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Of Down-Under Creed and Confession

Two essays about Australian beliefs

On this page, two Australian perspectives written in August 2006. They ask what Australians believe, trying to capture what creeds we hold.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay, with barely held contempt for his Prime Minister, proposes an "unholy trinity" as a modus operandi in Howard's Australia: Materialism, pragmatism, nationalism. Mackay argues this is a dictum set by Howard, but keenly held in Australia under his leadership.

Also, an autobiographical essay by former diplomat and SIEV X whistleblower Tony Kevin, who states on his (now deleted) website: "I was recently invited by Australia's E-journal of social and political debate, Online Opinion, to contribute up to 1800 words to a discussion topic, "What creeds should we hold in common? Is being Australian a feature of your geographical location, your genealogy or your culture?"

Into the embrace of the unholy trinity

Sydney Morning Herald
Hugh Mackay
September 15, 2006

John Howard is a political colossus. If he's not quite beyond politics, he's certainly risen above the party-political struggle. If he's not quite a statesman, he's become our quasi-president.

We know he's no visionary: his two big ideas for Australia - to introduce a GST, and to nobble the trade unions - have been implemented. There are no grand infrastructure plans on the horizon: the massive budget surpluses that could have gone into education, health or the environment have been squandered in tax cuts.

Given that the economy is relatively robust, it's as though Howard is preparing a different legacy: does he wish to be remembered not only as the great economic manager, but as the leader who helped clarify, and even redefine, what we Australians stand for? (Or is his pursuit of the values question a clever example of the politics of distraction, like Margaret Thatcher's infamous claim that "the things that unite us are greater than the things that divide us"?)

So what values does Howard personify? What is his values legacy likely to be? These are reasonable questions to ask of a leader who so obviously enjoys talking about such matters and who has cheerfully injected "un-Australian" into our vocabulary.

It has long been taken for granted that the holy trinity of Australian values is precisely the same as that enshrined in the French republic: liberty (expressed by us as the "fair go"); equality (once called "egalitarianism" here, in those heady days when we thought it was a dream that might come true); fraternity (given an idiomatic spin here as "mateship", perhaps the PM's official favourite).

But values are meaningless as slogans. "Watch my lips" is always a distraction: what we should be watching are the actions that express people's real values. Part of Howard's skill has been to sound as if he continues to espouse our traditional values while actually reinforcing a quite different set.

The core value in contemporary Australia, powerfully reinforced by spoken and unspoken messages from the PM, is materialism.

We are in the full flowering of the capitalist era and have been thoroughly seduced by the idea that wealth is the measure of our worth. Consumerism is rampant. Interest rates are our index of happiness. A nation of shareholders is no longer just a gleam in the prime ministerial eye. The US economy - ruthless and competitive, a place where rich people are proud of their wealth - is presented to us an example of what we could become if only we tried harder.

In the lexicon of politics, "society" has long since become "the economy". In the 'burbs, the search for the perfect bathroom tile to top off our renovations has nudged aside our interest in the health of our democracy. In academia, financial considerations are paramount. In business, the share price is king, even if a little moral queasiness has to be suppressed to achieve the result we aspire to.

In the distribution of wealth, we have steadily widened the gap between top and bottom. A new spirit of entitlement is emerging among the rich. Materialism strongly implies competitiveness; "survival of the fittest" is its mantra. (Egalitarianism was a hopelessly romantic idea, anyway - wasn't it?)

Second in Howard's trio comes pragmatism. If you need to bend the truth to suit the circumstances, so be it. But once you're committed, never yield. Tough it out; tough it out. Principles - whether involving human rights, ministerial propriety or care of the environment - are properly tempered by the shifting pressures of realpolitik. If expediency demands it, promises can be dismissed as "non-core".

Win at all costs; the end justifies the means; tactics before strategy. This is the language of pragmatism and it has become the language of Australian politics. Its seductive cadences can also be heard in sport, business and the Aussie backyard.

And the third of the trinity of Howard-endorsed values? Nationalism - described by Albert Einstein as an "infantile sickness" and by the English poet Richard Adlington as "a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill". Nationalism flourishes for all kinds of reasons, mostly to do with insecurity or triumphalism, or both. In the Howard era, the fires of nationalism have been fuelled by a rich blend of hubris and fear ("look how wonderful we are; look how threatened we are").

Our country - and the US - right or wrong. Tough on asylum-seekers: "We will decide who comes here and under what circumstances they come." Tough on dissent; dismissive of "mushy" multiculturalism; big on the "mainstream". (Howard-style nationalism permits an apology to Vietnam vets for not having been grateful enough to them, but not to Aborigines for dispossession and dislocation.)

Materialism, pragmatism, nationalism. They are not Howard's inventions, of course. To paraphrase Carl Jung, describing another leader in another era: "Howard is the loudspeaker that magnifies the inaudible whispers of the Australian soul until they can be heard in the Australian's unconscious ear."

Perhaps Howard already understood this when he said, all those years ago, "the times will suit me".

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and commentator.

Australia is still evolving

Online Opinion
By Tony Kevin
Friday, 8 September 2006

My father John Charles Kevin was a fourth-generation Australian of middle class Irish Catholic stock, born in Forbes in 1909. Handsome and clever, he took a law degree in Sydney in 1932 and then went off to London, remaking himself as an English gentleman.

I thought he had spent his war at sea as an RAN lieutenant, but I later discovered that he had spent most of it helping set up Australia's new secret intelligence agency, the Commonwealth Security Service. Entering the new Department of External Affairs in June 1945, he rapidly rose to ambassador rank. Canberra-based, he spent most of his distinguished career overseas. He died in 1968 and is in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

My mother Minnie (Hermine) was Viennese Jewish, from a rich and cultured family. She and my grandmother and uncle were lucky to escape to London soon after the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938. She met my father in London. They married in 1939, and came to Australia as the war was starting. I was born in Sydney in 1943.

The marriage wasn't happy: my parents separated early (my father remarried in Ceylon in 1963, and from that marriage came my younger sister, Naomi, now living with her husband and children in Melbourne). I grew up in a small flat in Sydney's Elizabeth Bay. It was then a safe haven for European refugees and World War II displaced persons - some, but not all, Jewish. It was a place of culture and civility, but also of sadness and prudent silences. The people washed up here from Europe had much they wanted to forget, of great evils done to them or by them.

I floated uneasily between my father's and my mother's very different worlds. I was determined to learn no German, though I heard it at home all the time. I realise now that, though born here, I was in spirit one of John Hirst's immigrant kids (referring to his recent fine essay in Reflected Light).

I envied the easy Australian-ness and simple happiness of life in Sydney's burgeoning redbrick suburbs. I wanted desperately to be like my Australian (father's side) cousins in Lane Cove, and the well-mannered Australian families in Canberra to whose homes my father took me on visits during my holiday times with him. I was brought up Catholic, embarrassed by my rich European-Jewish heritage and tried to play it down. I got a degree at Sydney University, and fell in love with skiing and the Snowy Mountains. At 20, I went off to Ireland for a few more years of university study. I did the Barry Mackenzie Australian thing in Europe.

I returned to Australia in 1968, married by now, and followed my father's career footsteps into Foreign Affairs. He died that year, and my mother and grandmother three years later. I had finally shed or suppressed my background. I was well-educated, cultured even, but would have resisted any description of myself as an intellectual or as multicultural. I was determined to live as a normal Australian, and I did.

Over the next two decades, my patriotism remained complacent and uncritical. The great socio-political challenges of the 1970s and 1980s passed me by. I never went to Vietnam antiwar demonstrations or on aboriginal freedom rides. I was only marginally aware of how rapidly we were becoming a multicultural society: my Australia was still the Australia of the Qantas ads, Anglo-Celtic, fresh-faced, squeaky clean, and by choice I was shutting much out. It was a time still of general public optimism and widening of cultural horizons, of a sense that anything was possible for Australia. To me, we were still, without question, the best country in the world.

By the 1980s, slickness and dishonesty were creeping into Australian public culture. We were entering the world of "whatever it takes", and the old simplicities and decencies of Anglo-Celtic Australia were starting to fray at the edges.

I had some idea of the commercial and political sleaziness creeping into governance under Bob Hawke, but I thought that was just politics. I concentrated on my public service career and helping to bring up my two sons in Canberra. A loyal and efficient officer, I did well in my career specialisation of foreign affairs, appointed to my first ambassadorship in 1990. I was then 47.

The death of my beloved second wife Jennifer in 1989, from an unforeseen brain tumour, fractured a till-then-unruffled life. There followed a long grieving, shading into my postings as ambassador to Poland (1991-94) and Cambodia (1994-97). In those years I began to face issues suppressed for most of my life, about myself and my country.

In Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia I saw at painful first hand the ways in which rich European multicultural societies had been destroyed under the madness of fascism and communism. In Cambodia I saw how the people of Indochina had suffered during my lotus years in Canberra, conveniently working always "on other desks": our ruthless cold-war destruction of these vulnerable societies, and then our long vengeance on weak post-war communist governments trying to pick up the pieces after the wars and Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime ended.

I began to think about issues of personal accountability for the deeds and complicities of one's own government. I began to look past the glossy Qantas image of Australia, to see much more complicated and unsettling realities. I began to see what we had really done to our Aboriginal people. I discovered moral issues to do with the US alliance, Australian conduct in our region, multiculturalism, minorities.

My 30-year public service career ended in 1998, at age 55, and I began to explore the Australia in which I was to spend the rest of my life.

It was a very different place, especially after the 1996 Coalition victory, from the Australia I had grown up in and believed I was representing all those years. Over the next ten years, I had to learn many bitter lessons. Ministers and senior public servants could not be relied on to tell the truth or to conduct themselves with honour. There was increasing corruption and acceptance of corruption among our elites. "Whatever it takes but don't get caught" had become a defining characteristic of public life.

Our socio-economic elites were no longer standard-setters - they were no better or wiser, simply richer and more cynical. In our overgrown cities, the old suburban ideal of the good life had been tarnished. The public infrastructure of health and education and transport, so new and fresh in the confident 1960s, was already decaying.

There weren't so many happy families around any more. There were fewer children. Too many of them were being neglected or abused in dysfunctional domestic set-ups where mothers or fathers or their new partners were putting themselves first and their kids' welfare and security a long way behind. People were drawing in on themselves, becoming more self-centred, reluctant to engage in community. The old churches were wilting, and new (and sometimes quite creepy) American-style happy-clappy groups were moving into the vacuum.

And there was racism - not so much against Aborigines anymore, but against darker-skinned immigrants - Muslims or those who might look so. The cancer of the ever-worsening Israel-Palestinian conflict had spread to Australia. Somehow we had become Israel's and the US's military ally in their never-ending brutal wars and proxy wars on Middle Eastern people.

We had become a more militarised country, though our defence forces were more and more detached from our mainstream society in a professional military sub-culture that the rest of us did not quite connect with any more.

We were routinely visiting terrible bureaucratic cruelties in our own country and offshore on boat people asylum-seekers.

We were obviously now a complex multicultural society (I believe that as many as one in two Australians today was either born overseas, or has a partner or parent or parent-in-law born overseas), but not a particularly happy or well-integrated one.

No one could seem to agree on what our national values were any more: we no longer could even find agreed meanings for words, there had been so much spin already that many of our most important words now had to be put in quotation marks when we used them. (Think about: "work choices", "tolerance" , "mateship", "fair go", "national cohesion", "national pride", "national security", "sovereignty", "war on terror", "integrity of our borders", "security risk", "conscience vote", "moral issues", "sustainable economic growth", "processing".)

We couldn't agree on our own history any more. We seemed to be losing our sense of who we were, as our major media and national assets passed into foreign ownership and as we fell more and more into the American socio-cultural orbit.

By 2006, our Australian nation was at more and more risk of becoming simply another large territorial appendage of the United States. Many of us, finding the world's huge challenges all too much, simply wanted to sink into the illusory protection of US-armed global hegemony, as the US military-industrial complex quietly exploited our gullibility and our remaining resources.

My Australian dream has finally shattered. I still love my country - more than ever - but I realise now that it has many serious and interconnected problems. Quite late in my life - I am now 63 - I realised the need to take up burdens of public involvement, working with other people of goodwill and integrity and knowledge, to try to help our country rebuild some of what it has lost in the past 60 years: trying to make this a better country; a country that does not make war on others; that does not scapegoat any of its own citizens; that behaves as a responsible and less selfish global citizen in the coming battle to save a decent human environment on this planet.

There is a huge agenda now. The situation may seem hopeless but we have to make a start. I'll be spending the remaining years of my active life working on those things.

Now I recognise that my rich multicultural family history and my present extended family including my grown-up sons, my sister's family, and my new Australian-Cambodian young family, are all gifts from God, giving me opportunities for a wider perspective on many of these issues.

I realise now that Australian history has always been about growth, change, and disruption: settlers and displaced Indigenous people, ascendant Protestants and underclass Catholics, class conflicts, the post-1945 Anglo-Celtic ascendancy and the non-Anglo immigrants.

There has always been prejudice and human hurt in our history, as well as warmth and generosity and decency and openness. Australia is still evolving, as I am. We have many moral choices to make in the struggle to build a better society here and in the world. Though the last 10 years have been mostly a time of moral decline in Australia, we still have the chance to get it right.

About the author:

Former senior Australian diplomat Tony Kevin (who served in DFAT and the Prime Minister's Department between 1968 and 1998, with his last postings at ambassador level in Poland and Cambodia), is the author of the prizewinning A Certain Maritime Incident - The Sinking of SIEV X (Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2004). He joined the ACT Branch of the Greens party earlier this year. He recently returned from a therapeutic long pilgrimage walk in Spain, from Granada to Santiago de Compostela. Neither an anti-Semite nor a self-hating Jew, he takes pride in his Viennese Jewish heritage from his late mother, who taught him most of what he knows about human rights.