In Manufacturing Consent, the brilliant Canadian documentary about Noam Chomsky and the American media, one troubled citizen asks the literal hero whether he thinks there might come a day when ‘we could again be proud of our country’. He answers: ‘It depends what you mean by your country.’ Quite. No nationalist, I am tempted today to feel proud of my country; but by that I mean the 50-plus per cent of it which, on 13 March, delivered a magnificently thunderous No to the Thatcher-Reaganite dinosaurs and voted to hang on to what we’ve got of social democracy.
Vol. 15 No. 12 · 24 June 1993
It’s terribly terribly nice to be left-wing, isn’t it, Sylvia Lawson (LRB, 8 April), but other Aussies are also reading the LRB and they might point out that the real architect of the Tory Goods and Services Tax was your hero Paul Keating himself, who tried to introduce it in 1985 but his mates would not let him and who now wants to slip it in again. Though they might call themselves Labour it was really the Labour right-wing Tories who got through the election with a promise of eight billion dollars in tax cuts to the rich and nothing for those earning under $20,000. Your party sold off our media to the murderous media barons and the ‘resounding’ defeat was 50-plus all right, but the plus was only 1 per cent. As for women giving Labour the victory, I’m sorry but your own party’s polling shows that it was yuppie men around the age of twenty-five who were the group with the biggest swing. The Coalition tax reforms were going to touch the big spenders who gave Paul seven million dollars to win his election. Labour spent more money on this election than any party ever has in Australian history. So much for your Labour-Tory-sell-off-our-national-estate-Thatcherite mates, Sylvia.
Liberal Party Candidate for Capricornia,
Vol. 15 No. 13 · 8 July 1993
In her Sydney Diary (LRB, 8 April) Sylvia Lawson rejoices that ‘50-plus per cent’ of the Australian electorate voted for the return of the Keating (Labour) Government. It may be as well to remind British readers that Australia has a preferential, not a first-past-the-post, voting system and that in terms of primary votes the Government gained the support of considerably less than half the electorate. No government in a parliamentary democracy can wisely govern in flagrant defiance of the strong wishes and convictions of a very substantial minority of electors. Will Paul Keating and his ministers recognise this? It seems unlikely. No sooner has he returned to office than he has again vigorously raised the republican issue, an obsession of his, but kept carefully muted during the March election campaign. A very large number of Australians (perhaps a majority – no one can be sure) are strongly opposed to a republic. Many wish to retain constitutional monarchy less for sentimental reasons than because they believe that a head of state who is not deeply involved in party politics is for several reasons far preferable to one who is inevitably associated with politics. They intensely dislike the prospect of partisan changes to the Constitution which, while perhaps keeping the semblance of parliamentary democracy, may easily prepare the way for perpetual one-party dominance. Paul Keating seems determined to take no account of these views. One of his most recent moves has been to set up an ‘advisory committee’, consisting almost entirely of committed republicans, whose purpose is clearly to devise ways of increasing pressure for a republic. There is much disingenuous talk of a ‘minimalist’ change – as if rejection of the monarchy were not in question or not important. Step by calculated step the country is being manoeuvred towards a republic.
Vol. 15 No. 16 · 19 August 1993
I thank C.J.H. O’Brien (Letters, 8 July) for explaining the Australian electoral system to readers who didn’t know that in this country voting is compulsory. I didn’t use the space of my Sydney Diary for that information; I needed it to communicate the crucial issues of the March federal election to an audience which had been misled by sections of the British press into believing that Republicanism was a real voting issue. It was not.
O’Brien thinks this was because the devious Keating kept his dastardly republican schemes ‘carefully muted’ during the campaign. I think it was because Labour was flat out attacking the conservatives’ plans on social, industrial and taxation issues – and also because neither Keating nor most others really believed Labour would win. At that rate, they weren’t about to put the republican extravagance on the election agenda.
O’Brien says that I ‘rejoiced’ in the Labour victory: if anything should have been clear it was that the rejoicing I recorded was for the conservatives’ defeat. As I noted, Keating got a negative mandate. I went on, as O’Brien evidently didn’t notice, to criticise Labour’s record on several counts, and to suggest that republicanism was rather grotesquely diversionary. If another election were to be held tomorrow the Government would probably lose, mainly because it hasn’t found an instant cure for unemployment. The republican issue might be a small part of it. There are signs in the polls of majority support, and some chance of eventual bipartisan agreement. Despite O’Brien’s fears, there’s no chance what ever that Australia would opt for an American-style republic with an executive head of state. The people who think the change would ruin the country are only a little sillier than the ones who think it would fix everything.
Before the end of the century there should be a democratically constituted convention on the matter, then a referendum. The debate has at least alerted the population to the oddities of the federal constitution, and to the possibility of improving it. The technical adjustments involved would matter only as shifts towards more important reforms. We might finally get a Bill of Rights. We might even start setting our own house in order and work out a valid treaty with the Aborigines; and that is far more important for us now than the republic per se.
Within the last year, because of a single land claim, Australia has been forced to get to grips with the race relations issue. In mid-1992 the High Court settled a long-running claim brought by the late Eddie Mabo, a Murray Islander of the Torres Strait. The Court’s judgment in Mabo v. Queensland not only granted the claim but validated the concept of native title, and overturned, finally and for ever, the fiction that the Australian lands had been terra nullius at the time of the first European settlement. The Court’s ruling was that native title obtains where a. the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people concerned in the claim have sustained their links to the land in question, and b. the title has not been extinguished in consequence of valid government action.
In December, Keating told an Aboriginal audience that the decision was a turning-point, giving indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians a chance for significant reconciliation. He said: ‘There is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth.’ That’s what Mabo really amounts to, the highest court in the land now affirms what has been strongly suspected for a couple of centuries – namely, that there were people about before 1788. Mabo doesn’t mean that Aborigines can claim anybody’s private land, doesn’t allow them to challenge the sovereignty of existing governments, and doesn’t mean they can lock up the country’s mineral wealth. It opens the way to a limited number of claims, but doesn’t promise Aborigines much more land than they’ve got already. A young Aboriginal lawyer, Noel Pearson, headed his recent essay on the subject ‘204 Years of Invisible Title: From the Most Vehement Denial of a People’s Rights to Land to a Most Cautious and Belated Recognition’; and that just about says it. In land-rights legislation Australia still lags behind Canada New Zealand and parts of the United States.
Nevertheless racism and ignorance have been furiously active in the media; Mabo has been made a scare-word for tabloid headlines. The Government is now treading a rocky path to consensus, and seeking acceptance for a system of state and national tribunals. Aboriginal interests, those of the mining and pastoral industries, and recalcitrant state governments exert strong conflicting pressures. But unless we can sort this one out, we can’t build a republic worth belonging to; we can’t assent to prolonging a murderous fiction already two centuries old.
Most Australians, of all political colours, simply no longer want to have a foreigner who lives at the other side of the world as head of state. O’Brien’s scare tactics of a reluctant Australia being manoeuvred towards a republic are ludicrous. And whoever said that an Australian republican head of state would be ‘involved in party politics’? This is as likely as a kangaroo turning into a carnivore.
Glasshouse Mountains, Australia