The Great Na­tional Project Di­luted


The Monthly (Australia) - - APRIL 2018 - Com­ment by Don Wat­son

One day in the early 1990s a pack­age was de­liv­ered to the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice where I was then work­ing. It must have looked like an arts or cul­tural sort of pack­age, be­cause arts and cul­tural sorts of things fell into my un­of­fi­cial port­fo­lio. In­side it I found a tape record­ing of the song “I Am Aus­tralian” (aka “I Am, You Are, We Are, etc.”), to­gether with the lyrics and a let­ter urg­ing Prime Min­is­ter Keat­ing to pro­mote the song some­how, per­haps even to “launch” it as the na­tional song. Shame­ful as it may now seem, upon lis­ten­ing to the tape I de­cided not to bother the prime min­is­ter with it. His mu­si­cal taste was broad enough to en­com­pass Mahler and limbo danc­ing, but, it be­ing part of an ad­viser’s job to pro­tect his em­ployer from friv­o­lous or dis­taste­ful re­quests, I com­posed a re­spect­ful note of thanks, and put the pack­age and its con­tents in the fil­ing cabi­net. I also seem to re­call say­ing to some­one that we all should hope the thing never es­caped like The Blob into the pub­lic arena. How could I get it so wrong? How could a repub­li­can work­ing for a repub­li­can prime min­is­ter, pa­tri­otic and in love with the land, an ad­vo­cate of an open, in­clu­sive, mul­ti­cul­tural Aus­tralia, conscious of his­tory and be­liev­ing in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the In­dige­nous peo­ple, re­coil from the mu­si­cal ex­pres­sion of th­ese sen­ti­ments? And how could some­one in a job re­quir­ing cul­tural aware­ness fail to see that the song would swell mil­lions of Aus­tralian hearts, and that, 25 years after he dumped it in his fil­ing cabi­net, he would be singing it with sev­eral hun­dred fel­low repub­li­cans at a din­ner for the cause in Mel­bourne’s Royal Ex­hi­bi­tion Build­ing? Well, to be­gin with there was the word “Aus­tralian”. The song’s re­frain seemed to de­mand aban­don­ing the diph­thong be­fore the “n” and pro­nounc­ing two syl­la­bles, or at least one and a half, as “I am Austrayl-ee-an” (or for those who think the “l” an af­fec­ta­tion, “Austrayya-an”). This prospect, though grue­some, was yet not enough to wish the whole project to obliv­ion. The sec­ond thing was the solip­sism: re­mem­ber it was be­ing pro­posed as a na­tional song, not as an an­them. But un­like this new song, Aus­tralia’s na­tional (and in my view, ir­re­place­able) song is not about the singer, not di­rectly. It’s about some­one else, a manic de­pres­sive or Ca­mu­sian out­sider un­der a coolibah tree, a near myth­i­cal other in a near myth­i­cal place. So too are “Jerusalem”, “Scots Wha Hae”, “Oh Shenan­doah” and “Lon­don­derry Air” about other peo­ple and other events. Th­ese songs come down to the lis­tener on a mnemonic

thread. They touch emo­tions la­tent in an­ces­tral mem­ory, ren­der­ing them time­less. Such pa­tri­o­tism as they in­spire is sub­jec­tive and ran­dom, ex­pressed at a me­lan­choly, of­ten po­etic re­move. By con­trast the lyrics of the new song were in­struc­tional: im­pec­ca­bly mul­ti­cul­tural, his­tor­i­cally conscious and gen­er­ous to all, but evoca­tive mainly of a civics les­son or a busi­ness card. We are haunted by cer­tain words and melodies, no mat­ter how of­ten we hear them. This song could de­haunt an en­tire na­tion. Even had all the rest been lovely, it would still be cursed by the dumb self-re­gard in that re­frain, “I am Aus­tralian”. Imag­ine, an Aus­tralian lost in the jun­gles of Burma or a prison in Is­tan­bul singing “I am, you are” and so on. It al­most in­vites retri­bu­tion. The nar­ra­tive was rea­son­able: we are many (well, a fair few) and we are one (well, sev­eral re­ally, tak­ing the states and ter­ri­to­ries into con­sid­er­a­tion), and with a lit­tle po­etic li­cence we can al­low that – one or many – Aus­tralians are de­scended from Ben­ne­long and Ned Kelly and Uluru and the drover’s wife and red dust and umpteen dis­tant lands, and we may as well be proud of it. The song as­sures us that the whole na­tional project, plus the 60,000 years of In­dige­nous civilisation, per­haps even the sev­eral bil­lion years be­fore that, and the cli­mate and soil and the propen­sity of the land to parch, flood and burn, through hard work, mi­gra­tion and epic phe­nom­ena had all come down to “I”, “You” and “We”. In the course of this ba­nal­ity, po­etic li­cence must ex­pire. And that’s be­fore “I”, “You” and “We” be­come, in our mind’s eye, The Seek­ers. And they, for all the pret­ti­ness of Ju­dith Durham’s so­prano, come down to three blokes in suits and ties, or just one, a Lib­eral MP pluck­ing a dou­ble bass. So when we found our­selves obliged to stand by our chairs and sing that song last year, who knows if it was the pa­triot or churl who wanted to bel­low “Down came a jum­buck”? But this was a night when ev­ery­one had to be singing from the same sheet, and the sheet said “I am, You are, We are Aus­trali-an”. It seems this will be the bat­tle hymn of the repub­lic, and all be­liev­ers must at least mouth the words. This repub­li­can hopes to die or at least go deaf be­fore the song as­sumes that sta­tus, or worse, as some folk such as Jeff Ken­nett rec­om­mend, be­comes the na­tional an­them. This repub­li­can will never ac­cept that it “ac­tu­ally em­bod­ies the soul of Aus­tralia”, as Jeff be­lieves. Just the same, the repub­li­can mo­ment in Mel­bourne did de­mand a re­assess­ment. This repub­li­can has been obliged to con­cede the pos­si­bil­ity that he re­coiled not only be­cause the song re­duced Aus­tralia to a sub­ur­ban par­ody but also be­cause it was ex­cru­ci­at­ing ev­i­dence that we, and the great na­tional project upon which we be­lieved we had em­barked, could be di­luted into such thin gruel. Bill Shorten and Peter Fitz-Si­mons spoke with elo­quent con­vic­tion at that din­ner. It was not their fault that some of us went home won­der­ing if the cause was worth pur­su­ing after all. But the song made us won­der if we knew what the cause

We know pa­tri­o­tism is at the bot­tom of it: how can we rec­on­cile our proud egal­i­tar­ian spirit with a hered­i­tary monarch, with any hered­i­tary monarch, much less one who lives in an­other coun­try on the other side of the world? Yet the very first thing repub­li­cans should do is shun the idea that they are more pa­tri­otic, more egal­i­tar­ian or more Aus­tralian than the monar­chists. The no­tion is demon­stra­bly false and a quick­sand for the repub­li­can ar­gu­ment. Na­tion­al­ism is a pro­tean sen­ti­ment: re­mem­ber the monar­chist John Howard, chok­ing on al­most in­fan­tile pique as he handed out medals to a vic­to­ri­ous English rugby team. That’s the other prob­lem with the pa­tri­otic com­po­nent of the cause: as James Boyce pointed out in the Fe­bru­ary is­sue of this pub­li­ca­tion, be­cause it so eas­ily turns into jin­go­ism and nar­row-mind­ed­ness, pa­tri­o­tism is as much an en­emy of the repub­lic as a friend. A sense of hu­mour might be more use­ful.

But where is the pas­sion to come from? Repub­li­can move­ments have gen­er­ally been an ex­pres­sion of the de­sire for free­dom and jus­tice. “Tax­a­tion with­out rep­re­sen­ta­tion is tyranny” is an old take on this hu­man urge. “That the world might fi­nally be the place for all and not the pri­vate prop­erty of those who have the colour and filth of money” is a more re­cent one, from Mex­ico. Sadly, for a move­ment tra­di­tion­ally re­quir­ing ro­mance and en­fi­lad­ing lan­guage if not ma­chine guns and mar­tyrs, in our quest Za­p­atista talk will have no more pur­chase than the in­sur­gent pam­phle­teer of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, Tom Paine. We have no tyranny to op­pose. “Democ­racy! Lib­erty! Jus­tice!” – Get a life why don’t you! As for the colour and filth of money, our prime min­is­ter, erst­while repub­li­can and Gold­man Sachs deal­maker, has the an­swer ready: it’s just the “pol­i­tics of envy”. And with that he orders the draw­bridge raised. In truth, in a world fill­ing with tyrants, Queen El­iz­a­beth II and her de­scen­dants rep­re­sent a sort of an­ti­tyranny. They would never speak of the pol­i­tics of envy. Of whom are you fonder, the Queen or Peter Cosgrove? Own up – whose pass­ing will touch you more? How to cast off an out­fit so be­nign? When El­iz­a­beth is gone, some repub­li­cans say, then we can strike. Bob Hawke was say­ing it 25 years ago, but still she tot­ters to and fro. And when he fi­nally as­cends who is go­ing to kneecap poor old Charles, that gen­tle demo­cratic so­cial­ist and or­ganic farmer? The first run at an Aus­tralian repub­lic was made when the Bri­tish monar­chy was in the hor­rors

Be­cause it so eas­ily turns into jin­go­ism and nar­row-mind­ed­ness, pa­tri­o­tism is as much an en­emy of the repub­lic as a friend.

A head of state elected by pop­u­lar vote might well make it less per­fect and, by im­bu­ing him or her with more au­thor­ity, less of a democ­racy.

and the US repub­lic was aglow with the tech boom. Now the old Queen is a liv­ing leg­end, her grand­sons are mar­ry­ing into Hol­ly­wood, and their ra­di­ant wives, chil­dren and fi­ancées bur­nish the royal breast­plate ev­ery day. Bri­tish democ­racy might be in a hole and chew­ing its own tail, but not the Bri­tish monar­chy. Mean­while the US repub­lic has elected to the quasi-monar­chi­cal po­si­tion of pres­i­dent a man who for de­cency and grav­i­tas – and pos­si­bly for san­ity – com­pares un­favourably with King Ge­orge III. Is there a coun­try on earth with more ano­ma­lies than the United States? We are un­fet­tered and in no sense tyran­nised. Our suc­cesses, like our fail­ures, are all our own. Our democ­racy works im­per­fectly well, and it is hard to see how any of its prac­ti­cal im­per­fec­tions would be reme­died by go­ing repub­li­can. A head of state elected by pop­u­lar vote might well make it less per­fect and, by im­bu­ing him or her with more au­thor­ity, less of a democ­racy. First time round, Paul Keat­ing ar­gued that a repub­lic would sig­nal to the world, and es­pe­cially the post­colo­nial Asi­aPa­cific, that Aus­tralia was al­to­gether free of its colo­nial ori­gins and en­gaged with the re­gion on its own terms. We would be no one’s deputy or vicar. But a deputy was the very thing Howard thought we should be, and a deputy he made us. Th­ese days it is not the trap­pings or con­de­scen­sion of the Bri­tish Em­pire that com­pro­mise our in­de­pen­dence, but the agenda of the Amer­i­can one. And that, we can be cer­tain, an Aus­tralian repub­lic will not change. So it’s the anom­aly. “End the anom­aly” is our catchcry. Mid­night Oil can get to work on it. But the monar­chy is not the only anom­aly we live with, and hav­ing the Union Jack in the cor­ner of our flag is not the only other one. Women are half of the pop­u­la­tion but oc­cupy very few po­si­tions of power, in­clud­ing only 13 of the 76 govern­ment seats. That’s an anom­aly. The Lib­eral Party is a con­ser­va­tive party with many pow­er­ful mem­bers who de­spise lib­er­als, and those who don’t de­spise them reg­u­larly act as if they do. That’s a bit of an anom­aly, isn’t it? The La­bor Party is more of a lib­eral party, but 50 per cent of the power in it is held by trade unions whose mem­bers com­prise less than 15 per cent of the work­force: the party is equally a ve­hi­cle for peo­ple of pub­lic spirit and bold pro­gres­sive ideas and peo­ple who are mere­tri­cious hacks and ab­so­lute rot­ters. It is enough to say of the Na­tional Party that a repub­lic will not abol­ish it. Ev­ery day, in all man­ner of ways, we pro­fess love for this coun­try and yet con­tinue to wreak de­struc­tion upon it. Our lead­ers speak of in­no­va­tion and the bound­less op­por­tu­ni­ties of the new, and then, in obe­di­ence to the old, march into par­lia­ment wield­ing lumps of coal. We’re demo­cratic, but not suf­fi­ciently so to grant an ad­vi­sory voice to In­dige­nous peo­ple, or in­de­pen­dence to the pub­lic broad­caster, or to care much when we learn the prime min­is­ter gave $1.75 mil­lion of his own money to an elec­tion cam­paign his side won by a ver­i­ta­ble whisker. (But that would be the pol­i­tics of envy again.) Like peo­ple and their tran­si­tional ob­jects, coun­tries stum­ble along and bring ano­ma­lies with them. Our pro­fessed be­lief in the “fair go for all” could be called anoma­lous on many counts, and would be all the more so if “mer­i­toc­racy” be­came an of­fi­cial Aus­tralian value, en­shrined in a pream­ble to the Con­sti­tu­tion, as the repub­li­can Ben­jamin T. Jones re­cently rec­om­mended. That the monar­chy is not a mer­i­toc­racy doesn’t make mer­i­toc­racy a good idea. Give some­one a pro­mo­tion and a mil­lion-dol­lar salary on Mon­day and by Tues­day she’ll be­lieve in mer­i­toc­racy – that’s what makes it a good idea. Sixty years ago the philoso­pher Michael Young came up with the term as a pe­jo­ra­tive. Among other things, he pointed out that, for all its egre­gious flaws, at least feu­dal­ism didn’t tell the poor that per­sonal in­ad­e­quacy was the cause of their mis­er­able con­di­tion. Mer­i­toc­racy is the name our ne­olib­eral lords of con­de­scen­sion go by. It is as much the antithesis of the fair go as a hered­i­tary monar­chy. At a time of dis­mal politi­cians and stu­pen­dous in­equal­i­ties of wealth in the democ­ra­cies, the masses might take some per­suad­ing that it should be a core na­tional value. To in­sert it in the Con­sti­tu­tion as some­thing we “hold dear” would not only be an anom­aly but also a gift for mis­chievous monar­chists. Just imag­ine, they might say, if 65 years ago Bri­tons had been asked to elect some­one as their head of state, on merit. And after a top head-hunt­ing firm had scoured the world and pro­posed, say, 10 mer­i­to­ri­ous can­di­dates for con­sid­er­a­tion, would they have ap­pointed some­one bet­ter than the woman who in­her­ited the job?

Paul Keat­ing’s idea

for an Aus­tralian repub­lic was the grander for its mod­esty and min­i­mal­ism. No trum­pet blasts, no march­ing, no hands on hearts while the an­them played, no flag wav­ing – un­less it was a new flag, with­out the Union Jack and with the blue washed out a bit, more the colour of our skies. As the con­tin­u­ing link to the Bri­tish monar­chy was an ac­ci­dent of his­tory, an Aus­tralian repub­lic would come into ex­is­tence as noth­ing more than a ra­tio­nal cor­rec­tive act. It would be the can­dle on the top of the democ­racy, the light of the na­tion’s conscious iden­tity. Our repub­lic would not come forth as oth­ers had, a new na­tion state born in a nec­es­sar­ily vi­o­lent act of anti-colo­nial­ism, but drift in as an end-of-his­tory sort of repub­lic, a post­mod­ern repub­lic. But Keat­ing’s repub­lic was much more than the de­sire to shunt the monar­chy up a sid­ing. Can there be

No doubt the next big repub­li­can push can learn from the mis­takes of that cam­paign.

any­one who has not heard it by now? It was in­sep­a­ra­ble from a grand and sub­tle vi­sion of a coun­try with a creative voice in the world and the re­gion, un­com­pro­mised by old at­tach­ments or cur­rent al­liances; of an open and tol­er­ant mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism; a mod­ern, re­silient econ­omy alive to the un­prece­dented op­por­tu­ni­ties on of­fer in the re­gion; an ex­tended so­cial democ­racy, aware of its flaws and with the will to re­pair them. Thus would Aus­tralia at last re­alise its po­ten­tial and be­come the mis­tress of its des­tiny. This was a repub­lic with a pur­pose, one es­sen­tial to our broader am­bi­tions. Yet at its core lay some­thing vis­ceral: not cause­less or stupid, nor be­yond ex­pla­na­tion, but out of the reach of in­tel­lect or con­scious­ness and just as es­sen­tial. For those of us close enough to feel it, there was a spark in common with Tom Paine. Min­i­mal­ist it might have been, but at­tached to a grand strate­gic vi­sion Keat­ing’s repub­lic touched off the elu­sive long­ing for self-pos­ses­sion which Fed­er­a­tion and the monar­chy, that oth­er­wise harm­less bar­na­cle on the body politic, of­fended. And for a mo­ment pol­i­tics took flight. It crashed, of course. The Keat­ing repub­lic went awry. John Howard, an­other ac­ci­dent of his­tory, saw to that – though he can’t take all the credit. No doubt the next big repub­li­can push can learn from the mis­takes of that cam­paign. But it would be a much greater mis­take to un­tether the move­ment from other, greater na­tional as­pi­ra­tions. The repub­lic should be rooted in a broader quest, much of it ar­tic­u­lated 25 years ago, much more wait­ing to find ex­pres­sion. To do oth­er­wise, to put all the ef­fort into ma­noeu­vring the repub­lic through the af­fec­tions and prej­u­dices of the pop­u­lace, risks end­ing up with ei­ther a monar­chy or a repub­lic that we don’t want, and gain­ing noth­ing else on the way through, ex­cept per­haps a na­tional song of self-ap­proval, a hymn on the old theme of what we are, not what we could be.

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