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Edition 51

Contents
Memoir

A half-formed nation

HAPPY BIRTHDAY OLLIE!

I thought I’d drop you a line about life, the state of the planet and the future of our country. Don’t worry, it’s just a bicycle ride around stuff that we’ve mentioned in passing but not in writing. Yeah, I know, it’s a bit of a pose isn’t it – parents publishing letters to their children?

I’m meant to sound like one of those wise know-it-all dads who throw down bales of advice to their children like hay from a haystack…

You know the ones? But I’m not.

In fact, I’m probably more confused than you. Perhaps you can enlighten your old man about the state we’re in? What’s to be done? Maybe your generation has the answer?

Consider a few recent, bewildering developments in America: the other day, I clicked on a link to a list of the top twenty-five books that every executive should read, ‘to boost their personal growth’, as recommended by Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Bill Gates (Micro- soft) and other top bosses. I vaguely hoped to see fine works of literature and philosophy that had inspired these powerful corporate minds. Not a bit of it. Most of their recommendations were silly ‘self-help’ books: how to be charismatic, how to win, how to fight, how to be happy. There were just three novels (including Catcher in the Rye and Atlas Shrugged – duh) and one biography, of Napoleon (don’t mention the complex). No Shakespeare, no serious history, no ancient classics, no poetry, not a single book by a Nobel Laureate, living or dead. In fairness, perhaps the world’s top bosses genuinely need lessons in how to be happy and how to charm people?

On a more serious note… In the wake of the mass shooting in Umpqua Community College in Oregon in October 2015, a US republican presidential candidate called Ben Carson said he reckons there should be more guns. WTF? Dear old Carson hopes to arm all law-abiding Americans against the ‘bad guys’: ‘I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away,’ the retired neurosurgeon said. Jeb Bush, his rival for the presidency, outdid him for callousness, remarking a week after the massacre, ‘stuff happens’.

This kind of ‘stuff’ happens an awful lot in the States: Umpqua was the forty-fifth shooting in an American school up to that time last year, and the 142nd since twenty children and six adults were shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. American gun lovers refuse to accept the link between easily available guns and mass murder. Nor have they noticed that the number of gun killings in Britain and Australia have plummeted since those countries introduced strict gun laws in the 1990s. And these men presume to be the next leaders of the most powerful nation on earth? It’s not only baffling; it’s terrifying.

My confusion deepens… A lot of people in the world right now want to erect walls and barriers to keep out ‘illegals’, ‘criminals’ and ‘undesirables’, most of whom are just ordinary people fleeing ghastly regimes or abject poverty. These wall-minded people would tend to bundle up all refugees as potential terrorists, and rather live in closed sanctuaries, ‘gated countries’, than engage with the world as it is and try to solve the problem. Take for example another US presidential candidate, a very rich old guy with orange hair (you know the one), who’s promising anyone who’ll listen – and many do – to build a wall along the border with Mexico, to ‘protect’ Americans from Mexican ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’. After the Paris attacks, many Europeans have adopted an extreme barrier-mindedness toward people fleeing Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Israel has a wall; a wall once divided Berlin. For years, our own nation behaved like a gated country, walled in via the White Australia policy; it now relies on a sea barrier and offshore detention centres to deter refugees.

In the long run, walls and barriers will not deter people desperate enough to break through them. You cannot stop humans fleeing brutality and squalor; you can only hope to alleviate the conditions that forced them to flee in the first place. Alas, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past fifteen years have exacerbated the brutality and squalor in the Middle East, forcing millions to try to throw themselves on our ‘welcome’ mats. Thousands have died in the attempt, like the little Syrian boy whose drowned body washed up on a European beach – grievously reminiscent of the refugees who have died while trying to get to Australia on overcrowded boats.

 

WHICH BRINGS ME to another source of my bewilderment and, at times, despair: the state of our own country. In this case, however, I’d like to propose a remedy! So I send you my diagnosis with feelings of hope – that perhaps, if anything, it’ll make you and your friends think about what it means to be an ‘Australian’.

As I’ve often said, Australia is a nation of lions led by political donkeys. Okay, not all the politicians are donkeys: I have great hopes of our smiling new Prime Minister. But in recent years, like most Australians, I’ve found the mulish antics of our political class impossible to ignore. The self-abasement that passes for public service would be entertaining were it not so damaging.

Indeed, many of our politicians remind me of the pigs that occupied the farmhouse in Animal Farm – remember George Orwell’s great satire on the rise of Stalinism? In Australia’s farmyard, however, the ruling pigs not only deceive and lie to us, they also seal grubby deals with unelected fixers behind closed doors; climb over each other’s corpses in the pursuit of power; waste our hard-earned taxes on getting re-elected or on crank schemes and personal conveniences; grossly insult women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities; portray refugees as subhuman criminals for political advantage; upset our largest neighbours and most important trading partners; and cry in public when everything goes wrong (as if we felt their pain!).

They tend to govern according to polls or focus groups, thus abrogating their responsibility to lead or to honour the mandate for which we elected them. The result, as we’ve seen, is the crude politicisation of difficult issues that affect us all, and which should have been handled on a bipartisan basis, such as climate change, immigration and the resources tax. Childcare and industrial relations have similarly seesawed between ideological or populist extremes.

No wonder many of us – especially your generation – feel disconnected from, or indifferent to, the political process. But the malaise runs deeper. The problem is that we expect our politicians to behave in this manner. Of course, this is not unique to Australia: everywhere, the public’s expectations of their leaders are at all-time lows (nonetheless, when the dust thrown up by his enemies settles, I think Obama will be remembered as one of the finest presidents the US has ever had).

We’re a resilient people. Subjected to the latest buffoonery in Canberra, Australians tend to smile and carry on, waving aside the witless gall of our politicians as if they were so many noisome children. Yet lately I can’t help feeling that our sunny facade is darkening. There’s a growing sense that the joke is on us, not on them; that we’ve let this happen through our political complacency. And I sense – and perhaps you do too – that many Australians want deep, root-and-branch, systemic change. This goes beyond merely transposing the names and faces of our elected representatives. It goes to the heart of how our country is governed and what we mean by ‘Australia’. Dare we put a name to the mood? Dare we call it revolutionary?

 

CAN YOU REMEMBER when an Australian politician inspired you or your friends? In fairness, it’s too soon to judge our new leader. But when did you last hear a vision for your country beautifully articulated?

Just six addresses are usually cited as ‘great’ or influential in Australian political history. You probably haven’t studied them at school. Curtin’s 1941 New Year’s message (a newspaper article) was a plea for a new protector, issued in desperation: ‘…Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom…’. Ben Chifley’s 1949 ‘Light on the hill’ broadcast was a beautiful image lost in a windy litany of Labor’s achievements: ‘…to see that our less fortunate fellow-citizens are protected from those shafts of fate which leave them helpless and without hope is…the beacon, the light on the hill.’ Robert Menzie’s 1942 paean to ‘The forgotten people’ was limited to a class, not the nation: ‘…what really happens to us will depend on how many people we have who are of the great and sober and dynamic middle-class…’. Gough Whitlam’s 1972 ‘It’s time’ policy speech, was impressive but offered an unworkable vision: ‘We can recreate this nation.’ Two had nothing to do with winning elections: Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern speech on reconciliation (‘We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?’); and Kevin Rudd’s 2008 ‘Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples’ (‘And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.’). Keating’s was sixteen minutes and fifty seconds long. Rudd’s was four minutes and three seconds.

How many of us can even quote from them? Many Australians are more familiar with Churchill’s ‘The few’ and ‘This was their finest hour’, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and Obama’s ‘Yes we can’.

Dare we hope one day for a great political orator, a visionary thinker? An Australian Roosevelt? A Churchill? An Obama? Many Aussies will say, ‘Easy mate, that’s not our way. We want our leaders flawed and laid back, just like us.’ That’s strange, because the pursuit of greatness is our way in sport, arts, science and business – but not in politics? Keating, who had an Asian vision for the nation before we crushed him on the altar of parochialism, himself diagnosed the dearth of great leadership in an off-the-record speech to the media in 1990: ‘[O]ur problem is,’ he said, ‘if you look at some of the great countries…like the United States – we’ve never had one great leader like they’ve had. The United States had three great leaders – Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt… We’ve never had one such person, not one.’

Indeed, with a few fine exceptions, we do not have the politicians we deserve. Worse, our debased polity has ‘trickled down’ and infected the Australian psyche. Their standards set the mood, the example. And many people respond accordingly: they recoil from the possibility of greater things, lapse back into a state of triumphant mediocrity and never try to fix the system because, we’re told, ‘it ain’t broke’. Well, it is broke. The political cringe – and to my mind, our famous cringe has never been cultural, always political – has dragged down the spirit of the country and diminished us all.

 

SOMETHING IS ROTTEN Down Under. But the rot lies not with a clique or with individuals or even with the political class, as Donald Horne and other critics suggested. We’re not, and never have been, a ‘nation without a mind’, as he claimed (itself an oddly mindless observation, though you know what he means).

The rot arises from a general political malaise, a kind of national inertia, borne of our failure to connect Australia’s past with a vision for the country’s future. How did this happen? Well, here’s what I reckon. Some time ago, Australians abandoned the job of nation building, of democratic innovation and social experiment. The historian Clare Wright is good on this theme – you should read her. We’re a stalled work in progress. As a result, we live in a half-formed or semi-formed nation.

The Sydney Opera House is a perfect metaphor for Australia’s incomplete creation: an exquisite conception that we failed to finish according to the map we were given. In consequence, the Opera House and the nation inadequately perform the jobs for which they were designed, respectively grand opera and self-government.

This sense of being incomplete, unfulfilled, permeates the national psyche, and inhibits us. Our debased polity and ‘cannot do’ attitude; our general unwillingness to experiment; the ease with which we’re led and told to act; our imitative, passionless elites (Donald Horne’s most acute criticism); our failure to manufacture much of our own (even as small Scandinavian countries produce world-class technology, cars, appliances and TV dramas); our tendency to derive, not to originate (anyone for the BBC?); can all be traced, I believe, to our paused national development.

When did this happen? I place the moment soon after the First World War – when the Australian pioneering spirit, our bold experimentation with political and social ideas, seemed to seize up. The agony of the Western Front bound us to Britain in sadness: two parents staring into the graves of their sons. The war left an indelible scar, and a new awareness of the world as a terrifying place, replete with aggressive foreigners armed with massive new weapons that could destroy us. It was as if the nation said to itself, ‘We’ve done enough, we’ve lost tens of thousands of young lives, we’re exhausted. Now let’s just drift along and leave the big decisions to the outside world, to our protectors and benefactors.’

Our collective psychology veered into a twilight of dread and anxiety, spooked by an intolerable sense of ourselves as the vast outsiders – the only white faces in the teeming yellow unknown of Asia. We cleaved to Britain, and then to America, for markets and military protection. Neither was forthcoming: Britain abandoned Singapore in WWII, then joined the European Common Market; America interpreted ANZUS as it pleased (and against our interests), and ignored us in Vietnam. In return, we offered troops on demand, spy and atom bomb-testing sites, a military launch pad and a ‘friendly white face’ in Asia. Our disillusionment has been long and painful, but we have only ourselves to blame for our doe-eyed prostration before old friends whose cheerful self-interest should have been obvious.

Perhaps one day we’ll rediscover the sense of direction that drove our society in the years leading up to and immediately following federation in 1901: the pursuit of a free and fair society, a willingness to experiment, to pioneer and to champion new ideas, which manifested in votes for women, political representation for workers, schemes for universal health and education. Our pioneering spirit tamed the harshest land on earth, and built cities as beautiful as any. We once made cars, auto parts, textiles, clothing and processed foods, and had thriving biotech and chemical industries. We might have made a lot more. Today we’re disdainfully described as ‘China’s quarry’. What on earth happened? I feel exhausted just thinking about it. Perhaps your generation knows the answer?

 

WHO ARE WE? Is it possible even to speak of a nation of ‘us’? The idea of ‘us’ seems as elusive as Peter Pan’s shadow. We’re always searching for our reflection and never finding it. We feel an unbearable lightness of being, anchorless and transient. We’re quietly astonished that we’re allowed to exist in so lovely a land, with so much space and wealth, as if we stumbled across it by accident and claimed it as our own. We’re vaguely afraid that one day a gigantic hand might reach down and deny us our extraordinary good fortune.

If White Australia is a ‘nation interrupted’, suspended in a sort of limbo between federation and independence, Black Australia draws on a deeper narrative that most whites barely understand. I dream that one day the indigenous, settler and immigrant stories that enrich and inspire this beautiful country might flow in harmony, into the river of our shared future, towards a more complete society, a New Australia – different and yet the same, combining the best of the old with the promise of the new. To do so, we must rediscover the courage and hope that once suffused our spirit. Only then may we discover who, in fact, we really are, and who we could be.

But the tributaries have only just started to meet. The pause in the creation of ‘Australia’ has insinuated itself into the very texture of what it means to be ‘Australian’: the whites seem to share a collective psychology of distrust and uncertainty, estrangement from the world, a dull ache for recognition, and the curious need to hear the approbation of others. Perhaps they protest too much? I don’t presume to speak for the First Australians, except to say that they seem to enjoy an inner peace, imbued with a sense that they are truly ‘home’. The rest of us don’t seem to feel the same ‘homeness’, the same deep sense of being where we should be. Perhaps that’s because we haven’t honestly understood our historic place here – the damage we’ve done, the good we’ve introduced. If not, how can the various Australian tribes – white, black, yellow – hope to reconcile themselves to a shared future?

White Australia’s lack of a historic soul, our unformed national identity, has given rise to strange imbalances and neuroses in the way we see ourselves, and how we behave as a people. We cling to tragic or ephemeral ideas about our ‘national identity’, as if the terrible sacrifice of our soldiers or the fleeting brilliance of our sports stars suffices to explain us. Yelling ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi’ at the Ashes or on Anzac Day doesn’t come close.

Are fighting wars and playing games all there is to us? Suddenly, I hear you saying: ‘But Dad, your books identify us with war.’ True, in some ways – but my books do not glorify war or Australia’s place in it. They try to explain the human condition of people at war, from both sides. There’s more to our country, of course, than the tragedy of war and the triumph of a gold medal. For one thing, the ‘war and sport’ narrative ignores most Australian women, whose self-image lies elsewhere. It also excludes Australia’s achievements in science, art and business, and overlooks our larger contribution to the values of Western society, which reached a high point of experimentation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We did not have ‘to wait until men died’ in a failed military campaign on the shores of Turkey to earn our way in the world: we were already well on the way to earning it.

 

POLITICIANS ESTABLISH THE direction of the nation and thus have a powerful influence on our mood and evolving identity. Yet, what happens when politicians refuse to envisage a future for your country? Or cynically trash your hopes of one? Or exploit a transient fear of outsiders to win office? Two questions politicians rarely seem to ask themselves are: What should be my example to the people of the nation I presume to lead and serve? And does my example reflect or debase the moral and social aspirations of these people?

Our inhumane treatment of asylum seekers has blinded the world to the fact that Australia has a successful ‘multi-culture’, perhaps the world’s first. One has only to live in Britain, France or America, where racial hatred has become entrenched, to see how well people of different races and religions co-exist here. Why, then, are we seen as one of the most racist societies? We’ve welcomed millions of eastern and southern Europeans, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese, most of whom have ‘gone local’ without losing their cultural identity. We snuffed out Hansonism, a dim-witted version of Le Pen’s National Front or the British National Party, and overcame the White Australia policy to create a cheerfully polyglot society.

Of course, only a Panglossian could ignore a ferociously xenophobic minority who, whipped up by politicians in pursuit of marginal seats, would drag us back to our White Australian past. And it disgusts me to hear these people portray the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic as ‘true blue’ and the rest as somehow ‘unAustralian’. They should glance at their own immigrant ancestry. Indeed, much of ‘White Australia’ has yet to discover the enriching stories living among us: Greek, Italian, Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Eastern European and many others. Just read the previous issue of Griffith Review, New Asia Now.

 

OLLIE, I IMAGINE you share my confusion and sadness over the treatment of the original inhabitants of our country. We haven’t discussed it in depth. White Australia has tried to solder two centuries of settlement tradition onto forty thousand years of Aboriginal Dreaming. We hoped it would stick. But White Australians need more than the weld of speeches and symbols to authenticate us; true authentication can only come through a genuine recognition of our shared history and our past mistakes. ‘Sorry’ isn’t enough; it hardly scrapes the surface.

I urge you to try this mental exercise: imagine if, in Australia, blacks had always greatly outnumbered whites, as they do in South Africa. If so, Australia’s history would surely have been similar to South Africa’s. The mentally besieged white minority would have adopted the policies of the Apartheid regime: the ‘natives’ would have been politically segregated and denied a vote, their men enslaved as mineworkers and their women as domestic servants. And one day, international condemnation and black fury would have forced reform. Who knows, Noel Pearson might have been our Nelson Mandela.

Aboriginal people were too few in number to threaten white occupation. But white Australians went ahead anyway with a kind of informal segregation (with some formal elements). The moral and racial issues were, however, the same as South Africa’s: numeric calculations don’t apply to conscience. Australia’s original inhabitants were effectively denied a vote until 1962, and not counted as citizens until 1967; many were segregated or ‘stolen’; and many were effectively enslaved as cheap labour. In so doing, white Australians experienced an ‘apartheid of the mind’ that was segregationist in spirit. In some of us it lingers, because white Australians have never felt the arresting jolt of revolution that would alert us to our moral desuetude. The hysteria over the groundless fear of losing their land after the Mabo decision was the closest many Australians came to experiencing a black ‘insurrection’.

If allowed to linger, undisturbed and unchallenged, this ‘apartheid   of the mind’ might have insinuated itself into our national consciousness. Yet in recent decades it has been squarely confronted – and to some extent, educated out of existence. That has been one of the great achievements of the Indigenous people, the NGOs who support them, and a few enlightened politicians: the peaceful passage of reforms to acknowledge and attempt to correct past wrongs.

Rudd’s apology worked, insofar as popular symbols work. But it failed (or never intended) to prescribe a deeper, more lasting recognition of the original inhabitants of Australia. One way is to reconstitute the country to reflect black history. Ah, just another symbolic gesture? But constitutional recognition of our true identity, our historic identity, is more than a symbol. It is the beginning of the creation of our historic soul. It is a statement of our essence as a people. Our essence eludes most of us now, but one day I feel sure we’ll wake up and see it floating before our eyes.

 

DESPITE ALL OUR achievements, as I say, Australia remains a nation unfulfilled, a country unrealised. The failure to build a political system based on an honest recognition of a history that reflects who we are has thwarted our potential as a people, and stifled our dreams. Most people don’t even realise it’s happening, such is the stupefying effect of political inertia and the old nonsense that ‘she’ll be right’.

To which I say we need an Australian Revolution. Your generation is the one to launch it. Stay calm: I’m not suggesting ‘Year Zero’ madness, or a crazed decapitation of the system. Rather, an accelerated evolution of what Australia could become, a New Australia that draws on our best traditions while embracing a few exciting mutations.

It won’t be bloody or fanatical. We’ll do it the Aussie way. The march on Canberra will be a Big Day Out. We’ll lay down our pitchforks if a World Cup’s on and put on our culottes if the surf’s up. A parade of floats will serve as our tumbrels, bearing away our most embarrassing politicians, their fixers and our broken political system to a richly deserved oblivion, freeing us to resume the great work of national creation.

A few obvious things will have to change: we need an Australian head of state. Not because we disrespect Queen Elizabeth II, but because this is an essential step towards fulfilling our political destiny. Can you imagine Britain, France, USA or Germany with a foreign head of state? No great nation should tolerate one, not because he or she is ‘foreign’ but because a head of state who doesn’t live among us can’t see us. They don’t share our weather, our tragedies, our challenges. They cannot speak for us.

We need a beautifully written Constitution and Declaration of Independence that define who we are. Have you read the Australian Constitution? Was it ever taught at school? I doubt it. Very few people have read it. And no wonder: it reads like the terms and conditions of a corporation, not the founding document of a nation. It offers nothing that speaks to the heart, no protection against human rights abuses, no recognition of the original inhabitants, no paean to our shared history, no appeal to the better angels of our polity.

If we read it literally, the Constitution invests complete executive power in the Queen (or King) of Australia, ‘exercisable by the Governor-General’. She/he can block laws: ‘The Queen may disallow any law within one year from the Governor-General’s assent…’ By this reading, we’re subjects of the incumbent crowned head, not citizens of a free country.

Of course, ‘experts’ will advise you against this ‘literal’ interpretation. Like the Bible and the Qur’an, the Australian Constitution is not supposed to be taken literally: ‘A literal reading of the Constitution,’ warns the Solicitor-General, ‘does not give much information about how the Executive Government of the Commonwealth functions’ (which is a legal own-goal, when you think about it, because if anything a Constitution should explain how the executive works). Take the example of Section 68, which, few Australians likely realise, vests full command of the defence forces in the Governor-General. In practice, of course, the Governor-General has no such powers, but rather acts according to ‘the principle of responsible government’ and ministerial advice.

Nor is there any clarity about the limits of political power. The Constitution is reliant on ‘principles’ and ‘conventions’. These have the merit of being non-prescriptive in the hands of benign administrators, but interventionist, even tyrannical, in the hands of a malign one (luckily, we’ve usually had sensible Governor-Generals). We simply take it on trust that our politicians will act in the spirit (if not always the letter) of this gloomy treatise on nationhood, in line with ‘parliamentary convention’. That ‘convention’, of course, led to the dangerous ad hockery of 1975 and the sacking of an elected prime minister.

The Constitution ought to be a beautifully written statement of our place in the world, imbued with the poetic and historic spirit of the nation. But it should go further. It should incorporate a ‘Declaration of Independence’; recognise and delineate the powers of an Australian head of state; observe the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment; enshrine in law a Bill of Rights; and clearly delineate the relationship between the Commonwealth and the states. Perhaps Les Murray, Tim Winton, Geraldine Brooks, Anita Heiss, Noel Pearson and a few younger Australian writers should lock themselves in a room and rewrite it, free of legalese?

 

WHY NOT A Bill of Rights? Unlike most Western democracies, Australia has no protection against human rights abuses. The Constitution is silent on the issue. There have been many attempts to introduce one; several people at Kevin Rudd’s 2008 summit recommended it, but the idea was cast onto the slagheap of most of the summit’s ideas.

Australia’s human rights record is not a pretty sight if you’re Indigenous or an asylum seeker. Australian children are not protected from abuse under the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child because, although we’ve ratified it, we haven’t incorporated it into domestic law. And the adult citizen’s ‘rights’ remain open to interpretation: the evolution of common law has not progressed in line with the changing world order. ‘[A] Bill of Rights would bring Australia in from the cold, so to speak, and make directly applicable the human rights jurisprudence which has developed internationally,’ observed former Chief Justice Sir Anthony Mason as long ago as 1997. Many, like me, have come around to this view, including the constitutional lawyer Michael Bradley: ‘I used to think a Bill of Rights was a bad idea,’ he told me, ‘but I have come to think that it’s essential. The rights I have in mind are free speech and association, freedom of religion and from religion, freedom from arbitrary detention and torture.’

Rights should come with obligations. The social contract is a two-way street. The state has a right to expect its citizens to behave according to the shared values of the country. New Australian citizens are already compelled to acknowledge this, under the Oath of Allegiance:

I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share,

whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.

Perhaps the oath should include a citizen’s obligation to disavow religious laws and foreign customs that clash with Australia’s secular laws, and have no place in our democracy? That would not deny the practice of their religious faith, but it would remove confusion over customs such as forced marriage, polygamy and female genital mutilation, which are not only illegal but also anathema to our traditional moral standards, and would help ensure a freedom from fear which is increasingly being recognised as an important right.

Finally – and here’s the fun part – we’ll need new national symbols that reflect who we really are. Honest symbols matter. Our flag, our anthem and our colours should distil all that is hopeful and ideal about our country. As things stand, our symbols are a dog’s breakfast. Have you noticed that we’ve got four sets of ‘national’ colours (red/white/blue, red/black/yellow, green/ gold, yellow/red), and a flag that reminds Jerry Seinfeld of ‘England by night’? We sing of being ‘young and free’ and ‘girt by sea’, yet we’re the oldest continuously inhabited land on earth and nobody ever uses the word girt.

Our flag should conform to our coming national reality, as a free Commonwealth with an Australian head of state. A simple and beautiful solution is to remove the Union Jack, and enlarge and change the colours of the Southern Cross. Big golden stars on a rich green background would convey an inclusive image, of the sky that watches over all of us and the richness of the land we share.

Our national anthem is a pompous dirge of cobwebbed Victoriana. (Girt by sea? Joyful strains? Australia fair? In whose minds, precisely, do these archaic phrases resonate?) I suggest an anthem that opens with the mystical wail of a corroboree and ends with the melody of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (partly rewritten, because few Australians boil billies or camp by billabongs anymore). South Africa’s and New Zealand’s anthems beautifully merge the language of their native people with the settlers’; why can’t ours? And ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is simply magnificent. Here, Keating recalls the time he heard it sung at Dublin’s Croke Park in 1994:

I don’t know what came into my mind then – I think the experience emptied it of all rational thought. But afterwards I was aware of the extraordinary power of this song on an Australian’s senses… What ‘Waltzing Matilda’ tells us in an entirely uncomplicated way is that we are Australian…without beating drums or waving flags, or pounding chests. It tells us with a simple melody and story.

Mr Turnbull now has the power to resume what he started in the 1999 Australian republic referendum. Let’s hope he does. I fear, however, that most of our politicians haven’t the courage to implement these reforms (or even variations of them). So it’s probably over to your generation: to young people with the energy and vision to seize the political initiative and press for change. Perhaps your generation will need to form a new political party, a ‘New Australia’ party, to liberate the lions?

For the moment, of course, you and I can’t do much. We live overseas for part of the year, with good reason. My wife is French and you’re studying drama in London. So something’s gotta give, at least for now. But we’ll come home often – hopefully to join the revolution! So let’s have that quiet beer and celebrate your twenty-first birthday!

Love in confusion, Dad


From Griffith Review Edition 51: Fixing the System © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review