Nick Cater’s The Lucky Cul­ture is a provoca­tive anal­y­sis of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian so­ci­ety, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THREE im­ages haunt the mind. The great Chrissy Am­phlett yelling to a heck­ler, ‘‘ Come up here and I’ll do ya . . .’’ Barry Humphries at the zenith of his ge­nius re­duc­ing his au­di­ence to tears as he chron­i­cled the sub­ur­ban woes of Sandy Stone. Pa­trick White, win­ner of the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture, asked eu­phemisti­cally by Time mag­a­zine about his house­keeper Manoly Las­caris: no, the man with the in­domitable pas­toral­ist face said, the house­keep­ing du­ties were done by him.

Well, Nick Cater has writ­ten a book about Aus­tralia as a lucky cul­ture. The ques­tion each of th­ese quintessen­tially Aus­tralian sto­ries raises is: ‘‘ What’s luck got to do with it?’’

The Lucky Cul­ture is a vig­or­ous, im­pas­sioned and polem­i­cal work, full of en­thu­si­asms and dis­con­tents, by a man who as one of the edi­tors of The Aus­tralian has al­ways seemed to stand for the breadth of the national daily, not its firebrand side. That said, the book is a con­ser­va­tive foren­sic at­tack on that frac­tion of Aus­tralian so­ci­ety — the latte-sip­ping in­nerur­ban wankers — that its author thinks is white-anting the com­mon­wealth. It is a fas­ci­nat­ing and red-blooded ar­tic­u­la­tion — more par­tic­u­larly if you hap­pen to be, as I am, a left-lib­eral-lean­ing par­a­site of the crum­bling ter­race belt — of how the other lot think or feel (or think they feel; it can get con­fus­ing with the lik­able Cater) about the ir­ri­tat­ing en­emy.

Cater mi­grated to this coun­try from Bri­tain in the 1980s, when the Iron Lady was trans­form­ing the Old Dart. He was im­pressed by the im­pas­sioned matey rhetoric of Bob Hawke, the sil­ver bodgie as White called him. Hawke gave Cater the strong­est sense of Aus­tralian egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, of a cul­ture that was unadul­ter­ated by Bri­tish class con­scious­ness.

Alas, Cater be­lieves this sense of Jack be­ing able to stare down his mas­ter or do bet­ter than him through hard work is un­der threat from a new class of ar­riv­iste in­tel­lec­tual that is de­stroy­ing an older Aus­tralia that cared about hard work, the eco­nomic in­ter­ests of work­ers and the sane, tol­er­ant, so­cially con­ser­va­tive view that sus­tained the na­tion and had its sym­bolic apoth­e­o­sis in Paul Ho­gan’s 1986 film Croc­o­dile Dundee.

Mate­ship in a semi-doc­tri­nal sense is an ob­ject of ven­er­a­tion for Cater. ‘‘ The fair go, equal re­spect for hon­est labour, the democrati­sa­tion of suf­fer­ing, pulling one’s weight and so­cial hu­mil­ity, th­ese are the un­writ­ten clauses of the Aus­tralian Con­sti­tu­tion,’’ he writes. Not un­sur­pris­ingly he de­fends John Howard’s pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional pre­am­ble that sought, un­suc­cess­fully, to en­shrine the word mate­ship in the na­tion’s defin­ing doc­u­ment.

I’m not sure Cater and Howard are not right about this one. As a prissy, lit­er­ary, would-be An­glo-vow­elled teenager I had a hor­ror of my sports­writer fa­ther’s use of the word mate as a synonym for friend. Years later, in the Univer­sity of Melbourne English depart­ment, I dis­cov­ered that the sil­ver-voiced Vin­cent Buck­ley used the word ha­bit­u­ally (‘‘Oh, I don’t know, mate,’’ he would say con­stantly, with mu­si­cal and melan­choly vague­ness.)

For decades I have used it ha­bit­u­ally my­self, with women as well as men. What Cater may not be quite as in­ward with as the na­tive-born is that mate can take on al­most the same am­bi­gu­i­ties as the El­iz­a­bethan ‘‘ sir­rah’’ or the con­tem­po­rary English ‘‘ my dear fel­low’’.

The lan­guage of in­ti­mate fa­mil­iar­ity — which seems to tran­scend bar­ri­ers as well as mount bar­ri­cades — is also with a flick of tonal variation the lan­guage of con­tempt. Hence Robert Hughes said he had al­ways imag­ined Aus­tralia was egal­i­tar­ian whereas in fact it was ‘‘ very fra­ter­nal but in­tensely com­pet­i­tive’’. Cater may not see any con­tra­dic­tion in this be­cause es­sen­tially he is con­cerned with an egal­i­tar­i­an­ism of man­ners and (some­how?) of op­por­tu­nity, not of eco­nomic con­di­tion or so­cial power. It’s in­ter­est­ing, though, that when he comes to re­port the fa­mous ‘‘ What’s it like to have blood on your hands’’ con­fronta­tion be­tween Hawke and Richard Car­leton, his ABC in­ter­roga­tor, he sees a ‘‘ work­ing-class hero against a smug mem­ber of the cul­tural elite’’. Well, as he notes else­where, Hawke was a Rhodes scholar. He was not per­ceived in Aus­tralia as work­ing class but on all sides of the com­mu­nity as class­less in a main­stream lar­rikin way. And as head of the ACTU, Hawke wielded his po­si­tion with such per­sonal mag­netism it might as eas­ily have been a duke­dom. There are sub­tleties in all this Cater some­times seems not quite to pick up. Both Car­leton and Hawke be­longed to the same rough-hewn ed­u­cated ‘‘ class’’ that John Dou­glas Pringle yearned for in the 1950s. So did Paddy McGuin­ness, Brian Johns, Barry Jones, Inga Clendin­nen and Ger­maine Greer.

One of the trou­bles with Cater’s spritely book, by a man at­trac­tively be­daz­zled by the Aus­tralia he has elected to live in, is he is very much a cul­tural war­rior. It works at its best when he is at­tack­ing the lu­na­cies of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. He is quite right about all al­copopism and he has a field day with the South Aus­tralian leg­is­la­tion against plas­tic bags. De­spite its pride in lead­ing the na­tion against the plas­tic bag, SA has not al­lowed for the fact this, ac­cord­ing to a body called Zero Waste, can lead to rats, feral cats and wasted wa­ter — all of which Cater sum­marises su­perbly and sar­don­ically.

This is well said, but Cater should be­ware of his own dis­tinc­tion where man­ners come to usurp the place of moral­ity. And when it comes to the be­nighted in­tel­lec­tu­als, Cater’s dim view partly ob­scures the truth. He writes: The chal­lenge of find­ing an ac­cept­able place for in­tel­lec­tu­als in the so­cial­ist move­ment is not pe­cu­liar to Aus­tralia, al­though the rel­a­tively late at­tach­ment of in­tel­lec­tu­als to the ALP, as a bolt-on up­grade rather than a fac­tory-fit, en­sured that the re­la­tion­ship would be par­tic­u­larly un­easy.

He’s a bit vague about how deep the his­tor­i­cal roots go. Arche­ol­o­gist V. Gor­don Childe was be­moan­ing the ten­sions be­tween the role of the in­tel­lec­tual and labour loy­alty in the 1920s. There have al­ways been for­mi­da­ble La­bor in­tel­lec­tu­als such as Brian Fitz­patrick, one of the founders of the Aus­tralian Coun­cil of Civil Lib­er­ties (whose bi­og­ra­phy was writ­ten by Don Wat­son). Cater does not de­vote any at­ten­tion to the La­bor his­to­ri­ans, such as Catholic bishop Eris O’Brien, and he does not seem very aware that HV Evatt, for in­stance, Robert Men­zies’ La­bor op­po­nent, was one of the ar­chi­tects of the UN and a pres­i­dent of the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly, a judge of the High Court be­fore he en­tered par­lia­ment and chief jus­tice of NSW af­ter he left it and was a man of greater in­tel­lec­tual at­tain­ments than Men­zies. The fact he over­saw the 1955 split in the ALP and went off the rails is just grist to the mill.

But there are things Cater sim­ply gets wrong. ‘‘ Un­til Man­ning Clark trussed colo­nial his­tory in a Marx­ist strait­jacket,’’ he writes, ‘‘ Aus­tralia was con­sid­ered to be the En­light­en­ment’s most au­da­cious ex­per­i­ment.’’ Clark was never a Marx­ist. He was an ide­al­ist like RG Colling­wood, who be­lieved ideas and re­li­gion could have pri­macy over economics. He saw the En­light­en­ment — as well as Catholi­cism — as cen­tral to Aus­tralian his­tory. Clark was a left lib­eral; he did write a sen­ti­men­tal book about the Soviet Union and he did have a close re­la­tion­ship with a com­mu­nist de­fec­tor. But a Marx­ist, noth­ing like.

It is ironic that Cater’s low opin­ion of Clark is shared by a lot of con­tem­po­rary left­ist his­to­ri­ans and by the sheep-and-money men (of whom Ge­of­frey Blainey is the most em­i­nent) in whose wake Cater fol­lows.

Of the ed­u­cated, Cater is brac­ingly scathing. They are a ‘‘ self-ap­pointed elite’’ who as­sume some cit­i­zens who are ed­u­cated are smarter than the rest and ‘‘ there­fore their opin­ion should carry greater weight’’. The up­shot is a ‘‘ hubris’’ where ed­u­ca­tion be­comes ‘‘ a com­mod­ity pur­chased for the pur­pose of self­ad­vance­ment’’ and that this makes ‘‘ the ed­u­ca­tion­ally cre­den­tialled cit­i­zen en­ti­tled to look down on the ed­u­ca­tion­ally de­prived’’.

Wasn’t it ever thus, every­where? This em­pha­sis in The Lucky Cul­ture is so un­usual as to be ar­rest­ing. Is it pos­si­ble this dero­ga­tion of ed­u­ca­tion could pos­si­bly have an el­e­ment of truth? It seems, on the face of it, so pro­foundly wrong­headed that you have to ask your­self what the author ac­tu­ally means.

As some­one who worked for years in a univer­sity as a high-brow jour­nal­ist, in a univer­sity with­out be­ing of the univer­sity, my pre- ju­dices are closer to Cater’s than they might be. Not­with­stand­ing this, it is dif­fi­cult to sus­tain an a pri­ori case against ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion per se. Of course it may be true that a politi­cian who has not been to univer­sity — a Win­ston Churchill, say, or a Paul Keat­ing — may be bet­ter en­dowed to lead a coun­try than one who has, just as a de­gree-less Gideon Haigh or a Robert Hughes may write bet­ter jour­nal­ism.

But for heaven’s sake, ed­u­ca­tion does not there­fore cease to have value, of­ten of a de­fin­i­tive kind. Cater notes the gap be­tween John Henry New­man’s The Idea of a Univer­sity and much aca­demic blather but this hardly in­val­i­dates the value of higher learn­ing. The en­forced leisure of univer­sity stu­dents and the duty to think for them­selves have al­ways been thought to cre­ate a class of peo­ple who do not sim­ply iden­tify with their own eco­nomic and so­cial ad­van­tage. Pre­cisely this rots Cater’s socks, and very in­struc­tively: . . . the work­ers joined the party in which they felt at home, a party that in govern­ment could be trusted to do the right thing by peo­ple like them. The in­tel­lec­tu­als, by con­trast, signed up to a party they ex­pected to do the right thing by oth­ers, one that would fight op­pres­sion every­where. One part­ner sup­ported the in­ter­est of the work­ing men (and, be­grudg­ingly, the work­ing women) of Aus­tralia. The other part­ner fought for the op­pressed: the vic­tims of cap­i­tal­ism, sex­ism or racism; or the vic­tims of a heart­less so­ci­ety and a rot­ten sys­tem, peo­ple who, for what­ever rea­son, had fallen be­tween the cracks.

Well, yes. When Gough Whit­lam was de­feated af­ter the Dis­missal, Ger­maine Greer said Aus­tralia might have been the won­der of the earth be­cause in a coun­try born to plenty and pros­per­ity it had em­braced a phi­los­o­phy de­signed to re­lieve the bur­den of poverty.

To its great credit. In fact many Whit­lam ini­tia­tives were ex­tended un­der Mal­colm Fraser. Medi­care was not abol­ished, uni­ver­si­ties con­tin­ued to be free, SBS was es­tab­lished, boat­peo­ple from Viet­nam were wel­comed. Pro­tec­tion­ism too sur­vived, de­spite trea­surer Howard’s mis­giv­ings, un­til Keat­ing quashed it.

But the moral­ism of the chat­ter­ing classes sticks in Cater’s craw. He loathes the ten­dency of ‘‘ the so­phis­ti­cates’’ to think the state should do Good. To such an ex­tent you won­der that he can se­ri­ously con­tem­plate the op­po­site. You can feel sym­pa­thy for Cater’s im­pa­tience with pro­lif­er­at­ing hu­man rights com­mis­sions or il­lad­vised racial vil­i­fi­ca­tion laws but you have to won­der about his at­ti­tude to asy­lum-seek­ers: The na­ture of mul­ti­lat­eral dec­la­ra­tions, how­ever, is that once in force they are all but im­pos­si­ble to amend . . . leav­ing Aus­tralia with the choice of ei­ther con­tin­u­ing to of­fer an in­duce­ment to asy­lum-seek­ers . . . or to defy a UN con­ven­tion with all that it en­tails.

But as Cater’s col­league Peter van Onselen has said, if ab­sorb­ing the refugees is too high a price to pay, rip up the char­ter that was de­signed so no fugi­tives from Nazism or its equiv­a­lent should be de­nied a haven in

The Lucky Cul­ture: And the Rise of an Aus­tralian Rul­ing Class By Nick Cater HarperCollins, 268pp, $29.99

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