An uncultivated continent?

IMAGINE IF Captain Phillip and his charges sailed from Botany Bay into Port Jackson today. Never fear, we would be secure. The Minister for Home Affairs would quickly round up the poorly-armed marines, would-be settlers, miserable convicts and people smugglers.

Before being whisked away, the intruders might note an astoundingly “uncultivated continent”, finding oil refineries, container terminals, waterfront mansions, soaring buildings and vast urban stretches. Around the coast, they might possibly have sighted some patches of agribusiness, somewhere amid the rest being burnt.

That was the strange, industrial Australia I tried to evoke in One Continuous Picnic, my gastronomic history, published in 1982. Back then, the place was feeding on cans, frozen packets and plastic. Fresh, local foods were widely assumed to be doomed. Indigenous culture was discarded. Little nuance was needed. A “land without peasants”. We only ate on rather than of the land.

My history mentioned instances of the colonists resorting to, and sometimes enjoying, native foods. I spent a couple of introductory pages on Aboriginal eating, apologising that the existing records would require another book (and subsequent appearances include Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, 2014).

My sole example was Western Desert people, rounded up for the British atomic tests. Relying on a paper by anthropologist Dr Richard Gould, I sketched their “complicated skills and culture which had sustained them perhaps 40,000 years in apparently inhospitable conditions”. I mentioned them, I said, to “highlight our own profoundly novel way of feeding”, contrasting their “respect for the immediate environment and the invaders’ indifference”.

In the mid-1990s, I learned about semi-permanent settlement and complex horticulture, when Marion Maddox and I wrote a book on the Hindmarsh Island affair, involving the Ngarrindjeri of the Murray Mouth.

Incidentally, such was the well-financed legal ferocity of that anti-Indigenous campaign, including Slapp writs (Strategic lawsuits against public participation), through which obsessed parties from Tony Abbott to Chris Kenny assisted John Howard into power, that, understandably, no publisher would touch our revelations.

I should not have spoken originally of an “uncultivated continent” to cover Indigenous supervision; but my main contrast was between Australia in 1982 and what I had discovered in Italy, where people still enjoyed good cooking, fresh markets, and handy gardens, orchards and vineyards.

Much more has been written about Australian food since, both about the successes before the First Fleet, and the at least partially improved prospects, but my book had established eating as historically insightful, and I stick to the broad case.

My latest contribution, Meals Matter (2020), generalises the claim to assert that capitalism has systematically uncultivated the world, in the sense of trivialising gastronomic talk, along with separating people from the soil, and imposing globalised machine production, and plastics.

I’m sure Meals Matter will also turn out to be overly-simplified in important respects. Yet I believe, again, that gastronomy can correct prevailing political and economic theory. Many of us keep trying.

“Traditional” marriage

Pugnacious ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged a “no” to same-sex marriage to help “stop political correctness in its tracks“. Instead, the government’s postal survey found 62% in favour and 38% opposed, and so demonstrated strong Australian support for political correctness.

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Cheap shot (Abbott in red)

Tony Abbott deplores the “long march of the left through our institutions”. As he also told a group opposed to equal marriage in New York recently: “It’s not just the loss of Christian faith”; the politically correct also promote the “slow erosion” of “Western civilisation”.

How wrong could he get! But let me just explain here that the end of traditional marriage is a good thing.

Firstly, even professed proponents no longer really want traditional marriage; they want little more than “what I like to think is traditional marriage”.

In a pastoral letter entitled Don’t Mess with Marriage, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference defend specifically “traditional marriage”. However, among many errors and omissions, the Bishops fail to mention that traditional marriage has included gold ring-wearing priests having “married” the church. The tradition for nuns “marrying” Jesus dates back at least as far as St Catherine of Siena, who saw herself as a bride of Christ, after a vision of the infant Jesus giving her a wedding ring.

Until late in the nineteenth century in Australia, traditional marriage meant depriving a wife of property rights (and she became property herself). In 1969, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission lifted the general female award minimum wage, but out of deference to men as the “traditional” breadwinners to only 85% of the male wage. The patriarchal marriage was so sacrosanct until recently that police remained reluctant to intervene in a “domestic”.

Historically, marriage has been highly diverse, including polygamy. But let us concentrate on the tradition of child brides. As recently as 1942, the state of Tasmania raised the minimum legal age of marriage from 12 to 16 for girls, and from 14 to 18 for boys, and Tasmania led the other states on that. The Australian Marriage Act of 1961 still allowed girls of 14 or 15 to marry in “unusual and exceptional circumstances”, although that provision was amended in 1991.

Such traditional marriages might now be illegal, but religious “conscientious objection” is so strong that a few such weddings are still performed surreptitiously in Australia.

Tony Abbott’s former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin recently fulminated on Fox News against the silence of “feminist warriors” on these child brides. Blaming the politically correct’s hesitation to criticise other cultures, Credlin said that “in other faiths, we call it paedophilia, but not when it comes to Islam”. But how post-fact could Credlin get?

Worldwide, an estimated more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. That includes massive numbers of Christians. Especially in Africa, Christian-predominant nations still encourage child brides. UNICEF figures show 16% of Ethiopian women aged from 20 to 24 were married before 15, and 41% before 18. In the Central African Republic (where 80% of the population are Christian), 29% were married by the age of 15, and 68% by 18. (For comparison, 3% were married under 15 in Iran, and 5% in Iraq.)

In the US, the statutory minimum age varies between 13 and 17, depending on the state. However, 25 states have not set minimum ages, instead relying on the “traditional” minimum – taken to be 12 for girls and 14 for for boys.

Many American Christians defend child brides, arguing that the girls are of child-bearing age, and, anyhow, Mary was probably 14 when she carried Jesus. Such claims were reasserted recently to defend Judge Roy Moore, the Republican’s fundamentalist Senate candidate now accused of harassing and sexually assaulting girls as young as 14. He is said to be socially inept, and in his early 30s notoriously haunted a shopping mall in search of a young bride.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently reported that between 2000 and 2010 as many as 250,000 children got married in the United States (“children” being aged 17 or younger).

Kristof interviewed Sherry Johnson, who was raped by both a Pentecostal minister and a parishioner, and gave birth to a daughter when she was 10. A judge approved the marriage to end the rape investigation, telling her, “What we want is for you to get married.”

“It was a terrible life,” Johnson recalls. Married at 11, she missed school, and spent her days changing nappies, arguing with her husband and struggling to pay expenses. She ended up with nine children, and periodically abandoned by her husband.

Proponents of “traditional marriage” have to accept that conservative Republican states tend to have higher proportions of sexually-active school students, teenage mothers, users of prostitution, married “swingers”, and divorce.

As to strongly Democrat states, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone wrote in Red Families v. Blue Families (2010):

the most visible representatives of blue family values [that is, the politically correct] bristle at restrictions on sexuality, insistence on marriage or the stigmatization of single parents. Their secret, however, is that they encourage their children to simultaneously combine public tolerance with private discipline, and their children then overwhelmingly choose to raise their own children within two-parent families.

Additionally, Democrat states tend to be wealthier and better educated, and, as Kristof wrote a couple of days ago:

So the deeper problem seems to be the political choices that conservatives make, underinvesting in public education and social services (including contraception). This underinvestment leaves red [Republican] states poorer and less educated — and thus prone to a fraying of the social fabric.

Australian right-wingers, including Tony Abbott, claim to uphold “the traditional stance of the centre-right in the English speaking tradition”, which is “to be pro-market and to be socially conservative”.

To translate, Abbott-style conservatives are proudly both neo-liberal (cutting social services, and undermining public health and education), and wanting to prop up the ensuing disaster through the promulgation of fundamentalist religious values, plus  divisive fear-mongering, and dog-whistle politics.

Such “no” leaders are sexually obsessed. For example, in Don’t Mess with Marriage, the Catholic Bishops warn against, among other consequences, “sex-education classes that teach the goodness of homosexual activity” (as opposed to teaching “the badness” or perhaps “evil” of homosexual activity?).

But basing “traditional marriage” on reproductive sex hardly works. Most immediately, other animal species successfully procreate without any tradition of marriage. In turn, embracing childless heterosexual marriages leads to shaky generalities about the “potential” for procreation. The Bishops want an institution, “open to the procreation of children”. The real concern therefore must be the social control/licensing of procreation.

For sexually-preoccupied conservatives, meals don’t matter (or don’t matter enough).

If we take marriage basically to be an institutional foundation for meal-sharing, it is then ideally a core commune of equals.

That explains, for example, the main problem with child marriage: juveniles are typically ill-equipped emotionally, educationally and financially to form an equal partnership, seeking “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” together.

Even the Bishops have a sneaking appreciation of marriage’s gastronomic basis, declaring that the union is “centred around … the wellbeing of the spouses”. Admittedly, the union also aims towards “the generation and wellbeing of children.” But, even in that requirement, “well-being” still counts.

In a little more detail, the Bishops accept:

Each marriage, from its beginning, is the ‘foundation-in-waiting’ of a new family and each marriage-based family is a basic ‘cell’ of society. Families also provide the social stability necessary for the future by modelling love and communion, welcoming and raising new life, taking care of the weak, sick and aged. The principal ‘public’ significance of the marriage-based family is precisely in being the nursery for raising healthy, well-rounded, virtuous citizens.

Once the Bishops have added something about marriage establishing a “nursery for, and household for sustaining, healthy, well-rounded, virtuous citizens”, even they might one day vote “yes”.

Note: I wrote previously about the “habitually divisive” Tony Abbott’s close relationship with the openly gay Christopher Pearson. As Abbott said: “Christopher was the aesthete; I was the athlete; he was a reformed Maoist and I was a lifelong conservative. Yet he had made it his mission to take me under his wing.”

They died for this

RSL hamburgerThe other night I commemorated the anniversary of my conscientious objection case. This was a court hearing to determine that I actually held beliefs that prevented me from being conscripted for the Vietnam War. It was a while ago, but as you might imagine, trying to establish beliefs under cross-examination jolted me enough not to forget (existential threat does not permit complexities).

The alternatives of win or gaol loomed so large that, even three decades later, an exhibition on so-called National Service at the Australian archives in Canberra just made me laugh. For there was the tiny wooden Tattersall’s gambling casket from which they drew our life-and-death birthday marbles. And there was a typewritten letter from Minister for the Army Malcolm Fraser sending off young people with corrections scrawled in pen.

The other night was the anniversary of the day we were summoned back to hear the magistrate’s verdict on the evidence provided by me and two witnesses. My father Christopher and uncle Lawrence confirmed talking to me over the years about the issues. Both had fought in WWII, my father still saying it had been the right thing to do, and his brother believing he should have refused.

I have previously written that their father (my grandfather Alex) departed London for South Australia, never to return, based on his trench warfare experiences. Mind you, the strength of my views probably came even more from my mother; with two brothers and young husband away, she suffered at home.

Several supporters had warned against appearing without a lawyer, especially in front of a magistrate who by then had a string of knock-backs to his name. But I was only 20.

On that day, the magistrate entered, summarised my case, stopped, and, without mentioning anything asserted by the newbie barrister challenging me, found my case justified, and left the courtroom. I remain convinced he changed his mind half way through his prepared statement.

I was not going to gaol for refusing to train to kill. I was not, like so many peers, to

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participate directly in death and destruction. Instead, my father took us out to dinner at the Fiddlers Three in Cremorne, where I was allowed to order anything I wanted – duck à l’orange and chocolate mousse.

On this anniversary, with my usual dinner companions at the Hannah Gadsby show (confronting in a different way), what was I to do? Celebrate alone at home with a bottle of red?

In the end, I decided to try the nearby Returned Services League club…

The club is decorated with medals, and a Tasmanian artist’s depiction of various WWI soldiers doing their thing (set number 962 of a run of 1000 prints). A glass case inside the entrance displays a book, whose pages would seem to be turned every two days to name soldiers to be remembered.

And the club has lots of poker machines, and bright lights and jangling sounds. Originally, at such clubs, ex-soldiers recalled dead comrades, but gambling facilities have subsidised expansion into mini-Trump casinos. Members, including presumably now even former enemies, can lose themselves in spinning images.

The club was surprisingly big and busy. As well as the Gallipoli lounge, poker machines reach into the “Kokoda Terrace outside smoking area with comfortable seating and table service”. The main dining is the “All You Can Eat restaurant – Buffet 88”. I went to the smaller, almost empty Poppies Cafe for the largest hamburger with the lot and chips that I’ve been served.

Many young men (mainly men) died for this, and others returned so damaged that their PTSD afflicts partners, and is passed on to the next generation. My grandfather, uncle and mother remain right.

I’m with the cow cockies on daylight saving

See original imageTonight, Paris switches off daylight saving, and I’m again confused about turning clocks back/forward. Do I or don’t I get an extra hour’s sleep?

You wouldn’t think my first degree was in mathematics, and that my mental arithmetic is faster than average.

What would “back” mean, just for a start? Where it was an hour a go? To a lower number?

It might be a defect in my education, because we didn’t have to learn such things when I went to school. Nevertheless, I’ve mainly blamed a mental block, until now.

Given that my attempted biannual (not “biennial”, don’t ask!) calculations are more likely to be wrong than right, it must a problem with daylight saving.

Confronted with the confusion for a third time this year, I’ve decided that the system is just one step too alienated – as the cockies complain. Let me explain why the cows get confused.

Noon is meant to be when the sun is highest, and midnight 12 hours later. (While I’m at it: noon is 12 am, and midnight 12 pm or, if you like, 00 am – do the counting!)

And no-one can shift when the sun is highest, without difficulty. Nevertheless, daylight savers pretend they can, wrecking our daily lives.

All that mental and bodily confusion, and for what? Something about an extra hour’s sunlight. Really?

If people really wanted more light to run around in after work, then the sensible thing would be to shift when they work. Instead of knocking off at 5 pm, stop at 4.

And if they wanted sunnier breakfasts or dinners, then likewise, shift them an hour later/earlier.

Postscript: I even confused my laptop – insisted I needed an extra two hours’ sleep.

Cultural density clash

See original imageParis has relatively high cultural density. Even modest cafes, bistros and restaurants are meant to be run correctly, I argued the other day.

Crowded, pedestrian-friendly streets and stair-filled buildings help keep people slim. I can add that significant social solidarity – more dining together – protects not only against sugar-snacking, but also against competitive individualism, which provokes mental harm and binge eating.

Such observations provide a contrast with Australia, which might have let more sunlight in when it was the land of the “fair go”,  when lucky country inhabitants would say, “she’ll be right, mate”, when the cuisine was “one continuous picnic”, and when waiters were notoriously slack. But a loose Australia was left comparatively exposed to a hazardous new regime.

Paris is the capital of a relatively tight French republic that demonstrates that any future Australian republic cannot merely banish the monarch, but has to put real power into the hands of the people through a strong state. Here in France, for both good and ill, people gather relatively keenly behind the tricolour, and take seriously “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality, conviviality”).

Australians have an embarrassing flag, carrying four Christian crosses that signify colonialism, theocracy and beer-swilling. It’s symbolic of a less committed polity, which has its attractions, but which leaves Australia a wide-open marketing opportunity. In recent decades, we have had insufficient cultural bulk to resist the neoliberal agenda of let-profit-rule. Certainly, French food is being corporatised, too, but less thoroughly than in Australia, where business pressures intensify relatively uncontested just about everywhere – through the internet, on the sport-grounds, in privatised émigré gulags, and across the arts, where the common good is being replaced by the sponsor’s. If audiences don’t flock, then the “market” has spoken.

That is more or less the complaint in an article, “Culture crisis: The arts funding cuts are just a symptom of a broader malaise in Australia”, in the latest Monthly.

Writer and critic Alison Croggon is worried principally by attacks on a more elevated culture – “the yarts” – but she makes a similar comparison.

“The past three years have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory,” she writes, citing cuts to scientific bodies, universities, research programs, museums, archives, galleries, the ABC, National Library’s Trove, and, of her special concern, grants to small arts companies, and individual practitioners.

Right from the start, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a ruthlessly neoliberal agenda, promising “a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.” That’s liberty for business, and hostility to égalité and fraternité. He wants a nation “that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”, which the context makes clear means financially creative, even financially disruptive, as he later added.

While Turnbull’s government might flounder with set-pieces, his Ministers have gone to town using administrative methods to prosecute the culture war against Australia Council recipients and the like.

As Croggon explodes:

The forces of convention have slammed down again. Just as the arts funding debacle is seeing a new conservatism rise on our main stages, so too our critical culture has returned to its default chitchat.

She then reveals: “I’m writing this at La Chartreuse, a former monastery in the south of France… In the 17th century, this room belonged to monks. Now that La Chartreuse is the headquarters of Le centre national des écritures du spectacle (National Centre for Theatre Writers), or CNES, it’s occupied by artists.”

See original imageShe couldn’t imagine a similar institution in Australia – “a centre with comparable resources, devoted solely to the development of writing for theatre … The imagination stops dead. It is simply an impossible thought.”

I have figures to demonstrate France’s more financially assertive collectivity. According to a survey for 2014, general government spending as a proportion of GDP in France was 57.3%, which ranked second highest of 29 OECD countries. Australian expenditure of 36.2% was second lowest. We were even worse than the U.S., also in the bottom bunch, on 38.0%. A huge chunk of the Australian budget goes, through outsourcing, not to socially or culturally useful spending but to corporations.

More specific figures for public funding on the arts are harder to locate, so I gave up after clicking on a Canadian report from 2005, quoting older British data. For what they’re worth, France then spent £37.8 per head on the arts (or 0.26% of GDP), while Australia spent £16.4 per head (or 0.14% of GDP).

Croggon bemoans the collapse of critical, let alone angry, arts in Australia and, along with those, the decline in arts criticism in newspapers and apparently now even in blogs. If that’s the case, we need to protect and enhance serious criticism around the dinner-table. We also need conversations about a republic that puts the people more in charge of their fate through a sizeable, non-capitalist state.

Census needs another party

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I haven’t laughed as much for a long time as on Census night 2016. The internet sarcasm almost converted me to lifelong tweeting.

We tried to get through for an hour,  with final responses suggesting we try again in two days.

The organisation behind #CensusFail graciously promised we wouldn’t be fined for being late.

The flood of social media comments included a photo of the IT cat inside the bureau’s pc, and suggestions they try turning it off and then on again. Others said these same people guaranteed to keep our data safe.

Undoubtedly the most historic tweet came from the man who, according to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013, had “virtually invented the internet in this country”:

This is the Prime Minister that Albo predicted the other night might last a year!

According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

Census was delivered by technology company IBM using its Australian SoftLayer cloud. Figures from the Australian Government’s procurement agency AusTender show IBM was paid $9,606,725 in 2014 to design, develop and implement the “eCensus”.

IBM motto

That certainly cut the cost of scurrying Census collectors, although, as it turned out, the ABS shouldn’t have relied on IBM to handle the inevitable storm in the local cloud.

This morning, the ABS boss is trying to blame denial-of-service (DoS) attacks from “an international source”.

Kalisch says it all went smoothly, and they fended off three attacks, until a fourth about 7:30 pm, when they decided to shut the site down.

As if a government data collector mightn’t expect antagonism here or there.

But, as Age economics editor Peter Martin revealed this morning, the ABS has a “reckless” new culture at the top. (David Kalisch in so much trouble that I won’t go on about him, of all people, using “data” in the singular.)

The fact is that the ABS organised its own DoS flood of messages. That’s if we believe ABC News:

In the lead-up to census night, the ABS spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on load testing and said its servers could handle 1 million forms per hour.

Let’s do a simple sum. Let’s assume only 10 million forms. At one million per hour, that would take 10 hours, assuming everyone were nice and orderly.

Census AustraliaPerhaps not unusually, we had a small party to upload our information. After something to eat and a Barossa red, we opened up the laptop about 8:20 pm. Annoyance eventually turned to social media hilarity, and we set a date for another Census party.

What did these people think? That they could insist that everyone was legally required to participate (as, apparently, television advertising kept reminding through the evening), and not expect an after-dinner rush?

Perhaps IBM staff assumed people would fill in their forms at work. Perhaps neoliberal bureaucrats have already abolished all life’s rhythms, ridding the world of penalty rates, at least in their heads.

And you don’t think meals matter!

The flat white in an age of disruption

 

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I leave Wellington for five years, the flat white adjusts, and I’m not convinced it’s for the better.

In late 2011, I extolled the flat white as the Antipodes’ greatest contribution to world gastronomy.

As Australians living in New Zealand for seven years, we found milk coffee, perfected – blending the best of both textured milk and espresso.

But, with change the only constant, on last month’s trip back to Wellington, flat whites seemed disconcertingly inconsistent, and certainly no longer typically in the distinctive, tulip cup.

I should quickly report excellent versions at Lamason Brew Bar, and one day we even had the dream-team – Dave Lamason and Dan Minson – at the machine together. Paul Schrader retained the tulip cup at the eternally-wonderful Nikau Cafe. And our daughter had an excellent barista lesson from Longe Nguyen.

Inconsistency might have come from complacency, because I don’t think I’ve overly romanticised the scene five or so years ago (or perhaps my home-barista skills have improved?). However, at least for changing the cups, we might try blaming Jeff Kennedy. After he sold his L’Affare coffee business, he launched Acme coffee cups in 2011. These filled a gap left when Italian firm ACF went out of business, along with their pastel colours.

Within two years, Acme (made in China) cups dominated New Zealand cafes and moved into Australia, US, UK and elsewhere. The thicker, lighter, larger-handled cup shapes include a tulip, but that is now deemed a “long black” cup, with flat whites shifted into the wider, straighter-sided shape (left). At least the volume remains the same (around 150 ml).

At the risk of sounding stuck-in-the-mud, novelty can be over-done. Some things are classics, requiring only ever mere tweaking. We need some comfortable predictability to the day, especially with our coffees. Our “conservative” tastes mean we often want the same drink we’ve grown up with.

In a complicated world, I have to admit that flat white coffees earlier benefited from change. New Zealand took world leadership in espresso-making when it still lacked an entrenched coffee culture in the 1990s. The new roasters searched the world for the best, and improved on it, especially the Australian flat white. Meanwhile, the long-established coffee cultures of France and the U.S. are only slowly admitting improvements, including flat whites.

Change or no change? Predictability or novelty? Comfort or disruption? Nothing like being unsettled by a transmogrified flat white to bring sobriety – as a smart pair warned in 1848:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

To interpret: an excellent cup of coffee reminds that, just as conservationists are the new conservatives, neoliberals preach eternal disruption.

That’s their word – “disruption”. The new Australian plutocrat Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, whose wealth multiplies in a Cayman haven, carries on about disruption as “our friend”. We must embrace our “disruptive environment”.

Turnbull is hailed for replacing Tony Abbott’s three-word slogans, getting them down to one in this case. But the problem all along has been the ideology.

In his first speech as Prime Minister in September, even before he had got his certificate from the Queen’s representative, Turnbull committed his government to “freedom, the individual and the market”. A foodie welcomes choices, healthy bodies, and laden market benches, but Turnbull meant no such things.

His three ideals explicitly reaffirmed the neoliberal agenda: freedom at the expense of equality; the individual against the collective; and the market to replace democracy.

I feel unhappier with the system, and less welcoming of disruption, as the years go by. But I can always make a true, consoling cup …

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Tulip cup by ACF

How weird is Andrew Leigh? As exposed by Annabel Crabb, culinary investigator

Kitchen Cabinet - New Season

LABOR FRONTBENCHER and “economics brain box” Andrew Leigh enjoys the same lunch every day in his Parliament House office, Canberra. A staff member, Jennifer Rayner, confirmed “it’s pretty well the only thing I’ve seen him eat.”

Training an average hour daily for marathons – he has run three so far this year – Leigh told television journalist Annabel Crabb: “I run a lot, so I can basically eat what I like.”

And so what is his “usual”? His daily indulgence is peanut butter. Every lunchtime, Andrew Leigh spreads his canola margarine and peanut butter on a white bread roll.

Why smooth rather than crunchy peanut butter? inquired Crabb. “I can eat it more quickly.”

The former economics professor organises his life according to cost-benefit analysis, he explained, and peanut butter “tastes good, and doesn’t take long to prepare”.

Why then devote so much time to running marathons? Crabb countered. He must get pleasure from them, he decided.

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The senior politician said his grandfather, Methodist minister Keith Leigh, had celebrated his 50th birthday by running 50 miles, which is almost two marathons, back-to-back. He died shortly after, running up Mount Wellington in the snow, a route that Andrew Leigh repeated in his grandfather’s honour on 17 November.

Leigh’s lunchtime interview is Episode 13 of Annabel Crabb’s Canberra Al Desko, which is an online companion to her Kitchen Cabinet, a series in which a politician cooks the main course, Crabb brings a dessert, and they chat.

Her culinary reports have been condemned as “fluff” that “humanises” politicians. But such a reading certainly does not work for de-humanised Leigh. He must come near the top of the list of politicians Crabb showed to be manifestly uncomfortable in the kitchen.

Under the heading, “Junk food journalism: Why Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet is toxic”, Amy McQuire expressed her “disgust” (New Matilda, 29 October 2015). This was not my main complaint that Crabb’s vegetarianism unfairly narrows the menu. Rather, McQuire reported that the show was “about as nutrient rich as the majority of her desserts”.

For McQuire, the show represents the “insidious spread of propaganda, soft interviews with hard-line politicians”. The interviews coat “with sugar frosting” the “numerous acts of structural violence” by some of the most powerful Australians.

Agreed, her kitchen visit with former hardline border protector, now Treasurer, Scott Morrison, showed him to be not quite as freaky as I had originally thought, but that was pretty freaky. As usual, Crabb was much sharper than “fluffy”, leaving my companion fuming at Morrison’s shallow, self-satisfied theology. In her defence, Crabb does not over-grill her cooks in the manner of the 7:30 Report, but brings out their natural flavour. The politicians’ openness in the informal setting is Crabb’s own defence.

Incidentally, if we believe in “structural” forces, then Morrison surely showed himself to be victim of capitalism, authoritarianism and chauvinism, all wrapped up in the Shirelive church’s prosperity gospel.

Furthermore, Crabb’s “humanising” is indiscriminate, revealing Greens leader Richard di Natale to be a culinary star, reaching back into his Italian roots to make salami and pizze. Sharing Ricky Muir’s beloved campfire showed the four-wheel-drive and wheelie enthusiast to be an unusually earnest politician (for whom fellow Senator di Natale also admitted admiration).

Fairfax television critic Ben Pobjie found it “easy to be nauseated by last week’s KC [Kitchen Cabinet] episode, wherein Annabel had a spiffing old time cooking with Scott Morrison, trading amiable banter while carefully avoiding the topic of irredeemable evil. Crabb is generously acting as a bonus PR arm for Australia’s parliamentarians.” I go along with Crabb’s belief that she’s helping democracy, rather than joining in its typical trashing.

Law academic Sarah Keenan discovered that the show “reproduces a culture of white Australian entitlement to master and consume any and every cultural product, regardless of who it belongs to”. She went on: “As Crabb and Morrison joyfully prepare and eat the food [samosas] of the very people Morrison prevented from entering Australia, they perform their white Australian entitlement to own and consume what does not belong to them.”

Anticipating the bush tucker of Indigenous politician Nova Peris, Keenan predicted: “Crabb will devour the food hungrily, remark upon its delicious flavour and allow the nation to keep unsavoury topics like structural racist violence off the table.”

Like many of the show’s politicians, these critics reveal frighteningly little appreciation of the gastronomic basis of life. They have fallen victim to the same dehumanising institutions and inhospitable policies as the ascetic Andrew Leigh, spreading his peanut butter, not offering any to his guest, and then even refusing to eat in front of the camera because eating would not look “attractive”.

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If Tony Abbott can stage show trials, so can I …

Royal Commissioner John Dyson Heydon’s damage to his own inquiry should remind Australians that their cultural warrior Prime Minister loves nothing better than a good show trial. That’s when a government uses a legal forum to expose its political enemies to cross-examination, stereotyping, ridicule and, all going well, banishment.

Always on the look-out to hit back with his perception of the enemy’s techniques, the habitually divisive Tony Abbott established a high-profile inquiry into the fatally shoddy installation of roofing insulation, which he might associate with the relatively environment-friendly Rudd Labor government.

And he established a webcasting, headline-seeking trade union inquiry, whose commissioner, Dyson Heydon, has now smugly been advertised as speaker at a Liberal fundraising dinner, thus publicly confirming his exemplary right-wing credentials. He was already known as almost a parody of a conservative High Court justice and as a writer for Quadrant, a small magazine that to this day jokingly suggests it never benefited from early CIA funding, while conceding that receiving such largesse would have been “hardly shameful”. Even a basic understanding of legal processes must recognise the need for at least a pretence of objectivity.

Tony Abbott appears to have learned the political value of show trials, if not from the twentieth-century greats, then at least twenty years ago as a backbencher close to John Howard. As the then Opposition leader, Howard arm-twisted two friendly State governments into holding Labor-punishing royal commissions that picked off an uppity woman and Indigenous activists, respectively. The two inquiries in 1995 eased his way to the Prime Ministership soon after.

Carmen Lawrence had moved into Federal Cabinet, and was mooted as a potential Labor leader. So, Howard persuaded the West Australian government to hold a public inquiry into some obscure instance of alleged political expediency. It had something to do with her possibly misleading Parliament about a confidential Cabinet discussion while she was still that State’s Premier.

I used to work (and still often do) to the soundtrack of Classic-FM, so that after four months of reports from that inquiry, I wrote to the managers of ABC News complaining that nearly every radio news broadcast, several times daily, included: “Penny Easton committed suicide four days after the tabling of the petition.” Day after day, I heard the mantra, “Four days later Penny Easton suicided.” What, I inquired of ABC News, was the relevance? Was Carmen Lawrence accused of killing Ms Easton? Why was this not cheap innuendo?

Prime Minister Paul Keating called Premier Court’s inquiry a “kangaroo court”. In a moment of exasperation, Commissioner Kenneth Marks himself complained that he couldn’t see the point. Stuart Littlemore’s Media Watch showed a commercial television reporter browbeating Penny Easton as she stood, head in hand, beside her car in a presumably private garage, just hours before her death. Perhaps that warranted an inquiry? But that wasn’t the point – Carmen Lawrence’s career had been severely damaged, and the Keating government with it.

The dirt has stuck. This very day, defending Heydon’s appointment, News Ltd’s Piers Akerman recalled “an inquiry regarding the suicide of Penny Easton 20 years ago”, an untruth helped by the ABC’s seemingly incessant repetitions. Ironically, today’s column also repeated the charge that the ABC, along now with Fairfax, was “a sheltered workshop where Leftist groupthink prevails”. Not my impression.

Especially with the inquiry being in far-off WA, Howard could seem to keep his hands clean, and the journalism was provincial, without the strength and diversity of investigative reporting now available. Howard got away with it similarly in his other inquiry in South Australia.

Those were the days when Howard called racism “racial resentment”, which he assured Australians that he “understood”. This divisiveness could be joined by incessant anti-Labor publicity by pressuring SA’s new Liberal government into holding a public inquiry into Aboriginal objections to building a bridge to a failing marina on Hindmarsh Island. I know this show trial well, because my wife and I wrote about the tussles in a book that publishers wouldn’t touch. This was entirely understandable, given the seemingly unlimited funds being used to attack “secret women’s business”, and silence any opposition. Put it this way, mining companies had much to lose, nationally, from Indigenous claims. Admittedly, the women’s supporters were more inclined to point out that Westpac stood to lose heavily if the marina developers didn’t get their bridge.

Hindmarsh Island was a fascinating story (and, despite no book, Marion Maddox has published more than one academic paper). Among fun and games, the political parties swapped sides. The incoming Liberal government’s Minister for Transport had long led opposition to the Bannon government’s bridge, and had encouraged Indigenous objections; hers was among the Adelaide business families with quiet get-aways on the island. But the Liberals quickly decided to replace the ferry with a bridge as part, it seemed, of a wider campaign to destroy Labor’s Robert Tickner and undermine Mabo Native Title legislation. Incidentally, the same SA minister’s family were big suppliers of concrete, used in transport infrastructure and mining developments.

Among research amusements, I recall ringing a top Adelaide barrister to ask why he had briefed solicitors on the inquiry (it’s usually the other way around), until he expostulated: “I’m not going to be cross-examined like this.” A bit rich from a QC, and I was only trying to confirm whether it was Howard himself who had organised the barrister’s central role. Or perhaps it was through Ian McLachlan, who was dropped from the Opposition front bench for a misleading statement about how he came by, and distributed, the women’s account, marked “Confidential”, and mistakenly delivered to his office.

Or it might have been Tony Abbott, who was Howard’s right-hand on this one, and working with a small cabal in Adelaide, where he used to fly many weekends, staying with Adelaide Review editor Christopher Pearson at his get-away at Delamere, south of Adelaide. A strong writer and editor, Pearson had swung through his life from choir boy to far Leftist to conservative Catholic who required Mass daily, and in Latin.

Post-conversion, Pearson remained openly gay and, while renouncing sexual relations, was famously sybaritic. As a relatively influential Adelaide editor, when he had summoned Abbott, who had been running the monarchist campaign, to meet for the first time, it was over lunch at an Italian restaurant in Leigh St. As the present Prime Minister reported:

We dined at Rigoni’s, an institution where Christopher appeared to be a permanent fixture, his table expanding or contracting according to the number of his acquaintances who happened to be passing by. For Christopher lunch was both an art and a science. Arguments could erupt over the correct method of cooking a bechamel sauce or the proper way to roast a duck. In life, he once wrote, “only fools fail to take their pleasures seriously.”

Dinner guests were beginning to arrive by the time we ventured unsteadily into the winter gloom of Leigh Street. Apparently I had passed my audition …

For ten years, Tony Abbott wrote a column for Pearson’s Review, just as Pearson would later help with media releases and edit books for Abbott, turn out speeches for Alexander Downer and John Howard, and contribute columns to the Australian.

As Abbott also recorded last year:

It was an unusual coupling in many ways—“arty versus hearty”, someone had warned him before our first meeting. Christopher was the aesthete; I was the athlete; he was a reformed Maoist and I was a lifelong conservative. Yet he had made it his mission to take me under his wing. Books and CDs started to arrive from Adelaide. If I was to write successfully for the Review, I needed to expand my knowledge and deepen my appreciation of the finer things of life …

Intimacy was Christopher’s natural and permanent disposition … He had no compunction about calling in the middle of a fraught week in Canberra to discuss a conversation with a doctor, an encounter with a taxi driver, or the status of white anchovies on the gastronomic table … Never having children of his own, he revelled in the role of the adoptive uncle.

The Hindmarsh Island show trial was hung on a Channel 10 report by Chris Kenny, who became another pet columnist of Pearson’s, and who also went on to work for senior Liberals in Canberra, and now as a News Ltd columnist, where he has been a bitter opponent of the ABC (his employment on Adelaide’s 7:30 Report had been short-lived).

Pearson and Abbott had ganged up to get the “political correct”, and the big break came with Kenny’s claim that Aboriginal man Doug Milera admitted that the “secret women’s business” had been fabricated.

The most astounding piece of evidence at the inquiry was the playing of Kenny’s full interview with Milera. Not surprisingly, Channel 10 refused the tapes being aired outside the commission. Likewise, Milera’s solicitors told the inquiry that, contrary to Kenny’s original report, Milera actually supported the women, and that he had been on a bender during the interview.

The full interview confirms that Milera was, indeed, so inebriated, and getting more so, as to be almost incoherent. Kenny extracted the widest possible range of claims – starting from the women’s business not being fabricated at all, to Milera having done the fabrication himself. The interview took some long period to tape, with Kenny stopping the camera with Milera needing another drink.

According to the Advertiser, the “controversial television interview with intoxicated Ngarrindjeri man Douglas Milera” was eventually found by commissioner Iris Stevens to be “fair”. Who would doubt a royal commissioner? I can only conclude that we took notes about some other tape at the State Archives. I might also observe that the show trial’s findings subsequently failed in other courts, as happened with those re Carmen Lawrence.

Presumably, Australian judges have some appreciation of the standards expected in a show trial, so that in the tradition of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the occasional great leader closer to our times, I promise that, once running this country, I’m establishing a raft of commissions of inquiry.

They will examine such matters as:

  • Mining company involvement in Australian politics
  • The funding of the Institute of Public Affairs, Centre for Independent Studies and Quadrant
  • McDonald’s impact on town planning
  • Red Bull marketing
  • Sugar
  • And the outrageous political use of commissions of inquiry.