Appearing in Australian Spectator, 21 April 2018
Hinch vs Canberra: Behind the Human Headlines
By Derryn Hinch
Melbourne University Press, $25, 210 pages, ISBN 9780522873177
Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia
By Clive Hamilton
Hardie Grant, $33, 356 pages, ISBN 9781743794807
Ah, populism: is it a fulsome democratic expression of giving people what they want or merely join-the-dots fear-mongering? Bit of both, judging from these two books.
Derryn Hinch has certainly chased enough ambulances in his day, through various forms of media. His face and name were, at least, well enough known for him to win a Senate place at the last election, helped along by the complex arithmetic of preferences. He isn’t the strangest person to sit on the red benches but he is probably in the top ten.
Hinch vs Canberra is a diary of his first year in the Senate, and as these things go it is an interesting read. He was not exactly a political novice: in his career he has observed many figures and issues close-up. His personal trajectory has also been wild: he ran completely out of money at one point, has struggled with booze, and has spent time in jail, mainly for contempt after naming accused paedophiles. It is certainly a different profile to the lawyers and political operators that dominate the parliamentary numbers.
His war on paedophiles is a constant theme running through his career, and he counts getting a ban on passports for convicted paedophiles as a major achievement. Hard to argue with it, and it is not the sort of issue that the big parties would take up without a hard push.
On other issues, however, Hinch is all over the place. He talks about the need to give ordinary people a voice but opposed the plebiscite on same-sex marriage. He chides the Turnbull government for not sticking to principles but is quite happy to block them when they try to do so. He accepts the concept of a government mandate but only on those issues he agrees with. And so on. At least he is consistent in his inconsistency. He must be very difficult to negotiate with, simply because it is never clear what he really wants.
Something that comes through in the book is how much the dual-citizenship saga dominated the parliamentary year. He was one of the first to be investigated, as he was born in New Zealand. But he had lodged the required forms; he argues that if he could do it everyone else should have been able to, too. This might be simplifying things a bit, especially in those cases where people unknowingly inherited foreign citizenship through a parent. But there was enough foolishness and hypocrisy to go around, and the issue continues to simmer.
Hinch says he was surprised that being a senator is, well, so much work. It looks much easier from the outside: you don’t see the endless mountain of paperwork and the grinding labour of committee hearings. And no matter what you do you cop a torrent of abuse, especially through social media. The CFMEU in particular has an army of trolls that poured out the invective and threats over the ABCC vote. Hinch is pretty good at brushing it off but for newcomers less experienced with vilification it must be a real trial.
Along the way, he provides some clever sketches of those he encountered. He sees Turnbull as personally genuine and honest. He is lukewarm on Shorten but likes his wife. Mathias Corman, with whom he regularly dealt, is pragmatic and straightforward. The Greens are a mixed bag, united mainly in their tendency to take a good idea and run too far with it. His disdain for Pauline Hanson is exceeded only by his dislike for Gillian Triggs, with whom he traded barbs in committee hearings over 18C.
It must be said that Hinch has a streak of nastiness to him. His constant referral to Joyce as Barnyard Barnaby is merely childish, and sometimes he seems to make trouble for the sake of it. His inclination to refer to himself in the third person becomes grating after a while. Nevertheless, Hinch seems to give the taxpayers their money’s worth, which is more than can be said for many others.
If Hinch is the headline-grabbing sort of populist, left-wing academic Clive Hamilton is more inclined towards the conspiracy theory side of things. Silent Invasion has a roundabout history: Hamilton says that the initial publisher pulled the plug on the book because “they were afraid of retaliation from Beijing”. This comment sets the tone for the book: the tentacles of the Chinese enemy are everywhere, he says.
Yes, Hamilton has some interesting points to make. The hard men who lead the Chinese Communist Party have a very racist view of the world, and see interference in other countries as entirely justified. Yes, there have been donations by Chinese people in Australia, linked to the CCP, to political parties. Yes, the CCP is a thoroughly nasty in the way it operates. Yes, there are Chinese in Australia, mainly students but also a few others, whose loyalty is towards China rather than Australia.
But none of this is new, and whether it amounts to an “invasion” is another question. Stitching together selected quotes and comments does not make a case, especially when successive Australian governments have treated Chinese assertions, such as the claim to the South China Sea, for example, with disdain. But Hamilton marches onwards, even going so far as to say that “China is using fake history to position itself to make a future claim over Australia”. Presumably, Hamilton is meaning scare us, but it just sounds a bit silly.
Is this what the Left has come to? A sort of paranoid quasi-nationalism? Apparently so. It is a pity, because some of these matters deserve serious treatment. They do not find it here.