Speech at the Perth launch of The Lucky Culture, June 1, 2013, Coop Bookshop, University of Western Australia
The Lucky Culture was launched in Sydney on the 8th of May by former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and again in the evening by two Labor politicians in Chris Bowen and Daryl Melham at the Revesby Workers Club in Western Sydney. However after reading his book, one cannot help but conclude that John Howard would have been more at home at the Workers Club and the Labor politicians far more comfortable in the aesthetic surrounds of an art gallery, so deeply have our cultural fault lines criss crossed the traditional political divide of Left and Right.
Nick Cater’s book has triggered debate about who we are and how we see ourselves in much the same way as Donald Horne’s book The Lucky Country did almost 50 years ago. Whereas Horne’s thesis was that Australia is a lucky country run “mainly run by second rate people who share its luck”, Nick Cater identifies and defines the emergence of second-rate intellectuals who feel sufficiently morally superior to in fact rule the country.
As a journalist of some 30 years standing, the author came to Australia from the United Kingdom in 1989, as he puts it, because if he had to choose between Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher he would go for Bob. So the book is as much a reflection of the author’s personal journey with his views and his outlook influenced and moderated by his experience as a newspaper reporter and editor. It’s fascinating to read of his changing perspectives, in spite of and not because of the media class to which he belongs.
It seems that Nick fell in love with this country whose ideals of equality and opportunity were summed up by the fair go, have a go, give him a go. His book takes us on a journey through our cultural archaeology and one can feel the disillusionment setting in as he contrasts and compares the old Australia with the new. For he writes (p6-7):
There had always been divisions in Australian society: convicts and soldiers; Catholic and Protestant; city and country; rich and poor; Left and Right. This, however, was of a different order. For the first time there were people who did not simply feel better off but better than their fellow Australians. They were cosmopolitan and sophisticated, well read (or so they would have us believe) and politically aware. Their presumption of virtue set them apart from the common herd: they were neither racist nor sexist; claimed to be indifferent to material wealth, ate healthily, drank in moderation and, if they were not gay themselves made a show of solidarity with lots of friends who were. Their compassion knew no bounds: the vulnerable of the world could rely on their support, in principal at least.
He goes on: “People like them should be running the country, they thought, or more accurately, ruling it.”
His description is the very antithesis of people without pretension, the classless egalitarianism that was the hallmark of Australian society, in fact a hallmark that we still claim to this day.
But its his analysis of the political scene that is for me the most profound as Nick neatly charts the seismic shift in the Labor Party from a party of Ben Chifley and John Curtin and Arthur Calwell focussed on issues like a decent job and a decent wage, to Gough Whitlam’s manifesto that omitted to even mention the word “jobs”.
With support from what Bill Hayden at the time described as the ‘middle class hedonists of the 60s’, (p164): The intellectuals had arrived with:
Their particular form of middle-class values, causing [Labor] to shift ground, sometimes in dramatic fashion, to coincide more with the image of the good society, one that was shaped around their self interest… Thus Labor saw nothing incongruous in introducing free tertiary education and non-means tested aged pensions in spite of the quite evident consequences that this could only be done at the cost of the less well off, the battlers, Labor’s traditional heartland.
The transformation of Labor’s base was almost complete with the images which he describes of Mark Latham standing with Greens leader Bob Brown in the Tasmanian wilderness on the eve of the 2004 election while John Howard was being cheered to the rafters by the Tasmanian forest workers and their unions in Launceston.
The story of Labor’s changing support base concludes with an equally evocative image of Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan after the 2010 election going through the formalities of a treaty signing ritual with Bob Brown and Christine Milne to mark the marriage of Labor and the Greens. I note that whilst there might be divorce proceedings underway, they are still sharing the same house.
Nick also good naturedly pokes fun at the political correctness of segments of the environment movement in Australia. His analysis on the ban in South Australia on the use of plastic shopping bags just has to be read. It will make anyone who is still using the grocery bags to line their rubbish bins smile-just a little bit.
In an act of classic nanny-statism it is now an offence in South Australia if a retailer misleads a shopper into believing they are getting a cloth or paper shopping bag when in fact it’s actually plastic and a $20,000 penalty will follow. Herein lies ‘The Bin Liner Dilemma’ as the author asks rhetorically: (p130)
Where does all this nonsense stop? How can the true environmental impact of the South Australian Parliament’s plastic bag prohibition be reliably measured? Small native animals can safely graze, one imagines, knowing that the risk of ingesting discarded packaging has been reduced. But what of the vermin, prowling the kerbs of Adelaide in search of unlined bins? What of the feral cats, that will no doubt proliferate, feasting on the rats and mice as they in turn, dine on the garbage blown by the wind? What if these introduced predators were to turn their attention on the wildlife we were trying to protect? The circle of biodiversity is a wondrous thing.
The author takes us on a romp through the various “isms” that affect or inflict society – feminism, consumerism, environmentalism, as well as a potted history of our approach to religion, higher education and the immigration debate.
There are some pretty brutal assessments of the ‘Orwellian thought police’ who seem to have emerged over time.
One of my criticisms of the Liberal Party is that we don’t often trumpet our socially progressive side. For we are called the Liberal Party, a mix of reform minded Liberals and conservatives committed to maintaining the status quo or our institutions. But I did read with some enthusiasm Nick’s counter to the notion, that has taken hold in Labor mythology that there was absolutely no reformist zeal in Australia prior to the Messiah Gough in 1972. He recounts the facts about Liberal Party efforts and initiatives on reforms during the Menzies years and those of his successors up until 1972.
Expanding and democratising higher education was done under Menzies, dismantling the White Australia Policy which Labor was clinging to the very end, a referendum for the Federal Government to improve the lives of Aborigines, founding the Australia Council for the arts, pulling out of Vietnam (the last battalions were withdrawn almost a year before Whitlam’s historic win), ratifying the UN Convention on Racial Discrimination. One can’t help but acknowledge Labor’s chutzpah in rewriting the history of reform in this country.
I think Nick reserves some of his harshest criticism for the human rights agenda. In a chapter that he entitles “The Moral Persuaders” he takes aim at those who make indiscriminate accusations that Australians are deep down racists at heart and, given the events of the last week with 13-year-old schoolgirls and President of Collingwood Football Club, maybe this is a very timely view.
He says of the accusation that we are racist at heart to be thoroughly offensive (p274):
That view is perpetuated by a well-funded human rights industry devoted to uncovering the dark side of the Australian soul and the large pool of sophisticates willing to take to the airwaves to slander their compatriots. Yet no commission exists to take stock of human decency, to recognise the good will that characterises most encounters between Australians, or the fraternalism that oils the wheels of every day life. No one, it appears, is prepared to countenance that Australia’s happy condition, might be because, not in spite of, the national character; that the fair go is extended to all, not just one tribe.
I have to say he reserves his most scathing criticism for the Human Rights Commission and says (p274):
The great experiment of a multi-ethnic Australia had been remarkably smooth and harmonious, Whitlam said, and few would dispute it remains so today. It remains unclear what wrong the Human Rights Commission was supposed to right, but if, after 37 years, it has failed to complete its task, it cannot be up to the job. The unintended consequence of its endless search for racism, sexism and ageism has been the rise in victimhood, a concept once alien to the Australian spirit. Ironically, a body intended to promote unity has become a force for division. Perhaps the time has come to abandon this search for blemishes, and celebrate the virtues recognised by all.
Nick chastises those who continually lament the ignorance of the masses, who to this day, refuse to accept the people’s judgment on Gough Whitlam in 1975, on the election of John Howard in 1996, indeed the rejection of the republic in the 1999 referendum. Standing as we are in the Republic of Curtin, the only seat in Western Australia to embrace the yes case, let me take you to Nick’s view of what went wrong (p178):
Perhaps it was… an indication that middle Australia was comfortable with present arrangements and saw no need for change. Perhaps it was a default setting of a socially conservative nation. He goes on: At last, however, the substance of the dispute between the sophisticates and the masses had been laid bare; this was not an ideological argument, or even a political one, but a contest about national identity.
And so it may well be that come 14 September those same “sneering” sophisticates will refuse to accept the majority of the people will effectively elect Tony Abbott as Prime Minister of this country, disengaged as they are from the magic of democracy and the wisdom of crowds.
As much as he confronts the new elite and laments the “mirthless, illiberal and intolerant” behaviour of the inner clique that dominates politics, academia and the media, Nick Cater is ultimately an optimist about our future. Putting his faith in the essential virtue of the Australian people he declares an “age of Australian exceptionalism” as we embrace and don’t apologise for being a happy, fully developed nation, ethnically heterogeneous, but with clear shared principles of fairness, egalitarianism and enterprise. We have every reason, he concludes, to be confident in our own abilities.
It’s a beautifully written book, very easy to read, I read it on the flight from Perth to Canberra, it’s contentious, it’s controversial, it’s provocative but wherever you may self identify on his social spectrum it’s a compelling and challenging read.