Courtiers

WHEN HE WAS MINISTER for Immigration (1972—1974), ‘Al’ Grassby had one dedicated staffer to assist him in his portfolio duties, and that was a secretary-receptionist-typist. How things change. In the last few decades, and at an accelerating rate, the numbers of unelected ‘staffers’ attached to Ministers, as well as electorate staff, has massively increased in Australian Parliaments. We are now at the point where the working and social world of staffers form their own societies attached to State Governments and the Federal Government in Canberra, an opaque one, closed to outsiders, self-regarding and self-contained, but with enormous importance for its effects on the rest of us. And as was shown in Monday’s Four Corners episode, it behaves, when it thinks it thinks it can’t be seen, with genuinely disgusting misogyny and self-entitlement.

Courts are premodern entities surrounding power. The monarchs of old régime Europe had them; most famously at Versailles and at Madrid, but they seem to have been a common habit everywhere where power centralised, and existed around the Sultan in Istanbul, around Mughal princes, at the Forbidden City in Beijing, and around the Emperor and Shogun of Japan. The cultures of Australian State and Federal government, containing as well their press galleries and lobby groups, are a new-old democratic form of ‘court’, with everything that implies. The personal role of the monarch has simply been abolished in our case and replaced with the symbolic sovereign of ‘the election’, an arbitrary absolute presence that demands complete obedience, even reverence. In the gigantic-kitsch New Parliament House in Canberra the court even finds its own bakufu in which all the arms of State (elected, public service, press, military) can gather, physically-symbolically.

The disappearance of ‘mass’ politics and its replacement with ‘democratic’ professional élites is well-known in the instance of the ALP and Coalition, but is also increasily a deeply ironic feature of the Greens, who profess grass-roots democracy, but whose MPs and staffers are skilful and highly professional democratic courtiers, cleverer and quicker to lever courtierist means of media and pseudo-event. Our society understands ‘politics’ as something that other people do in other places, with specific skills and practices, and we are interested spectators to it—knowing all the while that we don’t understand the full intricacy. Courts could be vital, interesting, surprising places, and ambitious outsiders regularly broke in where their talent couldn’t be repressed. Where previously a talent might rise through personality to be valido or favourite of the King, all a courtier needs is Senate quota and Latika Bourke’s phone number.

The culture of courts was and is marked by intrigue, powerful charismatic leaders-behind-the-scenes, small constantly forming and re-forming groups, favourites, juntas, camarillas, ostentatious displays of virtue and shaming, and a ‘spill’ culture of sudden shocking changes. In societies where politics is genuinely conducted at a level of secrecy and many-levels-of-intrigue, conspiratorial and magic thinking takes hold with the public at large. Does this sound familiar?

Courts are self-contained and intimate, both supportive and exclusive. Modern ones can’t quite be to the point of Versailles, where the great and the good emptied their bowels in front of each other (‘piss boy!’), but particularly in Canberra, where politicians and staff travel away from their homes and share temporary housing, there’s a real combination of private and public life. The atmosphere is highly charged, everyone simultaneously keeps secrets and knows everyone else’s business, the stakes are simultaneously high and low. A pre-modern courtier’s entire life was their workplace, and they would not have understood the concept of a ‘private’ life; in just this way, when one’s entire social circle is other staffers and journalists, engaged in the business of the public, that distinction disappears. A senior staffer or Minister ceases, for practical purposes, to enjoy real privacy, only that illusion of privacy granted by everyone’s complicity in the Canberra ‘game’. It is no wonder that hypocrisy and abuse thrive, only that more people’s secrets aren’t spilled more often.

Yes, it’s a modern workplace. Yes, ministerial staff and Ministers have formal Codes of Conduct. These are good and valuable things! But good materialists don’t look at the rules on paper to explain how people behave, they instead look at how people behave, to discover what the rules actually are. The Four Corners episode showed up the behaviour of some specific Ministers as self-entitled, possessive, hypocritical, disgusting, outside not only ordinary people’s standards, but against their own. We can assume that the ABC’s lawyers squashed other names from being named. So why was it that a TV programme replaced a formal mechanism of Code of Conduct, or the ruling of an independent umpire? Simply that courts, by definition, are their own political umpires. There are no rules.

Well, to a point. Since the Russian practice of simply murdering, imprisoning, or exiling one’s opponents is out, and there are no more gentlemanly duels of honour at sword or gunpoint, the only other means of court discipline—wit and scandal—takes huge importance. Our current politics, just like that of premodern courtiers, has long memories, and settles scores cold. We may not have Velázquez or Lope de la Vega, but we do have artists like David Pope and Jon Kudelka, we have a Press Gallery which trades short on insight but long on gossip, we have group chats, WhatsApp threads, and VexNews in lieu of anonymous pamphlets. The most important political ‘stories’ are scandalous ones, which expose the links between private behaviour and public decisionmaking; who’s sleeping with who, who’s been pushed in or out of a job, who’s giving who bottles of wine.

These things aren’t symptoms of a lack of justice and courtier discipline, they actually are the court disciplining itself. Since political sins rarely rise to the status of ‘crimes’ (which can be dealt with by the law, or by ICAC), scandal and behavioural shaming steps in as the only possible replacement. It’s notable that the two people who were most eager on Monday to reach into their filing cabinets for receipts, Malcolm Turnbull and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, are both notable for public rectitude—educated, liberal, and cosmopolitan in Turnbull’s case, conservatively religious in Fierravanti-Wells’—and have the most to lose by their colleagues’ unrestrained hypocrisy. Right-wing sex pests threaten the greater right-wing project.

Theirs is not a politics of numbers and power, but a politics of behaviour, virtue, and democratic courtierism. I’ve written previously that Australian political-cultural life is fundamentally late-Hapsburg, and that our institutions are as benevolently tyrannical as Tsarist Russian departments. There’s little turning back from courtierism now, and courts, historically, don’t simply disappear or reform themselves (not without extreme violence). There’s no going back to twentieth-century mass politics—even if that were desirable. What our democratic court needs to recognise is itself, and own up to its status, and we as citizens need to recognise that ‘politics’ can be more than just this scandal-show.

---

/

Add a comment