The circus that is the Melbourne Writers Festival

August 30, 2018

Melbourne is having a party, but not everyone’s invited. Maybe you don’t care but it’s actually quite important and it's something the Conservative Party thinks you should know about.

As Caroline Overington writes in The Australian:

The party in question is called the Melbourne Writers Festival, the program for which was this year designed by new artistic director, Marieke Hardy (pictured left).

Quite by chance, the festival started just as national politics imploded.

Now, if you’re a media and/or politics junkie, you were perhaps thinking: “Great! I’ll get down to the festival, and partake in some robust debate, some real back and forth, about the big issues”.

Good luck with that.

It pains me to say this, because I am myself, if not precisely a Melburnian then at least a Victorian, and one who has previously argued for Melbourne as the superior city, vis a vis Sydney.

She’s not flash, the old girl, but she’s our intellectual capital, a place where challenging ideas have long been allowed to thrive.

But not at the Writers Festival, at least not anymore.

Take a look at the program: yes, you’ll be able to find some neutral commentators, some very fine people indeed, but in the main?

It’s a same-same, soft-Left love nest, and why?

In part because many of the nation’s best writers, editors, humorists, and columnists weren’t invited.

Look as hard as you want, you won’t find The Weekend Australian Magazine’s Trent Dalton, whose novel Boy Swallows Universe has become a publishing sensation; you won’t find The Australian’s Sketch writer, James Jeffrey, whose My Family and Other Animus about the calamitous effect of divorce on children, came out this year; The Australian’s social affairs writer, Rick Morton, whose One Hundred Years of Dirt about the divide between the rich and the working class is out right now; you certainly won’t find Greg Sheridan, a close friend of Tony Abbott, whose book about Christian values was launched by Abbott’s fiercest rival, Malcolm Turnbull, last month.

What a missed opportunity!

It wasn’t only The Australian that got snubbed: of 447 artists and writers on the Melbourne Writers Festival program, there was only one full-time employee from all of News Corp: the gifted reviewer and editor, Shelley Hadfield, from Melbourne.

So who did make the list?

In the main, dripping wet Lefties, including Labor politicians but no Conservatives; and ABC types.

The Australian twice requested an interview with Ms Hardy to discuss the matter. The festival is, after all, taxpayer funded. Word came back that she was too busy to talk.

Of course.

Hardy did, however, tell the ABC’s Virginia Trioli, that she designed her festival with the idea in mind of not wanting to put more “hurt” into the world.

“I want everyone having catharsis and connection,” Hardy said.

Trioli gently suggested that maybe it would have been great to have somebody like Germaine Greer (pictured right), so people could say: “Germaine, I once loved you, and you’ve totally lost me!”

“You want to see a QandA where people are flinging abuse at Germaine Greer and she’s flinging abuse back?” Hardy said.

Trioli said not abuse, no, just debate, “a really robust, free-flowing exchange of ideas, a contest of ideas …”

“I thought that we were more robust than that,” she lamented.

Me too, if you can still say that.

Melbourne isn’t Hicksville. She is a world-class city, home of the Wheeler Centre, where the inestimable Sally Warhaft manages to regularly host rebellious speakers, without anyone needing to reach for the smelling salts.

Maybe you’re thinking: oh, but it’s not just Melbourne. Pretty much every writers festival is a Lefty stack.

Not so.

In direct contrast to Melbourne, Canberra, whose writers festival wrapped up on the weekend, easily managed to put a diverse guest list together.

Canberra had the former Prime Minister John Howard, in conversation with Sky’s David Speers. They had Graham Freudenberg, former press secretary and speechwriter to Arthur Calwell, Gough Whitlam, and Bob Hawke, in conversation with The Australian’s Troy Bramston, a Keating biographer, and Sky contributor since 2011 (yes, you can be both!)

They had Nine’s political editor, Chris Uhlmann; they had Ed Husain, a former radical who rejected Islamic extremism for a role fighting terrorism; they had The Guardian’s editor Lenore Taylor interviewing Gareth Evans; they had the Emma Alberici and Annabel Crabb from the ABC; they had News Corp reporters, including Malcolm Farr; and they had people like Tom Frame, who is a patron of the Armed Forces Federation of Australia, and a former judge of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History.

How many different points of view? So many.

Some of us remember when life itself was that way: you’d have good friends whose ideas were different from yours – I think this, you think that – and you’d still get on famously.

Not anymore, at least not in Melbourne, where gaps left open by the absence of real debate have been filled with naked dancers, and dog eulogies. That said, word on the street is that tickets to the festival of fairy floss have been selling extremely well, but then why wouldn’t they?

It isn’t really a writers’ festival, it’s a circus. They’ve given up the battle of ideas.

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