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Vol. 29 No. 24 · 13 December 2007

The Australian elections

Tom Nairn

On voting day I took the Melbourne tram downtown, stopping only to glance in a bookseller’s window. It was good to see Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore holding its place in the bestseller list. 1 A good cop yarn set in Victoria, stylistically it is West Coast American, and has been received well there. But that’s not why it’s so popular here. The book sets out to display, often brutally, just what Robert Hughes’s ‘fatal shore’ has become: a terrain beset by identity dilemmas and querulous uncertainty. Who dunnit? Well, everybody, in one way or another. Temple’s Joe Cashin fights his way through gangsters and bent cops to reveal Melbourne as the capital of paedophilia, as well as of southern hemisphere organised crime. Down these mean tourist routes a man must go, who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The battered policeman from Port Monro (a fictive place somewhere down Great Ocean Road) finds himself searching for an answer far beyond his culprit – and so do the readers, presumably.

Identity lurks between the lines, and surfaces in every punch-up and revelation. Australians don’t tire of reading about this. Recently, there have been three other remarkable versions of essentially the same tale: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River,2 Thomas Keneally’s The Commonwealth of Thieves3 and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria.4 The mystery of the stolen continent. Naturally, Australian readers know in advance who did it – and in a sense are still doing it. Newcomers took the country from the previous inhabitants, now often called ‘First Australians’ rather than ‘Aborigines’. Hence the point must lie in reimagining the machinery of cohabitation and – more important – in an ever present, questioning epilogue: what’s to be done? Australia was ‘the greatest country on earth’ throughout the recent federal election campaign. Sure, but what (in Benedict Anderson’s inexhaustible phrase) about its ‘imagined community’, its sense of itself? Is community in that overarching sense possible when an unhealed wound remains?

Not long before the vote, the point was cruelly rubbed in. John Howard’s Liberal-Coalition government made the unusual decision to invade its own country, by sending the Australian Defence Force into the Northern Territory. His aim was to deal decisively with concerns about child abuse and corruption among the mainly Aboriginal population. In The Broken Shore the cop-hero repeatedly finds his inquiries sidetracked by crazed ideas about native Australians (‘Bongs’) being responsible for most crimes and complaints. He gets somewhere only by disregarding such delusions. But Howard wasn’t so smart. Instead, his campaign of what one important study has called ‘coercive reconciliation’ led right on to the decisive defeat of 24 November.5 He forfeited even his own constituency, as did Mal Brough, the minister for families, community services and indigenous affairs, who was directly in charge of the military intervention.

Are identity dilemmas just a hobby-horse for intellectuals and academics? Six weeks before the election I attended a meeting in Brunswick Town Hall, an inner suburb of Melbourne. It was to be addressed by the Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson, on the theme of reconciliation. Knowing the unpunctuality of left-wing events, I put off driving down Sydney Road until a quarter of an hour before the talk was due to start: a bad mistake. It took twenty minutes to get through the queues and find somewhere to stand, or rather crouch.

Dodson is splendid in appearance as well as oratory, a prophetic white beard underlining his main argument, that Australia should try and emulate Mandela’s South Africa by setting up commissions to work out reconciliation – and, by implication, to revise the historical understanding that has travestied such problems. Comparatively few Native Australians were present, but the Anglo-Celt-Euro audience was totally absorbed. Something was really on their minds. I imagine they nearly all voted Labor on 24 November. As Thomas Keneally put it in The Age a couple of weeks before the election, this vote should have been on something crucial, and not just Kyoto or global warming in the abstract. The populations around the greatest desert in the world are fearful that climate change will let the desert destroy them, amid mainly unresolved problems – including the key one Dodson was addressing.

By contrast, the election campaign instructed them firmly to stop worrying about all that. Time for change? Well, possibly. In an Australian Financial Review article, the former Labor leader Mark Latham maintained that the last year has been marked by a crippling ‘convergence’ between the Liberal-National alliance and Labor. Just as Blairism took over so much of Thatcherism, so the new Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has been striving to appear even more moderate, business-oriented and pro-American than Howard. Despairing media critics baptised it ‘Me-tooism’, and the result was a campaign setting new standards of witless boredom.

Four days before the vote, my morning latte and toast was droned over by an ABC interview with the Labor finance spokesman, Wayne Swan. Denouncing the Coalition finance minister, Peter Costello, as a reckless spendthrift, he promised his party would be more ‘economically conservative’ (his actual words) than the outgoing neoliberals, and never spend a single cent more than was in the household purse. Most November mornings, I’ve found myself waking up in the grip of a daft dream-notion: Gordon Brown must be behind all this. Does he need a soulmate on the other side of the earth so badly? Kevin Rudd, too, is a politico-intello often caught reading books, who can write uplifting essays based on them, and even speaks good Chinese. His best-known writing is probably on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, claimed as his inspiration just before he was made Labor leader.

The best daily election coverage came from, which acknowledged the wish for a change of government but complained that nobody could imagine what that change might amount to. Between that wish and this election result the shadow has fallen. That is, a conspiracy to prevent Australia’s imagined community of culture from infecting a political order founded on keeping it in its place. Canberra doesn’t only have a stiff upper lip: neoliberal propriety seems to have added steel braces to its Anglo-Celtic heritage. It is now keeping the lid on things by means of a ‘realism’ wholly identified with competence and sound economic management. A Brownish fog had materialised Down Under well before the vote.

This is why it all proved too much for Keneally. Driven to ask in his Age article why political life has forsaken republicanism since the referendum of 1999, he pointed out that clinging to the UK monarchy is a way of keeping everything else unchanged as well. The Anglo-Celtic heritage now desperately needs every symbol and relic it can find. The society so vividly portrayed in Robert Hughes’s Fatal Shore (1987) hasn’t disappeared, Keneally contends – it’s simply sat upon. ‘In all the justifiable concentration on other matters,’ he adds, ‘it is worthwhile remarking that after 220 years of loyalty to the British Crown, the very last of the avowed Queen’s men, John Winston Howard, will soon be passing from power by electoral defeat or party handover.’

Won’t that make some difference, given that ‘we know from polls that a majority of Australians will not choose to see their sovereignty reside in Prince Charles’? Only if the whingeing latte-sippers and culture-heads get their act together for another push against the system. Penal colonisation has given way to ‘independent’ self-colonisation. Keneally points out that the 1999 referendum on the monarchy turned into a popular revolt against the system of two-party professional politicos. Neither old nor new immigrants could stand the idea that they (and not ordinary voters) would award themselves still more power by appointing a president. It’s true that Kevin Rudd has indicated a wish to reopen the republican door. But how far? Is there really a chance of an Irish-style popular-vote presidency, as Keneally would like? Or would it be another establishment face-saver, leaving Charles and Camilla in with a chance?

In Coercive Reconciliation, Patrick Dodson considers the ‘unfinished business’ of reconciliation, and points out that ‘symbolic’ recognition at constitutional level would be highly practical in reality, believing it would help those in ‘that vast new region of northern and central Australia where Indigenous people maintain their languages, own their traditional lands under Western legal title, and practise their customs while seeking to survive on public sector programmes whose poor design has resulted in entrenched dependency’. This is the world depicted in vivid detail by Wright’s Carpentaria.

Later in Coercive Reconciliation, Guy Rundle argues that Howard’s ‘military humanitarianism’ has both pushed the issue to crisis point, and given a new opportunity for it to be tackled. The European occupation of Australia had the effect of decisively interrupting indigenous evolution towards forms of nation and statehood – thrusting them aside, in effect, and creating in the longer run an inevitable dilemma of readjustment and recognition. Thus ‘reconciliation’ is less a moral posture than a necessity. There can be a viable ‘identity’ only where common assumptions inform an emergent common will.

And, of course, that’s the problem on the new government’s doorstep. A non-military humanitarianism has to base itself on equality, not paternalism. But the former demands a frontal approach, impossible without a re-engineering of existing constitutional norms and practice. Rundle argues that a return to real ‘self-determination’ for Indigenous Australia will be impossible without a recasting of all-Australian self-determination – that is, identity. Is it conceivable that the Howard-Brough breakdown could lead to such broad reform? It may be expecting too much from Rudd’s new government; but what counts is the direction so clearly projected in Coercive Reconciliation, which it would be reasonable to hope Labor would keep open, or at least not obstruct.

In both Australia and the UK, neoliberalism has brought about more authoritarian government. The election was about the Howard government’s abuse of such powers in a number of directions. The positive aspect of the vote was the resistance it expressed to this trend; accompanied by uncertainty about whether Labor would itself succumb to ‘the times’. Just before the vote, the weekly Bulletin’s cover story was an analysis of Rudd’s political personality. The paper’s political correspondent, Chris Hammer, argued that Rudd displayed ‘an autocratic style, with decision-making resting firmly in his hands’. He wants decisions to be based on ‘the broadest possible consultations’ – and then he and his make the key decisions. ‘Who’s electing Rudd?’ Hammer asks, ‘the electorate or the times?’ The latter demand an all-powerful ‘prime-minister/president’ who can play the important cards just as close to his chest as he likes, while remaining ‘relaxed and joking in shopping malls’ and on morning radio shows.

By the end of Hammer’s piece I had that early morning feeling again. Just which country or continent was being discussed? There is for sure one vital distinction: Australian electors have at least voted for Rudd. A written, fixed-term constitution left no alternative. However, with or without a ballot, a popular authoritarianism has become the structural and personal norm. Up Over as distinct from Down Under, acquiescence by the mechanisms of early modern representative democracy may remain preferable, but Brown has made it seem quite non-urgent. ‘Managed capitalism’ has to be managed, while other things can be postponed or sidelined (if not dispensed with ‘for the duration’). Isn’t that the national government Brown aspires to – ‘all the talents’ and so on? In effect, a two-party order mutates into a one-party (and one-nation) identity, the hardened shell of an inherited habitus whose key ambition continues to be expansion, as well as to be on the right side diplomatically.

Harold Laski diagnosed Motherland two-partyism long ago, pointing out that any ins-and-outs system could work only by extensive agreement between the parties – a ‘de facto’ one-party national order where the common ground was all-important. Stability and continuity are sacred, while democratic change and initiative, with their associated risks, are dispensable: small doses please, always at the right time (which may or may not come).

Yet alongside the vote (not exactly because of it) there may be signs of hope. Just after sending the army in, Howard dumbfounded government, party and people by openly admitting something more serious was wrong. He had been previously identified with a dismissal of ‘the black armband view of history’, but now he proclaimed that the true purpose of sending the troops into the outback had been reconciliation: the integration of ancient and contemporary societies into ‘one great tribe’ via a national consultation – in effect, a willed renewal of the country as multiculturally equal. No amount of coercion would achieve that, he conceded. It amounted to recasting the constitution itself, which he proposed to do via its preamble – a curious preface defining greater aims and principles.

But if the constitution were thus redefined, it would be preposterous not to become a republic. A combination of reconciliation and the foundation of a popular republic could then provide an alternative framework to the endlessly reiterated ‘greatest democracy in the world’. Howard’s wild oscillations prior to his annihilation on 24 November indicate how hopeless defence of the system is becoming. As indeed did the campaign and the vote.

The issue foregrounded in the campaign was industrial relations. Howard’s government chose the workplace as its battleground, defending its anti-union legislation and the extraordinary policy of using AWAs (Australian Workplace Agreements) as the principal regulator of the labour market. Straightforwardly intended to foster enterprise and obstruct trade-union ‘interference’, the new rules were warmly welcomed by the Australian Business Council, as well as by the usual fleet of free-market columnists in Murdoch’s the Australian and elsewhere. In practice, the programme proved a minefield, with casualties far outnumbering the AWA survivors. It turned getting and keeping a job into a matter of federal policy: for a society reared on the rhetoric of Ned Kelly, egalitarianism and the ‘fair go’, this was hopeless. The Australian ended up urging readers to vote for Rudd.

The same prim authoritarianism more or less excluded Iraq and Afghanistan from the campaign. Surveys have shown a majority of Australians either opposed to or dubious about the Howard government’s military support for these ventures, and the campaign period itself was marked by more casualties in Afghanistan. Rudd has advocated withdrawal from Iraq in 2008, a pledge normally accompanied by new oaths of loyalty to the American alliance. As a Sunday Age editorial commented the day after the vote,

Now, with the death of the third Australian digger … it is high time our leaders on both sides of politics did mention the war … it is clear that both Howard and Rudd (and their senior ministers and shadow spokespeople) have found it convenient not to draw attention to an issue that could, like the ‘improvised explosive devices’ devised by Taliban bomb-makers, go off at any moment.

Thus the new authoritarianism over-reached itself on both the domestic and the foreign policy fronts. The vote was a rebuke, but not – or not yet – a defeat. The latter would require a sustained strategy, which could not avoid returning to the underlying constitutional issues. In the few days since the vote, signs are less than encouraging. Though Rudd earlier declared his sympathy for Howard’s surprise October initiative, he has now drawn back from it. In the Weekend Australian, the influential Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson said he felt ‘absolute devastation’ at this betrayal.

A centralising authority that has imploded to such an extent must first be reconstructed and imposed, before taking on new aims or directions. And the risk – or should one say, the near certainty? – is that still greater powers will seem to be called for, with further postponement of new designs and shifts, however desirable and overdue.

In Secret River, Kate Grenville tells the story of a vital watercourse that leads to Thornhill’s Place in New South Wales: the ideal home of a penniless 19th-century immigrant. Unfortunately, it was also the route to a frightful massacre of Aboriginal people. The settler’s wife, Sal, is driven by the horror to give up; but he won’t listen. ‘We ain’t going … It’s them or us and by Jesus Sal it won’t be us!’ Long after the battle William Thornhill looks out across his domain, proud yet incurably uneasy: ‘Each time, it was a new emptiness … He could not understand why it did not feel like triumph.’ As darkness falls he turns to his telescope, searching for something no longer findable: ‘Even after the cliffs had reached the moment at sunset where they blazed gold, even after the dusk left them glowing secretively with an after-light that seemed to come from inside the rocks themselves: even then he sat on, watching, into the dark.’ And in a sense, he watches still. Grenville’s after-light (and darkness) is what matters most here. Australian identity is still anxiety-ridden, if sometimes screened by bluster – but it is also open, and still in search of signs and wonders. Australia’s inhabitants don’t always understand this is why outsiders love the country: its hidden river matters more than the Opera House and the beaches – and infinitely more than the federal political system.

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Vol. 30 No. 2 · 24 January 2008

I agree with much of what Tom Nairn has to say about the Australian elections (LRB, 13 December 2007). However, I do have some reservations about his treatment of the republic. Whether Rudd will raise the question again via a referendum or plebiscite I do not know, but it should be noted that when he took office he reverted to the ‘republican’ oath – i.e. there was no mention of the monarchy or of any loyalty to it. That was certainly a signal which many ignored. I also think Nairn misses the real significance of Howard’s attitude to the monarchy. No doubt there was a sentimental side to it but the Crown was not under him a way to preserve Anglo-Celtic Australia: it was a way to increase the authority of the prime minister and of the federal government. Howard’s behaviour was seemingly paradoxical. He was a supporter of the monarchy, yet no prime minister has treated his governors general (the Crown’s representatives in Australia) so casually as Howard. Certainly no Labour prime minister has. The present system in effect allows the prime minister to appoint (and dismiss) the head of state as s/he wishes. As a result the governors general under Howard (once the last Labour appointee, an outstanding figure, had retired) have been utterly marginalised both politically and ceremonially. Nearly all those functions were appropriated by the prime minister. What Howard did not want was a head of state with a clearly defined constitutional role since that could formally limit the power of the prime minister. Howard’s opposition to the republic must be seen in the context of the conservative parties’ abandonment of federalism in favour of an authoritative and authoritarian government in Canberra.

One last note. The prime minister and the minister for indigenous affairs did indeed both lose their seats, but that had nothing to do with federal intervention in the Northern Territory as Nairn seems to imply.

Ross McKibbin

Tom Nairn describes the Australian Defence Force’s intervention in the indigenous communities of the Northern Territory as an ‘invasion’. That is simplistic, shallow and offensive. There are well documented instances of child abuse in the north, including gang rapes, severe alcohol abuse and petrol sniffing; and infant mortality rates are comparable with those in the Third World. Nairn fails to mention that it’s the state and territory governments that are primarily responsible for the management of these issues; and he fails to mention the bipartisan political support for the military intervention.

Stephen Sasse
Killara, New South Wales

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