The hyperbole and histrionics that is Bob Ellis


Warning: for the sake of ease of language the following opinion piece utilises a simplistic model of the Left-Right dichotomy of the Australian political landscape.

The political vanguard that is the commentariat of the Internet-Left is always swift to jump on the excesses and baloney of the commentariat of the Right.   Social commentators and pseudo-journalists like Andrew Bolt, Piers Ackerman, Peter Reith and various members of the shock jock fraternity are regularly rounded upon, ridiculed and even vilified.  This is as it should be.  The warped and neurotic perspective they bring to political discourse in Australia is entirely deserving of analysis, critique and derision.  But this sort of mental maladjustment is not the sole preserve of the political Right, even if it can boast a far greater percentage of people intent on trying to make distortion and hyperbole a literary virtue.

Bob Ellis is a darling of certain leftist cliques.  The writer, journalist, filmmaker and political commentator is well known for his acerbic and at times hyperbolic style of commentary.  He is, if nothing else, colourful in his prose.  Sadly, however, as he’s grown older and even more curmudgeonly, his style has incorporated elements that one would ordinarily associate with the excesses and abuses of the Right: distortion, emotional manipulation, hyperbole and outright mendacity.

Ellis’ frequent irrational posturings are currently being given airplay by Independent Australia.  His articles usually meet with a flood of uncritical sycophancy.   It’s a particularly vocal choir he sings to.  Leading into the Federal Election he issued a number of missives regarding opinion polls, made all sorts of predictions regarding the outcome of the election, offered some quite insightful and sound criticisms of Galaxy and Newspoll, but generally, in the eyes of this author, made a fool of himself.   The audience didn’t care that his predictions were universally wrong.  They didn’t care that he went so far as to offer the utterly asinine suggestion, in a piece fatuously titled, The Coming Rudd Landslide Explained:

The Liberals are headed for an historic defeat and oblivion thereafter.

Yes, Bob, that was always going to happen.

Ellis’ latest piece, posted by Independent Australia, “The Abbott Government after fifty days”, is so striking in its intellectual and moral poverty that it cannot go unchallenged.

After fifty days in office it is clear Tony Abbott’s is the worst new government in our history.

Right from the start we’ve entered the realm of unjustifiable exaggeration.  The Gillard Government was the worst in our history, said the blowhards of the Right.  Both statements are intellectually bereft.  Why take that unnecessary step into hyperbole when it’s perfectly adequate to observe that the Abbott Government has been bad in its first fifty days?   As soon as any commentator utters the words “worst in our history”, they cannot be taken seriously as they have signaled their intention to be unduly extravagant in their rhetoric.  Mind you, it’s possible, I suppose, that Ellis is merely trying to be clever and topical with the “worst in history” quip, but I doubt it.

They have insulted our nearest neighbour, a nation with ten times our population, and brought us near war with them over boats they don’t want back, and hacked phones.

Some, armed with a map, might argue that Papua New Guinea is our nearest neighbour, but that aside, it is unforgivable histrionics to suggest that we’ve been led to near war with Indonesia over the asylum seekers issue.  It’s language designed to whip up frenzy.  It is inflammatory and utterly irresponsible.  It is more than sufficient to observe that thus far the Abbott Government has failed in the diplomatic arm wrestle that its policies have created.  It’s enough to note the embarrassment caused to Abbott and to Australia.  To invoke the language of war is just idiotic, as is linking phone hacking to the current government.   That’s the sort of dishonest rhetoric we would expect from the other side of political commentary.

They have insulted scientists, who will never now come to Australia, or stay long here. They have insulted a world conference on climate change by refusing to go to it.

Yes, I have no doubt a lot of scientists are justifiably insulted by the Abbott approach to Science.  But refusing to go to a world conference on climate change?  That is a lie.  There’s no other way to characterise the last statement.  Why lie when the truth is bad enough?  Australia is not refusing to go at all.  We are breaking with convention with regard to the seniority of the representative we’re sending.   Again, the truth, absent of the mendacity and distortion is more than sufficiently embarrassing and damaging to the Government without lying about it.

They have abolished the Ministry of Science, thereby declaring Global Warming will occur, if it does, when Christ returns with a sharp sickle and a box of matches. They have declared bushfires a part of ‘the Australian experience’ and encouraged eight-year-old arsonists to set them.

Ellis’ richness of audacity is matched only by his poverty of scholarship.  He’s obviously getting too old and lazy to bother making sense.  The statement that bushfires are a part of ‘the Australian experience’ needs context.  It’s conceptual buffoonery as a statement only exists in the proper context.  Taken by itself it is a perfectly accurate observation.  Ellis lazily expects us to insert the correct context for ourselves.   It’s worth pointing out that if the reader is able to do that efficiently, said reader is hardly in need of Ellis’ edification.  But it’s the last bit that is pure Bob Ellis.  It probably wouldn’t be appropriate to use the term inflammatory in this instance, so I’ll just label it moronic.  I mean, seriously, what is Ellis attempting here?  To emotionally incite and influence the intellectually fragile among us?  I know Ellis is generally a writer of melodrama, but it has no place in the scope of serious political discourse.

They will annul, if they can, a thousand gay marriages, distressing two million faithful homosexuals and their four million relatives and driving some to suicide.

Yes, gays and their relatives will kill themselves over the issue of whether or not they can legally marry.  Again, Bob couldn’t just leave it at “distressing”; he had to take the extra step into theatrics and engage in emotional manipulation.

They will thus affirm Cory Bernardi’s comparison of sodomy with fornication with animals.

This is an idiotic suggestion.   It does not come from a rational mind.  Did Julia Gillard ‘affirm’ Bernardi’s absurd contention in her own opposition to gay marriage?

They have thus affirmed the Prime Minister’s view that his sister will burn a billion years in hell.

I an unable to find any reference anywhere that suggests Tony Abbott’s view is that his sister, or any other homosexual, is fated by their sins to burn in hell for 5 minutes let alone a billion years.  Perhaps Bob Ellis has inside knowledge on this issue.  Alternatively, he made it up to stir the emotions of folk who like that sort of thing.  I think we know the truth of it.  Aside from that, the comment is a complete non sequiter.  No particular view of the fate of any homosexual necessarily follows from opposition to gay marriage.  Such statements are reminiscent of mental disturbance and certainly not anything akin to rationality.

And they have declared the deficit no longer an emergency and a surplus not likely before, oh, 2025. They have cheated the WA and Fairfax elections, after a serially cheated election in which their policies were not revealed, or costed, until a day before it.

They ‘cheated’ the WA and Fairfax elections?  This claim is straight out of the Clive Palmer handbook of paranoia-poisoned assertions.  There was a time when people would be forced into some kind of psychiatric observation for less than this.  And every opposition from both sides of politics has fought hard to delay their policy costings.  It’s utter nonsense to criticize the Coalition on this basis.  The blanket statement that their policies were not revealed till a day before the election is a blatant falsehood.  The real problem was the Coalition’s policies had no substance of which to speak.  But substance isn’t something with which Bob Ellis is generally concerned.

They have cancelled the school kids’ money, impairing a million educations.

It’s hard to imagine that the loss of the bonus will actually impair any child’s education.  Nevertheless it is a financial loss to families.  What is significant about that is that we all knew they were going to do it months before the election.  It was clearly not a significant enough issue to cause people to change their voting intention.  One might therefore argue such people ostensibly voted for it.

They have made it now impossible for a million people now ageing to retire in comfort.

Yes, Mr Ellis, why use moderate and reasonable and accurate language when you can ramp it up and indulge in your favourite thing – hyperbole?  Impossible?  I think you mean more difficult – if it’s even possible to discern what it is, specifically, that you’re referring to because you give no context.  Again, when is the Left going to accept that people knew about a lot of this and voted for it anyway?  When are they going to accept that certain individual issues were not sufficient, in and of themselves, to alter voting intention?

They have ruined two politicians for spending public or union money, and spent themselves taxpayers’ money like drunken sailors on football games and weddings.

Wow.  See what happens when one stays within the bounds of intellectual and moral propriety – a perfectly sound and unembellished observation; an observation that is sufficiently condemnatory in its unadulterated form.  I knew you could do it Bob – you know, let the facts speak for themselves.

They have hidden their Prime Minister, already an international joke, and let Mathias Cormann, who sounds like a Nazi torturer, speak for him.

I’m not too sure what a Nazi torturer sounds like, exactly, and I have a hunch neither does Bob.  I have to also assume that in his ignorance Bob also hasn’t heard of Godwin’s Law.   Or is this simply his clever way of having the last word?  Whatever the case, it’s beyond the pale to link a person to Nazism in any way at all when such an action is not associated with any form of actual critique.  It’s plain sophomoric and embarrassing.

They are fighting among themselves over baby money for the rich and selling our biggest entities to the Chinese and the Americans.

Yes, there is internal dissent regarding the Coalition’s PPL scheme.  Whoopty doo.  What a meaningless thing to observe.  Are we to imagine that no such policy dissent exists within the ranks of the Labor Party?  How about an analysis of the Coalition policy itself?  No, that would mean thought and effort.  It’s enough, apparently, to observe that not everyone agrees with a policy to discredit it.   The second statement regarding selling Australian assets to foreign investors is well taken, but such observations form nothing more than after-thoughts in this article.

And they are saying, in a month of our worst bushfires and the worst cyclones in world history, they have a mandate to let Global Warming rip.

Self evidently that is not what they actually think.  Given that axing the Carbon Pricing scheme and replacing it with some meaningless nonsense called Direct Action was pivotal to their election platform, they can quire reasonably claim a mandate to implement those plans.  I think what you really mean to say here, Bob, is that a large portion of the Australian electorate has said “yes” to letting ‘Global Warming rip’.  It’s pretty cool to be a voter in this country – you never seem to be held to account for anything.  

This after fifty days. I will get back to you after a hundred.

I have to say I hope not, if this hyperbolic rant, devoid of reason or anything remotely approaching substance or logic is an indication of what we can expect.   I realise some people are so egotistical, so enamoured of their own word-smithery and artistry that without their help, simple facts are too boring and mundane, but really….?

Bob Ellis is the epitome of everything that is wrong with contemporary political discourse in this country.  It’s irrelevant what side of politics he “represents”.  What matters is the style of communication (I will not call it “argument” because it doesn’t reach the heights of that dynamic).  In this one piece he commits just about every intellectual crime it is possible for a writer to commit.  It would take an essay in itself to unravel the tangle of informal logical fallacies employed in these 360-odd words.

Yes, lots of people despise the Abbott Government, along with the man himself, and fear what this mob has in store for Australia.   But that’s no excuse for the abandonment of reason and simple decency.  Why an otherwise respected independent journalism and opinion site like Independent Australia would print such schlock is beyond my ken.  Why that schlock is greeted with such uncritical sycophancy by its readership is yet another issue.  I guess people will toss aside their better impulses when faced with an opportunity to bathe in the waters of an emotional tirade that echoes their own feelings.

Yet, isn’t that exactly the dynamic generated and enjoyed by the other mob?  The Bolts, the Jones’, the Ackermans and the rest?   Yes, of course it is.

If we wish to perceive ourselves as better, we have to actually be better.

About Dan Rowden

Dan Rowden is a freelance writer and philosopher who has been active in philosophical and political discourse since Malcolm Turnbull invented the Internet in Australia. For the last 15 years he has contributed to and administered Internet philosophy forums. Politics is a secondary interest, but he recognises moments of significance in Australia's political history.
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