March 10th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Nationals: the last hurrah?

EDITORIAL: Government embraces the politics of panic

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Competition Policy the next to go?

INDONESIA: Borneo violence further weakens Wahid

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Why refugees are a soft target

Help needed for North Queensland farmers

DRUGS: Drug policy criticised by international board

Straws in the Wind

Letter: Kim Beazley - look at the record

Senate inquiry attacks NZ apple import proposal

ECONOMICS: Trade blocs - where will Australia fit?


HUMAN RIGHTS: Amnesty Report may sink China's Olympic bid

HEALTH: Lessons of SA abortion experience

COMMENT: Paul Lyneham - Australia's H. L. Mencken

Teen books gone from "honest" to "offensive"

Letter: Refugees - coarsening of attitudes

Letter: Alice Springs - Darwin railway

Letter: One Nation

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Paul Lyneham - Australia's H. L. Mencken

by R.J. Stove

News Weekly, March 10, 2001
Those who didn't know Paul Lyneham - who last November 24, aged only 55, lost his battle against lung cancer - must take it on trust from those who did, that he was indeed the conscientious journalist, loving husband, generous father and enthusiastic golfer whom obituarists proclaimed him to be. But what even total strangers can perceive is the fact that Lyneham, at his best, ranked among the very few meritorious satirists Australia has ever produced.

This should surprise no-one. For years Lyneham alone made 60 Minutes not just genuinely watchable, but genuinely enjoyable. To reach the Lyneham monologue at many an episode's end, it was almost worth enduring the entire program.

Like many of the world's sharper comics, Lyneham knew better than to milk his material for laughs. Instead, he cultivated a persona of total humourlessness, adroitly mixed with an IQ that seemed to hover steadily around room temperature. Lyneham gave every appearance of free-associating. He made it look so easy. But try imitating him and see how far you get.

Something of the comparative impartiality that he brought to his political comments came from Alan Ramsay's admission (The Media Report, Radio National, November 30) that Lyneham's own ABC boss Phillip Chubb "could never tell, from anything that Paul ever did, what his politics might have been".

Ex-Greenpeace dissident Patrick Moore, whom Lyneham once upbraided on Nightline for his disenchantment with conventional environmental activism, might have disagreed. But any busy reporter can, and probably should, be forgiven the occasional lapse. One need not believe in Lyneham's divinity to suggest that his authorial skills left those of most Australian journalists for dead.

Perhaps Lyneham's best memorial lies in the 1993 edition of Political Speak (ABC Enterprises, Sydney). Though clearly obsolete in certain respects - it requires a fairly heroic imaginative effort to recollect a period when Nick Greiner and John Hewson resembled colossi - it remains, in most respects, all too vivid. To read it is to realise anew how little the outlook of Australia's governing class has changed over the last eight years: despite such intervening trivia as the Internet, Pauline Hanson's emergence, and the neutering of Asia's Tigers. In a civilised country any one of these developments (let alone the combination of all three) would have entailed the most comprehensive ideological soul-searching on our masters' part. Then there's Australia.

At certain moments in Political Speak, Lyneham achieves an invective level that puts him in evident range of equality with H. L. Mencken, whom in his "plague-on-both-your-houses" stance he resembles. Has any subsequent analyst of the great Liberal Party death-wish surpassed, or even approached, Lyneham's slashing paragraphs on the topic?

"If the Coalition does not win a Federal election soon [this was written during Hewson's campaign], many of its members might have to consider retraining for real jobs. Naturally, marketing would be beyond them but they could go back to basics by enrolling at the Under-achievers' Institute for Very Small Opportunities. This features such courses as How to Run Chook Raffles and How to Sell Life Rafts to Drowning People. It shouldn't be too challenging for the bright ones; the remaining 99% might find it a bit of a struggle.

"So how are voters responding to the looming electoral battle? With increasing alienation and cynicism. Why? Well, are you really jumping out of your socks over a choice like this?

"On one side there's the team that advocates small government yet wants to tax just about everything you buy; the team that was never, ever, going to change its policy until December 1992 when it changed its policy.

"On the other side there's the team that so loves the unemployed it created a million of them; the team that raised the working class up the social ladder in the 80s by creating a permanent underclass beneath it.

"Would you sleep soundly after giving either lot total power of attorney over your family's affairs? What about leaving them in charge of your dog? Your budgie? See what I mean."

Less than a page later Lyneham gives us an eerily prescient summation of the party that remains obliged to keep under the one roof a Mark Latham's brain-power and, uh, a Simon Crean's:

"Labor has developed an unusually talented backbench while [Keating] Cabinet meetings have come to resemble medication night at the Happy Valley Retirement Home. Mind you, they would be a lot less trouble if they stayed asleep at the wheel all the time."

Nor has Lyneham's ostensibly fictional ensemble of political icons lost its charm eight years later. If anything, the great Lyneham creation Nigel Concern QC - radical, rich, environmentally conscious civil rights barrister, and ALP member for the South Australian seat of Chardonnay - seems still more depressingly relevant in the Geoffrey Robertson era than he did in 1993:

"Concern achieved national prominence when his parliamentary committee produced the Doomsday Australia Report. This warned that unless we abandoned the cities and switched to agrarian socialism on hobby farms immediately, Australia would be an environmental wasteland by the following Tuesday night. Only radical, rich, environmentally conscious civil rights barristers should be permitted to maintain their lifestyles so they could campaign on behalf of us all. Concern also chaired the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Discrimination Against Smelly People. After 380 days of hearings, with 263 witnesses, the six-volume report concluded it was a shocking disgrace and that the courtroom should be fumigated."

Alas, at the time Lyneham wrote, electoral redistribution had placed Concern's seat in serious danger, obliging Head Office to demand that Concern "get rid of his paisley Pajero and mix with as many 'ordinary' locals as possible. Concern says he's never been introduced to any."

Australia has never so abounded in satirists that we can afford to lose even one at an unripe age.

The total absence of wit or even humour among most Australian writers (deliberate humour, that is; Manning Clark's oeuvre is good for innumerable giggles, none of them, unfortunately, envisaged by its creator) warrants, and one day will perhaps get, an article in itself. Meanwhile, if this absence concerns you as much as it should, then light a candle to Lyneham's memory. If remembrance of Lyneham's output can be kept alive, even the gates of Nigel Concern's hell need not prevail.

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