The Australian way


Tragedies enable politicians to wax lyrical and ensure – even increase – popularity. (The tsunami did John Howard a power of good. He could pose as the compassionate leader. Politicians have two time-honoured activities – kissing babies and comforting grieving mothers.)

At the recent memorial service for the Sea King helicopter casualties, the Prime Minister (or his speechwriter) said: ‘Everything about them [the Sea King victims]was beautifully Australian. They were direct, they were friendly, they were tough, they were courageous, but they were also compassionate…the soul and the character of modern Australia is good and decent.’ Not to be outdone – although I fear he was, in terms of windy rhetoric – the Leader of the Opposition said: ‘The spirit of these servicemen and women is an Australian tradition…’ (Emphases in both cases added.)

This is, of course, absolute humbug. Is, for instance, Baxter Detention Camp an example of the goodness and decency of modern Australia? And the asylum seekers imprisoned on Nauru? And the conduct of some of our businessmen? And some of our politicians?

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

For a long time, Australian society has been deluded. It probably first came to a head with the Eureka Stockade in 1854 – the notion of the courageous, plain-speaking, fair-dealing, freedom-loving Aussie. This self-image – essentially white and male – was reinforced in the ensuing two World Wars, and is still prevalent in, say, football and cricket; and politicians’ speeches. It is the basis of ‘mateship’.

A word that is currently in vogue is ‘unAustralian’. I don’t remember hearing ‘unFrench’, or ‘unRussian’; but ‘unBritish’ must have been used at some time or other. I do remember ‘unAmerican’, in connection with Joseph McCarthy at the US Senate hearings in the 1950s.

‘UnAustralian’ implies that there is something naturally good and decent about the Australian way. For example, to tell lies, to break promises and to run detention camps is presumably ‘Australian’; but to protest outside Baxter, or in the rain forests of Tasmania is ‘unAustralian’. (One might go so far to say that the New Matilda website at times is ‘unAustralian’.)

Joseph Goebbels first used the word, ‘unGerman’ in 1933, when he created the ReichsKammerce (Reich Chambers). The ReichsKammerce examined every aspect of German cultural life, and assumed there was something ‘healthy’ and ‘good’ about the traditional German way. This delusion was reinforced in 1937, when Hitler opened the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Berlin.

We have, by no means, reached the stage of the Germans in 1933, but the word, ‘unAustralian’, is a straw in the wind. It could lead to ‘unAmerican’, anti-Communist paranoia of the 1950s. There are people around John Howard, (and the PM himself) who wish to see all dissent extinguished; Kim Beazley and his colleagues will ring their hands and do nothing. They will not wish to be seen as ‘unAustralian’.

The capacity of human beings for delusion is fathomless. The funeral of Pope John Paul is but one example. Here was a man whose edicts on the use of condoms killed millions of Catholic HIV sufferers, but whose death attracted millions of weeping pilgrims and mourning heads-of-state. Past sins and omissions were forgotten – it was, to coin a phrase, the ‘Catholic Way’.

As a further example, it is simply not done to criticise a member of the Australian Defence Force – it is, to say the least, ‘unAustralian’. The armed services are a no-go territory: they have a monopoly on ‘Australian’ values.

‘Australian’ values resulted in the racist White Australia Policy – a term first used enthusiastically by the utopian socialist, William Lane, and supported by both major parties – including Labor icon, Jack Lang.

The present immigration policy – resulting in lies, drowning, detention camps and demented human beings – is what the majority of Australians want, or are prepared to accept. The policies are homegrown, and the culmination of a long and deep tradition of racism in this country. The Tampa affair and the sinking of the SIEV X are linked to the treatment of Chinese miners in the 1860s and 1870s and White Australia. But John Howard has the gall to declare that ‘the soul and the character of modern Australia is good and decent’.

The delusion of Australian society is becoming dangerous – we are increasingly unable to see ourselves clearly – and this is not helped by the specious pronouncements of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. (The Labor Party has no premium on fairness, honesty or social justice.) Most cultures have a rose-coloured view of themselves; it is one method of survival.

However, when the delusion becomes reality – as happened in Germany in the 1930s – national tragedy may result. The notion of the fair, decent, courageous Australian lies deep in our culture – as it does with the Americans. Maybe it’s a New World thing: a society created away from the traditions of ‘Old Europe’ in George W Bush’s phrase.

The dissenters, the so-called trouble-makers, are labelled ‘unAustralian’, but we Australians are no better or no worse than our counterparts in any other ‘developed’ culture. We have been blessed by isolation and good luck, rather than by any strength of character.

This is no ‘black armband view’ of our history – rather, it is seeing ourselves warts and all.

I hate to say this – but look into the face of John Howard, and you look into the face of Australia.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.