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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.

Today, the Ides of March, we still feel euphoric. Yesterday, the morning after, we woke to find the sky was still there, and we could breathe after all. The five-week campaign was long and anxious, though a few hopeful souls remembered how spectacularly wrong the pollsters were last year in Britain. But even when Brian Mulroney’s demise in Canada fell like a gift into Labour’s lap, and the polls swung back at the last minute, I couldn’t believe that a government which had been ten years in office, with a million people unemployed, could possibly get back (let alone with a bigger majority). Both Murdoch and Fairfax papers forecast victory for the Liberal-National Country Party (read Tory) Coalition, and advised us to vote for it. I didn’t buy any champagne for Saturday night; suppertime could only be a wake.

But a couple of lunatic optimists turned up with splendid bottles, and by midnight we were downing them in astonishment and relief. Labour hadn’t simply won: it dealt the conservative side the biggest defeat in its history. The Canberra tallyroom show was a quasi-presidential two-horse race; we loved it because our own mount came in, heavily handicapped, from well back in the field. We cheered Paul Keating’s ringing victory speech, drenched in Old Left mythology as it was (‘a victory for the true believers’). He was alert to the politics of the moment, with cautious promises to the unemployed, and thanks to the women of Australia (for the first time ever, it appeared, most of us had voted Labour). Across the nation, journos were scrambling around until dawn changing voices, images, headlines. Far off in the Northern Territory, punters were cleaning up: somebody in Alice Springs made $A28,000 on the win.

In 1984, 1987 and again in 1990, we voted Labour through gritted teeth; or – playing with the two-party-preferred system – for the Greens, or some congenially loony Independent with Labour as second-preference. This time was different; there was everything to vote against, with much more at stake than the Coalition’s plan for a goods and services tax (GST): the assault on a perfectly good national health system, general working conditions and accessible tertiary education. They planned to shred industrial agreements, hand our universities over to the free market, reward private schools handsomely for their reinforcement of privilege, starve the state-school system, cut a cool $A50 million from the budget of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and hack into SBS, the excellent multicultural TV channel.

Suddenly, three weeks ago, there was no choice but to pitch in. We produced a one-page flyer adding up the Coalition’s education, arts, industrial relations and tax policies and their plans for the ABC (‘sum total: a massive assault on education – everybody’s education’) with a punchline in caps: ‘Without Access to Knowledge there’s no Democracy.’ Succinct if not elegant, it was faxed and mailed in all directions, left on train seats, bookshop counters and at bus stops. Maybe it helped: I’ll never know. I do know that my part in the effort relieved paralysing depression, and that on talkback radio today a lifelong Tory voter in the Blue Mountains – a salubrious area which is to Sydney much as Connecticut to New York – said she’d voted Labour because the Liberal leader Dr Hewson had carried on, with his awful quasi-American evangelical rallies, as though people couldn’t think.

John Hewson, whose like I trust we shall never see again in this arena, was brought up a Baptist – he’s still got that pious look – and studied postgraduate economics in the USA. Later he left the wife who’d typed his thesis and raised the kids, telling her (so the story goes) she didn’t have what it took for big-time political life. He then married a young merchant banker who quit her job for the campaign; nasty people have been calling her the wife from Central Casting. Their launch was a thoroughly repellent occasion: on stage at the Wesley Mission they wheeled in a parade of avowedly Ordinary Australians who stood lugubriously blaming Labour for the recession, for drought, flood, locusts, fleas, blood-pressure and broken marriages.

Through the post-mortems, the Coalition’s better Liberal minds have been saying: we didn’t argue properly, there wasn’t real debate; bring back the liberals who’ve been crowded out of the Liberal Party. Let me add, in a still-small voice: bring back Labour’s liberal minds as well – we didn’t get that much real argument either. Keating fronted the press repeatedly, and avowed all sorts of support for art and intellect, but he also did some plainly un-trustable porkbarrelling, and – to the disgust of the Greens who helped Labour back in 1990 – the environment barely rated a mention. Hewson avoided the press, played his crowds, ran with kids on beaches and hammered Keating on unemployment; Keating banged on against the GST. I heard an English visitor ask: ‘But what’s Australia for? Is it anything but an economic contraption?’ Excellent questions. The unions and women’s networks beavered furiously underground, especially in marginal seats; it’s to their credit that the bigger issues stayed visible.

But no one invited the population to consider the deeper issues underlying unemployment, like irreversible technological change. No one talked about the things Labour had actually got right, like maintaining the social wage, and so minimising human misery, in a country deep in recession. Nor has there been discussion of the things they got badly wrong: hanging back on race relations, and fumbling around hopelessly with refugees, subjecting hundreds of Cambodian boat people to protracted misery in detention. They expanded the university system without adequately funding it, and submitted the teaching profession to over-administered pragmatism. They colluded in the transference of the whole mainstream press to foreign control – Conrad Black has Fairfax and Murdoch the rest. The ABC’s vulnerable Radio National remains our only alternative press, but there are no safeguards; media policy is shambolic.

The re-elected prime minister is a Catholic husband and father of immaculate personal reputation; his only known affair – decidedly more than a flirtation – was with free-marketeering and murderously high interest rates. Educated for ascendancy by right-wing Labour in its working-class heartland, he had no truck with the New Left of his earlier days, but he did once manage a rock group called Ramrod. Recalling that, the Australian edition of Rolling Stone got him for a group interview in January, and he celebrated his 49th birthday with its writers in a suburban pub. He rambled back amiably to Frankie Laine and Dylan, round classical music and the official culture of theatre and painting; revealed that he didn’t support the legalisation, or even the decriminalisation, of marijuana, and didn’t think a treaty was necessarily what Aborigines wanted. On that, Keating will soon learn: he has seen more clearly than any other leader since Whitlam that on this more-than-local issue, we must set our house in order.

Maybe the Rolling Stone cover helped the youth vote along, though its quizzical Keating in collar and tie, peering over lowered shades, seems seriously uncertain who he’s looking at. The question presses; that was a negative mandate. Despite the women’s vote, and fierce lobbying now to get more women into Cabinet, government and parliament remain an Anglo boys’ club, glaringly out of key with social reality. In the melee at my inner suburban polling-booth we were marshalled by a sergeant-majorly black lady, and voting instructions were pasted up in 22 languages other than English.

The present rate of economic growth is just enough to hold unemployment where it is. Labour has to catch up on the environment and on sustainable development, to fund those election promises on childcare – promises which recognise major social change – and they should forget about tax cuts. If it’s time to reform the tax system in the interests of investment, employment and getting exports into Asia, it’s not the moment to wind back on the redistribution of wealth. It is high time to move back into the world, and restore foreign aid to the morally and politically acceptable levels from which it sank sharply through the Eighties – under Labour; time to face the music on human rights, at home and in the neighbourhood.

There are honourable dreamers who believe that all that, and the treaty too, should have been on the election agenda. Some of them wanted to check each candidate’s view on Tibet and Timor, as though this country’s concerns really did flow beyond its borders; as though the place was after all more than an economic contraption.

As though indeed ... On 26 January – Australia Day or Invasion Day, as you will – 20,000 Sydneysiders crowded a sportsground at Botany Bay for the Survival ’93 concert. This is a huge, good-humoured annual event, seven hours of performance by the First Australians from all over the continent. Lots of people come because they mightn’t get another chance through the year to make an anti-racist gesture. As audiences, they know the score: art runs ahead of politics. A month later nearly half a million packed the pavements of East Sydney for the giant parade of glitz and satire, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras; this time there wasn’t one arrest. As white folks head for the black carnival, and straights rejoice in gay theatre, their affirmations are also ways of showing – however unreflectively – which side they’re on. Sometimes, dare one say it, the pollsters might well stop counting, look about them and listen.

Everywhere the Prime Minister went, there was this poor bloke from the Beeb bleating away about the republican thing: nobody took any notice. Sometime we’ll have a referendum. I’ve been a republican since I could think, and of course the symbolism counts; but I’d rather let the old gilt ropes fray to nothing as they must. It simply doesn’t matter – or not the way some London papers would have you suppose. We’re a republic now, a crowned republic; and some would argue that a city 12,000 miles away isn’t the worst place for a President (you lot can still keep her housed). The real imperial powers for Australia are, of course, America and Japan.

But the Australian Republican Movement people, quaint souls, are terribly serious about it. They’re straining at gnats and swallowing a whole procession of camels. It’s only $A25 to joint the ARM, but they don’t get my cash or signature until I know that there’s more than constitutional tinkering at stake. That, for instance, the Treaty will be stitched into the middle of the projected founding document; that the same document will connect with a Bill of Rights guaranteeing, inter alia, diversity and local ownership for print and broadcast media; that we’ll stop kowtowing to the US and attend to the countries which really want to know us: India, the Pacific island states, and those needy bits of Central and Eastern Europe where (with touching curiosity, in my experience) they seem to see us as the truly alternative, non-American West.

Don’t trash your visa applications. Cyclone Roger (what did he know?) has moved off from the Queensland coast; the end-of-summer weather is fantastic; and we need all the talent we can get.

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Letters

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.

Sylvia Lawson
Sydney

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.

Geoffrey Dutton
Glasshouse Mountains, Australia

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.

Chris Alroe
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.

C.J.H. O’Brien
Sydney, Australia

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