Opposite sides of the cultural coin


It’s doubtful that Joh Bjelke-Peterson and Al Grassby ever had anything in common, other than the day of their deaths.

Joh, in his traditional beige safari suit, represented the ‘old’ Australia, a land of parochial state-based interests, white supremacy, rural lifestyles and Christian values. He bestrode the political stage in Queensland for almost two decades, but will ultimately be remembered for unprecedented levels of corruption and self-serving governmental rorts.

Al, on the other hand, preferred his safari suits in bright blue or gold, and proudly championed a new, ‘colourful’ Australian future, devoted to the pursuit of an inclusive national identity, social justice and multiculturalism. He was a federal minister for less than three years but, despite the attempt to discredit him in the late 1980s, will be remembered as the father of multiculturalism and, as such, of contemporary Australian culture.

Thanks to Louise Matthiesson

Thanks to Louise Matthiesson

That two such influential politicians, from opposite sides of the cultural coin, departed this earth within a few hours of one another invites an assessment of the Australia they leave behind.

Certainly, Bjelke-Peterson was ‘larger than life’. Given to an almost laughable level of provincial snobbery, Joh famously declared that there ‘is no such place as Australia’ – he was premier of the ‘sovereign state’ of Queensland – and, in surely the greatest act of self-aggrandisement in Australian history, arranged a knighthood for himself. His ‘born to rule’ mentality and belief in the inalienable rights of privilege were anathema to defenders of democracy and responsible government.

Yet this week, the media coverage of his passing was presented with a reverence befitting a national hero. Undoubtedly, some of this attitude can be explained by a thoroughly decent desire to respect the feelings of his widow, Lady Flo, but the outpourings of affection and regard for the man who led the most corrupt government in Australian history reflect our current embrace of an idea of Australia that, at the time of Joh’s rule, was confined to Queensland and regarded nationally as a bit of an embarrassing joke.

Joh’s Australia was a place where to be different wasn’t just unwelcome, but often illegal. His understanding of the world didn’t travel much outside Kingaroy – what couldn’t be understood in the context of his rural Queensland upbringing simply had no place in his world view.

What a contrast was Albert Jaime Grassby. Born in Queensland in 1926, when young New Zealand immigrant Johannes Bjelke-Peterson was just seventeen years old, Al’s Spanish father and Irish-Australian mother took their young son off to see the world in the 1930s. The family lived in the Sudan, Italy, France, Spain and Scotland before Al returned to Australia as a young adult.

He brought with him an enlightened respect for other cultures, a sophisticated understanding of the benefits of cultural diversity, and an idealistic belief in the power of government to provide the best possible society for Australians from all backgrounds. His was a globalised life, long before the term was ever coined. And, unlike his ‘fellow Queenslander’, Al had no need of self-devised honours from an imperial past: he was, in 1985, the proud recipient of an Order of Australia and, in 1986, the UN Peace Medal.

Image from SOCOG

Image from SOCOG

Sadly, Australia currently looks, on the surface of it, much more like a country Joh would be comfortable in than one Al could be proud of. With a government unwilling to commit to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with our closest neighbours lest it upset the great imperial power to which we’ve subjugated our regional independence in recent years, and the recent rise of intolerance and outright racism in all areas of public life, one would be forgiven for thinking that the cynical, autocratic self-interest of the Johs of the world has defeated the idealism and enlightenment that brought us politicians such as Al Grassby.

But history has a way of transcending populism and political spin. Al Grassby had a significant and profound impact upon Australian culture and society. In less than three years as a federal Minister, and later as Australia’s first Commissioner for Community Relations, he buried the last vestiges of the anachronistic White Australia policy, opened our doors to immigrants from throughout the world, recognised the intrinsic human rights of all, and introduced the policy of Multiculturalism to Australia.

Many reactionary commentators, reinvigorated by the last decade of divisive federal politics, decry Multiculturalism as a ‘failed policy’ and spend much energy deriding its significant achievements over more than thirty years. This has little impact upon the very real way in which Multiculturalism has become an intrinsic part of modern Australian life.

While we might seem currently to be more relaxed and comfortable clinging on to the last fragments of Joh’s Australia, progress will out. The multicoloured, multicultural, multilingual Australia with which I grew up began with Al Grassby, but it will not die with him. For those of us who came of age since 1973, it’s simply a way of life and that’s a much bigger legacy than a casino and the abolition of death duties for the rich.

Thanks, Al.

Oz Prospect – www.ozprospect.org/

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