Opinion: Behaviour not cliches reveal who we really are

Image by Flo K from Pixabay
Monday 25 September 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Tony Abbott became the first former Australian prime minister to visit wartime Kyiv when he addressed a security conference in May.

The leader who admirably did "hold a hose" and had famously committed to "shirtfront" Vladimir Putin, wasn't afraid and thought others should not be either.

While there he called for more military aid to Ukraine, and complained that Australia's embassy had been shuttered since the invasion.

"I do expect that our ambassador will swiftly return to Kyiv, from Warsaw," he said, "as it's so out of character for Australians to huddle in safety when there's work to be done."

Abbott may have been speaking in Kyiv, but his real audience was back home.

Ever the tribalist, it seems he hoped many might agree that the Albanese government was being, um, unAustralian?

His remark invited two uncomfortable thoughts at the time.

First, that our embassy should have been re-opened. By then, nearly all of the 81 foreign missions in Kyiv had been restaffed including those of our close allies, the US, Canada and UK.

Second, though, was this. Is it really "out of character for Australians to huddle in safety", or is that just spin?

Where is this uniquely Australian altruism we hear so much about?

I thought about this again last week when the official declaration came of an El Nino cycle portending hotter, dryer conditions.

Media quickly obliged, revealing our chronic unpreparedness for the threat ahead. Regional mayors, fire chiefs, and emergency services ministers filled prime interview slots to explain risk factors long neglected.

Procrastination turned to panic. Fear and imminence suddenly achieving what rigorous climate science had failed to prompt - urgent discussion of soaring global temperatures and deadly weather.

Immediately, our collective memory had leapfrogged over the pandemic to relive the terror of the Black Summer of 2019-20 - a crisis that, at the time, had caught the world's attention and seemed certain to force material action against fossil fuels.

Of course, when these calamities arrive, we will again reach for the comforting cliches and self-ascribed virtues. Communities devastated become tough, indomitable, made of unique stock. They will pull together and bounce back from this [insert flood or bushfire], we are assured.

But what if the real Australia is less impressive than the tropes we cite during acute crises?

If, as Mahatma Ghandi supposedly said, a society can be judged by how it treats its least powerful and poorest, how does Australia look, absent its own self-serving propaganda? Selfless or selfish? Courageous or craven? Compassionate or callous?

The nation shaping to reject out of hand the graceful Uluru Statement from the Heart suggests a society strangely determined to present a stony face to its own history.

And it is political people like Abbott, who lionise Australian courage and fairness when it suits that now drive this denial. He wasn't always of this view.

Few remember that on the cusp of taking office in 2013, a more generous Abbott regretted that we'd "never fully made peace with First Australians" describing this refusal as "the stain on our soul that prime minister Keating so movingly evoked at Redfern 21 years ago".

"We have to acknowledge that pre-1788 this land was as Aboriginal then as it is Australian now," he said. "Until we have acknowledged that, we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people."

A year later as prime minister, Abbott enthused about "completing our Constitution" using his Australia Day address in 2014 to advocate constitutional recognition as "another unifying moment in the history of our country".

Amid a blizzard of manufactured confusion, racism and outright lies designed only to divide, voter support for the Voice to Parliament has slumped from somewhere in the mid-60 per cent range last year to the mid-40s. Where, in this heartless gullible tide, are the "Australian" strengths of resolute courage and the fair go?

Instead, the huddlers are fast making up the majority. The public debate has become an asymmetric contest between the still possible goal of unity he once predicted, and an endemic meanness of spirit.

The sharpest sting of this meanness is the utter determination to kill this proposition at any cost, even when objections go to just one element of the referendum proposal.

Take the political gadfly Warren Mundine - who now favours treaties along with his reputed sympathy for changing Australia Day - both are red-rag-to-a-bull for the fanatical conservatives with whom he communes and who despise any notion of treaty or "special" recognition. Or take Peter Dutton who farcically backs yet another constitutional recognition referendum and even supports a Voice, but has split the country asunder and stymied all progress simply to prevent the Voice being protected in the Constitution.

Apart from the sheer intellectual flimsiness of these objections, what stands out is a political community unwilling to compromise and obsessed with petty combat. Its ultimatum amounts to "do it my way exactly, or you get nothing". Such vaulting chauvinism after the exhaustive Uluru consultation process (commenced and funded by the Coalition, by the way) constitutes a persistent resurgent paternalism.

Uluru Dialogue co-chair, Pat Anderson has described the Voice as "a solution to a uniquely Australian situation". Her co-chair Professor Megan Davis puts it more colloquially as "an Aussie solution to an Aussie problem".

Either way, their determined goodwill confronts something less flattering that is also quintessentially "Aussie". Like it or not.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  27 September 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications