The sticky pole of nationalism


Australians all let us rejoice. We now have golden returns on our substantial investment in Kath-&-Kim-styled Olympian leisurewear. Let us now look back at the cementing of another brick in the wall of our nation-building project.

In June, our Prime Minister announced a schools funding package. A controversial condition was imposed on the funding allocations “ schools must have a functioning flagpole.

At the press conference announcing this move, no journalist asked the obvious question, ‘Prime Minister, about government-funded flag poles. How politically correct is that?’ One did ask whether it might not be ‘a bit old-fashioned, indeed a bit patronising?’

A bit old-fashioned, Matilda? When will the press hounds of Australia learn you can’t scratch Teflon wearing kid gloves? Mr Howard took this opportunity to make his case in favour of unabashed nationalism, as distinct from the more restrained flag-flapping of his distant youth. He spoke of ‘a cultural change in relation to the display of national symbols and far from this being old fashioned, I think it is very compatible and very consonant with what people want’.

Not in my cultural backyard it ain’t, but no journalist followed up with another obvious question: ‘Surely not quite everyone, Sir?’

Labor indicated early its intention to pass the Government’s schools legislation. Opposition spokeswoman on education, Jenny Macklin, made no mention of the neo-con jingoism of the policy. Nor did she object to the ideologically prescriptive ploy of hanging public funding of education on waving a flag for which many Australians feel no affinity. Labor lamely noted most schools already flew the flag and respected national symbols. Most schools may well fly the flag, Ms Macklin, but some may not want to. And what about the sizeable (lefty, pinko, woolly, woofter, wog) minorities in our community who see any demonstrative nationalism as a step too far on the slippery slope towards militarism? And what about pacifists, who on the whole are not flag wavers of enthusiasm?

Some see the flagpole question as an absurdist little devil in the detail of the schools package, a sliver of wedge. Others, like Ms Macklin, see it as a diversion from the Government’s failure to have addressed very serious resource problems in too many Australian schools. Diversionary or wedging or not, symbolism matters – as does infernal state interference in the working lives of increasingly busy and under-resourced professionals. And nationalist symbolism really matters, susceptible as it is to opportunist manipulation by bigots and zealots.

If we can’t see that risk in our own backyard, let’s look over the fence. Lately Tokyo’s governor Shintaro Ishihara has been driving a nationalist push of his own in schools. As crikey’s Japan correspondent reported:

‘Teachers across Tokyo have been issued with a directive from the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education, compelling them to stand and sing the national anthem and for them to in turn compel their students to do the same. No debate, no discussion; this is a direct order.

‘If the teacher refuses to do so, he [sic]will be open to public censure and criticism from his superiors, further warnings and potential expulsion. So far this year, over 200 teachers have refused to stand and many have received written warnings as a result.’

Oh, bittersweet yet superb irony that Mr Howard now marches in synchronised goosestep with this Asian Friend. I wonder if Tokyo’s governor justified his stance by saying he was giving his people what they wanted? For our own Prime Minister said he was giving us ‘what Australian parents want’. Whose parents? Where? How many? A very small handful in ultra-marginal seats, push-polled to within an inch of their sanity? Not any of the parents I know. Mysteriously, they were not included in Mr Howard’s consultation process.

I consulted parents I know on this question, and they asked for toffee. A toffee flagpole that would melt in the rain or bend in the sun, to ultimately form a sticky brown pool in a bucket-shaped vat, to trap wasps and possibly coddling moths. Its function? To make the playground a healthy, child-friendly zone and not a military parade ground. These parents also wanted a modest plaque of explanation. Bearing a plain, jargon-free inscription in English, echoed in 47 other community languages, it would repeat the straightforward motto – over and over, 48 times – Fair Go.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.