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Friday, 19 October 2012

Conservatives' narrow agenda shows lack of imagination

Sydney Opera House under construction, 1965.
Not content with slamming prime minister Julia Gillard for "swanning around in New York talking to Africans" during the lead-up to the vote on a UN Security Council seat that Australia won last night, Tony Abbott continued his campaign yesterday with jibes against the other category candidates. "If Australia can't come first or second in a three-horse race involving Finland and Luxembourg, there's something wrong with us," Mr Abbott said. A dream of ex-PM Kevin Rudd that Gillard took up when she secured her party's leadership in 2010, the Security Council seat allows Australia to extend the reach of its influence further across the global stage. The conservatives' downer on the bid is annoying but people should not be unduly surprised, as it is the wont of conservatives everywhere, with their purely economic agenda, to kill any ambition that does not fit into its narrow scope.

Take the classic example: the Sydney Opera House. Construction of the building started in 1959 but the Labor government that initiated the experiment lost the state election in 1965 before it could be completed (it was opened in 1973). With the Liberal Party in power, differences between the government and the architect who designed the building proliferated, with the result that Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect, resigned and left Australia. He never returned to the country. "For [the new Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes], as for Utzon, it was all about control; about the triumph of homegrown mediocrity over foreign genius," writes architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly. Hughes' unwillingness to pay Utzon's fees and a lack of collaboration on the project after the change of government led directly to Utzon's quitting Australia. The Sydney Opera House was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Tony Abbott's reflexive negativity vis-a-vis the Security Council seat shows that the conservatives never learn. It's in their interests to cultivate the dim and the unimaginative. They are the electoral base the Liberal Party relies on to help it push through legislation designed to improve the quality of life of the wealthy minority it actually represents. Without cultivating this stolid middle voter, the conservatives would never get the support they need to win power. It's the tall-poppy syndrome as part of the democratic process: if you don't understand it, it is a personal insult, and must be stopped. Were we to rely on the Liberal Party to define who we are, Australian cities would just be giant shopping centres with highways and parking lots wall-to-wall from the mountains to the sea. No parks, no cultural centres, no libraries (who needs books?), no quirky backwaters where the exhausted office worker can seek spiritual sustenance on a Saturday afternoon. It would be concrete and asphalt, functional office towers, sports stadiums, and efficient agglomerations of mall space with terrazzo flooring and chrome finishing from one side of our cities to the other.

Lack of imagination is the consistent leitmotiv of the lumpenprole. It's what spurs him to drink, gamble, and yearn for pure motive power in the cars he prefers. It's the cause of his restless wanderings through capitalism's enervating shooting gallery, the place where his unrequited mind seeks the constant stimulation it craves in the absence of any solid anchor to his personhood. Sport thrives on it. Lack of imagination is the cause of violence, in the streets and in the home. It is the bane of the exceptional child who would look for support from what culture can deliver if he was only encouraged to do so. And it gives sustenance to the bully and the scold who police the byways of personality looking for anything outstanding or unusual, which is immediately deemed a prime target for ridicule and persecution.

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