Cultural Guts


In 1972, after years of stultifying, conservative government, Australians made a move into fields new. They, as it were, left home and Mother.

They were seduced for a short time by the idea of social and political change. But the voting in of Gough Whitlam and his Labor Government had as much to do with student revolution, marijuana, short skirts, Nation Review and Daddy Cool as it had to do with politics.

As we know, it all went sour. There were the ‘Loans Affair,’ Jim Cairns and Junie Morosi, Cyclone Tracy and Rex Connor’s pipeline. Labor was certainly buggered around by the Senate, and the CIA. But basically, it self-destructed. And Australians got nervous ? it was time to go back home and take shelter behind the picket fence.

Subsequently, Bob Hawke’s innate vulgarity made him popular; but under his leadership, the powers of reform waned rapidly and in the end it was business as usual.

Paul Keating was the last Australian leader with any kind of vision for the country. But he was too grumpy and arrogant to have lasting appeal. Keating was also an eccentric and Australians don’t like eccentrics.

Thanks to Bill Leak

With John Howard’s first victory, Australians returned to the fold: they could put their feet up and have a quiet beer in front of the telly, knowing that the country was in safe hands. Why did they ever stray? Australians could now relax and be comfortable.

One of the last things Keating said was, ‘If you change the government, you change the nation’ ? or words to that effect. He was right, of course. But it can be argued that John Howard is essentially a negative character ? that he reflects the society in which we live rather than the other way around. He will take us where we want to go.

The Labor Party is now totally irrelevant. It offers nothing. Kim Beazley will be tossed into the rubbish bin of history.

Last June in the Guardian Weekly, Richard Gott looked at Hugo Chàvez, President of Venezuela. Gott’s article was entitled ‘Chàvez Leads the Way’ [link here)

Like most countries in South America, Venezuela has been the victim of Spanish/Portuguese colonisation, the Catholic religion, bloody revolution, corrupt dictatorships and American foreign/military policy. Venezuela’s poverty is dire. Nevertheless, it is rich in oil.

Hugo Chavez is a 51-year-old, former army colonel. Last year, he won another overwhelming victory at the polls; and the opposition – supported by the US -Â  retired, sulking, to its tent. Capitalising on rising oil prices, the Chavez Government is directing the profits, not into the hands of the already wealthy, but into cheap food, housing, health and education for the poor. Significantly, Chavez has recognised the condition of the long-suppressed native peoples of his country. He is not afraid to discuss racism.

However, Chavez is no doctrinaire State socialist. Small business is thriving in Venezuela, and the large oil companies have provided fresh investment.

What has all this got to do with Australia?

First of all, it’s leadership. In 1972, Australians indicated they were ready to accommodate political and social change. For all his faults, Gough Whitlam acted like a leader. Furthermore, he was intelligent and well-read. He had a vision for Australia, and was prepared to take its people into parts unknown. Conversely, John Howard looks only backward (as Graham Freudenberg has put it ‘Gallipoli, Bradman and Menzies’), and Kim Beazley looks only at the Lodge and the big, white car.

Secondly, Chavez has demonstrated his willingness to stand up to Washington ? as indeed has New Zealand. Under Howard, Australia has adopted a policy of subservience and arse-licking.

There are a number of issues facing Australia right now, and confronting them will take leadership ? of the kind that neither Howard nor Beazley has. (They are both 10th rate men  – except that Howard has a kind of political, low cunning, and has dangerous, weasel-like colleagues: Ruddock, Abbot, Andrews, Minchin and Ellison are the ones to watch.)

These are the three major issues.

The first is the Aborigines. I can’t remember the subject even being discussed by any party in the last election. I wouldn’t know where to begin with this horrendous legacy of the 19th century; but the High Court’s Mabo decision and Paul Keating’s speech at Redfern were both good attempts. We Europeans have to realise that we are the (‘successful’) intruders.

The second is Australia’s relation to the rest of the world. This brings up detention camps, Iraq, and the US. Is there real advantage in being in America’s posse?

The third – and probably the most important – is delusion or self-deception. This will take a deal of courage and leadership. We are not the people we think we are. It may be, for example, that our society is not egalitarian ? no more than any other; that mateship is a myth; that our soldiers are not the best and fairest fighters in the world; that we are racist some of the time; that this is not necessarily the land of the ‘fair go;’ that ‘multiculturalism’ is a convenient political cliche that we are just the same as any other ‘developed’ society. We have to stop compensating for our remoteness and sense of inferiority.

All this will take leadership – but not of the deluded, warped kind that John Howard and Kim Beazley have to offer.

Sooner or later, we have to enter the world of reality. Maybe with the Cronulla race riots we have. It’s about time we showed ourselves we’ve got cultural guts.

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.