Politicians hitting all the wrong notes

Once politicians talked about ideas. Now they too readily reach for fatuous musical references.

According to Joe Hockey, popular music is just a form of entertainment and it ought not to be used the way Wayne Swan used Bruce Springsteen to define Labor values and the character of this Labor Government.

This is a piece of nonsense from Hockey. It echoes the silliness of John Howard, when he famously said that he quite liked Bob Dylan’s tunes but not so much his lyrics.

To describe the song writing of people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen or yes, Springsteen – and in Australia Paul Kelly or Midnight Oil for instance – in this way is ludicrous at best.

By implication, it is to confine all art and culture to entertainment. For a leading Australian politician to make this argument is one small sign of the emptiness of Australian political debate.

When he made this argument, Hockey looked as if he thought he had just said something really smart, the sort of smart, spin-driven drivel that has come to characterise the language of our politicians.

This is not to say that there wasn’t something incongruous and silly about Swan dressed in a black t-shirt doing what we must assume was a memorial half-dance to his younger self while waving around an old vinyl Springsteen album.

More important than that was the fact that Swan considers Springsteen to be the quintessential song writer/poet of American working class values whose songs had a huge influence on Swan’s politics and political thought.

Here’s the thing. Springsteen might be a poet of working class New Jersey but, really, he’s a mediocre song writer who, interestingly, is a bit of hero for American conservatives of a certain age, most of whom were radicals and liberals when they were young.

The conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks for instance, wrote a piece for the paper recently about how he decided to fly to Spain for a Springsteen concert in Madrid and how 'far out' the concert was and how great Springsteen still is despite the fact that he is an old man.

Springsteen is not great, certainly not now – his latest album is pretty ordinary. Nor was he truly great back in the 70s. As the New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier wrote recently in a withering put down of Springsteen and his aged followers:

"The wounded workers in his songs do not have the authenticity of acquaintance; they are pious hackneyed tropes, class martyrs from Guthrie and Steinbeck.”

This is what’s interesting about Swan’s use of Springsteen to make his case for Labor values, the fact that Springsteen’s working class heroes are stereotypes and inauthentic.

It says something about Swan and the Labor Party, this love of Swan’s for Sprinsgteen and Springsteen’s wholly confected working class people. Is Swan’s enthrallment with Springsteen, in Wieseltier’s words, simply "a cry against the clock” politically if not personally?

The whole question of what writing, what music, what art has shaped our politicians and their view of the world is not much discussed in Australia. It’s as if the political class thinks talking about music and books and ideas for that matter, is a political negative.

On Monday, Tony Abbott gave what had been billed as a major speech on press freedom. Unlike Swan, Abbott had not put together a YouTube video in which he described how a writer or poet or even a commentator had inspired his determination to unreservedly, without qualification, defend free speech.

As it was, the speech Abbott delivered was wholly pedestrian and predictable, couched in the same language as Abbott’s sound bites. The whole complex issue of the limits of free speech, of media regulation, of the quality of Australian journalism, of how to address the grievances of those who feel wronged by journalists, none of these issues mattered to Abbott.

His speech was an attack on the government which he said "howls down its critics by using the megaphone of incumbency.” And it was a defence of News Limited which Abbott argued was the real target for the new media regulation that the government was considering.

There is of course some truth in this but it is a small truth in the scheme of things, in the consideration of free speech and its consequences. At a time when the digital revolution is transforming the media landscape and the work of journalists, when the meaning of privacy is increasingly unclear, when the political process is being transformed by this revolution, Abbott’s speech was other-worldly, a relic of a vanished time.

It is sprinkled with inanities like this: "If it’s alright for David Marr to upset conservative Christians, why is it not all right for (Andrew) Bolt to upset activist Aborigines?’’

Abbott may have thought this was a rhetorical question, but it isn’t. It is a complex question with no easy answers, but these answers are about the limits of free speech – and clearly there are limits.

It’s about whether the powerless and those who have been victims – and in some ways still are – of racism and discrimination might need protection in a way that, say, conservative Christians do not.

Perhaps in a liberal democracy committed to free speech, even those who have been the victims of discrimination have to accept that such a commitment means there will be times when they will feel deep hurt about what is said about them.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Abbott that the racial vilification legislation should be amended to remove offence and hurt as the basis for legal action.

Some evidence that Abbott had wrestled with these issues would have made his speech interesting. He could have delivered a speech like that. Indeed, it is fair to assume, that Abbott has wrestled with these issues. In his previous life, his life before the possibility of becoming prime minister dawned on him, Abbott was a thoughtful man, interested in ideas.

Someone should ask Abbott what books he is reading, what music he’s listening to and which books and what music continues to inform his view of the world and his politics.

But parliament resumes next week and pigs might fly.