First define, then see and act (Edition Introduction)
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Julianne Schultz
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Julianne Schultz's biography and other articles by this writer
The existence of a vast landmass at the bottom of the southern hemisphere had entered European consciousness – like unseen creatures in the bush at night, present but not visible – well before the last continent was mapped.
Fanciful tales gleaned from Dutch and Portuguese explorers left hints that were easily embellished, but impossible to prove. Captain Cook's journey to record the transit of Venus in the southern skies, which provided his king with the bonus of an immense new land, added to the haunting mystique – thanks in large measure to Joseph Banks' collection of hitherto unknown plants and animals.
The great southern land awaited exploration, description and categorisation. It was at once a blank slate – terra nullius – waiting to be filled, and a unique unknowable place occupied by people speaking languages never before heard.
The settlement and development of Australia over the following centuries has, as a result, been as much an exercise of imagination as one of practical application.
Australians are said to be suspicious of grand visions and rhetorical flourishes, so the physical achievements are celebrated more readily than the visionary imagining that has underpinned them. The dustbin of Australian history is full of forgotten stories about people with grand ideas of an egalitarian, innovative society blossoming in a harsh yet productive land. Some proved misguided and far-fetched, while others have borne fruit for decades.
The country we know today is a product of them.
IT IS A PHILOSOPHICAL TRUISM to say ‘first we define and then we see', but it applies with telling resonance to understanding the nation that has evolved in the great southern land mass.
For much of the last two centuries, Australia has been defined by what it was not: not in the northern hemisphere, not densely settled, not lush and fertile from coast to coast, not constrained by the limits of class, nor by a densely documented or revolutionary history. What it is not provided raw material for countless writers and artists as they struggled, with varying degrees of success and originality, to squeeze the things they saw and encountered into the template embedded in minds informed by history and tradition. Over time the energy and vision of nationalists slowly tipped the scales and new definitions emerged.
The tension between what it is and what it is not, is there in the great novels and paintings: harshness and beauty, small-mindedness and expansiveness, subservience and larrikinism.
D.H. Lawrence captured this with telling – and remarkably enduring – insight in Kangaroo, the novel he wrote after living in Australia for three months in 1922. Like many Englishmen (and Irish, Scots, Germans, Italians, Greek, Chinese, Indians, Americans, Poles ...) before and since, Lawrence arrived imagining a blank slate, a place on which he could impose his will unfettered by entrenched interests and history: ‘He had come to this new country, the youngest country on the globe, to start a new life and flutter with a new hope.'
Instead he found a ‘peculiar, lost, weary aloofness ... it didn't seem to be real, it seemed to be sprinkled on the surface of a darkness into which it never penetrated'. The bush spooked him, but the ease of life enchanted, and for the first time he found himself in a ‘real democracy – in spite of all disparity in wealth. The instinct of the place was absolutely and flatly democratic, a terre democratic.'
THIS SPIRIT WAS ON DISPLAY in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election. After a campaign that seemed to last all year – pitching a government that had proved unassailable for more than a decade against a measured opposition in countless journeys to air-conditioned shopping centres – there was something ‘absolutely and flatly democratic' about the outcome.
The Labor Party won by one of the biggest swings in Australian electoral history. Yet there was little drama or rhetorical passion; even the tragically Shakespearian dimension of John Howard's loss was oddly two-dimensional. ‘Relief' was the word that seemed to capture the zeitgeist.
In his first weeks in office, without vitriol or blame, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd set about quietly and quickly undoing many policies, implementing his agenda – ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, welcoming refugees detained in makeshift Pacific Island detention centres, demanding answers on Indigenous injustice and homelessness, beginning the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and calling a pre-Christmas meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.