Jack Snelling

Jack Snelling‘s speech at the launch of The Lucky Culture in Adelaide, May 9, 2013 

In the 1999 referendum on the Republic, I was the only elected Labor representative to publicly state I would be voting No.

I set myself in opposition to the leaders of my Party – Federal and State – political friends and mentors. People who had worked for my election only two years before must have scratched their heads and wondered if they’d made a terrible mistake.

My family was aghast – as a schoolboy I’d had a letter published in the Advertiser advocating a Republic. Goodness, even Cardinal George Pell was a Republican!

But what made me go public was my concern that the Party to which I belonged was out-of-step with our core constituency.

The men and women of Ingle Farm, Pooraka and Para Hills, who had put me into Parliament with a 12% swing, just did not agree with the Party on this matter. On a Republic, they were tepid; for a Republic where the President was appointed by the Parliament, they had no enthusiasm at all.

Those who had lived through the War and been inspired by George VI and Queen Elizabeth, had no enthusiasm at all for a campaign that made no secret of its hostility to the current Royal Family.

Knowing my electorate would be voting overwhelmingly “No”, I thought it important that I show some sympathy for the common sense of the people who’d put me there.

So when it came to the 1999 referendum, how did the Labor Party, most of the Liberal Party and The Australian newspaper, for that matter, misread the mood of the electorate?  Nick Cater’s book, which we are launching this evening, offers an explanation.

Nick’s hypothesis is that, since the 70s, we have witnessed the rise of a ruling class, whose thinking and prejudices, influenced by university education, are hostile to rural and suburban Australia.

Like Donald Horne’s 1964 classic, The Lucky Country, Nick’s book takes the pulse of the nation and monitors its brain activity. Like Horne, Nick celebrates egalitarian values and democracy. And like Donald Horne, he is impatient with pretense.

Horne believed that a writer is at his best when skepticism and curiosity cause him to question received wisdom. Nick agrees, and a lot of received wisdom is questioned in his book.

But where Donald Horne found Australia to be drab and mindless, Nick finds much to admire.

Where the Australian-born Donald Horne writes with a certain detachment, Nick, who is a naturalized Australian, writes as someone in the thick of it.

Nick states that ‘Australia’s Luck did not fall from the sky, it had to be torn from the earth in a triumph of mind over muscle.’

He celebrates the spirit of the front bar: pragmatic, personable and above all generous. He sees no barriers to success in Australia but personal deficits of imagination, energy and courage.

Nick believes in the power of ideas and the value of debate.  He thinks that the ‘nattering nabobs of negativity’ shouldn’t have it all their own way. Inner-city elites should not be granted unbound license to ridicule the suburbs. The ideologically pure should not preach to the pragmatic.

Nick believes that the decadence of wristband politics has a corrosive effect on civic debate, turning the battle of ideas into mere posturing.

Despite this, Nick believes that the Australian spirit is almost irrepressible.

In prose, worthy of Donald Horne, a pacey narrative unfolds. Nick arrives in Adelaide and lands a job at The Advertiser.  Within days he’s having a beer with one former Premier – Des Corcoran – and ringing John Bannon’s doorbell to call him away from building a compost heap.

Nick captures the electric spirit of the six Australian colonies on the eve of Federation, and beyond, from shearing machines to Nineteenth Century ships that transport frozen meat to Britain; from threshing machines and the stump-jump plough to the miracles of superphosphate and rust resistant wheat; from the excitement of Australia’s first telegraph to the exhilaration of the snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme.

We get a series of mini histories of Australia’s Universities, the ABC, the Democrats, the Greens, and the modern Labor Party, with the interesting counter-factual hint that 1960s progressivism could have just as easily attached itself to the Liberal Party.

The Lucky Culture is a book of memorable lines, such as:

The Democrats were not so much a party as a moral enclosure, a rich meadow of virtue upon which the middle classes could graze.

Or

Like a builder who rips out the kitchen, goes broke and is never seen again, the intellectual renovators tore down the old Australia without staying to build a new one. 

The book is crammed with fascinating stories and archival gems. I could not go past the 19th Century clergymen, William Fitchett, who threatened to bring a libel action on the nation’s behalf against its poets for describing Australia’s forests in such melancholy language.

Above all, The Lucky Culture is a necessary read for those of us in the Labor Party. The tectonic forces Nick describes find their epicenter in the Australian Labor Party.   We too often find ourselves trying to appease both the preoccupations of the inner-cities, and the priorities of those who live in the suburbs and regional centres.

This internal struggle is most apparent in our grappling with the treatment of asylum seekers.  How do we reconcile inner-city concerns about the just treatment of those fleeing persecution with the suburb’s concern for secure borders.  It is a dilemma that has been ruthlessly exploited by our political opponents.

For an answer we need go no further than Gough Whitlam’s assertion quoted in Nick’s book, “I did not seek, nor do want, the leadership of Australia’s largest pressure group…”

In a recent lecture the historian Niall Ferguson delivered on Henry Kissinger, he threw out the challenge: ‘What would you do? … You can’t imagine that the real world is like the song Imagine. That’s not the real world; that’s the world of universities.’

Those who govern have to live in the real world.  It’s not as simple as a bumper sticker or an internet meme. Sound government is the art of pragmatism and compromise, and sometimes a reluctant embrace of the lesser of two evils.

Those who govern need, as Nick reminds us, not just theoretical intelligence but the intelligence of experience – the wisdom of the street.

In his book Labor Without Class Michael Thompson reminds us that only by a continuation of the economic reforms begun under the Hawke-Keating governments can the working classes hope for economic security.

Hawke and Keating’s vision is a Party of aspiration, providing as Churchill would have it “not just a net but a ladder.”

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While few of us will agree with Nick on everything, he is fair-minded and generous. Nick says himself that the book comes with an open invitation to disagree and you can do just that at the website The Lucky Culture.

I visited the site myself and must say I’m glad that at least you have given Mark Latham something to do.

While I don’t doubt that much progressive thinking shows contempt for suburban and rural life, and I share Nick’s faith in the common sense of the electorate, I do have some reservations about Nick’s thesis.

His analysis is a little Manichean for my liking.  I’m not sure the idealism of the inner-city and the pragmatism of the suburbs and regions are as irreconcilable as Nick makes out.  Reconciliation is possible through strong leadership; leadership that is not merely a mirror for the electorate’s beliefs but is willing to listen, debate and persuade.

I think, as well, that you may have a little too much confidence in the enlightenment. You take too much of a Whiggish view of history, without a Tory awareness of the crooked timber of humanity.  While the 20th Century has seen the greatest advances in human welfare, it has also seen the greatest atrocities of world history.  While much of modernity is to be applauded, one needn’t look far to see some of its destructive effects.  But these are things we can discuss later.

The Lucky Culture is a book of provocations and laments but above all, it is a celebration of Australia. It is a pleasure to read and – unlike Tony Jones – I can eagerly recommend it.