03 February 2013

An open Cabinet

The host introduced 1984/1985 as years of memories from childhood, but it was a lot closer to most of the audience, and to Megan and me too. We were at the National Archives to see Shortis & Simpson, the humourous and clever musical duo who sing of politics and Canberra, and in this case, pop culture. We were also there for Dr Jim Stokes and his summary of recently released Cabinet papers from the years 1984/1985. Something I didn’t know is that Labor recently reduced the waiting period for Cabinet records, and more recent years are being gradually released for inspection and study. Thus two years.

There’s a lot of work in this show, on both sides. John told of spending two days reading newspapers in the National Library, and then the writing of lyrics for whatever melodies and the learning of the show and jokes and patter. I’m impressed. Shortis & Simpson are a local gem. Clever, funny and informed; knowing but not defeated. In this case, we heard from them of Cyndi Lauper (Girls just wanna have fun, Time after time); what a $1 coin or $100 note would buy (they were each introduced in these years); of dotcom, Apple Mac and Windows (neologisms of the time); Madonna’s rejection for a part in a musical (to Like a virgin and Like a surgeon); of Medicare and the Hawke reelection and of David Lange and nuclear visits and French nuclear and MX missile tests (to Stevie Wonder and Redgum); of Les Mis (first year on the stage in English, in London, and still in the pop culture zeitgeist) , of Abba and Chess (the musical) and Michael Jackson buying up rights to the Beatles songbook; of Green and gold for sports and Mondo Rock and Wham. At one stage, Moya said “For baby boomers like us, the more we move into the ‘80s, the harder the songs are to love”. I’m sure the audience sympathised.

Then the serious stuff, with Jim rushing headlong through Australian political history. Bob Hawke, family tribulations, tax summit, The Gang of Four, Peacock and Howard, bank reform, MX missiles and Palm Sunday peace marches, Anzus and NZ, Lionel Murphy, the Accord, Button’s Car plan, the Australia card, Royal Commissions - Evatt’s on chemicals in Vietnam (read Agent Orange) and McClelland’s on British Nuclear tests in Australia (read Maralinga) - affirmative action and women in the workplace and land rights and the continuing story of illegal immigrants (not then boat people, as I remember). Even Cabinet agreement for a Bill of Rights, which was something I didn’t remember. Now, that’s a big list, and the issues are important and this was over only 2 years, or perhaps less. It helps to view this from a distance. One thing I realise is that many of those themes continue. Many reforms get put on the backburner for reasons of politics. Some get settled (GST); others linger like a bad smell. Also, how good is a government that achieves so much. It makes you admire the leadership we had then. Keating with his razor wit and Hawke with his public affability. Jim mentioned some elements leading to Hawke’s success: consensus, management skills and hard work. It was Hawke/Keating Labor that did those economic changes that the dries claim and love (deregulation, banking and financial reform, floating the dollar; the consumption tax/GST waited for Howard to claim) but they did it in a way that recognised issues of winners and losers (distribution of wealth) and consensus. We have issues with poverty but we are nowhere near the 1%-99% societies courtesy of Thatcher and Reagan. Also, we are the ones in the comfy position in world economic terms, so their inequality hasn’t even served those economies. Enough on this, but it gets you thinking. The Archives are one component in knowing our history through evidence rather than through ideology and/or ignorance.

S&S finished off with another few snippets of pop history. Movies (1984, that’s obvious, but others), Thatcher’s win over miners to the accompaniment of Sting (We work the black seam together), Neighbours (apparently the first, unsuccessful incarnation was on Channel 7 in 1985, before it moved to Channel 10 and international success a fews years later), and to a finish on Leonard Cohen’s classic song Hallelujah.

The other pics are from the touching NAA exhibition On their own : British child migrants. “More than 100,000 children were sent from Britain to Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries through child migration schemes from the 1860s onwards. / The lives of these children changed dramatically and fortunes varied. / Some succeeded in creating new futures. Others suffered lonely, brutal childhoods. All experienced disruption and separation from family and homeland.” (http://www.naa.gov.au/visit-us/exhibitions/on-their-own/index.aspx, viewed 2 Feb 2013). Another eason to visit the Archives.

Shortis & Simpson are local gems, no doubt about that, but so are the worthy and informed branches of the APS such as our National Archives and their quietly informed people. All components, if not always conspicuous, of this interesting city of Canberra. Shortis & Simpson are John Shortis (piano, vocals) and Moya Simpson (vocals). They came out of the Cabinet at the National Archives of Australia with Dr Jim Stokes (researcher).

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