Sydney Diary

Sylvia Lawson

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.