Peter Craven

2013-04-24 04.50.02 am



Peter Craven in The Weekend Australian, May 11:

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 inner-urban 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 self-advancement” 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 prejudices 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 ill-advised 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 Australia. And, look, if they were coming in their hundreds of thousands there would be a case for self-interest. Cater’s account of Howard’s wedge politics at the time of the Tampa undercuts his own argument.

In other respects he offers a rather rhetorical account of why many people in an economy that is changing from a manufacturing to a service model should not like Malaysian solutions or Nauru.

He has a horror of the Greens and thinks the moment Graham Richardson realised their strategic importance to Labor was the moment the wooden horse made its way into the citadel. He may not endear himself to people by referring to “boutique sexuality” as though his own represented the grandeurs of one of the world’s great markets.

This is an interesting book and one that lingers in the mind, not least for what it does not disclose. It’s true the educated classes (who overlap with the aspiring upper-middle classes) have a predominance in Sydney’s Newtown and Melbourne’s Fitzroy that could cause havoc, and that many of them talk drivel much of the time and that there are people who vote because of their moral convictions. But then some moral convictions are so firmly grounded that the state ceases to have a validation without them. The Tampa is not our blacking factory for nothing.

But let’s be clear about the background to Cater’s world view. The so-called lucky culture turned into a harder, tougher society under Hawke and Keating and continued along its open-market route under Howard.

The way around this for Labor, the strategy for ensuring the chats’ support even as the party was mutating its identity, was to put diamonds on the superstructure: Mabo and the push to Asia, human rights and the republic. And in Howard’s case an opposite rhetoric to attract the battlers and sustain the blimps that emphasised mateship and white picket fences even as things stayed harder for people at the margins. But mandatory detention was introduced by Labor, just as Malcolm Turnbull dragged Howard in the direction of climate change legislation.

When it comes down to it, our luckiness comes from Gina Rinehart and the Chinese. The couple of hundred thousand who irritate Cater – the readers of The Monthly and defenders of the refugees – are not going to win anytime soon. Nor can they be held responsible for the fact the Labor Party is sunk and that a Turnbull-led Coalition that might have pleased them rather more seems now as remote as the stars.

Cater has written a brave book, throwing down the gauntlet to anyone who thinks only the liberal position in Australian politics can be defended with any rigour. He also has penned a hymn to the culture of Australian particularism, hence his enthusiasm for Hoges and his ambivalence towards Humphries and Kath & Kim.

Paul Kelly’s prescient remark that patriotism governs every aspect of Australian life until it becomes official, whereupon it becomes an object of derision, is relevant to all this. The nation that produced the Ern Malley hoax and Edna Everage is good at satire, because that’s the natural correlative of a society with a strong tendency towards conformism and that is a small part of the great Anglo-Saxon imperium.

The tradition of Australian particularism is ancient, just as central state control is as old as Lachlan Macquarie and will continue under Tony Abbott. At the moment when Hawke (and Keating, perhaps, for all his style) were impressing Cater with their matey manners they were giving the world a variety of thirdwayism before the letter that stringently enforced economic liberalism and put paid to much of the old Australian settlement. For Cater, perhaps, their version of this – and Howard’s – was a humane via media.

He’s right about the lunacies of the genteel Left. Cater has a firm sense of what happens when our own equivalent of the Guardian-istas go feral with the bin liners. Still, one of the prices we pay for being a very slightly more democratic society than Britain or the US is that we have the worst elites in the world. But anyone who cares about Australian society will want to buy The Lucky Culture to argue through the vision of Australia it projects.

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

Peter Craven was founding editor of Quarterly Essay.