I was in Germany when the news came through that Howard and his mob had been returned to government with an increased majority. I was among an assembly of artists and academics in the grand library of Aby Warburg’s beautiful old house in Hamburg, enthralled by Dr Anita Heiss, who was speaking with great passion and eloquence about indigenous writers. When Anita had finished speaking and we were standing around talking, a web page with the results of the election was suddenly projected onto the screen behind the speaker’s table. The Australians in the room groaned and cursed, dismayed and disbelieving, and the Germans looked on with sympathy. This was, after all, a conference on Australian culture, its subject Making Space Meaningful.
I wondered privately why I wasn’t as shocked by Howard’s success as I felt I ought to be. I suppose I hadn’t really been expecting Latham to get up. He doesn’t appeal to me as a leader of this country and I had probably projected my own lack of enthusiasm for him onto the rest of the voting population. But there was more to it than this. The build-up in Hamburg had, in a way, been a preparation, a kind of softening up of the mind, for just this result in our election. A few days earlier the Australian ambassador to Germany, Pamela Fayle, had begun her address at the opening of the conference with the words, ‘Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid I can’t speak German . . .’ And had gone on to deliver her entire speech in English. I was shocked and as I listened to her I was imagining the situation in Australia with the German ambassador beginning his opening address at a conference in Melbourne with the words, ‘Guten Tag, sehr geerhte Damen und Herren! Es tut mir leid, aber Ich kann kein Englisch sprechen ‘ Smiling cheerfully and going on confidently to deliver his entire address in German without so much as a nod towards either the non-German-speaking members of his audience or to the language of the country of his appointment. I knew, of course, that such a thing could never happen.
But it wasn’t only Pamela Fayle’s exclusive use of the English language in this situation that shocked me. I waited for the moment in her address when our ambassador would speak of Australia’s indigenous culture. But, like Latham and Howard in their election campaigns, she never did. The indigenous people of Australia, unbelievably, did not figure in her address, just as they had not figured in the election campaign. I felt sick and disgusted, embarrassed for my country and depressed by this astonishing leap backwards into the grim past, when it was thought to be okay for non-indigenous Australians to ignore the beautiful and powerful culture of the peoples they had dispossessed. It seemed we had learnt nothing. And I heard in my mind, like an awful echo of the fifties, the recent claims of a number of my colleagues to be fifth or sixth generation Australians, claims I had taken at face value as merely denoting love of country, and it suddenly seemed to me that along with this claim they, too, might have had the modesty to mention that their own ancestors must have been directly engaged in the killing, dispossession and humiliation of Australia’s indigenous people. But the claim had, without exception, been made with pride of country. I could hear it now; a claim made, indeed, in the circumstances, without modification or caveat but with a cool and unconscious imperial arrogance.
I wondered if I should have walked out of the conference as a protest after our ambassador’s opening address. But I didn’t walk out. I stayed for the week and in the end I made some wonderful new friends. But when, at the end of the week, the announcement of Howard’s win was projected onto the screen in Aby Warburg’s old library I wasn’t as shocked or surprised as I felt I ought to have been. Non-indigenous Australians, it seems, have yet to comprehend their own imperial arrogance.
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