In Praise of the Ordinary


On the recent occasion of John Howard’s tenth anniversary as PM, there was a lot of interesting comment about his ‘ordinariness.’

There is no doubt that John Howard is extraordinary in his understanding of how important the ordinary is to Australian culture, but I do not for a moment delude myself into thinking that Howard himself is ordinary. By any objective measure, he is clearly not.

Australians are deeply and perennially suspicious of those who put themselves above the ordinary. The fatal flaw of two great Labor leaders was their obvious high opinions of themselves. Edward Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating (despite the latter’s humble origins) never saw themselves as ordinary and were hated for their arrogance.

Thanks to Paul Batey

Bob Hawke was much like John Howard in his far-from-ordinary understanding of his electorate. Flamboyant and clearly intellectual, he undercut all that with his boozy, blunt, womanising, blokey style. He was a Flash Nick and he knew it, so we forgave him

Robert Menzies was a politician entirely of his time he would not succeed today unless he changed his style. He was a hangover from Empire, from the old class system. Malcolm Fraser was cut from similar cloth and people hated him at the time only slightly less than they hated Gough. Their choice in the 1977 election was between an intellectual toff and a toffee-nosed member of the squattocracy, and Aussies hate smart arses much more than rich men. No-one at the time suspected Fraser of being the closet intellectual he later revealed himself to be.

In my view, there is much to celebrate about the Australian respect for and delight in the ordinary. There is, for starters, a fundamental truth to it. No matter how rich, famous or brilliant someone may be, they remain ordinary. They still pick their nose and scratch their arse the way the rest of us do. They remain prey to all the petty fears, anxieties and vanities that the rest of us do, too. It is wonderful that Australians refuse to forget it and despise those who wish to pretend that in their own case, it is somehow not true.

We have never forgotten that the beginnings of our country were about the most ordinary in history: a bunch of soldiers and their ragtag clutch of miserable prisoners, born and bred in English slums, led by a middle-ranking career officer.

The single greatest asset Julia Gillard has in her hunt for the top job may be the fact that with your eyes closed she sounds exactly like Kath Day-Night (from Kath & Kim).

We are right to be suspicious of those who set themselves up as messiahs, in whatever field. We are right to be, at heart, pragmatic, irreligious and hard to impress.

But there is a downside to this love of the ordinary, and its most dangerous manifestation is not in the lopping of tall poppies there’s never anything wrong with cutting big people down to size it is in our fear of the intellectual and of any kind of non-physical challenge.

Australians, generally, do not like to think much. Or, if they do, they learn quickly to keep it hidden and pretend to have no ideas. No country despises ‘the yartz’ more than Australia. No culture is less comfortable all dressed up in the front row of a symphony concert, ballet performance, or experimental anything.

We diffuse our discomfort through scorn and ridicule; we quickly put down what we do not understand. When someone else thinks differently about the world than we do, it does not interest us, it threatens us. No wonder we have taken to managerialism with such enthusiasm, it takes the fear out of thinking because it takes the thinking out of thinking.

The doyens of the media are well aware of this fact. TV scripts are dumbed down, there is a childish fear of big words, and people who use them are dubbed ‘wankers.’ There is a curious self-consciousness in all of this when someone doesn’t understand something we take it as a personal insult, as if doing, saying or thinking something out of the ordinary is only ever done to make others feel bad.

I know there is nothing new about these observations that we have spoken of the Australian cultural cringe and chip on the shoulder blithely for decades but the John Howard era has reinforced all this ordinariness, in both its best and worst manifestations.

There was a time when Australia seemed to be throwing off its inferiority complex: the film industry was booming, Australian wine and food was astonishing the world, our music, our literature and our confidence seemed to be burgeoning. It doesn’t feel like that now. I know Aussie film stars are still kicking goals, but Aussie films are not. I know we still have great wine and food, music and literature, but to a large extent, we are resting on our laurels.

Although Australians wisely don’t set much store by politicians, it does seem our leaders set the tenor of our times. What we need now is a leader who can retain the wonderful humanity of our love of and pride in the ordinary as John Howard does while minimising our fear of the excellent, particularly intellectual excellence. as he does not.

Julia Gillard, over to you.

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.