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Australian Notes

Australian Notes

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

If there is one prediction that may be confidently made about the Middle East, it is that there will be no two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict this year — if ever. Australia and the UK helped ensure this in the recent UN vote when Palestine was recognised as an observer state, although there was no concession of any kind from the terrorist Hamas of Israel’s right to exist. Yet at their meeting in Perth, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague agreed on the ‘particularly urgent need’ for a two-state solution. Hard to take them seriously.

But never mind. At Parliament House in Sydney last week the audience — mainly men, hundreds of them — sprang to their feet and applauded as William Hague, the guest of honour, arrived, accompanied by Tony Abbott and John Howard. It was the Fourth Annual John Howard Lecture of the Menzies Research Centre. It was also on this occasion a sort of tribal rally of Anglo-Australians. The speeches may have seemed inconsequential, containing little that was unexpected or new. But they all celebrated the bonds linking Australia and Britain. John Howard quoted Samuel Johnson: ‘A man, Sir, should keep his friendships in constant repair.’ Tony Abbott recalled the Labor Prime Minister John Curtin in 1942 on Britain and Australia: ‘We are one people.’ William Hague, in his pleasantly booming voice, declared: ‘Our ties are now more relevant than ever!’ The audience clearly agreed, or wanted to. At question time Hague would not be drawn on Australian politics, but he stressed one theme that may have Australian resonance: he took pride in the role he had played in setting up a UK panel of experts to combat by all available means the growing use of rape as a weapon of war, especially in Africa and the Balkans. In the light of Prime Minister Gillard’s preposterous if successful ‘misogyny’ speech, Abbott might do well to consider Hague’s initiative.

The English critic Cyril Connolly used to say that the life of a good book is about ten years. So imagine my amazement when I stumbled on the December-January issue of Inside Story, a lift-out of the Canberra Times, which carried a commemoration of the 50th (!) anniversary of the publication of my first book, Australian Civilization (still spelled with a z in those days). I didn’t write the book. I edited it. My job was to assemble a collection of prominent freethinkers to discuss what was right and wrong with Australia. The book was the idea of Andrew Fabinyi of the Melbourne publisher F.W. Cheshire. The good thing going for it was timing. Australia seemed around 1960 to be radically changing — I called my Introduction ‘The New Australia’ — and so was the world: the age of ideology, of Stalin and Hitler, was over and a new age of civility was upon us. It was, at least for a time, possible for people who deeply disagreed with each other to talk out the issues without dogma or malice. So we had Max Harris and Jim McAuley, Manning Clark and Donald Horne, Bob Hughes and Ken Inglis, Vincent Buckley and Robin Boyd, A.A. Phillips and Ron Taft among others.

Three unplanned themes emerged. One was the conviction that the Old Australia — deemed ‘insular and monotonous’ (Doug McCallum), ‘bleakly uniform’ (Max Harris), ‘crashingly dull’ (Robin Boyd) — was over. Another was the idea that an exciting New Australia was emerging in which clever chaps would be in the saddle applying the spurs to create a more tolerant, liberal country. (But Manning Clark, in a widely quoted chapter called ‘Faith’, prophesied that the choice for Australians was Moscow or Rome.) A third more pessimistic theme also appeared: the intimation that the very intellectuals whom some of the symposiasts were puffing up were less interested in freedom and culture, let alone Australia, than in power and self-interest. Whitlamites avant la lettre, they were both reformers and predators. The Old Australia, for all its limitations, was a free and easy democracy. The New Australia may be neither free nor cultivated, just Politically Correct.

In commemorating the symposium’s 50th anniversary in Inside Story, Frank Bongiorno finds it ‘an immensely valuable period piece’, a product of ‘the almost forgotten early 1960s’ and its ‘rational, liberal and measured idealism’ — but it was also, he says, ‘a failure’. It did not understand the world that was opening up in the 1960s and 1970s. In that new era the issue would be not civilised reform but thoroughgoing liberationism, not genteel anti-censorship but pornography rallies, not the end of ideology but radical contempt for anti-communists and their self-serving ‘Cold War calculations’.

In a sense Bongiorno is right. Australian Civilization did not anticipate the 1970s. But you may think that — in the third and darker theme mentioned above — it saw beyond them and waved the flag of liberal resistance to the coming ascendency of the New Class and its fatwa on nonconformists like Geoffrey Blainey, Les Murray, Keith Windschuttle, David Stove. Perhaps someone should try to pull together a new symposium reassessing the past 50 years. But will people talk to each other?

One of the challenges facing Bill Pulver, the new chief executive of Australian Rugby Union, is penalty kicks. Consider the number of minutes (out of a precious 80) in which 29 players wait and watch while one player lines up a penalty goal kick. No wonder the young switch to the NRL or AFL. Pulver has had great experience in marketing. He will surely find a way to change the rules to fix the excessive role of technical penalties and other time-wasters.

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