Saturday, March 12, 2016

Out of the Cabinet 1990 and 1991.

Moya Simpson and John Shortis
Out of the Cabinet 1990 and 1991.  Shortis & Simpson with Dr Nicholas Brown.  An Enlightenment event at the National Archives, Canberra, March 5-12, 2016.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 12 

The atmosphere in this musical and academic recall of the years 1990 and 1991 via the just released Commonwealth Government Cabinet Papers is remarkable, perhaps unique.  Where else in the world would you find a light-hearted village-green gathering in the nation’s federal capital to hear a National University professor expound his analysis of the political positions of parliamentary ministerial participants – this year entitled “Strange, or Familar? – bookended by an amusing musical commemoration of those years to remind us of life outside of the Cabinet?

The music was definitely strange compared with today’s popular styles; but the politics was surprisingly familar, as Dr Brown explained.  In fact he saw that period as a transition point from an ‘old’ Australia to the ‘new’ Australia in which we now live.

In this time, as the “recession we had to have” was developing, economic rationalism became the buzz; workplace agreements at the enterprise level were first put in place; the rapidly reducing budget surplus meant cuts all round; new levels of increasing inequality had to be dealt with (and some claim, with interest rates at 18%, Keating managed and set a pattern which still meant we survived later recessions better than other economies); terrorism was seen to be shifting from the radical left/Communist forces to a new Islamist agenda; under Immigration Minister Gerry Hand, to deal with people “seeking to avoid the queue”, detention was first set-up and the policy made clear that the Australian Government will decide who will be admitted for permanent residency.  So conservative John Howard in 2001 was merely repeating a 1991 Labor policy. 

At the same time, while it was made clear on the UN’s Global Warming initiatives that Australia “should not lead on environment issues until others have followed”, Kim Beazley touted pay-tv as opening up opportunities for the ordinary people to make their own programs, and so it would be a force for social justice!

Perhaps the best of the strange but familar was that today’s acknowledgement of the original custodians of the land was first opened up in Cabinet discussions in 1990, well before the Mabo case was settled in the High Court.

Among the many reminders in John Shortis’ research and his and Moya Simpson’s songs were the composing in this period of From Little Things Big Things Grow (Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly), Took the Children Away (Archie Roach), and Treaty (Yothu Yindi in collaboration with Paul Kelly and Midnight Oil).

As always there were too many good pieces by Shortis & Simpson, but the one I especially liked from the satirical standpoint was the establishment of Natalie Cole’s career by the dubbed recording of her singing as if in duet with her father, Nat King Cole, the songs he had become famous for in his Unforgettable album of 1952.  This became neatly turned around referring to “A Hawke, so forgettable, and a Peacock, so forgettable, too”.

After reviewing their work since 1996, I’m going to very much miss Shortis & Simpson’s gently done humour which has become a Canberra cultural artefact in its own right.  This is because this is the last of the Out of the Cabinet annual shows, at least in this format as an event in the Canberra Day weekend’s Enlightenment program.  However, the National Archives promises that John and Moya will continue in the Archives education program. 

I think we need at least a Get Up! campaign for our very own political satire songsters to be heard on the village green (actually in the National Archives Reading Room) for many more Outs of the Cabinet to come.