The Emu’s Bum
“The Situation is Hopeless: We must Take the Next Step”
Tasmania Peace Trust, 2004 Lecture
I am here seeking political asylum! Anyone with a vacant attic or cellar please let me know.
Well, we’re in a hell of a mess, so I want to see how we’ve got ourselves into this hole and how we might, might, just might, get out of it.
I got into the habit, after the eviction from public office and life of Paul Keating, of introducing speeches quite often with a rather naughty metaphor. It comes from my schooldays, when I’d be sitting in a geography class with one of those little plastic Australias that you’d trace and then you’d put a little scalloped edge around it. And if you’d looked at Australia in relation to the rest of the world, you’d notice as every child did that Italy looked a bit like a leg. To me, Great Britain looked like one of the major chess pieces on the board, a bishop or the queen. But Australia looked like nothing other than a huge bum squatting in the Pacific above the cold toilet seat in the Antarctic. And you can add to that. Well you think this through, you could have Sydney and Perth on the hips, Adelaide as the anal cleft. It is of course an image or a metaphor which doesn’t do much for Tasmania.
And then you could find this image of the bum echoed in our national heraldry; above that Fuhrer bunker in federal parliament, where you have to two creatures, which are huge of bum and small of brain on either side of the shield. You’ve got the loveable kangaroo, which is 80% backside, small of head, small of brain. And the emu, which of course is just a hugely bummed chook, once again, small of head.
And it seems absolutely appropriate those animals representing the creatures that live within the bunker, their bums heavily filling the front and back benches while their brains, their small brains, seem to be almost entirely inactive. I had to reactivate those images because never before have they seemed more appropriate. And never before have I wanted to give Australians such a big kick in the bum as 1 do at the moment.
How did we get into this mess?
I want to tell you a brief story. 1 was approached by Keating, God it seems thousand of years ago, to join as one of the Federal members the national committee, with an ugly acronym of COAG, the Council of Australian Governments, and it was to be our job, a few federal appointees and slate and territory appointees, to wander across this land, top to bottom, and to ask people what they wanted to celebrate in the forthcoming Centenary of Federation. It was a very uneasy committee, it was headed by Joan Kirner, the well-known rock singer, and there were extremely conservative and right-wing appointees from a couple of the states and territories which were then in paleo-conservative hands rather than neo-conservative hands. So it didn’t look good, it didn’t look like this committee was going to work at all. How could we agree on anything as important as what it was that was significant about Australia that was worth celebrating in the centenary.
Before I headed off—oh, incidentally we went everywhere, we talked with all the premiers, most of the mayors, heads of all the constituent bodies that make up the warp and weft of Australian life, the CWA, the RSL, the Boy Scouts, you name it, we talked to them, and also to any individuals who wanted to come along to our open forums and put a point of view. So 1 decided that I wanted to ask whoever was making a representation, what it was that made them feel proud to be an Australian. This seemed a reasonable question, which might have revealed something. I remember I talked to David Malouf, who is a lovely bloke, and 1 asked him, “David, if I ask people what it is makes them feel proud to be Australian, what do you reckon they’ll say”? 1 said, “Will they talk constitution?” I’d never read it and I didn’t know anyone who had, so I didn’t think that was highly probable. But David said, “No, they’ll talk about landscape, I bet they’ll talk about landscape.” And he was absolutely right! At the end of all the submissions, at the end of all the arguments, I put this question, what is it that makes you feel proud to be an Australian, and what people invariably said first was something Dorothy Mackellarish, there was a feeling for (he place, it was almost as though Australia’s vastness was a metaphor (for freedom or democracy. If only trees had the vole. And then he pressed them; he’d say, “That’s fine, that’s lovely, but is there something else you can define?”
And then invariably and without exception, every single person that we spoke to, hundreds upon hundreds, came up with the word tolerance. I’ll come back to it later. What it means and what has become of it. That was the word. Tolerance. It’s not a word I’ve ever liked that much because it involves the idea of toleration rather than celebration. “I will tolerate you” is a very condescending thing but look, it’s a start.
The other things that happened as we went around Australia, and it was a remarkable experience; everyone, everyone, agreed with reconciliation. Even groups that had publicly opposed it. Once we got face to face, they took the view that we had to sign off on reconciliation to get on with the rest of our lives, and recognise that there had been an injustice and we had to deal with it. So albeit, reluctantly, even the most conservative groupings said, “yes, we’ll sign off with reconciliation as part of the centenary of Federation package.”
Ditto for the republic. To my astonishment the Country Women’s Association took the same view, the RSL, people who were swathed in the current flag, capitulated if you like, surrendered to the republic, and that’s with the same view. It was part of the national maturation process, it was an inevitability. So okay on our birthday as a nation let’s sign off on it. So we had the republic, we had reconciliation, and we had this wonderful idea of tolerance.
Now, I’ve always been very dubious about Australians’ real ability to tolerate. If you go back to the beginning of our nation, to the thing we’re going to celebrate the hundredth birthday of, what we had was a nation of exclusion. We excluded anyone who wasn’t the right colour and as you know the White Australia Policy arrives with a thump at that lime. Now there was more to the While Australia Policy than bigotry. There was also the complex matter of defending the hard-won gains by a nascent trade union movement, to prevent or to help reduce the incidence of blackbirding, the danger of indentured labour, but it became, as we all know, pretty rapidly cemented around the notion of bigotry. So there was the first proposition of exclusion.
It wasn’t just the people in the neighbourhood who were the wrong colour, it was also people, of course, people living amongst us who were the wrong colour and to my astonishment I learnt that in some parts of Australia, significantly South Australia, the Aboriginal population had had citizenship and lost it. They had the vote and lost it. So in comes Federation and with it first of all, this attitude to race, it was to be white Australia and that was to stay in place for nearly seventy years. The rules governing apartheid lasted less than twenty, White Australia seventy.
The other exclusions were economic exclusions. Clearly the massive tariff barriers were erected to protect our little manufacturing industries and so forth. There was also a tariff barrier against ideas, known as censorship. We set up the most ludicrous censorship. Many of you will remember when it wasn’t drugs which were being searched for at airports. It was Mary McCarthy or D.H. Lawrence novels or inconsequential little films from Sweden. And it was by setting up this tariff barrier against dangerous ideas that the process of exclusion continued. Women, of course, were excluded at the time, though South Australia broke that embargo a little later.
So we begin with a nation of exclusion and it occurred to me that we were about to celebrate the hundredth birthday of a nation that the founding fathers would not only not recognise but would not approve of. They would have hated it. All their principles of exclusion down the gurgler. Because by then, by the late sixties, early seventies, their Australia was in free-fall. Their Australia was disintegrating into a nation that would have to learn to be, yes, tolerant.
The most significant moment, the most enthralling moment in that period was when we had a referendum which really begins what was the juggernaut, the juggernaut of reconciliation. Now you know how hard it is to pass one of these things in this country. You’ve got to have a majority of people in a state, and very very few referenda get the nod.
There was a miraculous one which prevented the banning of the Communist Party and showed Australia at its best, a great shock to Menzies. But nothing was more surprising than to see a majority of Australians in a majority of states vote for a new deal for the indigenous population. And I say in parenthesis that on its thirtieth anniversary I sat in the studio with one of my favourite human beings, Faith Handler, a woman whose spiritual beauty is as great as her physical beauty, and I think she’s got one of the most wonderful faces I’ve ever seen. And we were talking about her battle, her struggle with others, to get that referendum up, and I said “Faith, would it pass today?” And she said “Of course not, course not.” And 1 said, “Is that because we are more bigoted”, and she said, “No, but bigotry is better organised.” I’ll come back to that again in a minute.
It became painfully obvious to everyone in public life in Australia, well almost everyone, that the White Australia Policy was a suicide note to the future. You couldn’t live in our part of the world, surrounded by mil I ions and millions and billions of people of the wrong colour, this little enclave of affluent white people treating its black population very badly.
It just wasn’t on, and so little by little it was unpacked, unpicked, and a lot of people claim the credit for it. The process begins before Whitlam. But Whitlam, I suppose, killed it off at the end. And so all of a sudden we are forced to face the fact that we are a multicultural society. The nation had by then the racial balance, had been quite interestingly enriched and affected, and even before the influx of Asian migrants, we were becoming a society of considerable complexity.
So we had to learn not only to get along without a White Australia Policy but we had to learn to get along with each other.
Look, I can remember what it was like. No one else in this room is as old as I am. I used to be a bodgie. Are there any surviving widgies here in the audience? Yes, we have a widgie down here. I used to get involved in race wars around where Collingwood football club was, where my bodgie gang would tight in the back lanes with Italians and Greeks. It was little bits of ‘West Side Story’. And the extraordinary thing was that years later when we traded duck’s bum haircuts, and our strange shoes and those ridiculous uniforms for the new uniform of the duffel coat and the beard, we suddenly learned to say grazier, rego and to order cappuccinos and go and see Italian films with writing on the bottom. So very suddenly, I learned that it was chic, glamorous, cool, to be Italian, that it wasn’t reprehensible or ghastly.
So all of a sudden you could feel the pace quickening, you could feel Australia really coming alive, shaking off this narrow isolated feeling about itself and becoming a really exciting place. Now when I joined that committee I was looking forward to the centenary enormously because I thought the republic and reconciliation would be a lay-down misere. I thought we were going to be the test bed of the 21st century for the rest of the world. Now does that sound ridiculous? I don’t think it was.
We were looking at a world where the fracture lines were opening and deepening almost everywhere. The simple division between black-white, Hindu-Muslim, north-south, Jew-Arab, you name it. There were catastrophic elemental divisions that were breaking societies up. We were seeing tribalisms of all sorts re-establishing themselves around the world.
In a sense, localism intensified by the fear, the threat of globalisation, started to run rampant. Now at its best it was a struggle for a cultural identity, and at worst it was the Balkans. We also saw nations or pseudo-nations falling apart, nations that had been created quite arbitrarily in the Middle East or in Africa by outgoing colonial governments who were drawing the map, irrespective of the fact they were probably joining together, two warring factions, or profoundly dysfunctional tribes, as in Rwanda.
So around the world we’ve seen these catastrophic and cataclysmic and often genocidal assaults within communities that had once lived in the world together. We saw nations that had been proud and apparently enduring structures simply fall apart. Many people might salute the passing of the Soviet Union but I can remember being quite astonished when something as substantial as the other great global power just imploded and fell apart, where my beloved Czechoslovakia went through its early divorce, and you could sense the pressures building up around the world, the same sort of divisions. There were hints of it in Great Britain that were to accelerate in the years ahead. There were fracture lines, of course, in Canada, all around the world, in the oddest places, people were flexing their muscles and looking for apartness.
But not us.
One of my jobs, and it was a great job for a while, was that I chaired the National Australia Day Council. When I joined it Shirley Delahunty was on it; I don’t know if any of you saw that terribly sad Australian Story about Shirley last night, and Shirley and I used to have great fun working out who we would anoint as Australian of the Year. It was entirely undemocratic. My test was: would it make Alan Jones furious?
But I had to give an Australia Day talk to the Press Club in Canberra and I went along. This was before, things were going well, this was before One Nation. It was just after Joan Kirner and I had written our report to COAG on the centenary. And I went along and said the great thing about Australia is that it doesn’t have North-South, black-white divisions. Which is complex; we’ve got every possible nationality living here, every known religion and cult being practised within our borders.
Now this is an incredibly diverse society, and far from diversity weakening us it gives us strength. We’re not going to break apart. I likened Australia to a bucket full of gravel, you could shake it and it wouldn’t break. The bits would move against each other. There would be friction. Well, I think friction’s not bad, it’s only through friction that you get social change of any kind. If people want to avoid all friction they’re crazy. Thai’s the greatest bit of nonsense. You’ve got to have a degree of conflict. What you have to do is keep it under control, keep it respectable, keep it civilized, and then you do get something.
And the frictions in Australia, I think, have been productive and useful. We got to the point where we were going to show the rest of the world in the 21st century that people could get along together, that you could reconcile yourself if you were an indigenous population, that you could celebrate, not simply tolerate, the complexity of your society’s makeup.
Now I have to tell you, to my astonishment, that when I wrote with Joan the report, everyone signed off on it. The unthinkable had happened. This committee who were at daggers drawn and basically detested each other all agreed, two ‘r’s and the ‘t’: reconciliation, the republic, and tolerance.
Now the double-hunger of course was going to be that, as well as us having our big birthday party, the Sydney Olympics were about to take place. We were putting out our welcome mat to the world. Now think about the symbolism of those two monuments. Here we were, on display, showing what a wonderful, developed, progressive country we were. But many of the nations who were going to march in to that arena were going to be there for the very first time. They were new. Many nations who’d been major players and medal-winners at previous Olympics wouldn’t be there, for the first time. This is a world in flux, this is a world in an extraordinary moment of change, but a great moment to advertise.
Then something very very strange and unexpected, just when I was thinking, gosh, we are going to be a beacon to the world in the new century, we had a Federal election, and it was corrupted by the phenomenon of bigotry.
Now, I am no good on computers, I can’t do web-sites, I don’t need them. I’ve got Barry Jones. If I ever need to know anything I ring up Bolge and he tells me. But Barry also tells me things I don’t ask him. He is always bounding up to me at airports and telling me something I didn’t ask him, and didn’t really seek to know. I remember he was coming down to Tasmania because as you know he was deeply embroiled in the whole Port Arthur exercise. He bounded up as only Barry can and said to me, lightning goes up, not down. I said, Thank you, Barry’, and then I promptly forgot it.
Then I saw a documentary in which it seemed that Barry was on to something, that at the time of the storm there is a great build-up of static electricity up there but on the ground, every vertical thing, whether it was a blade of grass or a lamp post or a fencepost or a tree sends up a little filament to say, choose me, choose me, and bingo! This is the moment if you like of meteorological orgasm and these two things meet, the filaments and the lightning. Now I remembered that when Pauline Hanson was on the road up, had Hanson not existed, had the Liberal Party not given her pre-selection for the seat of Ipswich I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of what was about to overwhelm this country, particularly.
Because, if you go back and look at the election results for that year, in every electorate in the country there was an ominous swing to the right. And the most bigoted candidates across the nation did best of all. Loathsome creatures like Wilson Tuckey got the biggest two-party preferred in the country. There was a Labor Party creature sitting in Kalgoorlie who, down the track, would become briefly a One Nation leader, who got a huge vote. In every electorate in the country with a significant Aboriginal population all held by Labor at the time. They all went: all fell.
What had happened was there were quite a lot of little filaments wanting to receive the lightning rod. It was just that Pauline got the most publicity she didn’t create the dynamic. All she did was make it visible. And in a way I was almost grateful to her because it showed that I and I think many of us had been living in a delusion—about the nature of our society, about who we are and where we come from, and what is in the dark recesses of our hearts.
Now, before we go on I have to say I did a book on Hanson. I edited it, I rounded up all the usual criminals for contributions. And in my foreword I said, “Look, I know, I never claim that bigotry is some-thing other, something outside. It’s something I’ve got inside me and I’ve always had to deal with it from childhood. I grew up being taught by the Christian minister who was my father that Jews had killed Christ and it took me a long time to understand, to recognise what he was telling me in it’s historical significance. It wasn’t until, in my early teens, I heard about holocaust, although there wasn’t a word for it then, I learnt about the camps, and I started to overwhelm the programmed hostility to Jews, and to become very different in my attitudes.
But I can remember, in the playgrounds at East Kew, the reffos as we called them, the displaced persons’ children who arrived from Europe after the war, and I would be there with the other children chanting, go back to your own country, you reffos. Why? Because 1 had been programmed by the community to think that way. My best friend was a Roman Catholic boy, Johnny Sinclair. We’d go to school together, hand-in-hand, and then we’d part at the school gates. He would go to the Catholic school over the road and me to the State school. Then it was Belfast, and we would chant, ‘Catholic dogs stink like frogs, jumping out of hollow logs, and they would retaliate with ‘State, State, full of hate!’
This was our heritage. Remember the bitterness in this country between Catholics and Protestants which tore police departments apart, still docs in Australia all this time later, and which manifested itself in the great split, between the DLP and the Labor Party. This was a country which had its divisions, and we all, in fact, learned to bottle them up, to subsume them, or most of us had learnt, and to overwhelm them if you like with a more considered attitude. But that terrible stuff is still in the system. You never entirely get rid of it and it can be easily triggered. So when I was attacking One Nation, I wasn’t doing it to say they were Martians, 1 was doing it in the recognition that they were us, they were a variation on the theme of us. But 1 couldn’t believe the way it happened and how quickly it happened.
And it reminded me, in a change of metaphors, of anthrax. The spores lie in the ground for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, and when you gel the right balance, the right rainfall, the right heat, whatever, and suddenly you get an outbreak of anthrax. That’s what we had in this country; an outbreak of the anthrax of bigotry, and suddenly it was on for young and old.
John Howard, of course, gave it his approval. He started to tackle what he called political correctness. I’m sure you will remember this, this altitude that people had not been saying what they wanted to say, and now they could. It was a licence not to kill but a licence to be abusive and every human rights organisation in Australia saw people responding to this kind invitation. So suddenly our much-vaunted tolerance was shown to be a fantasy, a collective fantasy. And right across Asia, in particular, the horror that this evoked amongst our neighbours remains to this day.
If you wander the world, and I’m sure many of you have had this experience, Australia just disappeared. Unless there was a major catastrophe or a test match, you never saw any reference to your own country while you were travelling. But after the One Nation phenomenon broke out we were big news. And everywhere I went we were big news. People said, “What’s happening to your country?” This is not what they thought when we’d invited them to throw a shrimp on the barbie, when we’d invited them to come to Australia to see this triumphant and complex and yet essentially open, happy
So when it happened, it immediately corrupted the political process. Howard had appropriated One Nation quite dazzlingly, and why not? He had always had those views
I am going to tell you a story which I have never told publicly. I am the chair of a strange organisation in Sydney called the Commission for the Mind. And it’s run by a Woody Allen look-alike who is a genius scientist. Our patron to my astonishment is the Prime Minister and I chair it. There is a certain interesting tension there.
We were having a big do and we invited him. We always try to get a head to cut the ribbon. It was Oliver Sachs who was the first, the second was Nelson Mandela. So I had the job, I was to be introduced by the Vice Chancellor, I was then to introduce John Howard, John Howard was then to introduce Nelson Mandela and I was in torment. How could I, proud to be one of John Howard’s greatest enemies, how could I introduce this fellow? And all I thought was I didn’t want to do it and I kept trying to wriggle out of it. But the only thing to do was to do it absolutely formal.
About half-an-hour before the event I get a phone call from someone in the PM’s office. “Do you really want to introduce the Prime Minister?” And I said, “of course I bloody well don’t!” And this voice said, “Yes, it would be a bit hypocritical, wouldn’t it?” I said, “Yes, but not as hypocritical as him introducing Nelson Mandela!” And I have to tell you the irony was not lost on Nelson. He whispered an aside to ask me how Paul Keating was.
There was another ghost at the banquet and that was Malcolm Fraser, Malcolm to me was the embodiment of evil, in 1975. But these days we’re great mates. We form organisations together on issues like refugees. Now Malcolm’s standing, then towering over all of us and I’m talking to him and Howard’s literally three feet away, and he is blazing out his hatred and his venom, in his wonderful voice. And the Vice-Chancellor, his eyes are rolling, and he says, ‘get rid of him!’ So I said ‘would you like a cup of tea?’ Then I took him off to an anteroom and I think I almost killed him. I said to Malcolm, “Sit down.” And he sat down; and, as he sat down he gathered speed, and he reached and passed warp speed, and he couldn’t stop sitting. And his head hit the mantelpiece and he knocked himself out! He woke up a few minutes later but in that time I thought, “I’ve killed him. I’ve killed the wrong prime minister!”
Malcolm suffered temporary amnesia, and doesn’t remember the incident. What he does remember, and this is the story he told me and this is the story he was spraying out at the time that I removed him to that antechamber: Malcolm said, that little ‘blip’ was in my cabinet. And we all remembered that of course. He said, after the Vietnam War, there were a whole group of Vietnamese who if you like had been collaborators with Australia who were in great risk of being killed or of being shoved into appalling internment camps.
So he said he and Gough had a quick chat and agreed that they would allow them into Australia without any publicity; no discussion. It would all be done quietly. And Gough, despite his problems with Malcolm, naturally agreed, and then Malcolm took it to his cabinet and he said there was no argument. Everyone agreed that this had to happen. Everyone except one person. Guess who? Guess who totally opposed that notion? I would remind you that it was John Howard at the studios of 2UE, (and I want to talk about those studios a little later), who destroyed his leadership hopes at the time by announcing or admitting to his hatred of Asian immigration. We have an extraordinarily bigoted man running the country.
So it was very easy for him to embrace Hansonism but what made it worse was that so did every one else. Barry Jones, I think he was at the time the president of the ALP; he rang me and said, what a choice the voters are going to get at this election. This is not the Tampa election, this is the one before, he said, they can get 100% One Nation by voting One Nation, they can get 95% One Nation by voting for the National Party, they can get 90% of it by voting for the Libs and they can get about 75% by voting Labor. And that’s what happened in this country. That’s why One Nation is now a spent force. Who needs it? It is now part of the mainstream political life. So something is going on in the country, something ominous, something pack oriented. And you saw what happened. But it became infinitely worse when our ancient fears of White Australia were triggered and manipulated by the fake crisis of the asylum-seekers. People don’t understand this but in the last 20 years, 23 years now, the average invasion of asylum-seekers has been less than 1,000 people per annum, a couple of jumbo jets. It’s nothing, it is absolutely nothing. But Howard contended that it was a major international crisis, and brought us to international shame and disrepute by playing it that way.
So even before the Tampa I was horrified to see what Phil Ruddock was up to. Now Ruddock had been a friend of mine. Ruddock had set up Amnesty in Canberra, he was a good bloke, he crossed the floor on moral issues, on immigration, when he was a shadow minister he was a good bloke. But he suddenly finds himself in office and because he was suspect like Alston and Hill and a couple of other reasonably, progressive people in the Liberal Party, and if they were to have a career under Howard, they’ve got to be the hardest hearted, coldest-hearted, the hardest-headed, of anyone in the cabinet.
Long before Tampa I went to see Phil in his office and I said, Phil, how can you be doing what you’re doing; he wasn’t doing much then I’ve got to say, but it seemed pretty bad at the time, and I said, how can you be going against your conscience? He looked at me and he said, ‘I’ve waited twenty years to be a minister’. He went on of course to become, I think in some ways, the most tragic and the most evil of all the front bench, tragic because he knows what he’s doing is absolutely and utterly wrong but he still does it and he does it and did it with zeal.
And at one point there was a couple of escapees from Villawood and he announced that anyone who gave them safe harbour would get ten years in jail. Ten years in jail. And he went on to say that there were not more than two hundred people in Australia would do something as silly as that. I wrote a column and said ten years, you don’t get that for murder. Ten years is a massive sentence, and I said I can’t believe there’s just two hundred. If you’re willing to go on a civil disobedience register would you write to me. Think it through, but I want you to sign up, publicly, be published on a web-site or something: your name, your address, that your family is willing to put yourself in this kind of position.
Three or four days passed and nothing happened and I thought, oh, Ruddock’s right and I’m wrong, and then it happened. Now I have been writing newspaper columns, would you believe, for fifty years and I got to say that I get more than my fair share of mail. The hate mail the last couple of weeks has been quite spectacular. The mail that came in after Tampa, no, before Tampa, on this issue, was simply unprecedented. I finished up getting ten thousand letters from a conservative newspaper’s readership, from The Australian. Look at the demographics of the Oz: it’s one of Rupert’s most conservative papers. I couldn’t believe it.
And the letters were lovely, because you’d get a family who’d had a meeting, and the two kids would say, well, if we have a bunk in that bedroom, then there’ll be a spare bedroom to hide escapees in and there’s one of those Muslim butchers down the road.
You know they’d sort of thought it through. They were very very touching. And what it showed me that whilst most of Australia was showing complete indifference, those Australians that did care, cared very deeply. So it was still, if you like, a sort of numeric balance. A huge majority of indifference, balanced by the intensity of feeling of a comparatively small group.
Then Tampa. This rubbish! For God’s sake, every one of them, we know now, has been recognised as a genuine refugee, I’ve met most of these characters, not necessarily off the Tampa but I go round to camps. These are some of the best and bravest people on earth, some of the finest people, fleeing the Taliban, fleeing the mullahs in Iran, fleeing Saddam Hussein, heroic people, people of immense gifts. I remember being at a graduation ceremony at one of the Australian universities where one person won almost every prize. He just kept coming up, getting another scroll to add to his armload. He was out of one of the camps. You know these are great people, almost without exception. But we were led to believe that they were illegals. They weren’t. That they were queue-jumpers. They weren’t. That they were specific or potential terrorists. They weren’t. You remember this. It was garbage. But the shattering thing, ladies and gentlemen, is that our fellow citizens copped it. They chose to believe it. And I use the word ‘chose’ because it was a decision to believe. It was such crap.
The people who wanted to harden their hearts, who wanted to dull their consciences. They asked to be lied to. And, boy, they were lied to. Again and again, it seemed to me that something was going to happen and this would break, that these people who told me to a man and a woman that they were tolerant, would suddenly realise what they were doing, what they were participating in. SIEV X. That had to be it. Do you remember the morning when we read about SIEV X? What? 370 people drowning en route to Australia, men. women, and children. This was a calamity, this was like a jumbo jet going down. That many people. And I thought this is it. this changes the dynamic of the election: we’re out of trouble. No, it didn’t. No one gave a tuppenny-damn. Most journalists were hardly interested in the issue. It’s one of the few things The Australian actually got right, it was one of the only papers that look it on, as David Marr was reminding us the other day in a lecture he was giving. I took it on. But it was basically a non-issue for Australians. They’d made their decision. You know, the ‘reds under the beds’ had been replaced by Muslims, in the minds of the public and up went the razor wire. And the Minister for Immigration flourished his Amnesty badge; well you know the story, well you know what happens, you know the way it goes on and on and on.
Then we enter another era. I can remember coming off air one night, and we all have the story, we’ve got variation on that. I came home from the ABC and popped the telly on. Clunk! What’s this? That’s really bad pilot error. Minutes later the other one. And in an instant you know
I rang Patrice at the farm and woke her up and said, turn on the television set. Howard’s just won the election. Because it was apparent that this was a great gift. And in fact that’s the extraordinary thing that Bin Laden and Co have done, they have absolutely entrenched the ultra-right in power across the world. I don’t know what they’re on about. This doesn’t seem to be the terrorism scenario. Although, I remember when I was briefly in the Communist party at the age of fifteen, many communists used to vote Liberal on the basis that it would bring about the inevitable collapse of capitalism, that Marxism predicted would come about. It didn’t work for that either, did it?
I have watched a master showman in Howard, manipulating the fear and anxiety and dread and resentment and bigotry like a great conductor conducting an orchestra.
And I have never underestimated him. In fact, I remember when he was out of power, I bumped into him in an airport lounge and I said, John, the thing what my mob is most afraid of is you getting Ihe leadership back. I have to tell it was an early morning flight to Canberra, he and 1 were alone having a cup of tea at one end. None of his mob were talking to him. They were all up the other end. That was how out of it Howard was. He only got back, 1 would remind you, because every other possible federal leader had fallen over, like the silly what’s his name from Mayo: Humphrey B. Bear. What’s his name? Yes, Alexander. Thank you, Alexander Downer. I really believe he is Humphrey B. Bear. Both of them come from South Australia and I’ve never seen them together.
It is interesting to know that, at the time of Twin Towers, the Bush government was finished. Bush was on the slide, he was just hanging on by a hair. Rumsfeld was about to be replaced. That decision had been virtually signed off in the White House. And Rumsfeld knew it. Rumsfeld said, at the time just before the attack, the only thing that can save me is a Pearl Harbour. Well he got it. Just when the Bush administration was leaking the names of people to replace Rumsfeld; it happens, it saves Rumsfeld. It saves the Bush administration, and it sends the world spiralling into this terrible, terrible, terrible time.
Now I’m not pretending that terrorism isn’t an implacable enemy, of course it is, but the fact is, as Michael Moore quite recently pointed out. No, I think I pointed this point: you are more likely to die the death of Aeschylus, and I’ll remind you of what that was: Aeschylus was wandering around Athens when he gets hit on the head by a falling tortoise, dropped by an eagle. That’s the truth of it. That’s how unlikely it is. The statistics are like that. Up to and until when they really do have weapons of mass destruction. It is an irritation but it’s a very useful one for people who want to manipulate the field because nothing makes people, nothing makes them more manageable, more easy to control, than collective fear.
Okay. The process now goes on and on and on. The Australian people, unique in the Western world, certainly unique amongst the so-called Coalition of the Willing, are happy to be lied to, even when the revelations came out, time and time and time again, that we’d been told porkies. Howard’s rating, as preferred Prime Minister, went up and up and up and up. It’s not what happened in the US, it’s not what happened in the UK, it’s not what happened in Portugal, but it’s what happened here. Which suggests that there’s something strange about us.
Now there are a couple of things: for one, that really our involvement in the war in Iraq is absolute tokenism. It was just a gesture. But it was one that Bush needed. If you read that extraordinary book of the journalist who became famous, that’s it, Bob Woodward’s book. And I was talking to Woodward about this. Woodward says that Bush absolutely needed Howard, that Howard was pushing Bush to the war. And if he hadn’t had Howard it mightn’t have happened. That was what Woodward says, not on air, but off air, he says that Howard was that influential.
We were pushed into a war, which had nothing to do with us, a war across the other side of the world, a war which anyone could see, where the cure would be at least as bad as the disease – and we copped it. Now, okay, no Australians are killed, or have been killed thus far, so token gesture, we’re meant to get trade dollars like the free trade agreement, and it’s a long way away, and Howard says, look, it’s past history so leave it. And we obligingly forgot it.
But the thing that makes it worse, is so did the Labour Party. Let’s roll back. The 10,000 people that sent me those emails were almost all Labor voters, who were heart-broken by the failure of Beasley, and almost without exception those emails said, I’m ashamed to be Australian. This is pre-Tampa. I am ashamed to be Australian and I will never vote Labour again. I remember ringing Browny and saying. Bob, you are about to get a huge increase in branch membership or at least in electoral support. Because I knew that the Labor Party was suffering from a fatal, and I think terminal attack of moral and ethical cowardice.
So what happened with Beasley in the last few weeks before the last Federal election when, and I don’t need to remind you, reconciliation was never mentioned, when refugees were never mentioned. In fact Latham’s attitude—Latham had a column in the Daily Telegraph…. I’ve been the only voice in all the News Limited papers attacking Howard for years, the only voice, I’m the tolerated leftie. I’m the token gesture if you like, probably I’m there to represent pluralism. So I keep hammering away, and Latham writing in another Murdoch paper said that I was what was wrong with the ALP. Me! John Howard was saying I was what was wrong with the ABC.
Latham said that there’s no place in the ALP for Phillip Adams, He said it on a number of occasions then he gets the leadership so I haven’t been a great enthusiast of Latham’s. I managed to find a few kind words on aspects of his education Policy but it was through gritted teeth. I know that Latham is more conservative on most issues than Howard. His hostility. He regards the refugee issue as symbolic. That’s the word he uses, as is reconciliation. Symbolic. It’s not a real issue. It’s an issue for trendies that gather together at meetings in Hobart. We’re not real. We’re not the real progressives. We are in fact obstacles to Latham’s vision splendid, of the third way. We demean his vision splendid for his aspirational voters.
Well, he got that wrong, because what happened was that primary vote went down yet again, went across to the Greens. The Democrats, poor babies, just died. But their vote went back to the Libs which was extraordinary. But the aspirational didn’t aspire to Mark Latham; they aspired to John Howard, thank you very much. It was what my dear friend Barry said, it was a choice between Kentucky Fried and McDonalds and people went for the golden arches. And why wouldn’t they? If you want to be conservative you go for the real thing.
So this is where we’re at, this is where we’re at. How do we get out of it? I’ve got to say that I’ve been in a state of some despair. But I’m now going to tell you about an experience I had when I was working at 2UE, a station that I never mention, with people whose names never touch my lips; like John Laws, Alan Jones and Stan Zemanek.
I moved to Sydney twenty years ago and had nothing to do at night and a very lovely bloke called Brian White, a great Australian journalist, now dead, said would you like to do the late-night slot on 2UE talking to anyone you like. We’re networking around Australia, it’s a bold experiment to see if we can have a national network on commercial radio. And I said, okay, why not, it’ll be good practice, so I used to wander in there and I could do what I liked. So I’d get Manning Clark, it was a two-hour program, and I’d get Manning Clark and I’d talk to Manning for two hours on 2UE. which was the John Laws and Alan Jones and Stan Zemanek station.
Management were a bit confused. Because they had never heard of Manning Clark, and the program rated as well as anything else on the station. But they became a bit despondent about this, they didn’t like this, because they couldn’t figure it out it and therefore it must be wrong, so they came in and said, Look, Phillip, you’ve got to do talk-back, you’ve just got to do talkback like everyone else. I said, I don’t want to do talkback. I said the people who ring in are all loonies. And they said, oh well, perhaps different people will ring in for you, left-wing loonies. I said I didn’t want to do it and they said you’ve got to do it.
So I said okay, so two nights a week I’ll talk to the listeners and two nights a week I could interview Manning Clark for two hours. And so I’d sit there in the studio. And I know how it works. Talk-back radio is a complete fake. The first talkback thing was Barry Jones at 3UB in Melbourne, though I think that was different because no one got a word in edgeways. But in the beginning talkback radio was pluralist and there were some very good progressives doing talkback radio all over the country. It only became right-wing when managements discovered that the more bile and vileness and bombast and bullying that came through the speakers, the more people liked it. So it became the province as we all know, of rightwing ratbaggery and demagoguery.
And I knew enough about it, and I’d sort of observe at first hand, as I wandered the studios to see how it worked. So you had, let’s look at the difference, say, between Jones and Laws, Laws has got no belief system at all, believes in nothing, except jumping for Toyota, Valvoline, or anyone else who will pay him. He was a great believer in doing the Toyota leap in return for ill-gotten gains. But he would stick his finger out of the window of a morning, or indeed if someone would stick their finger out the window and sec which way the wind was blowing and go with it. And that was basically John’s approach. Alan, of course, is different. Alan is on a mission from God to make Joh Bjelke-Petersen prime minister or whatever.
But the way the system worked is they would set a proposition. You’d try and pour (when I’d been on air), instead, I’d be trying to pour oil on troubled waters, (hey’re pouring kerosene on hot coals. So you’d set up some antagonistic notion and you’d get all your friendly callers ringing in to endorse you. To give you that warm glow of agreement. But a few poor suckers who disagreed were allowed through the system, so they could be squelched, so they could be humiliated, degraded, dumped on and turned off. Some of them could be tricky. They’d get into the system by pretending to be right-wing loonies, but there is a thing called the 7-second delay; so if they got through the perimeter wire and got on air, and actually shafted Laws or Jones, they’d press the magic button and they’d simply disappear! You have no idea what a hassle it was.
So I inherited, basically, Laws’ and Jones’ and Zemanek’s listeners. So I’d sit there looking at the screen. I’d come from the ABC where I’d been surrounded by geniuses. But at 2UE I had one strange bloke who had lots of body piercing and a leather jacket, who’d sit on the other side of the glass thing and type with two fingers: ‘Fred—Woy Woy—Asian immigration’. Well you’d know what it was going to be. And I thought, what am I going to do? Will I take these people on, be rude to them and dump them like the others do. Or will I pretend no one is ringing. So that was what I did, I used to pretend no one was phoning up, and play records. Management were not convinced that this was a good idea, and so I had to do it.
And so people would ring in and the funny thing was, they were all trained performers. I think there only about fifty people who do all the talkback phone calls in Australia, and they’re constantly rewarded for their bigotry. And they come on and say appalling things about Abos, poofters, trade unionists, school-bloody-teachers, you know, there’s a whole hate list. They were rewarded. They’d get a John Laws’ watch, they’d get dinner for two at the Harbourside Brasserie, they’d get patted on the head for being obnoxious, because the worse they were, the worse they were, the better radio they were regarded as being.
And, in parenthesis, I did a talkback show. Years and years and years ago, for a couple of weeks for 3 AW in Melbourne to see if I liked it and I didn’t. But I remember I had Alan Marshall come in to talk to me. Some of you would remember Alan. He was an absolutely wonderful bloke, what little was left of him, because over the years they’d been whittling away at Alan. And he came in in his wheelchair and he sat opposite me. We were dear friends. And he was very upset.
He was upset because his lifelong publisher Frank Cheshire had refused to publish the last volume of his autobiography. “Alan, why?” All the money you’ve made Cheshire, with ‘I can Jump Puddles’ and those wonderful books. And he said, because I get into the issue of sexuality and disability. I said, well, what do you want to say, say it now, if Cheshire won’t let you say it. So Alan started talking about the great problem of being profoundly disabled and having any sexual release whatsoever and he was calling for sexual surrogates to help out. And I said, ah, that’s a good idea, ‘Feels on Wheels’. When I came off air the station manager is standing there and he said, we’ve had six hundred phone calls, and I said, I’m sorry. He said, we’re thrilled to bits!
That’s what you’ve got to understand about the 21st century media. Even one of my jobs at The Australian is to be the lightning rod for rightwing hatred. Last week, perhaps half the letters on the election result, were na-na-nan-na-na-na letters attacking me. But you get used to it.
So, here I am on radio, these people are coming in, I’ve got to take the callers, so I thought I’d do something absolutely without precedent. I thought I’d talk to them, not yell at them, not humiliate them, not insult, not dump, not the seven second delay. I thought I’d just have a chat, and I was emboldened by the example of one of my favourite films, The Life of Brian’. ‘The Life of Brain’ is a very beautiful film. It’s not a particularly religious or even irreligious film: it is a political film.
The great scene is where John Cleese in his black ‘jammies is sitting round with a cluster of other people all wearing their black pyjamas, and they’re discussing, this tiny little Palestinian splinter group, the overthrow of the Roman Empire. So John’s whipping them into a frenzy and he says, what have the Romans ever clone for us? Do you remember the scene? And after a while this little voice says, Aquaducts! Aquaducts! So as the scene progresses other voices say, you can walk the streets at night, the wine’s not bad, and Cleese is infuriated, says, I’ll give you aquaducts, safety at night, good wine! What else have the bastards ever done for us?
So that’s my model. Perhaps I can do this. So I would take calls from people who were blazingly offensive on issues that I hold dear, and I’d let them go on, and then I’d would just talk to them as quietly as possible, and I found that I could destabilise them remarkably easily, remarkably easily.
Some one would ring up on the hatred of Asian migrants, and I’d say, “That Victor Chang bloke over at St Vinnies isn’t bad, is he? You know the one that puts the tickers in.” And they’d say, “oh no, he’s all right.” I’d say, “Do you like Chinese food”, and they’d say, “Oh yes, I love it.” And within a couple of minutes you’d have them wobbling a bit. And within a couple of minutes you had them quite ready to agree. I’m not pretending that I was capable of doing miraculous conversions from fascist to Green Party but what I did discover, and I think it was a revelation of profound importance in the context in which we are gathered here tonight, what can we do about the future.
What I discovered was Adam’s First Law of Talkback and this is what it says: “vehemence of expression doesn’t necessarily equate with depth of conviction.” Now it was the people ringing up saying these appalling things. They’d been trained to say them, they’d been encouraged to say them, they got their little moment of fame on a radio station by saying it. They got a John Laws’ watch for saying it. This was the dynamic. But if you talked to them reasonably, quietly, for five or six minutes, you could get them to back off, and I thought, how fascinating, perhaps this is an universal truth. Perhaps half the people in the world who rant and rave on social issues are not particularly secure in those beliefs. And that’s my belief. I find this all the time, all the time.
In fact most of us have contrary and conflicting views ourselves on almost everything. It’s a matter of how the question is phrased. It’s like polling—you can get any results you like if you ask an ingenious question. And you can trigger the results very easily. I can remember years and years ago reading a British government document, long before the wave of privatisations began, which said that 80% of the British voters were opposed to the nationalisation of the steel industry. And then I saw the footnotes: 70% were in favour of further public ownership. Post nationalistic in favour of public ownership. And I know, that all the time, going back to the fact that we’re programmed for bigotry and we have to learn to deal with it, to overwhelm it.
I know that we are ambivalent and ambiguous. That we’re full of ideas that wash around in the neurons and synapses that we do our best to control; but on many issues we are of two or three or four minds, it’s not even a simple polarity; and its a lot of thoughts there. But I’ve got friends who told me they’d stopped listening to parliamentary debates because they found they agreed with both sides. It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it? But I found there were two things I agree with John Howard on: one was gun laws, and the other was the intervention in the Solomon Islands and I actually think that intervention has done a bloody great job and I hate admitting it. Don’t tell anyone that I have.
Now, if it’s right, if it’s right that people are of two minds; if, in fact, people are still wanting to be tolerant, if they still believe that that’s an ideal, a national ideal, or better still, a form of national identity, we have to work with it.
I set up an organisation with my ten thousand readers, whose numbers were greatly swelled by Tampa, and I said, look, there’s not enough escaping refugees to go round so would you mind if we turned this energy into something else, namely a civil rights movement, the first civil righls organisation really of any size, that’s nationally based. Most of the others were imports, whether they are Green peace or Amnesty.
And with me, would you believe, was Malcolm Fraser. So I go ahead and set this up and you suddenly you have a who’s who of wonderful human rights activists and pro bono lawyers and all sort of working with us. What we did, we said the Liberal party is a fact of life. We cannot pretend it’s not there and we cannot assume they will lose the next election. Even on the refugee issues we went in amongst the Liberal Party and found that it wasn’t monolithic, that there were fracture-lines, that there were members of the ‘political enemy’ who felt as embarrassed as we did about our treatment of refugees.
And incidentally, that’s the first thing that all of us have to recognise. Labor is out. Labor, I think, is out forever. I said to Keating just after he lost, I said, Paul, what’s it feel like to be the last Labor Prime Minister, I didn’t mean the last in the sense of the most recent, I meant the last. Because I saw in the Beazley era something happening to Labor which was going to kill it stone-motherless-dead. And I think that’s gone on to prove to be the case. Only an optimist could think Labor could possibly win an election even in two terms time. I think the Labor Party is so implacably confused as to its identity and so devoid of any sense of the numinous or the spiritual. I use those terms as an atheist, because even an atheist lias a sense of morals and ethics are absolutely basic to any decent political movement.
I was saying the other day to Keating, a political party is not just a machine to win elections, it just doesn’t exist so every three or four years you can hand out How to Vote cards. It is in fact a collective, an organisation, a tribe, a family, its all sorts of things, but the people who are in it or who support it whatever it is do need nourishment for the soul, not just a pile of bloody money on election day.
Who saw John Clarke and Bruce doing their final night on the 7.30 Report? Two Johns, one of them was Howard, one of them was Latham, and they’re just chucking buckets of money at the camera. That’s what it boiled down to, finally. Neither side touched on the issues, the redemptive issues for Australian society, that we have to deal with if we’re to be worth tuppence in the 21st century.
I don’t think either side of politics is worth feeding at the moment. And I’ve been a member of the Labor Party longer than Mark Latham’s been alive. But I’ve had it. I will take a lot of persuading to ever show the slightest hint of enthusiasm for them again. And I have to say you would be shocked to know who agrees with me, at the highest level of the Labor Party, who feels just as disenfranchised, just as bitter about what has happened, as I do. It seems to me, therefore, that we’ve got to recognise that the Liberal Party is a huge power in the land, but it isn’t monolithic, and we’ve got to look for political change and advantage within it.
It is not new. In the seventies, I can remember, on issue after issue, you could go up to both sides of the house, late sixties and seventies, and work out alliances on issues like censorship, on a whole raft of progressive issues, you could get people across the party lines to agree. We’ve got to start trying to do that again. The other thing that we have to do in my view is to recognise I come back to tolerance. What Australians have now learnt to tolerate is cruelty, what Australians have now learnt to tolerate is the criminal treatment of asylum-seekers. What Australians have learnt to tolerate is the ongoing, unbearable conditions of the Aboriginal communities. That’s what we now tolerate. And gosh that’s a big thing to overcome and we’re not going to do it easily, if ever. But we’ve got to do it incrementally.
Now what I’ve learnt in the last twenty years since I’ve been living on a farm in a little tiny town in northern NSW is that my vision of politics, my experience of politics, which was always trickle down; having media outlets has meant that I could ring anyone I wanted and manipulate, without being democratically elected, and I could just do it as I had that access.
Up where I live no one knows anything about what I do and Patrice and I have got to fight the local battles at grass-roots level and it’s been a revelation to me just how tough that is and how it’s a one person at a time process. Most of you know this better than I ever did. But I’ve now had to learn that’s what social change is about. It’s about talking lo people, one at a time. It’s about not being silent if you hear someone say something appalling about refugees or Abos or poofters. You have to talk to them, not yell at them, but talk to them, on the assumption that the First Law of Talkback is equally applicable to the wider world. That’s something we’ve got to do. We’ve got to fight back in tiny increments each day, in each conversation, an issue at a time.
And we probably have to admit the fact that some political parties reach the end of their era. The Liberal Party in Britain dominated British politics for yonks and yonks and yonks and suddenly, almost overnight, it disappeared. The Tories, the Conservatives, in England, they’re in the same position; they’ve just about evaporated. So the Lib-Dems are now becoming the major, the second force. I don’t think it’s my duty to particularly care about the future of the Labor Party. I am much more concerned about the future of Australia, I am concerned about the issues, I am concerned about fighting a good fight.
And when I feel dispirited, and that’s a lot of the time, I think of the good things I’ve discovered. For example, I now realise that some of the best left wingers in Australia are nuns! This is someone who used to chant these vile statements against Catholics over the back of school. In fact there was a moment when from every Catholic pulpit in Australia on one Sunday morning a statement was read out which told every Catholic attending church that day across this wide brown land, that it was a sin to read any newspaper that published me, column or listen to any radio station that broadcasts me.
These days on every issue I’ve got Josephites to my left, and to the right, I’ve got the Jesuits there. And I’ve learnt that you can make alliances with people that you never dreamed possible. To me it’s a wonderful thing, for an atheist, to be in a united front with Roman Catholics. But I’m not on the road to Damascus, I have to say, well, I am, but I’m still going in the other direction.
I don’t believe people are basically good or basically bad. I think we’re all just a great, immense, psychological mess. And that almost everything we’re wired for is decidedly problematic. I mean sex-what a serious mistake that was! Single cell division, simple, uncomplicated, without any moral quandaries and temptations. But we’re stuck with it The same with a great many human attributes. But I also believe that pessimism, and I’m not being pessimistic, I’m just trying to recognise and diminish the problem, but pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as is cynicism.
And I come back often when i’m responding to letters, I often finish a letter with this little story: Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist, was celebrating his eighty-fourth, eighty-fifth birthday, in Madrid. They hold a press conference, for the dear old fellow, they plonk him on Ihe stage and he’s answering questions from the press on all sorts of issues And he had a pretty bleak view of the world and he was droning on about what a mess everything was, which is something eight-five year-olds often have, or in my case sixty-five year-olds get, and then he suddenly stopped and some sort of cognitive process went on and then he said two sentences – and I love them. They don’t seem to fit together, but together I think they are exactly the formula that we have to use in difficult times. The first seems to be resignation, the second to hint at determination. This is what he said: “The situation is hopeless. We must take the next step.”
Tasmania Peace Trust, 2004 Lecture
The Emu’s Bum