Thursday, August 20, 2009

Perverse Acts

Camilla Nelson’s comic novel Perverse Acts (1998) depicts an Australian republic with a ceremonial President and a government that must build coalitions of support among the many small parties represented in parliament.

It is set in the Australian Parliament and deals with political machinations in a future republic. The narrative is related in turn by Venus and M. M is a young male Member of the House of Representatives who quickly becomes a Parliamentary Secretary and then a Cabinet Minister. His plans to become Prime Minister are eventually thwarted by Lucretia, the only female MP in ‘the Party’ and a member of a rival faction. Venus is an ambitious ministerial staffer who works for several ministers, including M, with whom she has a sexual relationship. When Lucretia wins, Venus transfers to her staff.

Until Lucretia’s leadership bid, the government has steadily lost ground in the electorate. Part of the cause of this growing unpopularity is the government’s attempt to get its Freedom from Government Bill, an advanced privatisation measure, through the Senate. There it needs the support of the Reverend Warren Weedon’s Circle of Light Party. The price for Weedon’s support is a growing list of legal restrictions on sex and fertility, beginning with a debate on his Single Mothers Obliteration Bill, which would force unmarried pregnant women to have abortions, then support for an amendment to prevent single women and lesbians from accessing IVF, and finally a law to force ‘single women to become born-again virgins’. Lucretia’s popularity as challenger for the prime ministership is boosted by her opposition to the deals between the Government and Weedon and is undiminished when she outs herself as a lesbian.

Nelson’s Australian republic seems to be based on the minimalist model, particularly with regard to the powers of the President. Presidents have simply replaced Governors-General. The incumbent President remains unnamed and hardly appears throughout the novel. He is ensconced in the old vice regal house at Yarralumla, where his official duties seem limited to swearing in new ministers.

Political power in Nelson’s republican Australia remains firmly centred on the Prime Minister and Cabinet and their ministerial and public service advisers. The major legislative challenge for governments is still to steer bills through Parliament, hence the importance of Weedon’s Circle of Light. The Republic (or later constitutional amendment) has changed some institutions--federalism has been done away with, and the High Court’s independence removed - but these developments are only mentioned in passing. They have no bearing on the activities of governing, which take place almost entirely within Parliament House.

Nelson depicts her republic as a cosmetic change to a corrupted game of politics. She sees power primarily in terms of gender rather than economic structures and suggests more open-ended possibilities for her imagined political institutions. Nelson indicates at least the chance that a new type of political leadership will emerge in an imagined future republic.