Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Loss of real-life ideals drives us to make-believe
When city news posters scream the latest soap-opera death or divorce as if it had real-life import; when skywriters fart out “Jesus loves you” one minute and Bose, Heinz or Virgin (not Mary) the next on their startle-blue backdrop; when people feel more intensely for the celebrities in their lives than for their own family members, you know something has shifted between us and what we call reality.
Baudrillard was right. The copy has replaced the original. Sometimes, in fact, the copy improves on the original, so much that we flock to it like herds of wandering bears. Having fouled this reality we step through the looking-glass – or glowing plasma screen – to another, a virtual world where perfection, of a kind, is not only achievable, it’s hard to avoid.
It’s not a new thought, that our construction of reality is driven by needs, not facts. Our need for heroes (aka film stars); our need to feel immortal (Second Life); to feel likeable (internet dating); for constant distraction (from the fact that we’re not, especially) and to feel loved (God). Over and above all of these, our need to feel part of the herd (footy, church and corporate culture). Where the herd goes, we go.
What’s wrong with this? Nothing. I wouldn’t mind at all, personally – but for one thing. They vote. Not in copy-land, where their heads are, but here.
The result is what you see all around you. Democracy too has become a simulacrum of itself. Faux democracy.
We laugh at Tasmania, whose cartoon greens-against-rednecks political war rages in the streets while, on the neon billboard high above, the pollies and Gunn-lobbyists entwine in flagrante delicto for the world to see. But are we really so different?
The Iemma Government stumbles from one comic caper to another. A tunnel into whose greedy maw they divert as much free-to-air city traffic as possible. A billion-dollar desal plant that will both worsen the global warming that causes the drought that makes it necessary in the first place and pay for the privilege but – check this – pay more in compensation if rain comes.
A pub-run monopoly on liquor, pokie and now Keno licences that, like a chocolate eclair, squeezes cream out both ends – taxes to the Government and donations to the party.
Or take Currawong, the Pittwater holiday retreat for workers’ children bought by the unions back in the ’40s when they still had some ideals.
Sold for $15 million in February by Unions NSW secretary John Robertson, Currawong is now in the hands of the developers Eduard Litver and Allen Linz, who are at the same time turning Bondi waterfront into “something like St Tropez”.
Linz and Litver, now known as Eco Villages, propose 22 “town houses” for the site. Surrounded by national park and looking to Palm Beach, Currawong is a developer’s wet dream. Or would be, were the beachfront not currently occupied by a charming collection of shacks and farmhouses described by Heritage NSW as possessing “state historical significance as the most intact remaining … mid-20th century, union-organised workers’ holiday camp in NSW and probably Australia”.
This has had Linz and Litver tying themselves in knots to persuade the Heritage Council that Currawong is scarcely worth noticing, much less listing, while simultaneously persuading the Planning Minister, Frank Sartor, that it is so significant it should be called in under Part 3A (automatically suspending all heritage and environmental safeguards).
This hasn’t been easy. But it looks like they’ve swung it. The other day, less than two years after the then environment minister Bob Debus assured Parliament that “the natural and cultural values of [Currawong] are not … of sufficient priority to require protection”, Sartor declared its “cultural, social, historical … and environmental … importance” enough to make it, officially, state significant. (Debus said the Government was more focused on areas like the Blue Mountains, a World Heritage Area where Sartor recently approved a private resort and helipad.)
What does it all mean? It means Currawong is too important and sensitive to be protected from development. Too important and sensitive for such development proposals to be publicly revealed. Too important and sensitive to be governed by the Heritage Council (which anyway makes no waves and is blessed to have the very same John Robertson, electrician, on board). Too important and sensitive not to be exploited for a fast buck by ALP-connected developers. And too important and sensitive not to have the minister’s personal thumbprint on such development.
Not that Currawong is special here. That’s the point. It’s just a microcosm, with the same attitude spreading pro forma across the scores of designated Part 3A developments in NSW.
History, I believe, will look unkindly on the Carr and Iemma governments, both for flogging the family silver and for betraying our last shreds of idealism to cynical self-service.
So, while it’s reasonable to want to be rid of Howard, be careful what you wish for. The fast-tracking of Mark Arbib from state baggage-handler to federal attorney-general, or similar, will ensure a Rudd government extrudes similar thinking country-wide.
Less false democracy, perhaps, than democracy with a false bottom.