Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 17:15 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 17:15 | SYDNEY

Travel on the time tram


Graeme Dobell

15 March 2010 08:51

...domestic affairs are governed by the delights and discontents of democracy, foreign affairs by the iron logic of power.

This line has the twin values of being elegantly expressed and true.

Reading that thought in a broadsheet newspaper the other day suddenly took me back a fair distance into the past, reminding me of the vigour and value that good journalists have long offered to the working of Australian foreign affairs.

A moment of context, first. I was in Melbourne last week — whipping wind, hail stones the size of cricket balls and then, suddenly, marvellous bursts of sunshine. Ah, it's good to back on reliable, familiar turf.

One of the benefits of being here is to read The Age in its own environment, where even the football pages, much like the weather, seem to make sense. Opening The Age in Melbourne is like drinking Guinness in Dublin — experiences that offer the maximum taste in their natural home.

So it was that I found myself reading an op-ed piece by one of the eminences of Australian foreign policy journalism, Bruce Grant. You'll find the article and the above quote here.

Here's one other sample of the piece. This is Grant lamenting what he sees as a lack of Liberal Party interest in affairs beyond Australia. He charges that under Tony Abbott, the Libs have 'retreated into grassroots or, perhaps, street politics'. The kicker is the way he contrasts this with history.

Once upon a time, the Liberal Party believed that an attribute of Australian leadership was to be active internationally. The crude domestic appeal - and Australian accented voices - of Labor leaders such as Curtin and Chifley were contrasted with the influential connections abroad and rounded vowels of Liberal leaders Menzies and Casey. Labor tried to inject domestic values into foreign policy and the Liberals tried to bring foreign values to bear on domestic politics.

Savour that last sentence. Again, accuracy served by elegance of expression.

With the broadsheet in my hands and a Bruce Grant by-line before me, I hurtled down the time tunnel. In Melbourne, the time machine is an old green tram. I zoomed back four decades and found myself in a place where Bruce Grant appeared in The Age each week, doing a passable version of the Australian Walter Lippmann.

Douglas Wilkie was performing the same job in the snappier pages of The Sun News Pictorial. Dennis Warner was writing about Asia for the afternoon broadsheet, The Herald. The Argus was long gone, so Peter Russo was doing his regular commentaries on international affairs in his distinctive diction for the ABC's Notes on the News (known inside Auntie as Noots on the Nose).

Any town that had Grant, Wilkie, Warner and Russo writing on foreign affairs had a formidable collection of intellects at work. They would probably win a match against the equivalent bunch of Oz hacks writing today. It would be a bizarre match, however, because the team of four from 1970 probably never agreed on anything.

Bruce Grant gave up being a regular columnist to become Gough Whitlam's High Commissioner to India. The comment at the time in Melbourne journalism was dismissive. Why would you give up pontificating from the mighty height of the editorial pages of The Age to become a mere Australian ambassador?

You need to travel on the Time Tram for a while to go back to a place where that joke contained some truth.

 Photo by Flickr user Boyd, used under a Creative Commons license.