Thoughts on New Matilda and Old Nation


Depressed and disheartened by 2004? Then take a dose of 1958. Repeat with doses of 1963 and 1966 if necessary. If symptoms persist, read the prescription of one great Australian for an antidote against the Howard/Bush triumphalism: ‘Frank Packer says he’ll snuff us out. Our little candle to his great sun, but they can’t bear even that feeble ray of other light’.

Those are the words of Tom Fitzgerald, the great Financial Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald from 1955 to 1970. In 1958, when the Australian centre-left seemed to have reached the nadir of its fortunes, Tom Fitzgerald mortgaged his house at Abbotsford to start Nation as an independent fortnightly journal of opinion. From then until 1972, when it merged to become Nation Review, it was the citadel, often besieged, for independent writing and thinking in Australia. Significantly, some of its most important contributors were Fairfax, Murdoch and Packer journalists, sometimes using noms de plume, like Ian Fitchett, Harry Kippax, Eric Walsh, Max Newton, Max Walsh and Brian Johns.

In 1958, the fear and intolerance generated by the Cold War were at the zenith of intensity. The West was ruled by Eisenhower, Macmillan, de Gaulle and Adenauer. Menzies won his fifth successive election, his second landslide against Evatt Labor. Those who pinned their hopes for Labor on a change of leadership were stuck with Evatt’s deputy, Arthur Calwell, not because anybody thought Arthur, then 62, was any good or had any decent ideas, but because he was a Victorian Catholic who might make some ground with the DLP. Talk about faith-based politics! So what’s new?

Tom Fitzgerald was not particularly Labor, but he stood passionately for decency, honesty and tolerance. He voted against Labor in 1949 over bank nationalisation not because he thought it was a bad idea but because he resented Chifley’s initial back-door methods to achieve it. He turned permanently against Menzies over his anti-communist bills in 1951. His main reservation about Labor was White Australia. Its modification (his outrageous proposition was to admit 150 Asians a year!) was one of his main reasons for starting Nation. Why should any of us despair about Australia when we remember what things were really like in 1958?

And read Tom Fitzgerald’s first Nation editorial in September 1958. It was about tensions between the U.S. and China over Quemoy and Matsu, two offshore islands, and tension between Indonesia and Australia over West New Guinea, and Australia’s loss of influence with Indonesia, and lack of influence with the United States. It was headed ‘Being Wrong Together’ and ended:

By the standards around us, Australia’s first duty to itself is simply to conserve what it has “ our living standards and liberty. That is any Government’s first responsibility, but we do not conserve these things merely by being conservative and we are not a conservative people by nature. If we accept uncritically the policies of professed hard-headed realists, the results can sometimes be unpleasant. If we allow our American protectors to do the speaking and acting on our behalf, the results may suit them but not us. These realists, men with their eyes like their feet well and truly on the ground and never a little higher, have found themselves walking into some tight corners lately. To keep a sense of idealism after having learned well that some of those you must deal with are not idealists, is true realism. It is the kind that will stand up the longest.

In his last Nation editorial, passing on the baton to Nation Review in July 1972, Tom Fitzgerald wrote:

The liberal and radical strains in Australian intellectual life, though substantial in number, are always struggling to have a vehicle of communication whatever the reasons for the difficulties they are persistent and liberals and radicals, without sinking their differences, must love one another or die as an articulate force in this country.

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.