'Tis the season to be perturbed
The Christian season of Advent is nearly upon us, beginning on 3rd December, and marks the promise of something new and beginning with the birth of Jesus. The Jewish festival of Hannukah begins on 7th December and, through the burning of lights, reaffirms the ideals of Judaism and commemorates in particular the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem by the lighting of candles on each day of the festival.
Tragically, it is one of those years when the promise of both religious festivals will be hard to envisage. The current conflict in the Middle East is another tragic instalment of a political and religious struggle that has been waged for centuries. How ironic that Hannukah begins on 7th December. For many the day of the recent Hamas attacks on 7th October was Israel’s equivalent of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941: unprovoked, barbaric and leading to the direst consequences.
The ghastly conflict that has erupted in the Middle East has affected the whole world. Why are we surprised? The Middle-East has been a febrile fulcrum of conflict for centuries, be it the effects of the Crusades, colonialisation, competing for oil resources and the carving up of the Holy Lands to create a Jewish homeland and/or the struggle for a Palestinian homeland.
The ghastly outbreak of conflict has been accompanied by a sickening worldwide eruption of vocal and vile antisemitism. Witnessing Australians sympathetic to the Palestinian cause march in Sydney demanding further extermination of Jewish people sent shivers of fear and disbelief through every democratic and decent Australian.
The orthodoxies of decency continue to be strained in Russia’s exhausting attempt to annex Ukraine. This conflict has become strangely forgotten as the world contemplates the possible escalation of conflict in the Middle East.
Collectively, these events have sapped the world of the joy that is typically anticipated at this time of the year. Thanksgiving, inevitably, will be a muted celebration later this month in America. Christmas bunting and decorations have been emerging in Australia, but there seems little to be festive about. The French might say that the world is experiencing a period of la douleur. More than ever the timely message of the Indian Diwali festival of darkness turning into light is needed.
The greatest sadness of the Middle East conflict is that it is another episode in a seemingly insoluble cycle of conflict. Marx observed that history first repeats itself as tragedy. As has often been observed, history does not entirely repeat itself, but can borrow too much from the past.
However, some world leaders seem to have a determined wish to revisit events and strategies past. Australia’s Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, visited China last week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gough Whitlam- Albanese’s boyhood political hero- visiting China.
Whitlam visited China shortly after the election of his government in December 1972. On behalf of Australia, Whitlam gave official recognition to the Communist government of the People’s Republic. For so long China was the shunned communist 'red bogeyman'. Whitlam sought to ‘normalise’ relations with our perceived adversary. How ironic that the overtures of a socialist Prime Minister probably led to one of Australia’s greatest capitalist booms through encouraging trade with an old enemy.
Mr. Albanese has always considered himself the political protégé of Mr. Whitlam. He attributes his ability to study Economics at university to Mr. Whitlam introducing free tertiary education. As interest rates rise again, housing prices continue to dismay, and weekly supermarket bills become spectacular, Mr. Albanese’s critics might argue he did not study economics well enough.
If Whitlam’s visit to China was to create a trading relationship, Albanese’s odyssey has focussed on trying to revive the mercantile magic between the nations. This lustre was lost after China imposed selective tariffs on Australian politics after one too many post-Covid diplomatic slanging matches between Beijing and Canberra’s former government.
History is also showing an ability to repeat itself in the broader experiences of the Whitlam and Albanese governments. Gough Whitlam’s ambitious agenda of social reform was derailed by unexpected economic headwinds, most notably the decision of OPEC (the Middle East again) to quadruple the price of oil in 1973. This decision led to the economic predicament of stagflation- simultaneously high unemployment and inflation-bedevilling Australia for the first time.
If Whitlam sought to transform the social structure of Australia, Mr. Albanese is seeking to transform its energy policy and economic structure. Like Whitlam, his ambitious hope for an economy powered by non-renewable resources may be derailed by the iron laws of economics. How much patience will Australian households display in paying increased energy prices to accommodate Albanese’s vision? Having had his authority dented by the emphatic defeat of the Voice referendum, how much patience will the electorate have with him, as he continues, like Whitlam, to spend arguably too much time overseas whilst bills burn household budgets at home?
How does his government reduce inflationary pressures and increase real wages and productivity when it is committed to paying for the growing costs of our aged care sector, the AUKUS nuclear submarines and the National Disability Insurance Scheme? What did Paul Keating once observe?: ”you are never as popular as the day you are elected”. Mr. Albanese is discovering that political authority is hard won, but easily lost.
In the world of tennis, however, the reputation of its prime players continues to grow. On 20 November, when Joe Biden turns 81, Novak Djokovic will achieve a feat in tennis that will probably never be surpassed. Mind you they said that about Bob Beamon’s 1968 freakish long jump at the Mexico Olympics! Djokovic will celebrate 400 weeks as the world’s No.1 tennis player. In a perfect moment of synchronicity, Djokovic celebrated this impending milestone by winning a record 40th Masters 1000 Title at Paris. After a run of success by ‘Next Generation’ players in Shanghai, Tokyo and Vienna- Hurcacz, Shelton and Sinner, Djokovic reminded the tennis world that he has no intention of abdicating his throne.
Tomorrow the world’s top ranked players begin their end of year tournament in Turin. Djokovic only must win one match at the event to secure a record eighth end of year No.1 ranking. How could it possibly be given to anyone else? Djokovic has played in all four Grand Slam finals, winning three of them.
The world’s top ranked female players competed in their end of year tournament in Cancun last week. The tournament confirmed that Iga Swiatek will end the year as the No.1 ranked player. Swiatek spanked America’s Jessica Pegula in the final after defeating the challenger to her throne, Arya Sabalenka in the semi-final. There are high hopes that Cancun’s semi-finalists- Swiatek, Pegula, Gauff, Sabalenka and Rybakina will form the nucleus of spirited rivalries within the women’s game.
There is certainly more chance of genuine sporting contests on the tennis courts than in forthcoming Olympics. How can an event committed to ‘citius, altius, fortius’ allow the introduction of computer games to its fortnightly (no pun intended) festival which used to highlight athleticism, pure and simple?
The Olympian Gods always play with us. Mortality, temporal and political, always stalk us. Most members of Gough Whitlam’s Cabinet have now died, with Bill Hayden’s recent death closing another chapter of our political history. How strange to think it is that Victorians , many of whom would have been forgiven in believing that Daniel Andrews would be their permanent Premier, may well have already forgotten that he was such a towering figure despite only resigning from office less than two months ago.
Hollywood has been stunned by the death of comic actor, Matthew Perry, whose inability to lead an untroubled personal life contrasted greatly with his gift of bringing joy to others. Bizarrely, technological mortality now plays a central role in our daily lives. The failure of one of Australia’s largest mobile phone networks this week saw thousands of people ‘stranded’ and agonising about their loss of ‘connectivity’. Let’s hope that the defining criterion of our ability to be fully human will never have the efficacy of a device at its heart.
Let’s also hope that whatever influences are needed to abate the world’s troubles and revive joyful spirits are readily forthcoming.