The hero of The fight, the book I have just written with Tom Uren, is not Tom Uren, or not in my eyes. The hero of a book about what is required of us in a time of rapid, not to say acute, historical change is Patrick Dodson. I caught up with Patrick at the 40th celebration of the walk-off from Wave Hill Station by Gurindji stockmen in 1966, which I attended with Tom earlier this year.
To begin with at least, that was an eerie experience. A strange, fearful sense of absence was in the air. In the seven days preceding the celebration, two things had happened. One was a newspaper article in The Australian newspaper devaluing the day, saying the myth of the Wave Hill walk-off was a cameo of the Left that was wrong in almost every detail. Dodson calls people who make claims such as these 'the modern iconoclasts'. 'They destroy our shared mythologies,' he says. This was also the week the Federal Government passed what its supporters termed 'reforms' of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act. You would need a lawyer and the full time accorded to this lecture to examine the ins and outs of that legislation. What I can report as a fact is that while I heard many Aboriginal people speak against the Act in deeply suspicious or actively distrustful terms, I heard not the ghost of an Aboriginal voice raised in support of them.
Patrick Dodson was a 13-year-old kid in Katherine, the nearest big town to Wave Hill when the walk-off occurred. The big White for Rights rallies that followed in Katherine remain the most frightening racism he’s ever seen, and this is not a man who scares easily. I once watched Patrick prepare to wrestle a three-meter hammerhead shark into a boat from which we were fishing near Broome. As a kid, he wanted to be a stockman. The Aboriginal stockmen of Northern Australia were legend. One of the greatest of them, Vincent Lingiari, was the senior lawman for the Gurindji. Patrick Dodson, in addition to being a former Catholic priest, is an initiated Yawru man. That means, in the words of Paul Kelly’s song, that like Vincent Lingiari he stands in the Law. Vincent Lingiari was the chief stockmen at Wave Hill; he also led the walk-off. Initially, the issue was wages. They weren’t getting any, or, if they did, it went at the company store. Their women were also being 'degraded' by white ringers when the black stockmen were away from camp, which was much of the time. Dodson tells me a major shift in Lingiari’s thinking came when the Australian and American armies swept through the Northern Territory during World War 2 and he saw black people being treated differently from the way his people knew. This told him the white man had more than one way of being.
It was only after Vincent and the other stockmen sat down in protest over these issues that the story entered its second phase. What happened next is best summed up by Vincent’s statement: 'I bin thinking this Gurindji land'. Auntie Cathy Mills, the granddaughter of a Gurindji woman and Senior Territorian of the Year, told me the next part of the story. Once the Gurindji decided they wanted their land back they shifted camp to a place that had a significance in tribal lore commensurate to what they were now demanding. 'That’s what land rights mean,' Auntie Cathy told me. 'Going back to the source of the power'. Nine years later, Gough Whitlam went to that same place and, as Prime Minister of Australia, poured sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand as a symbol of the return of 1200 square miles of Gurindji land to his people. After Whitlam spoke, Lingiari responded in Gurindji, 201 words in the English translation, telling his people this was ceremony, this exchange between whitefeller and blackfeller was Law, then he turned and said to Whitlam: 'We be mates now'. It is a moment of mutual respect and dignity without repeat in Australian history.
It seems necessary to note that Patrick Dodson is not a naive man. His elder sister once saw their mother chained to a tree by the authorities. Nonetheless, Dodson believed in education - that is, he believed if the gudija, the whitefellers, were educated in Aboriginal culture, if they actually met and spoke to the custodians of Aboriginal culture, the disharmony between the two groups could be minimised and long-held disputes resolved. One day, Australian historians will have to explain how and why it was that the most active spokesmen for the principles of the Enlightenment in our time was an Indigenous man. They will also have to explain why the government of the day wouldn’t enter a dialogue with him - in fact, squeezed him out of the political process. I look at Patrick Dodson and see someone who must know he cannot win in his lifetime and yet he carries on...and on...and on. Maybe he believes that if Vincent Lingiari carried certain beliefs in his life and he carries them through his own the person is coming who will carry them after him. Maybe he no longer has reason to believe even that, but nonetheless he carries on. Courage and resolution of that order may be required of a whole lot more of us before too long.
The Howard Government chose not to be represented at the Wave Hill commemoration, an event said to signify the birth of the Australian reconciliation movement. As Peter Garrett, Labor’s shadow spokesman on reconciliation, pointed out to me at the event: he has no-one to shadow. The fact that the Howard Government has no Minister for Reconciliation is one of its most commendably honest acts, but what does it mean in real terms? It means, according to Patrick Dodson, that there is no dialogue. I have a saying: if you want to see white Australia - and by white Australia I mean John Howard’s Australia, which obviously includes people who are not white - step over into black Australia, then look back. What you see is a government that has no regard whatsoever for the thoughts and opinions of the people with whom you are standing as fellow Australians. What you see is the same arrogance and ignorance which accompanied the invasion of Iraq and, I would argue, the torpedoing of the Kyoto protocol on global warming.
What I am arguing tonight is that our country is afflicted with a blindness that needs urgent repair given the magnitude of the problems now staring us in the eye. By the end of the current bushfire season, I doubt many Australians will question the fact of climate change. I am also arguing that this government can no longer claim to represent all Australians. It formally surrendered that claim, and also its claim to moral authority on the issue of our national values, when it appointed Keith Windschuttle to the board of the ABC. I am not going to discuss Windschuttle further tonight beyond saying that I have spent most of my adult life studying Tasmanian history and the view he ultimately gives of the native people of that island, particularly their connection to what Aboriginal people call country, which he trivialises, is simply wrong. But it is not merely wrong; it is mean, and in a horrible way, since it denies the source of their meaning as human beings; what others might call their spirit or their soul. Seizing upon Windschuttle as an ally in their ideological war, the government rewarded him with a medal for his services to Australian history and then appointed him to the board of the ABC. If I succeed in doing one thing tonight, I hope it is to persuade at least some of you that the ABC must be defended. We have a government which could happily survive on a media comprised of talk-back radio hosts and tabloid newspaper columnists, but what we don’t have in that event is a future in a world where, as a nation, we will have to think strategically and wisely.
It was interesting to note that Windschuttle’s appointment was met by a number of voices in the Murdoch press saying that at last the ABC board would be able to move against the organisation’s 'collectivist' mentality. The ABC is the national broadcaster; a nation is a collective. Who, exactly, are these people who would strip us of a national asset on ideological grounds and, frankly, do we want to be like them? In the book I have written with Tom I quote cartoonist Michael Leunig as saying the difficulty in working in the Australian media at this time is that we are expected to be moderate in a radical age. I find it highly significant that the two people I consider to have been the most serious critics of the Howard government over the past decade, Robert Manne and Malcolm Fraser, are both classical conservatives. We have all watched the many attempts made to make it appear that both these men have 'turned' or 'gone to the left' when an examination of their records shows they are simply applying the same principles they have always applied to the changing world around them. In the course of this lecture I hope I can appeal to decent conservatives. At the Wave Hill celebrations, Peter Garrett remarked to me that everybody’s political values differ at some point. This is an obvious truth that is too often forgotten: it is important to recognise that we can differ honourably on political questions. I am often asked to speak in schools. What I say to kids is that we don’t have to agree on everything. But we do have to agree on what matters most. That is the next step, the one we now have to take, and, as a gesture in that direction, I wrote the book with Tom Uren.
Several streams of thought arising from my inquiries as a journalist led to me writing the book with Tom. One stream starts with me getting to know a black South African who was tortured in Zimbabwe. Not the least salient fact in his story, as far as I was concerned, was that his torturers were two black men. This was not something that could be explained by racism, or indeed any other of the 20th century’s isms. It was plain, old-fashioned evil. Then, after returning to Australia, reading the New York Review of Books, my favourite literary periodical, I saw among the other new books of the season on subjects like the study of Latin as a language and Louisiana dance music of the 1940s, a book called Torture in which 'social experts discuss the advisability and implications of maintaining an absolute ban on torture'. I wrote an essay about this in The Age, about my sense that a bottom plank had edged away from that platform of human behaviour we call civilised conduct. Four Supreme Court justices, past and present, contacted me to say they shared my concerns. Shortly afterwards, I went to interview Malcom Fraser about another matter and he said in that clipped way of his: 'Your essay was good. But I think it’s too late'. But otherwise there was no reaction, a nothing sound, or what I describe in the book as a Waiting for Godot sort of sound, one that goes to the spirit of the times in which you are living.
Then there was the curious case of the two men I met flying to Tasmania during the last federal election. On one side of me was a small businessman from Brisbane; on the other, a bikie, a bearded hulk aged about 40, who said he had left Melbourne 'because of the shootings'. I didn’t inquire further and our three-way conversation drifted towards politics. The small businessman, neat and measured in his ways, was worried about Peter Costello becoming Prime Minister. The possibility of Costello becoming Prime Minister had been the guts of the Labor campaign. The bikie, whose politics amounted to feral anarchism, hated Costello whom he saw as a criminal re-directing wealth towards his class. Both the bikie and the small businessman agreed Iraq was a mess and that Howard committing us to the war had made Australia a more dangerous place. And both were voting for - John Howard.
I began noticing other weird things in our national psyche. I did a story on water reserves in the Wimmera, which were as low as six per cent, came back to Melbourne and did a straw poll asking people in the city if they could guess the level of water reserves in an area of land that is one sixth of Victoria and was traditionally described as the nation’s wheat basket. No-one knew. No-one got close. And, to be brutally frank, no-one cared.
Then, in the course of stitching up a deal on Tasmanian old-growth forests forced on him by Mark Latham at the last federal election, John Howard called himself a conservationist and dismissed Bob Brown as an extremist. John Howard is as much a conservationist as I am a lion tamer but no-one took him up on it. No-one in the federal opposition, no-one in the national media. As I understood politics, that was a victory to Howard. There were people out there who now believed John Howard was actively caring for the environment in the same way they believe McDonald’s sell hamburgers. A simple case of brand identification maybe worth votes come election time. Around the same period, Malcolm Fraser told me he wondered whether Australians understood that the anti-terrorism laws passed by the Howard Government actually apply to them. My sense was that, as a nation, we were becoming increasingly unreal.
Looking back, I now see there are a number of people who have spoken prophetically to me. The first, in 1993, was Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. He had just delivered the Reith lectures for the BBC and he told me his fear for the future was that we would see medieval wars fought anew with 21st-century technology. The second was an Islamic scholar from Syria whom I interviewed for The Age just prior to the invasion of Iraq. He told me such an invasion would spark a civil war that had the potential to spread through the region. How is it, I ask, that at that time I had better intelligence than my government, not to mention those of Britain and the United States. I don’t believe I did.
Finally, about one year ago, I was visited by an Al Jazeera journalist with an Australian branch to his family. He was deeply concerned, and for this reason - his sources in Iraq had told him Al Qaida were confident they had the Americans’ measure in Iraq and, in consequence, would shortly launch a counter-attack in Afghanistan. That would put Australian troops in Afghanistan in greater danger. If Australians were killed, he reasoned, more pressure would be brought to bear on Australian Muslims. Al Qaida’s ability to plant bomb in Australia, he said, was dependant on the mind-set of Australian Muslims.
I have a Muslim friend who has fought - quite brilliantly, I believe - to keep open such a bridge as exists between Islam and mainstream Australian culture. The media would call him a moderate Muslim. I would describe him as being, like Patrick Dodson, a man of the centre. Like Dodson, he is vulnerable to attacks from both sides as the gap he seeks to span grows ever larger. A few weeks ago, I rang my friend and found him in a state of despair. I notice that in his new book, Barry Jones chooses as his poem expressing the mood of the times, WB Yeats’s 'The Second Coming', the one famously written in the 1930s about a time in which the centre cannot hold, in which the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. A third, less-well-known line from Yeats’s poem says that in a time when the centre fails to hold, 'blood-dimmed anarchy is loosed upon the world'. Is 'blood-dimmed anarchy' not what we see each night from Iraq?
I list these incidents together to give you a rough map as to how I see the new world which is now upon us having developed. I would also throw into the mix George W Bush’s Axis of Evil speech, the moral vision of which, without being facetious, I would compare to a Superman comic. At this juncture I risk being dismissed for anti-Americanism. I respond by saying that my first, and for a long time only, political hero was Abraham Lincoln. Among the qualities that Lincoln shares with other great leaders is what I would describe as moral gravity. You never read his great utterances and sense that he is, in any sense whatsoever, blind to the reality of which he speaks. Yes, he wages war, but he doesn’t demonise his enemy or lose sight of the need for reconciliation. From near and far I hear critics cry 'But the War on Terror is not to be compared to the American civil war', to which I reply 'Wisdom is timeless and folly is temporal, and we have been living in an age of folly'.
The most recent example of when I despaired for my country was when a leaked report from the combined American intelligence services suggested what most of us have long believed - that the war in Iraq is increasing, not decreasing, the likelihood of terrorist attacks. When this was put to the Prime Minister he said this was not his opinion in a tone which suggested that, as far as he was concerned, that was the end of the matter. And, lo and behold, it was the end of the matter. To my knowledge, no-one asked the Prime Minister 'But upon what intelligence is your opinion based?' because from where I stand the answer looks suspiciously like 'No intelligence whatsoever'.
The roots of our indifference to the world are complex and intertwined. Earlier this year, while visiting Britain, I read in a newspaper about a think-tank that foresaw people becoming progressively more selfish and less interested in politics; the idea behind the report was that politics is being submerged by consumer culture and the illusion of infinite choice. In his much under-valued diaries, Mark Latham goes running at night through the suburb in which he lives and realises he doesn’t know anyone who lives there. It seems to him that community is dead as a political principle. This is not true of other parts of Australia, particularly rural Australia, but the suburbs through which Latham runs are typical of those on the edges of the big cities where federal elections are now decided and our national destiny forged. He also concludes that the people he sought to muster, the so-called aspirational voters, don’t care about their fellows once they get above them on the social ladder. Like the thylacine, the fair go has gone.
When I interviewed Gough Whitlam for the book with Tom and asked him what was the difference between politics in his day and now, he replied emphatically: 'We don’t debate the big issues any more'. I also asked Whitlam why it was that his generation thought they could shape the world through politics when so many people today, particularly young people, have given up on the idea. He said it was a good question and responded by telling me the story of his political genesis which, like Tom Uren’s, includes the fact of fighting a world war and his determination to work against that happening again. In Tom’s case, there is also the childhood experience of the Great Depression. Basically, giving up on politics is a luxury we have been able to afford in only relatively recent times.
Part of the problem of our time is that we have replaced reality with virtual reality. I say George Orwell was half-right when he foretold the future. What Orwell didn’t predict was the collapse of the Left so that Big Brother in 1984 is a Stalinesque character who appears in the lives of his subjects via state-of-the-art media. In fact, Big Brother is a reality TV show which commands huge audiences, while outside the studio a dictum of the other Big Brother, the one in the novel, comes true: Peace is War and War is Peace. Orwell’s vision was not only a world in which superstates made endless futile war on each other but also a world in which this state of affairs was considered normal. It is the second factor as much as the first that should concern us now.
Earlier, I described Mark Latham’s diaries as much undervalued. I thought they were open in a way that most, if not all, conventional political journalism in this country is hidden. They were psychologically truthful. They revealed the person writing them. The fact most people didn’t like Latham by the end of the diaries was a measure of the author’s peculiar honesty. In the end, Latham was a product of his times. We have elevated choice to the status of a supreme political virtue. Latham exercised his choice and left politics, but what he got right more than any other observer of our national political scene was the awful despair that now lies at the heart of our nation and which, on the basis of numerous speaking engagements I have undertaken over the past few years in the country as well as the city, is far more widespread than is acknowledged. It was, in the end, reading Latham’s diaries that persuaded me to do the book with Tom Uren.
Tom Uren was with my father on the Burma railway, part of a group of Allied prisoners-of-war and conscripted labourers worked to death by the Imperial Japanese Army. They saw ferocious illness, malnutrition, monsoons, beatings and despair. They also saw a real leader, their commanding officer, Weary Dunlop. My father, now 92, had only seen one Japanese person, a medical student, since the war. Then, last year, one of my brothers who was in Japan was put in touch with a group of Japanese women wanting to know the truth of Japanese military conduct during World War 2. If they came to Australia, they asked, could they see Dad? After some contemplation, he agreed. He later told my brother he agreed to see the women because Weary would have seen them. Tom understands this story; his whole political career was based on what he learnt in Weary’s camps.
Tom’s an unusual man. Extremely close to a loving mother as a child, he decided to leave school at the age of 13 during the Great Depression and get a job because he could and his father couldn’t. At 20, he fought for the heavyweight boxing title of Australia; at 21, he was on the Burma Railway kneeling every night in front of the other Australians to say his prayers. He’s a survivor who says Survivor, the television program, has got it dangerously wrong, that the key to survival lies not in banishing others from sight, but in thinking and working to some extent as one. He saw a British group who camped nearby and were unable to respond collectively die, in his words, like flies. Each morning he stepped past their corpses as he went out to work on the line. He is a man led by bitter circumstance to experience hatred as a force within him but who, in the years that followed, realising the tragedy of war, purged it from his heart as a socially destructive force. I think it is not such a bad time for us to listen to our old people, not necessarily to agree with them, but to draw on their experiences.
I ask each of you tonight - if the current rate of environmental change and global conflict continue at their present rate, where will we be in 10 years? In 20? I suspect we are on the verge of a new age, one we are ill-prepared to meet. A great bend in the road of history is suddenly upon us, Australia is a car with 20 million aboard, John Howard is the rear-vision mirror. What are we going to do? Tom Uren says the next great appeal that has to be made in the world is to people of goodwill. I agree. The time for cheap cynicism is past. In the course of the book I have written with Tom I mention someone criticising Peter Garrett’s decision to enter parliament, saying, 'If you enter the process, you become part of the process'. If this were true there would never have been a good parliamentarian, and I believe there have been on both sides of politics.
In the end, I’m an old footy coach. Right now, if you believe what I do about Australia, it’s three-quarter time and the other mob’s 10 goals ahead. Well, I don’t believe the other mob are unbeatable. I’m not sure they’re that far from cracking and falling apart. Beyond the fact of power, what else is there that gives them confidence? The trick to coming back from here is not to think about kicking 10 goals. Just kick one goal. It doesn’t much matter what that goal is so long as it gives rise to what I call social hope - hope that is shared. The day after the invasion of Iraq, I invited two friends who hadn’t met to go to the footy with me and see Collingwood play Richmond. The Collingwood supporter was an Orthodox Jew, the Richmond supporter was a Muslim. It was a small statement, to be sure, but I know I felt a lot better for making it. What I’m talking about here is an antidote to the sense of helplessness I find when I go out speaking.
I once heard John Kennedy respond to the suggestion that the Krakouer brothers had just single-handedly won a game for North Melbourne, the club he was then coaching. Kennedy was an old-style Catholic and mathematics teacher renowned for his military toughness. Smiling ever so slightly, he replied, 'From each according to his ability'. And that’s about where we are now, I reckon. I know a woman who takes a family of Muslim immigrants shopping because they’re not confident doing it on their own. I reckon anything done with the intent of countering the deadness now at the heart of so much in this country is a political act. Who knows? If you can kick one goal, maybe you can kick a second. If that happens, you’ll notice a change. Heads will lift. Call it spirit, call it confidence, but it’s the belief that even when you’re down as far as we are, doing something is a hell of a lot better than doing nothing, which a lot of us are doing right now. I come from the tradition which says you go down fighting, and right now a decent government in this country is sure worth fighting for.
Transcript of the Stephen Murray-Smith Lecture, State Library of Victoria, 17 October 2006