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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsJune 10, 2022

Is Anthony Albanese’s musical offering to Jacinda Ardern grounds for war?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The prime minister has been gifted Powderfinger, Spiderbait and Midnight Oil LPs by her new trans-Tasman counterpart. Legal expert Andrew Geddis considers the appropriate level of response.

The “national leaders swapping presents” ritual is a funny old one. Rooted in deep common values of reciprocity and respect – gift-giving is a universal trait among not only human cultures, but our close animal relationsit also serves an important signal-sending function. Not only should a leader’s choice of present show some thought about who its recipient is, but it will say something about the place it is coming from. And this signalling can then lead to some pretty weird moments.

Like when Jacinda Ardern received a large portrait of herself from Vietnam’s Prime Minister. Or when the Bulgarian President gifted US President George W. Bush a puppy named “Balkan of Gorannadraganov, passive-aggressively committing the Bush family to 15-years-or-so of pet ownership. Or when Barack Obama was given a $50,000 crocodile attack insurance policy by Australia’s Northern Territory’s Chief Minister.

But has a present between national leaders ever been a valid justification for resorting to armed force? After all, we’ve all experienced a birthday or seasonal holiday gift sparking familial meltdowns – haven’t we? Why couldn’t the same thing happen on the international stage?

Following Jacinda Ardern’s visit to Sydney to see new Aussie PM Anthony Albanese, we may be about to find out. Being their first meeting in person as PMs, and with each heading a Labo(u)r government, this represents an important reset in the two countries’ relationship. What gifts, then, were chosen to mark this new beginning?

Good haul (Photo: Jacinda Ardern)

As detailed in The Spinoff’s Live Updates, the two leaders went with music. And it being 2022, meaning that everything old and inconvenient is now cool again, they went with music on vinyl. Gifting music makes sense for them – after all, both leaders have it as a big part of their backstory (as well as actually liking it in the real world). DJ Ardern and DJ Albo, although the latter seems more prone to dropping actual song lyrics into his public pronouncements. And we all know music is a window into culture, making it the perfect way to say something about how a leader wants their country to be perceived.

Jacinda Ardern’s choices, which reflect the impeccably correct tastes of her consigliere Grant Robertson, tracked the old wedding maxim. Something old, in the form of The Clean’s 1981 EP Boodle Boodle Boodle. Something new, with Reb Fountain’s 2021 album Iris. Something borrowed, being the AK-79 compilation where Aotearoa New Zealand first stole punk and never gave it back. And something blue, through Aldous Harding’s self-titled debut album.

We can quibble around the edges of this selection. If four albums was the magic number, maybe Dunedin nostalgia could have been set aside for a tangata whenua voice in the form of Alien Weaponry’s “Tangaroa”. I mean, Albanese dropping a needle on “Ahi Kā” might well help to stiffen his spine for the upcoming fight to deliver on the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

But it’s nevertheless a laudable good faith effort, reflecting Aotearoa’s cultural innovation and development across time. Plus, given Albanese’s demonstrated fondness for “left-of-the-dial” alternative music, it comes across as personally curated. You could well imagine him listening to any of these discs and actually appreciating what he hears. 

What, then, did Ardern receive from Albanese in turn? Dross, that’s what. Absolute cultural garbage. 

Sure, you could make a case for including Midnight Oil in a gift bundle, given their bravery in carrying support for aboriginal rights and environmental issues out onto the Australian pub music circuit. Respect where respect has been earned.

But … Spiderbait? A ‘90s-era pop-punk outfit whose biggest hit was a cover/appropriation of a 1930s blues song? And then … Powderfinger? A band whose commercial success was evocatively described to me as being due to the fact that they make music for people who don’t like music. Or, as this NME article puts it, “Music For Straight Men To Hug To”.

Even given the cultural constraints operating on “Albo” – in Australia’s political climate, even your choice of pyjama pants can become a weapon for the Murdoch media to wield against you – this is a pretty average offering. And it’s not as if there weren’t plenty of options available – Australia is the land of Courtney Barnett (or, better yet, Jen Cloher). He could have pushed the boat out and invited Ardern to rock out to Amyl and the Sniffers. And even if throwback legacy value were a prerequisite to inclusion, Yothu Yindi or Dirty Three are just sitting there waiting to be picked up.

But, no. In exchange for our cultural taonga, Ardern (and by extension, us) has been handed a triplet of meat-and-potatoes nostalgia guitar bands that vaguely handwave toward the “alternative” while still sitting safely within the general cultural mainstream.

Enough for us to take our tank and declare war on Australia? Listen to this, then try telling me that we should just give peace a chance.

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