by Fiona Wright
I want to start with a digression. On election night in 2007 – the night of the Ruddslide – I went to three different parties in the back streets of Newtown. I started in a somewhat unsound sharehouse, where the finishing touches were being made on a piñata shaped like Howard’s head as I arrived. I moved on to a poet’s house, where there was a 1969 ‘Don’s Party’ theme, changing into a second-hand, high-necked, purple paisley nylon dress from Madame Scrag’s along the way. At the third party, I mentioned that I was going to re-hem the dress, shorter, so I could wear it again, and a very drunk girl responded by picking up the kitchen scissors and cutting off my skirt mid-thigh and terribly crookedly. My housemate kept texting How good is this!?! How GOOD is THIS!?! We ended up on the corner of King St and Enmore Rd, where drums and a mixing deck had been set up spontaneously, where we danced with strangers drinking tequila mixed with convenience-store slushies and a stranger slipped me a pill and kissed me in the park, I went straight to work at six am and my manager cracked open a bottle of Verve Cliquot before the sun had really risen. What I remember, that is, is our unmitigated joy at the idea – an idea that we all really believed, we who had never before experienced a change of government – that things would change, that we’d be governed, at last, through hope, instead of fear.
In the last months, I’ve been watching the Danish TV series Borgen, which I downloaded ‘utterly legally’ on the advice of that same poet who’d held the Don’s Party, and told me he had an understanding with his wife that if Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays the lead role of Birgitte Nyborg, ever came to Australia, he’d have a free pass. Nyborg has this smile, this radiant smile, that bursts from her face when she achieves something important and makes me understand exactly what he means. But the entire show, I think, is operating on a currency of hope, and it’s what has made it so compelling – and so upsetting – to watch these past few weeks.
In the very first episode of the series, Birgitte Nyborg is elected Denmark’s first female Prime Minister, after breaking from her official script in a TV interview to speak plainly about how inauthentic and petty playing politics had been over the election campaign, and how the Danes as a people are better than this, deserve better than this. She forms a minority government with three other parties. In the first series, she visits Greenland, which is still a Danish protectorate, and engages properly with the indigenous Inuit people, legislating that they have a say in decisions made about the use of her land. She passes laws for representation of women on corporate boards, for green energy and emissions targets, she dismisses old-hand ministers who abuse their power and privileges. In the second, she develops a social welfare package. She cuts subsidies to private health insurance in order to strengthen government support for the public system – especially in the mental health sector – she opposes attempts to limit immigration and the rights of refugees and migrants, and she continually fights back against a bull-headed media, who try and make a news story of her gender: Is a woman fit to be PM? the headlines read.
I’ve found it fascinating to watch the parallels – and the startling discrepancies – between these fictionalised machinations at Borgen, the Castle, as the Danish parliament building is affectionately known and the last all-too-real years in Canberra. It’s a strangely split experience: at times, I’ve been stunned by how prescient the series is, how so many of the political and media pressures that Birgitte Nyborg faces could have been lifted from press coverage of Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership. But Nyborg makes policy the way we all wish it would be, could be done: she’s hopelessly idealistic, she does her own research and consults with the people who might be affected by her laws before passing them, she refuses to answer hypothetical questions from the media, but doesn’t just fall back on practised position statements and damage-control in debates. She’s trying to change her country, and for the better, not just to stay in power for its own sake. At times, that is, she’s an impossible ideal, a figure of all the things I wish I could have seen happening here.
By the third series, which I’ve only just ‘utterly legally’ stumbled upon, Nyborg has left politics, after being defeated by one of the instigators of the gendered campaign against her in the last election. But when her old party, the Moderates, start brokering deals with the new government, which would allow migrants to be deported if they commit minor offences, such as swearing at a police officer or petty theft and further decrease migration quotas, she’s unable to just watch on, and starts her own new party, with a handful of disgusted renegade MPs, in protest. The day after I watched this episode, and cheered Nyborg on from my couch, Kevin Rudd – that Prime Minister who we danced in the street for barely six years ago – announced that even genuine refugees, should they arrive in Australia by boat, will never be eligible for residency in this country, but will be settled in Papua New Guinea instead.
All I knew is that this wasn’t politics as I’d ever imagined it could be played, let alone conducted in my name. All I wanted was a leader to be able to say, as Nyborg did to her fictionalised Danes, that as a people, we are better than this, that we deserve better than this. But here it’s not in the script, somehow; it’s only on TV, in fiction, that we’re asked to be unafraid.