The Role of the Writer in John Howard's Australia
I have a simple plea to make: that writers start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, not flinching, coming to grips with the fact that we have been on a long loop through time that has brought us back almost - but not quite - to where we were.
So few Australian novels - now I take my life in my hands - address in worldly, adult ways the country and the time in which we live. It's no good ceding that territory to people like me - to journalists. That's not enough. Even the best journalism dies because so much journalism is written in the air.
But fiction lives - an essential in a country with a dramatically short attention span. Where is our passion for reconciliation and the republic? All gone. How long can we remain passionate about refugees - and what our treatment of these people tell us about the mood and temper of this country? Probably not long.
The Role of the Writer in John Howard's Australia
Presenter and Producer: Michael Shirrefs
The Colin Simpson Lecture
Delivered by David Marr at the Redfern Town Hall in Sydney Saturday 29th March 2003, and organised by the Australian Society of Authors.
ABC RADIO NATIONAL
Books and Writing - with Michael Shirrefs
Guests on this program:
David Marr, Author of Patrick White: A Life, Patrick White: Letters, The High Price of Salvation and Dark Victory, co-written with Marian Wilkinson.
Lloyd Jones, Author of Choo Woo, Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance and The Book of Fame
The Australia Patrick White returned to in 1948 was not a desert. There was good food, good poetry, wonderful painting, good music, good company, good conversation and, if you had a taste for it (which he didn't) fascinating politics as Australia re-imagined itself in the aftermath of the war. For a few years Patrick worked his little farm but in the early 1950s he grew - in the words of his famous essay Prodigal Son - "discontented".
"Was there anything to prevent me packing my bag and leaving like ... so many other artists? Bitterly I had to admit, no. In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blinkered blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves. It was the exaltation of the average that made me panic most..."
That could be a description of John Howard's Australia almost exactly 50 years later. A lot happened - or seemed to happen - in that time: the mood of the country shifted as Australia prospered. Australia was a mean place in the 1940s - but as it prosperous it grew more generous, more tolerant, less parochial, more curious about the outside world. Australia was not changed just by the Greeks, Dutch and Italians shipped over in the 1950s and 1960s. What mattered was that they came to a country where prosperity was having its traditional civilising effect.
Writers - thanks partly to Patrick White - found themselves big figures in the new cultural landscape. By the mid-1970s - the halfway point in this long loop back to where we are today - political parties anxiously sought the endorsement of the nation's leading artists. Over ten general elections, arts policy launches became hoopla campaign events in big theatres with big names and big crowds. There was never quite the big money to match the big rhetoric - but both sides of politics boasted their enthusiasm for supporting the arts. That meant honouring and at times supporting us - writers.
Then Australian politics began to shift. Don Watson put his finger on it in Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. It was 1994 and Labor was preparing the last great cultural policy for the country, Creative Nation. "From the start, personalities and interests seemed to clash," he wrote and listed difficulties with Paul Keating, with the minister for the Arts Michael Lee, with the ABC and with the political hard heads of the government. "There was a cabinet to convince that a cultural policy was more than a conscience payment for the support of a noisy elite at the last election." That word - which we'll be coming back to - 'elite'.
I was one of what seemed very few people at that time - the middle of the 1990s - whinging about the patriotic rhetoric politicians used to justify backing the arts. Among the complaints I'm making today, I want to record how glad I am that we no longer hear politicians talking about the purpose of the arts being to track down our 'national identity'. If this was the justification for public money being spent on the arts, then the assumption had to be that the discovery would somehow do the nation proud. I was never so sure of that. I don't believe the arts have this patriotic, celebratory purpose. I remembered how Patrick - dead by this time - raged in 1988 against attempts by politicians, ad agencies and journalists to define a cheerful, not unsophisticated national character suitable for the Bicentennial celebrations. "But where" Patrick would ask, "where are the poofters, where are the pessimists?"
In the election campaign of 2001, Kim Beazley chose to meet the arts community of Sydney quietly one evening in the backroom of the Bellevue Hotel in Paddington. There was no pizzaz, no band, no cameras. His campaign managers were pissed off when I turned up. The press was not supposed to be there. Beazley was keen for these people and their friends to know how much he admired them - "Politicians just skate across the surface," he told them, "following the deeper rhythms of society is what you do." But he was keen to hide this meeting and his endorsement from the voters out there, voters his pollsters told him were now deeply hostile to people vilified in John Howard's Australia as - and here's that word again - 'elites'.
Fifty years ago, Australians used other language in parliaments, pulpits and in the press - particularly the Packer press - to abuse artists. They were Reds, drunks, poofs, co-respondents - a sadly forgotten concept - and fakes of one kind or another. Ern Malley and Bill Dobell were the proof of the pudding. This was hands-on abuse: artists were directed what to write and paint by politicians, preachers, teachers and journalists. This was the "the exaltation of the average" that made Patrick White panic so much he thought of packing his bags and leaving. And now, 50 years later, there is once again in this country a political culture exalting the values of what's now called the 'mainstream' and belittling what's called the elites.
The revival of this old Australian contempt for difference, excellence and originality goes far, far wider than the arts. Indeed, except for some writers, the public abuse (or neglect) of artists is really only collateral damage in a political operation that began under Labor and has been brought to its present - what shall we say? - perfection by the Coalition government of John Howard.
I have a sense that many of us - I mean many writers - feel this is just an aberration, that we can sit it out, that if we wait a while it will go away. I'm here with a warning: these uncomfortable changes to our country won't disappear when John Howard goes back up the river to suburban Lane Cove. Something has happened in Australia and for some writers - and frankly I'm here to recruit more - the emergence of this new old Australia is not something to flinch from but to write. It's the most compelling raw material.
Australia is now a country where mainstream leaders - not evil nutters from the far right - manipulate race fears to hang onto power, where political opposition has been tepid, indeed complicit, where the press is too often outwitted, the public service cowed, the military top brass outmanoeuvred, and the brand - the good name of this country - has been trashed. That in a nutshell is the book Marian Wilkinson and I have been working on since the Tampa appeared over the horizon. Both sides of politics are implicated. The strategy and the outcome were deeply popular - and as popular now, despite 18 months of national soul searching, as they were at the time. John Howard had exploited a passion every pollster for the last 25 years knew was there: a profound, popular fear of boat people, of refugees coming in the guise of our nursery fears of invasion: coloured people turning up on the coast in little boats. This was not a fear that suddenly swept Australia in 2001, nor was John Howard the politician who discovered it. He was the one cunning, cool and perhaps desperate enough to exploit it. Very professionally.
Marian and I have explored one corner of a country that needs the most thorough re-exploration. The terrain has changed. So has the weather. More than ever we need to know what lies behind the mountains. Tabloid commentators sneer that we're refusing to accept the popular verdict. There is an idea on the loose in Australia today that overwhelming public support ends the debate. I can't remember those commentators saying that when the pendulum was at the other end of its swing, when Hawke was in power. But now the argument is: don't enquire, don't nose around, accept the will of people. Move on. That's not an order any writer can respect.
What is going on here? I'll give you the two-minute version of my hypothesis. We're dealing here with the repercussions of an economic revolution promoted since the 1980s by both sides of politics, which has delivered even more abundant prosperity to Australia. Shouldn't that have produced an even more open, curious and tolerant society? No, because to keep this whole operation on track, both sides of politics did all they possibly could - short, that is, of delivering a fair economic outcome - to ease the fears of those mainstream, average Australians living on the margins of this new prosperity in regional towns and on the edges of the booming cities. Very swiftly, they became the most influential voters in Australia and both parties honoured their outlook everywhere they could - not on economic issues, of course, but on race, refugees, crime and the dangers of modern life. The sharp conservative contraction of Australian politics from the late 1980s is a consolation prize offered to those who are not sharing the prosperity the rest of us enjoy. It is a historic trade off: more in Australia's pocket and less in the heart.
It's not for the winners to belittle the economic losers. A writer's job is always to try to understand. Sure, some of them are red necks and at the height of her fame Pauline Hanson could count on a million of their votes. Writing just before the 2001 elections were called, the pollster Rod Cameron defined these Australians as "less well educated, insular, conservative and narrow minded ... fiercely anti economic rationalism, they have a strong sense of discontent, of being ignored". And there was this crucial attribute which John Howard has played on to great political advantage and which has had such an impact on the spirit of life in this country: their distaste for elites. Cameron wrote: they are "anti elites in a big way - whether the elites are big cities, big business, big media, big or organised anything."
Funny word 'elite'. Note how it's not been a pejorative in the first week of the war in Iraq when a reason has to be found for the delays experienced by the Coalition on the cake walk to Baghdad. So the generals and the commentators have praised the fight put up by Iraq's 'elite' Republican Guard, the Fedayeen. If they're holding up the Yank advance, it's a tick not a cross to be elite.
There are other slippery difficulties of definition. Last year at the annual Andrew Olle Memorial Lecture, Lauchlan Murdoch, in a generally good-natured address, had a go at Media Watch over our expose of Telstra's motives behind the establishment of the Farmhand Foundation. Murdoch said: "How something so simple could be turned into a grand conspiracy to sell a phone company, I have no idea. But, again out of narrow mindedness disguised as high mindedness, rooted in jealously as the idea was not their own, our media elite launched a disgraceful and biased attack." I introduced myself to young Murdoch afterwards. We had a thoroughly good-natured chat. Before we parted, I said to him: "You are one of the richest young men in the world. How can you call us 'elite'?' And he said: "David, it's all in the mind."
But it was na´ve of me not to remember that 'elite' is a term of abuse elites have long used. Those of us who studied the rise of Fascism at school - perhaps at university - remember how Hitler would rail against elites telling the German mainstream not to trust them but to listen to their own hearts, their own experience, their own prejudices. Meanwhile, of course, Hitler was negotiating behind the scenes with the financial and political elites of Germany who would eventually install him in office.
Australia is not Germany. None of our political leaders remotely resemble Hitler. Fascism is not on the cards Down Under. But the abuse of elites served the same political function then that it does now: to counter conservative criticism of right wing politics. Criticism from the Left is easy to counter. You abuse those critics as Reds, Sparts, agents of influence - wheeled out lately to attack Manning Clark - or pawns of Left trade unions. But smearing conservative critics is a far tougher task for the radical right wing.
The critique Marian Wilkinson and I bring to bear on the Tampa crisis and the blockade of boat people is a conservative critique. We're arguing for old-fashioned virtues: an independent bureaucracy, the rule of law, the proper use of the military, press scrutiny, effective Opposition, common humanity. It's therefore no surprise to me that the one hostile review the book has had to date - by Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun - attacked us as 'elites'. It began: "A new book on the Tampa 'scandal' proves our cultural elite prefers orgasmic moralising to analysis. The authors are well qualified to speak for this elite, which stifles our arts, media, academia and clergy." And so it goes on - a little masterpiece of slashing rhetoric.
Now I am the last person to claim everything that comes out of the mouths of elite Australians - professors, judges, prime ministers, newspaper columnists, industrialists and, yes, artists all kinds - is wisdom and good sense. I've spent my career exposing the follies of exactly these people. To defend them and all they do as a class is ridiculous. But to attack them as a class - to smear and denigrate them wholesale to advance the new radical populism of John Howard's Australia - is just as ridiculous and is inflicting real collateral damage on the culture and the spirit of this country by reviving as a force that old Australian 'exaltation of the average' that so panicked Patrick White 50 years ago.
But of course, he didn't pack his bags. In Prodigal Son he wrote: "In this frame of mind, in spite of myself, I began to conceive another novel. Because the void I had to fill was so immense, I wanted to try to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and woman. But at the same time I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and, incidentally my own life since my return. So I began to write The Tree of Man."
Patrick White wrote his way out of it. He didn't flinch, he didn't retreat: he addressed Australia through his writing. Writers face the same predicament 50 years later as the old philistine culture of Australian politics reasserts itself. And the same way out is available to those of us who want to take it - to explore this new old Australia through out writing. I am not laying this down as an obligation on ALL writers. No commentator can ever tell a writer - a true writer - what to write. That's the wrong way round. I'm not saying Australian writers are now obliged to get to work on The Tree of Man, the Voss, the Riders in the Chariot of the early 21st century. I'm not attacking the historical novel or demanding the return of the big Dickensian issue novel. I'm not saying novels of delicate introspection are out of place in this day and age. I'm not laying down any rule about any artistic outcome.
I have a simple plea to make: that writers start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, not flinching, coming to grips with the fact that we have been on a long loop through time that has brought us back almost - but not quite - to where we were. So few Australian novels - now I take my life in my hands - address in worldly, adult ways the country and the time in which we live. It's no good ceding that territory to people like me - to journalists. That's not enough. Even the best journalism dies because so much journalism is written in the air. But fiction lives - an essential in a country with a dramatically short attention span. Where is our passion for reconciliation and the republic? All gone. How long can we remain passionate about refugees - and what our treatment of these people tell us about the mood and temper of this country? Probably not long.
We journalists will do what we can but novelists, playwrights even poets - might work on this project too: to shake off the new philistinism of John Howard's Australia and find absolutely unexpected ways of doing this. The role of the writer is always to surprise.
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