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Australian Notes

Australian notes

24 November 2012

9:00 AM

24 November 2012

9:00 AM

Cobbers! Will the Australian institution of mateship save the country from falling apart? The American libertarian and conservative Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute raised this question in his Bonython Lecture during the week. He thinks America is ‘falling apart’. (It’s the title of his new book, a bestseller.) The United States, he thinks, has lost its common culture. The small upper class — thin, fit, hard-working, monogamous, vastly rich, highly educated, formally virtuous and religious — no longer shares a civic culture with the rest of the country, and certainly not with the poor, ill-educated, unemployed and godless. He calls, rather desperately, for the restoration of the traditional American values and ‘the old truths’ (hard work, self-reliance, honesty, stable marriage, faith, and contempt for welfarism). Will Australia fall apart? Perhaps. This is where Murray thinks we have an advantage: in our civic culture and strong tradition of mateship. John Howard wanted mateship written into the Constitution, but the electorate said No. We may be cobbers, but we don’t want to make a political issue of it.

Murray also explained why he changed his mind on gay marriage. He now supports it. He thinks heterosexuals have made a mess of marriage laws and customs and many gay couples in life-long loving relationships have more respect for the values of traditional marriage. When faced with the question in a referendum in Maryland on 6 November, Murray stared at the paper for a few moments until he said: ‘What the hell!’ and voted for same-sex marriage. Is this a straw in the wind?

A national catharsis? According to Hal Wootten QC this may be what the proposed royal commission into child abuse will or should become. He knows a thing or two about royal commissions, having headed the one into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The Hawke government set it up in a knee-jerk reaction to the publicly declared suspicions of some Aboriginal spokesmen that police, through neglect or mistreatment, were killing Aborigines held in custody. The Wootten royal commission soon decided that the government had asked the wrong question. The real question was not whether police were killing Aborigines in custody. (They were not.) It was why so many Aborigines were held in custody in the first place. In the end the question turned into: what is wrong with Australia and Australians that the number of Aborigines in custody is out of all proportion to their number in the population? The royal commission made more than 330 recommendations. It amounted to a call for a national catharsis. A sort of Great Awakening.

There is not the slightest evidence that Prime Minister Gillard considered what she was taking on when she announced her royal commission — on top of the two state inquiries. The Wootten royal commission considered 100 deaths in three states over ten years. It took more than three years. The child abuse royal commission will have to consider thousands of cases in a range of institutions, religious and secular. Will it deal with forced genital mutilation of girls in Muslim communities? Or child abuse in Aboriginal communities? (Responding to reports that Aboriginal communities will be excluded, Bess Nungarrayi Price MP asked: ‘Why? Are we not Australians?’) The inquiry could take decades. There is no going back. Yet it is hard to consider Wootten’s comments without concluding that the royal commission may turn out to be not a national catharsis or Great Awakening but a ploy designed to snare Tony Abbott.

Everyone has his own Joan of Arc. The current production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at Sydney’s Genesian Theatre presents her as a sort of Protestant, nationalist, feminist martyr. But is it not possible to see her as the voice of God against a church too submissive to the demands of the secular state and its politicians? Whom would Joan support in the controversy over the royal commission — the Prime Minister or the cardinal? I don’t think it would be the Prime Minister, whatever reservations she may have about priests and brothers, archbishops and cardinals.

When British Prime Minister David Cameron appointed the Australian Lynton Crosby (‘The Wizard of Oz’) to mastermind the Tories’ campaign for his next election, Crosby predictably said, ‘You can’t fatten the pig on market day.’ That is, it’s no use relying on last-minute gimmicks to win elections. This folksy saying is usually attributed to John Howard — either the Australian politician or the 18th century prison reformer. Sometimes it’s Sir John Carrick or Peter Costello. I’ve also seen it quoted as a Nigerian or Irish proverb. In truth I believe it was first used, if not invented, by the late Jack Kane, the DLP Senator. It fell naturally from his lips. Others soon took it up. It is probably one of the more lasting legacies of the DLP.

Why do so many restaurants inflict loud music on their customers who prefer to be able to hear their conversation? Is it to appease the kitchen staff, and to hell with the customers? The late Frank Devine, editor and columnist, had an effective way of combating this menace. He would burst into noisy song and keep singing until the restaurateur pleaded with him to stop. Frank would agree to stop provided the restaurateur stopped the intrusive music. He always won his point. Trouble is, most of us lack Frank’s moxie.

The next US Presidential election will be a Clinton/Bush contest. This is Geoff Garrett’s tip. A former CEO of the US Studies Centre, he was speaking at the Woollahra Festival. He means Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

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