Bad year, good books

Appearing in Australian Spectator, Christmas issue

A decade from now, we might look back at 2020 and laugh. Then again, maybe not. It has been a difficult year but at least there has been some decent things to read while stuck in quarantine.

One of the most interesting books is The Rare Metals War (published by Scribe) by French writer Guillame Pitron. He is interested in a category of materials that underpin renewable energy and digital technology, a group known as ‘rare earth metals’. Some, like platinum and germanium, are fairly well-known while others, such as cerium, dysprosium, and yttrium, are obscure to all but specialists. Always alloyed with some other material and only available in tiny quantities they are difficult and dangerous to mine. But they have properties that make them essential in computers, cellphones, catalytic converters, solar panels, wind turbines and, most of all, batteries. Far from being clean and safe, says Pitron, renewable energy and digital technology involve a range of costs connected to these materials. But green activists in the West, obsessed with fossil fuels, have chosen to ignore those costs.

China has worked hard to hard to corner the market, accepting the terrible environmental and social damage. There are no prizes for guessing where this might lead but Pitron notes that rare earth metals occur in many places, including Australia. If companies (with government support) are willing to make the required investments they can break China’s stranglehold. Pitron is not confident this will happen but you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Former diplomat Geoff Raby takes a broader look at the rising superpower in China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order (Melbourne University Press). He believes that China has already achieved enough of its goals – dominance in the region through economic weight, critical influence everywhere else – that it feels it can ignore Western complaints, especially of its human rights record at home and its meddling abroad. Despite this, Raby believes that Australia should work to develop its diplomatic ties with China and with countries that share Australia’s concerns. This would probably not hurt but it is difficult to see why the hard men in Beijing would take talkfests and entreaties seriously in the future when they have not in the past.

If straight talking is needed then perhaps diplomats should read Rooted: An Australian History of Bad Language (NewSouth) by Amanda Laugesen, a dictionary specialist. It provides a colourful romp through our legacy of swearing and slang, tracing the origins and evolution. We are a creative people when it comes to finding ways to express ourselves, and coining new insults is akin to a national sport. But Laugesen notes that at some point bad language can become intimidating and even frightening, especially when it has a misogynist edge. She cites a series of harassing messages that union boss John Setka sent to his wife, and which resulted in a court case in 2019; they are undeniably disturbing. Nevertheless, Rooted is an entertaining package, although it might not suit those who are easily offended.

Someone who has the capacity to laugh at themselves is Christopher Pyne, who held a range of positions over a long political career. In The Insider (Hachette) he reveals that he started off believing he could become Prime Minister, although he eventually realised that it was unlikely for a South Australian from the minority liberal wing of a conservative party. But he pressed on and moved up the ministerial hierarchy, notching up a number of policy achievements.

Never a hater, he was happy to get along with people on the other side, and some of the funniest incidents of the book deal with sharing media platforms with opponents. He also recounts the various leadership changes of the Liberal Party, some of them ruthlessly efficient while others were exercises in Olympic-level bungling. In the end, Pyne departed at a time of his choosing and with a good amount of grace, which is more than can be said for many others.

While Pyne is moving on Tim Wilson likes to project himself as an up-and-comer. His stated intention in The New Social Contract (Kapunda Press) is to bring liberal philosophy back to the political mainstream. Conservatism, he says, is reaching a dead end and is unable to respond to emerging social issues. The generation of Millennials is drifting towards socialism, although it is a type of socialism so mushy and vague it hardly qualifies as an ideology. Liberalism can provide an alternative to both, especially if it is built around decentralisation of power, a fairer tax system, and a resurgence of home ownership amongst the younger generations.

But his project looks difficult at best. He is trying to claim ground that is already occupied, and has been for some time. Yes, home ownership and tax fairness are good objectives, but is there anyone who disagrees? Does the constituency that Wilson is aiming at, in the centre but not already held by the major parties, actually exist? Still, one must admire him for nailing his colours to the mast and daring to discuss the importance of ideas. We should wish him luck. He will need it.

This year the Miles Franklin Award and the Stella Prize were both won by the novel The Yield (Penguin) by Tara June Winch, and it has also taken a clutch of other awards. At first glance it resembles Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, as both books feature indigenous trauma echoing across generations. But The Yield unfolds in a quite different way. One narrative stream is centred on the Wiradjuri elder Albert Goondiwindi, who seeks to record his life in the form of a dictionary of his language. Another voice is that of his grand-daughter August, returning home after an extended absence. She is forced to reflect on her life, determining where the lines of responsibility should be drawn. The third narrative is told through the letters of a nineteenth century missionary, Ferdinand Greenleaf. It ties the parts of the sad history of the Wiradjuri people together, highlighting the point that good intentions mean little when confronted with the violence of the real world.

The Yield is a carefully layered novel, written with a sense of texture and an ear for language. It is not always easy going but it repays the effort.

Another novel worth a look is the imaginative Factory 19 (Black Inc) by Dennis Glover, set in a decaying Hobart in the near future. At the instigation of a mysterious billionaire the town decides to switch off all the accruements of the Digital Age and return to the year 1948. They even set up a factory that actually makes useful stuff. It works surprisingly well, with a few wrinkles, and the idea begins to spread. But problems set in, with some people wanting to move to the 1970s. Social stratification and militant unions appear, and a couple of eco-terrorists wander in. The story runs off the rails somewhat as it goes on but the essential idea, that the present is not as good as its advertising makes out, is an important and interesting one. Yes, there was life before cellphones, and it had its advantages.

A different take on the Internet comes from the wonderfully titled Trampled by Unicorns (Wiley). Maëlle Gavet asks why so many of the heavyweights of the technology sector – Bezos, Zuckerberg, Kalanick, Musk, and so on – are such awful people. She points to the insularity of Silicon Valley society, the incredible sums of money involved, and the growth-at-any-cost strategies of the companies. There is a belief in tech culture that geniuses are always jerks, and therefore being an uncaring misogynist is simply part of the package. Gavet has no shortage of stories, some of which would show the titans to be merely comical if they did not cause so much pain to other people.

There is little to laugh about in Ben Mckelvey’s Mosul: Australia’s Secret War Inside the ISIS Caliphate (Hachette). To date only fragments of the story have come out, and Mckelvey does a good job of showing the big picture. There are two interwoven stories here: one about the militants living in Australia who eventually ended up in Islamic State (two of them became executioners for ISIS videos after showing a talent for it), and another about the Australian commandos who played an important role in the critical battle of Mosul as well as other aspects of the conflict. The soldiers did everything possible to avoid civilian casualties but the use of innocents as shields by ISIS made it difficult.

Mckelvey points out that the jihadis could be effective and innovative fighters, often led by former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army and equipped with captured US hardware. But he also makes clear that they  were vicious, rapacious thugs, slaughtering people in the territory they controlled for the fun of it. ISIS was an evil cancer that had to be destroyed. The tragedy is that the cost of doing it was so high.

From the title of How to Win an Election (NewSouth) one might think it is about the dynamics and procedures of, well, winning elections. Not so. Wallace, a former Press Gallery journalist turned academic, quickly drops any pretence of fairness to focus on what the ALP needs to do to win. One cannot help but wonder if her hatred – there is no other word – of the Coalition is a universal trait in the Press Gallery. In Wallace-world Labor governments are always elected on a wave of idealism and hope while Liberal-led governments grab office through manipulation and trickery. Morrison, who had the gall to unexpectedly win the 2019 election, makes her splutter with indignation. Conservatives in general give her apoplexy, and she almost runs out of nasty things to say about them. All this reaches a nadir with the claim that Labor often loses because it has too much integrity. Presumably, she does not recall Mediscare. Her prescriptions for Labor – get a good leader, build relationships, create better advertisements – are so obvious that they do not really get you very far. Really, is this the best that the left can do?

This reviewer’s prize for the most unnecessary book of the year, the Trees Are Dying For This Award, was a close call. Lindy Edwards’ Corporate Power in Australia (Monash University Press) examines some interesting cases, including the mining tax and the NBN. Her research is comprehensive but the notion of casting big business as the villain has whiskers on it. No-one particularly likes mega-corporations, and saying that they are nasty things is preaching to the choir.

There were books much like this around forty years ago (and probably before), and they have continued to regularly pop up. There was a slew of them when the Occupy kids – remember them? – were doing whatever it was they did. Edwards’ remedies, such as her suggestion that the government should direct super funds to not invest in companies it does not like, sound a bit silly. It is not a bad book, but the question is: why?

A Highly Commended effort but the TADFTA has to go to What Happens Next: Reconstructing Australia After COVID-19 (Melbourne University Press), a collection of essays edited by Emma Dawson and Janet McCalman. Despite the clear title and the cover having a picture of the virus the book actually has very little to do with COVID-19. The contributions are essentially re-hashes of the standard left-wing agenda, from renewable energy to the republic. Eight of the essays are from current or past ALP politicians, and they have nothing unexpected to say. Some of the contributors tack on a pandemic-related paragraph or two but others don’t bother. So: Ms Dawson, Professor McCalman, you have taken a global disaster and turned it into an opportunity for boilerplate agitprop. The award is yours. Congratulations.

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