This piece originally appeared in The Age
Australia is a relatively coherent and sophisticated society. But your acceptance or refusal of how harmonious I think it is, is probably determined in some way by your thoughts on race, and the cultural war so vigorously prosecuted by John Howard. While the Labor government has largely ignored issues of national identity (Rudd’s apology was a notable exception), but echoes of those cultural wars abound—and they instruct our political debates.
A few years ago a publisher approached me and asked if I had a book idea. “Sure,” I lied, and went away to madly scribble a proposal.
If published, I quickly realised the book I’d proposed would cause untold hurt, confusion and embarrassment for my family. The consequences would be gruesome—a family riven by my enthusiastic exhumation of skeletons. My proposal was ultimately rejected, but I had determined not to write it anyway.
If published, I could imagine another response: the critics’ obligatory applause of my “brave” examination of taboo. But writers are rarely only brave. We’re also vain. We’re deliriously in thrall to the power of stories. We fetishise them. We seek them out. We pursue them with reckless zealotry, and it’s not always courageous. It’s just necessary.
Which takes me to my point. When John Howard decried “black armband” instincts towards our chequered history, many screamed racism and denial. In fact, I’m pretty sure I did. But in abandoning my book project, I could better understand Howard’s point.
Those unshakeably opposed to John Howard howled “truth at all costs!” It’s the same mantra of Julian Assange—the impassioned belief that truth is a profound agent, and should be applied purely and totally, whether it’s used to dissolve the State, or as the platform for national reconciliation and progress.
Howard disagreed, believing we were at risk of replacing pride and confidence with self-hate and symbolism.
Both are extreme positions. Progress may not be possible without truth, but it’s not possible without pride, either. It is the totality and professed purity of the “truth at all costs!” epithet which troubles me. As I had learnt, a fervent pursuit of truth is easily made impure by self-righteousness, moral vanity and insensitivity. The laws of unintended consequences state that the odds of an unseen palaver rise proportionately with moral superiority. Please step forward, Mr. Assange.
But why bring this up at all—aren’t the cultural wars over?
Two reasons: as we debate constitutional reform as it relates to defining indigenous Australians, the fraught moral certainties of the cultural wars reappear. Second, it seems to me that our refusal—or incapacity—to concede anything lessens the likelihood of principled compromise in our politics.
As Noel Pearson wrote late last year in The Australian, indigenous policy debate is divided between those who emphasise personal and community responsibility, from those who argue that “the failure of indigenous people to enjoy their human rights explains the parlous state of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders”. As Pearson noted, there’s a crudity to this distinction which disservices those with more nuanced positions, but the distinction is broadly correct, and represents a significant cultural fault-line.
In the 21st century, the Australian indigenous problem is still despairingly awful. There have been policy pendulum swings—left, right; welfare, intervention—and the gap is still astonishing, which is to say that neither side has a monopoly on failure. Acknowledgment of failure is crucial if we are to develop a more sensible national debate—one devoted to honesty, pragmatism, facts and co-operation.
I wrote in a column late last year that perhaps there was a tipping point in our political discussions on asylum seekers, “a swelling of public and political feeling that the two major parties ignore at their own peril.” I was wrong.
Since then, Tony Abbott has proposed his towing the boats policy. It’s a proposal bedevilled by legal, moral and practical dubiousness, a bastard child of popular conservatism. Consider the calculus of the House, and you can see what Abbott’s up to—it’s the politics of division, but it’s a far cry from the sobriety and thoughtfulness of Edmund Burke’s conservatism, a man Abbott so insistently cites in his book, Battlelines.
Abbott’s strategy isn’t stupid. Cynical, tedious, exasperating and shallow, sure. But stupid? No. But it seems to me that his strategy might be less successful if we—all of us—replaced partisan suspicion or political indifference with a preference for reasoned debate.
As Robert Manne has pointed out in these pages, a principled compromise must be wrought on asylum seekers. I say it must be wrought more often, full stop. So this Australia Day, let’s demand more civility in our politics and of ourselves. We can start by accepting that compromise is not the same thing as corruption. By accepting that ideology can instruct and define as well as it can obscure and injure.
Let’s ask that we treat each other as adults. Let’s have the humility to recognise when your political counterpart wants the same outcome as yourself, but disagrees about how to achieve it.
Australia is a wonderful place, but it’s wonderful in spite of its current politics. Let’s build our future with intelligent leadership rather than pretending we’re doing the same with cliche and rancour.