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Big Deal

'Bondi Hipster' Christiaan Van Vuuren joins forces with 'The Chaser' member Craig Reucassel to explore cash donations in Australian politics in this impassioned and engaging documentary.
By Sarah Ward
September 16, 2021
By Sarah Ward
September 16, 2021

Recognisable faces spilling essential facts about important topics: it worked for Damon Gameau's documentaries That Sugar Film and 2040, and it works for the Christiaan Van Vuuren-fronted Big Deal. With the same emphasis on being accessible, engaging, clear, sometimes light-hearted and even hopeful, the tactic has also done what it's meant to in Craig Reucassel's various small-screen doco series — see: War on Waste and Fight for Planet A: Our Climate Change — so it should come as little surprise that he directs this big-screen takedown of money in Australian politics. Accordingly, one of the Bondi Hipsters joins forces with a member of The Chaser to lay bare the murky minutiae behind buying sway in our democracy. The subject couldn't be worthier of attention, especially in the lead up to the next federal election, which needs to be held by May 2022. The approach taken in Big Deal couldn't be more familiar, but it proves effective for the same reason it did when sugar and the environment were in the spotlight. These films take something that's crucial, rustle up all the convincing detail, expose tidbits the average viewer mightn't know and make it personal. And, if it matters to the person on-screen as they not only explore a pivotal topic but see it through the lens of their own life, then it's easy for audiences to take their lead.

Van Vuuren couches his deep dive into cash for political access, the inequity it represents and the lack of transparency behind it, in two factors: his six-month experience quarantining in hospital with a rare form of tuberculosis, and his growing awareness of the kind of world he wants his kids to live in. Those children show up to build towers of blocks that signify the significant fossil fuel donations to Australia's Labor and Liberal political parties, putting a few additional relatable faces on the subject — because the matters here really do impact everyone. That extended stretch under medical care underscores the documentary's entire perspective, though. Van Vuuren worries that Australian politics is taking more cues from the US than the nation's population realises, or can easily discern given that donations to political parties only need to be disclosed once a year, and nothing underscores one of the big chasms between the two countries like healthcare. It's a blunt card to play, especially during a global pandemic, but it makes the point savvily and well. No Aussie should want to follow America's lead if it could potentially weaken our universal healthcare scheme and the free or affordable treatment available under it, obviously.

That's why Van Vuuren doesn't want Australia to be like the US, and it resounds powerfully. Also compelling: all the instances he collates of our political system following in America's footsteps anyway. If you're wondering how, lobbying and the funds filtered to political parties to gain access to leaders and members of parliament — and at the local, state and federal level alike — is the main focus of Big Deal. The film explains how easy it is to buy a dinner with a minister or premier, if you have the cash, and therefore push the interests of corporations or other groups trying to sway our laws. It contrasts that with the struggles of ordinary Aussies to get meetings with the very elected officials that are supposed to represent them. Money talks, while constituents spend months trying to. That dosh is meant to have an impact, and it does. And, if they're attempting to speak to an MP about a pressing subject — the mining and gas industries are used as examples — everyday voters mightn't get the chance to before the organisations they're rallying against have had many, and decisions have been made accordingly.

Big Deal doesn't merely proclaim how wrong and dangerous it is for corporate interests to donate fat stacks of cash to politicians, who then use those funds to advertise their parties' platforms — and get to keep the source of that money secret for an entire year. It easily could've; however, following that cash and showing what big bucks in politics actually means in practical terms firmly hammers the message home. Among the doco's interviewees sit folks who are well-acquainted with greasing the political wheels, as well as ordinary Aussies working through the system as it is supposed to function. The contrast between the two and the treatment they have received or do receive when endeavouring to access Aussie pollies speaks volumes, as it's meant to. From the roster of experts, journalists, lobbyists, and current and former politicians who chat with Van Vuuren, ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, former senator Sam Dastyari and current senator Jacqui Lambie bring their respective political experiences to the discussion — and their candid thoughts say plenty as well.

Given Van Vuuren and Reucassel's involvement — plus the tried-and-tested issues-focused documentary template they adopt — Big Deal isn't just about getting talking heads to explain their parts in Australia's political ecosystem. An oversized novelty cheque gets a workout, Van Vuuren sings and infographics pop up on-screen. The tone: rightly concerned, understandably impassioned, always sincere, and determinedly keen to highlight what's going on and why it shouldn't be. There are fewer gimmicks and pranks than might be expected given the talent behind the flick, and there's more earnestness than anticipated as well. When the film moves its focus to people across the country who've been doing their parts to thwart the status quo and fight back against the pervasive influence of money in politics, it's rousingly heartfelt, but that feeling also comes through Van Vuuren, too.

All those people who stopped eating sugar after That Sugar Film? They didn't solely respond to a slickly packaged movie that delivered details people needed to know in an approachable and entertaining way, but to the person who took them on the journey. Big Deal hits the same mark, and Van Vuuren is up to the task. Mobilising people here is a bigger challenge, of course — your diet is something each one of us can change instantly by ourselves; an entrenched political norm isn't — but this film smartly and eagerly takes it on.

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