June 29, 2013 @ 2:11 AM

Passionate rivalry...

On the day after the governing Australian Labor Party again deposed one Prime Minister and replaced her with a more popular predecessor on the eve of a Federal election, we went to see Carmen – another drama of passionate rivalry and death in the human bullring.


I don't want to make too much of the parallels (as they seemed that morning) between Georges Bizet's masterpiece of Spanish love, betrayal and revenge, and our own Parliamentary theatre...

...nor indeed to trespass on my self-imposed rule of not talking about partizan political issues.


Carmen, original poster 1875.


This post deals with a literary life, and readers will have their own opinions on these matters.

But certainly, as the haunting music of Carmen's 'Fate' theme reached out to us in the darkened cinema, and the final curtain fell on the Metropolitan Opera's magnificent 2010 HD production showing the dead heroine, with the matador poised en tableau with drawn swords above his slaughtered victim, I couldn't help but reflect on the personal tragedies that had occurred in the government party room the night before.


One Prime Minister cut down and about to exit Parliamentary life. Another, against all the odds, reinstated to a position he had lost precisely three years and three days before...

Staunch supporters swearing undying loyalty – but at the last moment switching sides. Some ministers falling on their swords. Others, who'd earlier resigned, resuming their places on the front bench.

There seemed a curious sense of hubris and vindication in the blood-letting. And from the public perspective, I think, a feeling that in some way a political wrong of three years ago had been righted.

It was all very much the stuff of opera, as Carmen's destiny unfolded – sung with remarkable bravura and dramatic sweep by Elina Garanca, with Roberto Alagna as Don José.

Bizet – or Verdi – could have set memorably our own version of the libretto from Prosper Merimée’s original short story.


Celestine Galli-Marié, the original Carmen, by Henri-Lucien Doucet (1886).


And yet, however much Carmen's tormented fate might reflect on stage the ritualistic goading and killing of a bull in the arena, it also occurred to me that all these political metaphors of 'back-stabbings' and 'blood on the floor' are just that: metaphors. And really not very good ones.

For it is the great glory of parliamentary democracy – representative democracy, if you will – that we do not in fact go round killing each other to resolve our political differences.

Or rarely so. And when it occurs it usually signifies that the system has failed.


On the contrary, the divisions and conflicts of opinion that beset any community are ritualised by the parties vying for power within the House and Senate, and resolved through debate and majority opinion in the representative chambers and – ultimately – at a general election.

The struggle for power ... the positioning and repositioning of the players on the public stage ... is endlessly fascinating, in the way that human behaviour always is in the dramatic contest for government and the prize of control over so much of our lives.


But the days when armed gangs (like Carmen's smugglers) and robber barons ruled the land have gone – except in those dreadful times of revolution. 


Paul Lhérie, the original Don José.


Far better, for all the personal anguish, that conflicts are resolved peacefully by the number of votes counted in the party room, on the floor of the House, or from the Electoral Commission's ballot boxes. And that the result is accepted as such by both winners and losers.

That, for all it's messiness, is the nature of civil democratic government: the worst form of government, as Winston Churchill remarked famously in 1947 after he had lost power, except for every other form that has been tried.


Question Time

Here in Australia we have a reputation for conducting a rowdy and pretty willing Question Time in our Parliaments, where both government and opposition members get to ask questions without notice of relevant ministers.

It's always boisterous, often bitterly so. We have, after all, just had three years of a hung Federal Parliament.

And certainly visitors are frequently complaining  about the 'kindergarten behaviour' of members, and demanding that 'standards be improved.'

But as a journalist who covered both State and Federal Parliaments for a number of years, it seems to me that people who respond like this don't understand the true nature of Question Time.  

Whatever the name, it's rarely designed to elicit information. You go to the considered replies to Questions on Notice, the tabled reports and explanatory memoranda for that.

What Question Time is about is Testing Time. Seeing how leaders and potential leaders respond under pressure. How quickly they can think and act on their feet.

How cleverly and strongly they use Parliamentary tactics, procedures, policy and debate to engage and dominate their opponents. Or succumb to them.

And it’s not just for the sake of immediate advantage, though that is certainly part of it  ... but more importantly to give the electorate at large some idea of how they would react were they and the country to be faced with a real crisis.  The outbreak of war being the most extreme example.


All this is a long way, I suppose, from Carmen and her death in the afternoon, stabbed by the dagger of a spurned lover outside the bullring at Seville.

And yet perhaps not entirely so. As the last tragic notes died away and the house lights came up, I began to realise that the opera was not necessarily a political metaphor for what is ... but rather for how things in civilised society ought not to be.

The Australian Parliament 2008, Photo by Angelo Tsirekas


Photo credits:

Original poster for Carmen, March 1875, Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain (PD)

Mlle Célestine Galli-Marié in her original role of Carmen, from the painting by Henri Lucien Doucet (1886). Bibliothèque-Musée de l'Opéra de Paris. Wikipedia Commons (PD)

Paul Lhérie, the original Don José in Carmen, Wikipedia Commons PD

Parliament House 2008 by Angelo Tsirekas. Wikipedia Creative Commons.