My friends in England are puzzled. Again. They look at Australia as they would stare sorrowfully at a teenage relative, off the rails. Such promise, such disappointment. Why isn’t their lad from Oz as steady and confident as that other young blood from New Zealand?
I came to this magnificent country with its long history and huge promise back in 1964. I knew no-one here and explored in innocence. I had been given a romantic vision of the Land Down Under by my Aussie friends in London. They were always welcoming visitors, from Oz—uniformly cultured and relaxed folk who all seemed to be natural athletes and who by right knew British intellectual superstars such as Bertrand Russell and J.B. Priestley personally. They enjoyed a jar with the informality that contrasted sweetly with London swank,
Yet here I was, in 1964, at a country town in New South Wales, lying by yet another of those vast Olympic pools reading a novel when the man with the whistle arrived. ‘You can’t wear those in here,’ he announced, pointing at my speedos, ‘you must wear shorts. You should cover up. Now leave the baths.’
I was so dumbfounded I complied. Today speedos seem to be the required apparel of those in charge; but in 1964, despite the Beatles revolution and a swinging Northern Hemisphere I appeared to have landed in Erewhon—everything was back to front. Where was the larrikin spirit, the anti-authoritarian chutzpah that I’d been promised before I got on that ten-quid ship from England? I knew that Samuel Butler’s novel Erewhon was modelled on New Zealand rather than Oz, featuring a land where criminals went to hospital and the sick were sent to jail, but the Topsy Turvy Land I’d encountered in those first few months looked very much like Butler’s satire. Yes, there were rebellious spirits, but when the man with the whistle turned up they all fell into line, looking down at their boots. Years later I joined the ABC and witnessed its frequent com-pliance to finger wagging from Canberra and I learned the precious and ever so appropriate phrase ‘The Pre-
On this last visit to Britain in September 2015, the puzzlement was tinged by sadness. ‘What is happening in Australia? Why all this crap about climate change? Why are you being so cruel to refugees? Why are you claiming to be impoverished? Why are you still digging holes in the landscape instead of innovating and investing in new technologies?’ It seemed to be a Brit take on Barry Jones’ 1980s entreaty that Sleepers Wake!
This is, of course, a comment on political culture, not the wisdom of our crowds. Our crowds are doing fine. Science in Australia is a triumph, with the world’s youngest ever scientific Nobel Prize winner, Lawrence Bragg, laureates Elizabeth Blackburn, Brian Schmidt, Barry Marshall, Robin Warren, Jack Eccles, Mac Burnet, Howard Florey and more to come. Young scientists are brighter than ever and their ideas are simply thrilling. In the arts we are triumphant and, in September the West End was enraptured by Nicole Kidman’s performance in Photograph 51. Sport is fine, especially if you are female. And, as I told my interlocutors, if you look at the goodwill of communities Australia is up there with the best as public reactions to the Lindt café siege and the recent Rozelle convenience store horror demonstrated. The people were golden and in the words of Malcolm Turnbull showed genuine ‘love’ following the tragedies in their town.
No, our dire reputation abroad has been, in recent years, a problem of tribes: political tribes. We had lost a generation of leaders when Labor was stupid enough to sack Kim Beazley and the Liberals allowed Peter Costello to slide away. The ingénus filled the vacuum and fought tribally. It was ugly. Its aftermath still is.
Once more Australia was ignoring the future and looking backwards. The land that had invented social welfare, votes for women and an open door for various (white) nationals, was now looking back to Mother England and taking out its disciplinary whistle (in the name of freedom!), while Labor played mad faction games and fought like hyenas: Mad Max, once more.
It was as if democracy and political parties were still too immature to cope. The party of Menzies remains quite young. As for Labor, its first PM (the world’s first national labour head of government?), Chris Watson, was from New Zealand via Chile, and may have been ‘illegal’ during the four fragile months in 1904 he did the top job. Ever messy.
Have we turned the corner in late 2015? There is hope, as two distinguished intellectual Lords in London who admire Australia told me before I left. They were hoping that the public spirit of enlightenment would return, as it often does. They know Australians and want the words of new PM Malcolm Turnbull to be realised: that ‘we should respect the intelligence of the people’. If we do we’ll have grown up.