the shouting have died down, the blood has been hosed off the stage, the masks will soon be put on again, a new scene begins - although the accusations of betrayals and spinelessness will continue to fly. From an historian's perspective, the high drama and the high farce of last week can be seen as a sort of Japanese Noh play; the parallels abound. Noh plays are extremely intense and reflect the artful use of emptiness and silence. Every moment is choreographed and rife with symbolism. There is no one on the stage who isn't seemingly necessary for that precise moment. Everything must be kept absolutely simple and clearcut. And there is even a villain, offstage but gloating.

This play has five characters.

First there is that crouching tiger, smiley Kevin; often bold, supremely self-confident, a nerd Prime Minister insensitive to colleagues and underlings alike, the identifier of 'the greatest moral challenge of our times', and betrayed at the height of his glory. Bitter?


Then there is Simon, no 'Simple Simon' this one, but one steeped in the traditions of the party, from a family with a history of loyal and distinguished service. A veritable Cincinnatus, a man of integrity, embodying the best Roman virtues. A 'selfless' man, but perhaps also willing to bargain for a place in history again.

Then there is Julia, born in Wales but no coal-miner's daughter. She's a woman of steel, a negotiator but also a patient temporiser; like Mao, she knows when to smile and wait. Supported by the 'right' unions, she has 'the right stuff'. Much of the sisterhood chorus is vocal in its support for this innovation, a female Prime Minister.

And there is also Tony, a newly-minted version, with hair products and face aglow, no misogynist this one, the yellow hard-hat gone and now dancing with schoolgirls, impatient for that final scene, where he walks onto the stage, triumphant. The prize is seemingly within his grasp.

Despite all the accusations about incompetent government from the Opposition and the Murdoch press, Parliament under Gillard is getting things done, and across areas such as the economy, the environment, health, education and communications. Her government has seen nearly 500 bills passed since the end of 2010, including big-ticket reforms such as the price on carbon and most recently - even as all that blood-letting was being plotted - the National Disability Insurance Scheme. And now there is a law to allow the Australian Electoral Commission to use Tax Office data to put voters on the electoral roll, and four and a half million Australians on pensions and welfare benefits will have their incomes boosted for various ameliorative reasons.

And the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring coal seam gas proposals to face federal environmental impact studies on their use of water.

And Legislation has been introduced over a wide range of areas: to extend the Sex Discrimination Act to outlaw discrimination against gays, lesbians, transgender and intersex Australians; to require superannuation funds to help members to consolidate multiple accounts; to establish an agency to try to eradicate asbestos; to require financial planners and financial advisers to be licensed; and to give workers the right to request more flexible working arrangements, to require employers to consult them about changes to rosters and working hours, and to extend their rights to unpaid parental leave


Journalists are often focussed on the events of the day, and with events like those that occurred last week, who can blame them. But historians tend to see things from a longer-term perspective, and often from afar.

And so while Tony can dance all he likes, he isn't dancing on the grave of the ALP - yet. Despite all those increasingly shrill Opposition voices with their regular and repeated demands for an early election – they are sorely pining for their chance to sit in those plush offices - is it likely that any of the cross-benchers are going to vote themselves into oblivion before September? Not bloody likely!

And Tony ought to keep in mind a lesson from history. If a party in government can dethrone a leader even if he or she is popular – think Bob Hawke and Margaret Thatcher and Ted Baillieu and countless other leaders around the world – think of what might happen if he remains VERY unpopular. He might well need to ask his friend Cardinal Pell to intercede for some interventions from 'Him on high'; a rise in his own popularity, while certainly a small and much-appreciated miracle, could defer any knife sharpening that might already be happening at 104 Exhibition Street, Melbourne, the heartland of Sir Robert Menzies, a place with a very different tradition of Liberalism.

For waiting in the wings of course is that hidden dragon, Malcolm. And even though a party might appreciate a leader who can get them into office, they needn't necessarily want to keep that leader in office if it is seen in the party's interest to make a change. Populism extracts its own price.

As they say, it all ain't over till the fat lady sings…..

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About the Author

Garry Wotherspoon is a former academic and NSW History Fellow, whose books include Sydney’s Transport: Studies in Urban History, The Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts: A History, and Gay Sydney: A History. He was awarded Australia’s Centenary of Federation Medal for his work as an academic, researcher and human rights activist.

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