Parliament: the musical

“I am not a prude, but I fail to see why such a shower of filth and sexual allusion should be foisted onto an unsuspecting public in the name of modernity at all costs.”

– Moon,  The Real Inspector Hound, Tom Stoppard

It’s easiest to understand Australia’s Federal Parliament of recent months as a sort of shambolic ritual only dimly reminiscent of its original function.

Some days it appears as though disconsolate mandrills or baboons have overrun the Parliament’s chambers, so that the House of Representatives and the Senate become cacophonous, shrill, deafening.  Those listening on radio  imagine biting, spitting, libidinous assaults, and faeces and other projectiles flying as factions among the apes engage in disorganised battle. It sounds, at times, more like a zoo than a circus.

At other times echoing soliloquy greets the ears of anyone passing. These, though, are not the fine tirades offered in proper theatres, but droning, endlessly repetitive and mundane affairs that may go on for forty minutes or an hour, despite a dearth of content. There is something clever, at least, in the construction of such long passages of syntax so entirely lacking in semantic substance.

The Parliament, through some sort of adjudication of these debates, brings out publications that are still called ‘legislation’. These are lacklustre, arbitrary documents on the subject of this or that, or revisions to ealier such documentation.

The exact purpose of these legislative documents is lost to history. They are today a kind of trite proclamation without either majestic language or semantic attention to detail.  Instead a sort of jack-of-all-trades legalish language is used, displaying little or no expertise in powerful or precise communication.  In the courts of modern Australia judges are called upon to interpret this output of the Parliament as edicta, proclami, rules for civil conduct.  And this is a vexatious task at best, since the legislation, in large part nonsense,  is often open to almost any interpretation at all.

What we have now is a performance of Parliament, tending to the grotesque. By turns it lauds and lampoons in exaggerated, superficial style a long disappeared, less cartoonish earlier iteration of itself.

Cultural and semantic shifts – in values and meanings, respectively – mean that we can only guess at the ancient purpose of this dramatic device we’ve inherited. We have terms such as ‘democracy’, ‘debate’, ‘the vote’, ‘representation’. But there is no accurate method for ascertaining precisely what people used to mean when they employed those terms – esp. what was connoted.

And so we, in latter times, cannot know whether the original political language meant anything like what we mean when we employ the same terms.  And this in turn makes it difficult to guess at the Ancients’ intention. Here is an example of the sort of thing we no longer understand, taken from a paper-book library of the Twentieth Century:

The great practical strength of the Westminster system is that it takes a continuum of disparate political views and reduces them to a manageable dichotomy.  However, the Westminster system also contains a fatal flaw: it takes a continuum of disparate political views and reduces them to a manageable dichotomy.

Incomprehensible, of course, today.

How much has been lost is unclear, but it is apparent that the corridors of the Australian Parliament House in Canberra were once corridors of power. Beyond the ceremonial role, it seems, according to the best political archaeologists, that the institution of Parliament once had some part to play in setting the course of the nation.  Here, in what has become a theatre of low badinage and little import, elected officials once made decisions in a representative way on behalf of an entire country.

This is ludicrous now.

Little remains to suggest there was ever any real political power in Canberra’s sprawling Parliament. The only vestige is the extraction of monies:  the absurdity that allows for public funding of this large, unspectacular circus. To this day citizens are regularly taxed in order to keep the pantomime going without ever being quite sure why.

If the original purpose of Parliamentary Democracy is forgotten in Australia, what can we say of its function today?  Entertainment?  Not likely. For those who love soap opera, perhaps – there are always running subplots in the Parliamentary show that may satisfy fans of relationship dramas, involving trysts, betrayals, affairs, and so on. Comas are so common in Parliament today that they no longer receive medical attention, and often go entirely unnoticed.

The overall effect, according to audiences and critics is a half-baked, unfunny, over-acted, often cheesy and always desperate attempt at theatre that regularly falls flat.

Members of the cast are often elsewhere when on stage. They are always dreary when not in the spotlight. First there is the changing set of central characters, the principal politicians involved in this never-ending show.  Look, here is the statuesque diva who plays the part of Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.  Dame Gillard has been unconvincing of late, according to reviewers. Many have questioned an earlier belief in her potential on the stage. Her performance wavers from show to show, suggesting a lack of commitment to any specific interpretation of her own character.

Sometimes the Prime Minister’s lines indicate she is guided by ideals, at other moments she is cruelly pragmatic.  By what method of training she arrived at this inconstancy is not known: Stanislavski, certainly, has had little do with it. She has received the attention of cosmeticists again and undergone procedures better understood: tonight she appears a little less tired than in the matinee.

And now comes Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader, a sort of modern day Pantalone, representing, we suppose, the stereotype of profound stupidity in power.  In the starring role, opposite Abbott’s grinning gargoyle, Julia Gillard has been able to maintain her prominence.  But this cannot be attributed to wit, elegance, acting chops, but the Ham and inanity of Tony Abbott and his bumbling henchmen.  Their characters are depraved, and their performance abysmal, and as a result the drab party of Gillard has somehow kept its place in the façade.

Many blame script-writers and developers of plot for the steady decline in the quality of drama produced for the Parliamentarian players. There is little or no ad-libbing in Parliament: this art has disappeared along with the talent rumoured to have graced this stage.

The playwrights, seemingly unskilled in the use of either grammar or rhetoric, are concealed from view in the main. The exception is the occasional appearance of a writer as a prompt for the actors, who otherwise rely on countless bits of paper and very short lines to make delivery of the proper statements, despite their sieve-like minds.

Beyond the main characters, and for a weak sort of comic relief there are the three Independents – Oakeshott, Windsor, and Wilkie.  These are unaffiliated figures who should bring levity to the play. But they do not. As is common in Dell’arte and elsewhere, these lowly figures are wiser by far than the characters who populate the major roles.  But  here something has gone awry: unlike the Arlechino of Commedia, reflections tend to the sober rather than the witty, and to melancholy in favour of the ridiculous.

The Independents seem almost paralysed by their role in the play of Parliament. The result is not comic relief at all, but a kind of sotto voce moralising audible beneath the din of self-important cant and cliche emanating from centre-stage. Two of their number at least bring gravitas to their performances, but the third is paranoid and flighty, unable to make his character’s objectives clear.

The practical question most often heard now about the Parliamentary farce is why the play Goes On. The answer, for the moment, is that nobody quite knows how to stop. However preposterous and demeaning Parliament becomes to all concerned, it seems likely to continue, at great cost both to citizens and to Art.

Whatever made the ritual function properly in the first place was pivotal to this civilisation, and its remnants, its vestigial form, remains deeply embedded in our institutional structures and culture.

(Australian Parliament: The Musical – The Archaeology of a former seat of Power)

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