The Death Of The Australian Hero: Remembering Gough, Honouring Assange And Freya


Have you ever watched a film and found yourself connecting deeply with the hero despite the fact that you and he/she are nothing alike? Perhaps you think you have the potential to be a hero? Maybe you see a bit of yourself in James Bond/Lara Croft/whomever Liam Neeson is playing this month.

You leave the cinema with a genuine sense of upliftment because you have been reminded for a moment of the potential of human existence; that each person can fight for their values against the odds and win; that any human has the potential to create or defend goodness in this world.

It’s a story that is told in every culture, it’s a concept that is re-designed and re-packaged by Hollywood on a daily basis, it’s the story of standing up for what’s right and we love it. We love heroes.

Yet outside the cinema, on the streets of modern-day Australia, there is a war on heroes. It’s not a new war, but it is intensifying.

A hero is a person who listens to and acts on their conscience; who throws their full human potential at an issue and fights with all their will. Fundamental to the definition of a hero is that they must take risks; if Frodo did not face any danger on his journey to collect the ring, why bother reading the book?

So when it comes to facing danger in the name of what you believe is morally right, who takes more risks than whistleblowers? Think of Julian Assange fearing for his life in the Ecuadorian embassy. Think of 21-year-old librarian Freya Newman, who had the courage to expose Frances Abbott’s remarkable secret scholarship/secret pay cheque combo. Freya’s sentencing is next month (but neither Abbott is facing any consequences).

These people sacrificed themselves to provide us with a more informed society, a society where better informed citizens can make more accurate judgments about their government.

The Abbott Government’s proposed new laws against ‘whistleblowing’ strike a vital blow to our freedoms because they seek to attempt to extinguish our freedom to be heroic.

If we no longer have the freedom to be heroic and inform the public of the truth, then journalists cannot be heroes. Remember: A whistleblower’s word is only of any importance if they can prove undeniable evidence of deliberate misconduct. The revelations of a whistleblower only hold weight if they are true and are in the public interest.

Some people in the Australian parliament, such as Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, think that the Abbott Government is guilty of crimes against humanity. That should be reason enough for us to want the Prime Minister and his actions to be completely transparent.

To outlaw ‘whistleblowing’ is to outlaw our access to the truth. Under proposed changes to national security laws, anyone who discloses information related to a “special intelligence operation” could face up to five years in prison. The government gets to decide what does and does not count as an ‘SIO’ (a definition they can apply at will) and thus the government gets to decide who goes to jail for revealing the ‘wrong’ information.

And this is what makes real heroes all the more impressive. They risk actual danger (to their health, wealth, freedom, reputation) whereas for actors portraying heroes, all that’s coming their way when the credits role is a pay-cheque.

Many of modern history’s most quoted heroes – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk etc – had to risk death for their cause, and its precisely this boldness that makes them figures we still study and take inspiration from today.

The recent loss of Gough Whitlam created a strange spectacle in Australian parliament last week; a Liberal MP, Malcolm Turnbull, choking back tears of grief for the passing of a Labor Prime Minister.

As noted by Mark Kenny of the Sydney Morning Herald: “What politicians across the board were inadvertently mourning in their universal appreciation on Tuesday, was the dearth of courage, the narrowing of vision, and retreat of conviction”.

In other words, the death of Whitlam reminded many that heroism itself is on the ropes, that a politician willing to take a risk for the greater good is an endangered species.

Who knows how much pain Whitlam saved Australians by ending conscription or introducing universal health care? How can you measure the importance of creating JJ (now known as ABC radio station Triple J) or pushing for Aboriginal land-rights, or being the first world leader to appoint a dedicated advisor on women’s affairs?

Whitlam risked his very name to give us these reforms, serving only one term in office before making history in becoming the only Australian Prime Minister to be displaced not by an election, but via the order of the Governor-General.

Whitlam’s assassination was bureaucratic, but his impact was undeniable. He had to risk losing his power in order to use it heroically.

So we need to make a decision; does heroism still matter? Is it an ideal we will defend? Because laws against whistleblowers are an attack on every Australian’s potential to do something heroic. And with one less hero to guide us, now is the time to make room for the next one.

Xannon Shirley, better known by his stage name The Tongue, is a musical artist from Sydney, a writer and a political activist.