The travelling cabinet, the community forums, and the decentralized parliamentary sittings are all recent reincarnations of a political practice stretching as far back as extant historical records allow us to go.
Regional tours by medieval monarchs were – and still are – a useful means of demonstrating authority and power, of consolidating conformity, of testing and strengthening security of the regime and identifying threats to the centre.
But whether we look at the royal tours of Xerxes in the Persian empire of the fifth century BCE – when the people he passed were compelled to bow to the ground, eyes downcast, instant death their promised reward for careless or daring nonconformity – or the visits of Elizabeth, Queen of England, to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s – when the people who likewise lined the streets “did but see her passing by…”- the opportunities and the benefits were all one way.
They were for those in the travelling circus, for those in the entourage, for those holding the reins of power and privilege. The people may, or may not, be permitted to look, but the royal presence, the sharing of the local air and space – within a well-guarded exclusion zone – were their own rewards, and their only rewards.
It was only the “lucky” few who were ever admitted to the presence of a Xerxes, or a Henry Tudor or a Louis XVI – “l’etat, c’est moi”- to petition or to plead, to be granted position or favour or title. In the case of Menzies, of course, Knight of the Garter and Warden of the Cinque Ports, political astuteness and benefit coalesced – and well might he say “and yet I love her till I die”.
The Tasmanian manifestation of this form of cynical political opportunism was well demonstrated at Beaconsfield on the first Sunday afternoon of October, 2009. We don’t know how many people got to speak with Tasmania’s ministers face to face, but it wasn’t very many because the timetable for an “opportunity to meet and speak” was carefully stage-managed and limited.
What we do know is that it was not really a community forum at all. It was never intended as an opportunity by the government “to listen to the concerns of the people”. This was confirmed by the nature of the meetings themselves, where ministers like Aird showed absolutely no interest in what was said to them. These politicians were not interested in meeting the people. They were merely interested in being able to say that they had.
Just like any of their other “community forums”, the one at Beaconsfield was a sham and a stunt. It was an exercise in deceit, totally designed to create a desired political benefit for themselves.
Bartlett’s Labor administration showed on 4th October at Beaconsfield that they like to keep their distance from the public when traveling “en entourage”. They arrived in their chauffeur-driven cars, mafia-style darkened windows both indicating and hiding their presence and their identity.
Their own little airtight and air-conditioned exclusion-zoned vehicles, orchestrated to arrive in carefully-staged sequences of time, ten to fifteen minutes apart, were chaperoned into the venue, chosen for its own self-contained buffer of space away, set apart – both a mask and a wall to shut…
Exclusion zones always create their own problems, most of which are self-defeating, for the simple reason that they exclude the excluders, shut them off and shut them away. Exclusion zones create their own castles of delusion, of grandeur, of fear, of preciousness and speciousness. Exclusion is the realm of privilege, of special favours, of backroom deals, of secrecy, of the hidden, of hypocrisy, of social division, of lies and deceit.
The political culture of the current Tasmanian ALP government can be defined by that one word – exclusion. The whole structure of their “community forums”, the way they are organized, the way they are stage-managed, the way they minimize public participation, even the way ministers travel, all of these things are indicative of the culture at the heart of all their decision-making processes and the nature of the political program they have.
And so it was at Beaconsfield that the mad farce of an exclusion zone, the 70 metre space between Grubb Street and the Beaconsfield Primary School building, was broken by a small group of Tasmanian people, who simply stood in front of the building, silent.
Silent, but present.
They waited in their silence within this exclusion zone until a paddy wagon arrived to take them away, a few at a time.
And so it was at Beaconsfield, at about 2 pm on a nice Sunday afternoon, that police reinforcements arrived, in vehicles that had sped down the West Tamar Highway, lights flashing, as if to attend some scene of disaster, some real threat to security, some real collapse of law and order. Police with riot gear.
In fact, of course, it was to ensure than the paddy wagons could be chaperoned more quickly from the school with those who had been arrested. One 77 year-old man I spoke to was part of a group of people who had delayed the departure of the first loaded paddy wagon by standing in front of it.
Twenty one Tasmanian people arrested for breaking an exclusion zone, for standing silently outside a public building, were mute testimony to the farce of the Bartlett administration’s “community forum” at Beaconsfield. The final denouement to this contrived “connection” with people in the Tamar Valley is debatable. Some might say it was Bartlett’s failure to speak with the silent, his refusal to meet with anyone but the few who had appointments. I wonder if he spoke with as many as 21 people. What a delicious irony if he had spoken with exactly 21.
Some might say the denouement was Bartlett’s post-forum claim about 40,000 jobs for Tasmanians. Who would know what this means? Who would know what he was thinking? Just as pertinent, who would believe what he says, even if he explained what he means? Is he mad? Is he so excluded now in his own mental attire of tinsel, to match his “sweetly blown trumpet of lies, shaped in old armour and oak the countenance of a dunce”?
So it would seem that in the end, the final denouement is about exclusion. The culture that promotes exclusion – “don’t you know who I am? I’ll have you’re f… job”, – mystery tours overseas by ministers and bureaucrats, tinted-glass limousines, the misuse of the power and authority of the state to enforce conformity, and a pretence of interest in issues of public concern, are all symptoms of the arrogance and the hubris of exclusion.
“O make me a mask and a wall to shut…”. Exclusion is not accidental. It is a deliberative process, planned, self-interested and self-serving, and essentially hypocritical. The traveling entourage of “packaged” political tours in Tasmania signifies a government detached, completely out of touch, believing tokenism can be served up in place of substance – a government excluding itself from political relevance.
The Tasmanian government’s “community forums” are bizarre, preposterous in their pretensions, and crudely blunt and blatant in their propagandist purpose.
They do not know how to put candles in the windows, for artifice guides their way like a shield against the light. They will continue to build their exclusion zones, their hope to divide, to enforce conformity and to retain power. They will continue to build exclusion zones to serve their own narrow short-term political interests.
And so they departed Beaconsfield, once again hidden again from view, unable to see their own masks, walled in, trapped in their own exclusion zone of power for power’s sake, of darkened glass vision, of shared air-conditioned breath in their own vehicles and their minds.
They do not know how to put candles in any windows.