A decent and just Australia? The solution may lie in the old-fashioned notion of community | Books

Questions of Australian identity – where does modern Australia come from and where is it going? – can often seem quite distant for this Bundjalung reader.

Why are Australians so nervous about other people and justice? Why are our politicians so unambitious? Why are vulnerable people, especially young women, still routinely preyed upon with almost no consequence? Why does the White Australia Policy continue to weigh so heavily on public policy?

When you dig, behind these questions of identity are serious questions of power: who exercises it? Who lacks it? Who dies in our cities and remote regions for lack of them, and why? What needs to happen for this to stop – to spread the so-called “luck”?

Traditional Australia rarely needs to ask who is ‘lucky’ – who can be included in the Australian ‘we’, in the words of Waleed Aly. We who are First Nations, or disabled, or migrants, or Muslims, or considered marginalized by the Anglo-Saxon center, know how arbitrary this category is. And how quickly it can change, when it’s convenient. These are serious questions, and they deserve to be examined.

Donald Horne dubbed Australia the “lucky country” and the misnomer stuck. In The Idea of ​​Australia – A Search For the Soul of the Nation, author Julianne Schultz explores all of these questions. It also asks what can be called upon, apart from “luck”, to navigate a new century. She argues fiercely that we can do things better, that the nation can choose to look outward, a confident and reconciled Australia, rather than recoil in terror at a world changing before our eyes.

Schultz uses the Covid metaphor as an x-ray, operating for two years to show classic Australian fault lines. Race. Work versus business. The role of States and the question of the place of women. The potential of education to solve social problems and the tendency of the state to weaponize both powerful bureaucracies and silence.

The fact that Covid has exposed these old cracks is not surprising. As the saying goes, past performance is the best predictor of future behavior. Few Indo-Australian citizens who have found their navy blue passports useless to return to their own country in 2021 will say that the White Australia policy is dead and buried. Residents of Sydney’s west, who were massively over-policed ​​during lockdown while residents of the eastern suburbs happily hit the beach during lockdown, wouldn’t say class is over and dusted here either.

Women like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins are at the center of a storm of female rage that has been brewing for centuries. Covid simply lifted the lid on their discontent. Tanya Day may have been with them, but was, alas, destined to die for the unofficial crime of being drunk in public as a native.

Unlike Horne’s seminal work, The Idea of ​​Australia is lucid about the hidden centrality of race among these national fissures. Australia is aptly described as a place where “forgetfulness is essential… the better we forget would be more honest.

This analysis brings the inability to negotiate a just settlement with First Nations to the fore. “The failure to negotiate a treaty was unjust then and inexcusable now.” This national flaw – Australia’s original sin – set in motion a larger trend. Since before federation, Australia has developed the dangerous habit of living in “a permanent present”, where history is not so much neglected as chained in a dark shed and threatened with a cricket bat if it dares. to speak.

“Women like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins are at the center of a storm of female rage that has been brewing for centuries.” Photography: Mick Tsikas/AAP

We are very pragmatic in Australia, we are very keen on tying things together, pushing uncomfortable truths until the next football final or xenophobic outburst. Truly serious debates are closed or silenced. “The immediate problems are solved; big underlying problems are unresolved.

Schultz, who for 12 years edited the exceptional Griffith Review, travels far and wide through recent history to explain contemporary Australia. His sharp analysis is peppered with incidents – some appalling, some hilarious – drawn from his own experience.

Raised by poor Lutheran parents in western Victoria and Queensland, she was one of a cohort of bright students to take advantage of Whitlam’s free university program. Decades of rubbing shoulders with everyone from outback elders like Hazel McKellar to Sydney’s business elite and even young Muslim leader Yassmin Abdel-Magied have made Schultz a polymath. It seems there’s nothing she hasn’t thought deeply about. No wonder she has no patience for the timid and ignorant. Be bold, be bold, be bold, reads his epigraph.

There are some terrific anecdotes in these pages, and some truly astonishing confessions from men who walked away from mass power. One of the most striking lines comes from the late Packer journalist David McNicoll, reflecting on the role of the media in consolidating incumbent Conservative governments: “All those seats…would have gone to Labour…but for our right-wing influence. there is no doubt. »

In other words, Australian workers have been repeatedly made to vote against their own interests. Simple!

Few ordinary people – those of us who aren’t powerful in big business, or who don’t have a high profile in the media or politics – ever hear these kinds of things said openly by those in the know. . And people in power don’t normally spill the wick. The cost is too high: it comes down to fear, once again.

“Fear is another board in the scaffolding of silence,” Schultz writes in what is, at its heart, a book about fear. Fear of material losses, fear of ridicule, fear of breaking the step that says that neoliberalism is inevitable, sensible, desirable.

A notable exception is former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who in 2020 launched a petition against what he calls Murdoch’s “cancer of democracy.” It turns out that more than half a million of us want a royal commission into a company’s influence on the governance of Australia. It’s hard to know whether to be impressed or chilled when reading Rudd’s confession on page 332: “Everybody’s scared of Murdoch.

But as James Baldwin, a man who knew a lot about fear, wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Be bold, be bold, be bold…

Australia’s idea ends with the central lesson of Covid: governments can do useful things if they want to. Who knew? Homelessness was cured instantly in 2020 with the stroke of a pen – thousands of homeless people were housed in motels – just like this! Ditto entrenched poverty – doubling the salary completely transformed lives for several enchanted months. Single-parent households ate better; bills did not so often induce suicidal anxiety in the poor. No billionaire was harmed in the making of these policies either; rather the opposite.

It turns out that the state has a role to play in curing social ills after all. And Australians want governments to act – to actually do something about change. States have saved millions of lives when they have done so.

Fairness matters, just as history matters. A nation mired in a “permanent present” thinks nothing and learns nothing, but everyone, even in the digital age, lives somewhere. We are citizens of geographical places as well as nations; we all come from somewhere and belong to communities there, whether we know it or not. The solutions lie in the old-fashioned but indispensable notion of community.

There’s no reason Australia can’t become a decent, just and reconciled country, if only we find the courage to reach out to each other and make one. Now there is an idea.

The Idea of ​​Australia by Julianne Schultz – In Search of the Soul of the Nation (Allen & Unwin $34.99) is now available

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