Monday, 20 August 2007

Living on a Prayer

Opposition leader Kevin Rudd spent a drunken night in a strip club four years ago. Who cares? Well apparently everyone does. This story made in onto television and newspaper headlines for a fourth day in a row today. I found this suprising, coming as I do from a country where the "private life is private" doctrine has been firmly entrenched. Modern Britain is a place where accusations of cocaine abuse (still undenied) can't stop David Cameron becoming Tory Party leader, and where repeated infidelity has done nothing to hamper Boris Johnson's mayoral ambitions. The Brits, the conservative old prudes are now extremely liberal and forgiving. Easy going, larrikin Australia, by contrast is twitching its sour-faced puritan nose up in disgust at a minor indescretion.

But t'was not always so. Twenty years ago the mysterious loss of former-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's trousers (apparently after being drugged by a prostitute) was met with light amusement rather than disgust, and around the same time Prime Minister Bob Hawke admitted that his legendary beer intake probably did more for his popularity than any policy. The transformation between then and now is bizzare, and just goes to show how succesful John Howard's terminally reactionary agenda has been. This once amusing and wayward nation is now a hundred times more serious and conservative than Mother England. Yet the oddest thing is that this is not how Australia perceives itself. I'll never forget the drunken Aussie backpacker who, telling me about my own country, declared "the British are very conservative people". Presumably he also thought that the Australians were not very conservative, but it was his country which had just re-elected a man whose main leadership goal is to drag the nation back to 1956. And even not the real 1956 (far too many interesting characters and union upstarts there) but the 1956 which exists only in the head of disheveled old scroats like John Howard. It is Australia that hangs the Union Flag over all and sundry (albeit counterpointed with the southern cross) to remind people that this is first and foremost an Anglo-Saxon country, so mind your mouth. It is Australia whose memorial day has mutated from a national day of mourning and remembrance into a jingoistic carnival of nationalism and militarism. ANZAC day now has more in common with the parades at Red Square than the ceremony at Whitehall. The whole idea of Australian identity has become overwhelmingly serious.

John Howard has taken traditional, decent Australian values like mateship and "a fair go" away from their exuberant and genuine origins in the labour movement and reinstated them within a morbid and indulgent fetishisation of Gallipoli and the ANZAC myth. In doing so he has destroyed their real meaning and removed them of any contemporary resonance. Mateship and a fair go ought to, for instance, mean opposing unfair industrial relations but now we are told that it means supporting them, because that's what the ANZACs would've done, kept their heads down and got the job done, not sat around complaining.

The conservative assault on Australian history is positively Stalinesque. The diggers were a bunch of scared young men who died because a foreign king told them to go to war, but now we have superimposed over this images of chisel-jawed Aussie blokes who died for "freedom". Does that include the freedom to turn back immigrants? What ought to be a parable showing the folly of war and slavish, weak governments (the Australian establishment betrayed the diggers at least as much as British generals did) becomes a story glorifying military conquest and nationalism, all whilst comfortably maintaining a foreign monarch as head of state. Self-reflection went out of the windows years back leaving only a blinkered machismo and a faint whiff of cheap sentiment. The coalition would probably put a rose-tint on the flag if suggesting changes to the flag didn't identify one as a communist, immigrant-loving pooftah.

I want to see the old Australia come back, and not the fake, quaint, imagined old Australia but the real old Australia. The Australia that built the modernist buildings that so impressed me on arrival, the Australia on show at the Eureka Stockade rebellion, the Australia of the Whitlam era, driven by hope and self-belief, not by fear and mistrust. It is not too late to turn back the tide of pathetic, arrogant, narcicistic, greedy, xenophobic hatred that has been stoked up for the past years, but it all hinges on the election. A defeat for Howard would be a tiny ray of light. Another victory would be the final nail in the coffin.

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