Lean and Nosey like a Ferret – Mungo Wentworth MacCallum: December 21, 1941 – December 9, 2020
The first and possibly last time I saw Mungo in the flesh was at the Abel Smith Lecture theatre at the University of Queensland in the early 1970s. We were born on the same day, only 9 years separate us. Although I may have seen him once after that at the Poinciana cafe in Mullumbimby which he used to frequent in more recent times. Mungo represented an age when Labor-in-government was a party of modest reform rather than the reactionaries that grace government benches these days. That was Whitlam era politics.
The day I saw Mungo he was giving political commentary on Vietnam, Keynesian economics, capitalism, the Prime Minister ‘Big Ears’ Billy McMahon. While Mungo spoke at length on the ‘bible bashing’ bastard Bjelke-Peterson Bruce Petty was keeping up by drawing on a long piece of transparent film that rolled speedily across an overhead projector. They had us in tears of laughter. Mungo and Bruce kept us transfixed for over 90 minutes. Mungo was a self-confessed ‘class traitor‘ having given up on the rich and powerful and gone over to the side of the underdog. Mungo was born into the squattocracy, the impecunious distant offspring of the aristocratic Wentworth family.
“Gough Whitlam is remembered more for the agony of the dismissal than for the many great achievements his government wrought in a mere three years,” wrote Mungo MacCallum. At first he thought Whitlam to be a snob but changed his mind.
“Our first meeting changed my mind completely; I was won over to lifelong Whitlamolatry. In place of the sinister manipulator I had half expected I found an amiable, funny and rather shy man desperately eager to explain his plans to transform the smug backwater from the Menzies years into a model for the rest of the world. In those days the idea that Australia could take any kind of leading role beyond sport was breathtaking, yet Whitlam seemed to find it entirely possible if a meticulously prepared program of public education and overdue social change could be carried out – and, as he outlined it all 35 years ago, there seemed no good reason why it should not. Certainly, in the rapidly changing times of the late 60s it was a cause worth embracing, and embrace it I did.”
Mungo and Michael Leunig were a formidable combination at the Nation Review (the ferret) funded by millionaire Gordon Barton. Barton later funded the Australia Party, a small ‘l’ offshoot of the Liberal Party that later morphed into the Australian Democrats under the leadership of Don Chipp who was a minister during the Menzies era. The left of the Democrats finally found a home in the Australian Greens after their leader supported Howards regressive tax, the GST. Mungo famously called Howard ‘an unflushable turd‘ when he became Prime Minister in 1996.
With Mungo’s passing goes an age of journalism which was courageous and irreverent, if not entirely independent. After Nation Review Mungo ‘free lanced’ for Fairfax and Murdoch to earn a living.
On libel cases, Mungo’s particular forte, the law is absurd. Mungo said that every time you mentioned a person’s name or sometimes when you didn’t, it was possible to be successfully sued. Here he gave an example of a satirical piece he wrote in The Australian on a Brisbane police porn raid, where a certain Sonnavover, Ug and Og who communicated in grunts were featured — three Brisbane policemen threatened to sue under grounds that they were clearly identified.
On Bjelke-Petersen’s consciousness, Mungo wrote:
“The choice is, it’s between our system, everything that’s made Queensland what we are, and them, the others, the downhill road to socialism and communism, make no mistake about it, and my goodness, we don’t want that, do we, for democracy to be destroyed all that is necessary is for good people to remain silent, remember that …”
MacCallum saw himself as a ‘romantic Fabian socialist’.
Condolences to his family, friends and readers, a new age is upon us.
12 Dec 2020