It was a weekend of oratorical dross, the NSW Labor Party conference.
Kim Beazley led the charge – surprise, surprise – bumbling his way through a morass of platitudes about Australia taking the ‘low skills road’ toward a ‘debt cliff’. Brilliantly original imagery, I must say.
He redeemed himself a bit with some fighting paragraphs about John Howard’s designs for industrial relations but, given the intrinsic meanness of Howard’s long-held contempt for employees’ rights, it would have been impossible not to have mustered at least a modicum of passion.
Alas, there was not a trace of Bob Ellis, who sometimes gees up Beazley’s oratory, in the speech and it showed. Anyway, I suspect the Bomber’s fighting paragraphs will remain just that – paragraphs.
There was, however, a rose among the thorns: a Graham Freudenberg speech. His words have been heard many times from the stage of the Sydney Town Hall; at least forty by his own reckoning. Arthur Calwell, Gough Whitlam, Neville Wran, Bob Hawke, Barrie Unsworth and Bob Carr have delivered his speeches – Whitlam, Wran and, well, yes, if you insist, Carr most eloquently.
But there was something different about last weekend’s speech. It was Freudenberg by Freudenberg on Freudenberg.
The occasion was the presentation of ALP life membership to Freudy and about thirty other true believers. And what prose, what poetry.
I salvaged a copy of Freudy’s speech, written in his craggy, almost indecipherable hand, a piece of Labor history, no less, and I noticed the reverence he still has for at least the dream, if not the current form, of the ALP. He refers to it simply as ‘the Party’, with a capital ‘P’.
Freudy’s speeches never ramble or meander. To paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, they start with an earthquake and build up to a climax. And so it was this time.
Freudy’s hypothesis – or should I say his statement of irrefutable fact – is that John Howard is determinedly trying to rewrite Australian history to fit his own right-wing prejudices. He will fail, of course, because the Left usually writes the last draft of history, if for no other reason that we value history, like all the other humanities, for its innate worth, not for any market-driven, utilitarian imperative. And we also read more.
But in his effort, Howard wants us to forget this country was among the first to legislate the eight-hour working day, to enfranchise women and to establish living minium wage.
In Freudy’s inimitable words, Howard’s ‘Sandy Stone’ vision of history can be reduced to the ‘GBM’ trifecta – Gallipoli, Bradman and Menzies. I know little about Bradman and care even less, and the fact that Menzies’ vision extended only to a seat in the House of Lords and a manor in Kent renders his legacy to this country virtually meaningless. Let the Tories have them both, for all I care.
Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian
But Gallipoli is another matter. For Freudy, Howard’s ‘manipulation and politicisation of the Gallipoli legend in the interests of the Liberal Party’ is not only the most ‘disgraceful’ episode of an opportunistic career, but a personal insult. ‘My father was a stretcher-bearer at Gallipoli,’ Freudy reminded his audience.
But on this issue, if I can be precocious enough to advise a man almost twice my age, and with twenty times my wisdom, we should hardly be surprised.
If there are two human attributes the Right has always appropriated, manipulated and ultimately abused, they are patriotism and sacrifice.
A few hours after I read and re-read Freudy’s speech – I deciphered the handwriting on the second reading and went back over it three more times for the sheer pleasure – I soaked up a superb essay in The Nation by George McGovern, the peacenik Democratic nominee for the United States presidency in 1972.
McGovern was a bona fide hero who in World War II flew thirty-five missions as a B-24 bomber pilot. He was a soldier, justly proud of his record in one war who, three decades later, wanted to end the senseless slaughter that was another.
For his opposition to the genocide in Vietnam – I’d say at least two million dead Vietnamese qualifies as genocide – he was branded a coward by those who had shirked their own duty and a traitor by others who would ultimately sell out their country to the interests of multi-national corporations that owe allegiance to no flag. ‘Men who had never known a day of military combat worked ceaselessly to paint me as a weakling unwilling to defend the nation,’ wrote McGovern.
Thirty-two years later, they were at it again, defaming a man – John Forbes Kerry – who served heroically in Vietnam, only to realise the folly of the entire enterprise and who, in his own compromised, contradictory but essentially decent way, was trying to avoid another Vietnam in the Middle East.
Forget that men like McGovern and Kerry, and men from generations stretching back to those of Freudy’s dad, can experience war and, like Civil War general William Sherman, declare that ‘war is hell’ and do all they can to prevent its recurrence.
Forget that they speak with the authority of a witness to slaughter. Conservatives, such as Howard and his duty-shirking puppet master, George W. Bush, need to invoke the sacrifice of others to pursue their own bloody designs.
Nor does their abuse of history end with those that served and sacrificed in war. They stoop so low as to appropriate the victims of terrorism.
When Jeremy Glick dared to suggest to Fox News predator Bill O’Reilly that Glick’s father, who died in the September 11 terror strike on New York, would not have supported the war waged in his name in Afghanistan, he was thrown off air. The Right denied Peaceful Tomorrows – a group of 9/11 families promoting a peaceful international police response to what was, after all, an act of mass murder – legitimacy.
For some strange reason, Peaceful Tomorrows couldn’t understand how the US bombing of a wedding party in Afghanistan in July 2002 could bring back their own lost relatives.
But that is the way is has always been in modern politics.
If you do not share the Right’s bloodlust, then you are weak, an appeaser and you really didn’t love your murdered father.
Graham Freudenberg has always been an unnecessarily modest man, always ready to disavow any responsibility for the finest lines in the speeches he has crafted. But many of us know he is fibbing for the noblest of reasons.
When he signed on as Arthur Calwell’s press secretary back in the 1960s, he thought he would have little to contribute, except an occasional line here and there. But last Sunday, in a few words scratched on a page, and spoken with endearing humility, Freudy reclaimed a piece of Australian history from those who would warp our national truths.
Previous articles in newmatilda.com by Graham Freudenberg
A question of mind-set
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