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Posted on 4 Oct 2018 in Non-Fiction |

ROBERT MANNE On Borrowed Time. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks

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From asylum seekers to politics, climate change and the personal challenges of dealing with cancer, Robert Manne’s essays are a rich canvas and urge us to interrogate prejudice and injustice wherever they threaten to take root.

When Robert Manne, Emeritus Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, was confronted with the prospect of losing his larynx to throat cancer and his oncologist advised that a laryngectomy was the only alternative to a very painful death, his first response was, ‘I’d rather die.’

At a post-operation consultation, his ‘fine young surgeon’ mentions to him, as an afterthought, that if the cancer returned surgery could do nothing more to help him. Manne’s life-affirming response is:  ‘I now had the title for this essay.

‘On Borrowed Time’, the opening essay in the collection, reflects on how, when faced with the choice between losing his voice box and dying, Manne chose to live. It is a moving and rare insight into the inner voice of one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals. What follows is an honest account of his progression from profound despair to learning that ‘I am a stoical person, who can abide even very unpleasant bodily conditions short of intolerable pain.’  He especially reflects on the constancy and love he has shared over the course of his 35-year marriage to his wife Anne, even recording a love letter to her so that his voice is preserved before it is surgically removed.

This book is a collection of Manne’s essays, selected from his contributions to Guardian Australia, The Monthly and the Quarterly Essay between 2011 and 2017. His commentaries are not only reflections on contemporary issues. Whether he is writing about Malcolm Turnbull, Donald Trump, climate change, the state of Australian politics under both major parties, asylum seekers or Wikileaks, he urges the application of morality and ethics and a willingness to resist, unearth and interrogate the prejudice and injustice that ever threatens to take root. In this sense Manne is metaphorically presenting himself as the canary down the mine. The prospect of living on borrowed time that he personally faces is a recurring metaphor throughout his essays for the influences that threaten our democratic, civil society and planetary survival if rational, fearless, public voices are ignored, or worse, are silenced. He repeatedly urges us to make the moral effort to resist the human tendencies that threaten a free and open society, so that the decisions we make that might shape the national future are humane and rational.

In writing on climate change he provides detailed evidence of how fossil-fuel vested interests and their allies in politics and the media  deliberately constructed strategies to undermine public confidence in the findings of climate-change science, even attacking the credibility of individual scientists who warn of the consequences if the world does not take preventative action.

A key ally in this campaign has been The Australian newspaper, addressed in his essay ‘The Murdoch Empire’. As Australia’s only national newspaper, whose journalists dominate the Federal Parliament’s press gallery, it is regarded by Manne as the country’s most important newspaper. It claims that climate change is minimal, a position on which it has ‘remorselessly campaigned’, giving credence to the questionable rhetoric of climate-change deniers.

He closes the essay by reflecting on how damaging it is to the public interest when politicians make short-term political decisions based purely on self-interest.  Following the 2013 election Bob Hawke stated that in his years in Australian politics he had never seen anything like the ‘virulent bias’ of the Murdoch press against Julia Gillard and the ALP.   Manne muses:

I wondered whether he recalled the role his government had played in laying the foundation for this state of affairs when it facilitated News Corp’s domination of the Australian press. And I wondered whether he dimly recalled the warnings about Murdoch of the kind that The Age had issued in its January 1987 editorial: ‘The effective control of the media is the first step on the road to controlling the values and future direction of our society.’

And yet, paradoxically, does Manne’s distaste for Murdoch help to magnify his influence? Does he ascribe a power to Murdoch that he does not actually have? Might it be less risky for politicians – and the national interest – for him to be resisted rather than appeased? An analysis of News Limited papers’ circulation and their measured impact on public opinion and voting outcomes might address these questions.

In two essays — ‘Malcolm Turnbull: The Promise’ and ‘Malcolm Turnbull: A Brief Lament’ — Manne traces his evolution from viewing Turnbull as a principled and outspoken backbencher and a true purveyor of traditional liberal philosophy, to his disappointment five years later at an unprincipled, ambitious Prime Minister: ‘In the end there is only one cause that ultimately counts for him – the cause of Malcolm Turnbull.’

The essay on asylum seekers, ‘How We Came To Be So Cruel’, analyses the process by which, over 35 years, Australia has moved from being one of the most humanely welcoming countries for Vietnamese asylum seekers to creating ‘the least asylum seeker-friendly institutional arrangements in the world’.  Manne’s analysis is instructive in the factors he identifies and how he labels them: Party Politics: Howard’s Curse, Bureaucratic Inertia, Automaticity, Groupthink – ‘… officials now believe that one act of human decency will lead to an armada of asylum-seeker boats setting out for Australia’.

He ends his discussion by again urging us to choose the humane and moral way to end the years of bitterness, experiment and cruelty: ‘… without recourse to negative stereotypes about the eternal character of the nation’, to open:

…[a] new chapter of humanely decent policy with regard to asylum seekers, more reflective of the many fine and generous impulses in our history of welcoming refugees.

For all his fears for the future of the enlightened society, in his final chapter ‘The University’, Manne places his hope for its survival in there always being:

a small number of students who will come to university not only or even primarily to earn a professional qualification … but to take part in the search for knowledge and understanding and to experience the life of the mind.

Robert Manne On Borrowed Time Black Inc. 2018 PB 384pp $34.99

Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library and the Sydney University Chancellor’s Committee. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights and conflict resolution.

You can buy On Borrowed Time from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.