IT IS OF WORTHWHILE HISTORICAL INTEREST that whilst ‘mateship’ and giving someone a ‘fair go’ appear worthy exhortations, one can readily understand and appreciate the sociological processes by which these have now come to be exalted by a 21st century Prime Minister like John Howard as national values for Australia.
We don’t have to reach too far back to find the hand of history at work among the psyche of seaborne convicts who needed to extol the virtues of “mateship” (shipmates) and “fair go” as being necessary survival catch-cries in over-crowded and plague ridden hulls and decks, where one could have killed for a piece of dried bread or a sip of rancid water.
The mariner’s catch-cries borne out of abject tyranny, constantly staring at the face of death, have been deeply seared into the collective conscience of a nation, and as such, become as it were, the obligatory rite of passage for a post-cold war modern state.
They have been galvanized into iconic symbols of mortal struggle against all manners of natural elements and artificial odds, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit in a new land. Howard seized upon this experience of recent history, and under its peaceful afterglow, he sought to hue out of it a preamble, and rallying point, for a post Nine Eleven Australia.
In what has suddenly become the age of terrorism, with the emergence of new super powers in the region, as prime minister of an incongruously European enclave in the Pacific, Howard saw himself as the first chief executive in Australian politics to inaugurate some sort of mission statement that would become the necessary turbo-charge to propel his country forward, and to cement his place in Australian political folklore.
He sought meaning and intellectual solace within the nation’s brief life experience to give utterance to some form of common purpose and direction to the occurrence of his people on a dry, arid and somewhat alien continent.
He attempted to weave history seamlessly into the challenges facing a modern state, to proclaim the dawning of a new era for a modern Australia, based on what he claimed to be homogeneous values. He gleaned from history the collective experiences that would hold Australians to a new horizon, a new prism, from which to view the past, draw strength from it, to face the ever uncertain future with confidence.
How fitting and ingenious it was for Howard, who was prime minister for well over a decade, to deliberately reach back into the dark recesses of his country’s brief history and craft out of it some timeless values that, like a deceased persons last will and testament, or a futuristic software program, would ensure even after he had long departed the corridors of power, he still ruled the country in the legacy of the values he laid. In a sense, this may be deemed by some as an attempt by Howard at ultimate political immortality.
Howard’s sudden burst of statesmanship would also be the culmination of several other concerns playing at the back of his mind, chief among these may have been the quest to find something to hold together a people made more disparate by years of pursuing a policy of multiculturalism, a coterie of scattered peoples with no common cause or common back ground. In his many years in Parliament, he must have seen the need for the creation of a homogenous value system to unite every Australian.
There is no greater contradiction, no greater paradox, no greater tragedy than being prime minister of a people who do not believe in anything, who lack any common cause for cohesion and direction, just merely existing out of sheer necessity and by the cold force of statute law, in an otherwise economically prosperous land mass.
Surely as a devout Presbyterian it would have played on his mind the trials and tribulations of ancient Moses leading his people out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and around in circles, fighting needless enemy after enemy, under similar desert skies, for forty long years.
Surely Howard would have silently paraphrased with his own lips the salient prophetic warning: what does it profit Australia if it should gain the whole world by its material prosperity out of Aborigine lands, but lose its own soul?
To lose its way in a spiritless and soulless existence held together only by the hundreds of legislation passed by various parliaments every year is an empty affair. The ability to regulate, and over-regulate, is sometimes mistaken for cohesion of a people or even nationhood, when in reality it is an artificial fettering of the will and soul of a people.
In many ways Howard was not as motivated by the cause of homogeneity, or sameness, and social cohesion as he was for submission of all to his ideals. Howard appeared to be an overt racist (as exemplified by his 1989 leadership loss), in as much as he was careful to camouflage it.
He was against Asian Immigration as much as he was determined never to apologize to the stolen generation of Australian indigenous people. He saw China as an enemy as much as he wanted to sell his coal and iron ore to them to secure his own balance of payments.
Of course, as the ancient Moses never entered the promised land, Howard duly lost the next election in the most dramatic and personally humiliating way possible that was almost reminiscent of judgment day for a protestant.
Under its long held policy of multiculturalism, which replaced the previously 150 year old White Australia Policy, Australia’s phenomenal economic growth and prosperity was underscored by great demographic shifts in urban areas where 80% of the population live.
Suburbs where white Australia lived and worked for decades have become enclaves or exclusive domains of the Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Turkish, Vietnamese, and even Korean immigrants. Cityscapes were demarcated with bright neon phalluses and other edifices by the gay and lesbians to celebrate their bold rise, and conquest, of more than pubs and malls.
They all brought with them their gods and their songs; for how could multiculturalism expect them to possibly live without their songs? No people can live or survive without their songs. How can they possibly otherwise sing their songs in a strange, hot and hostile land, unless, of course, their gods also came to carry them through?
So today we see the skyline of Australian suburbia spotted with spires, towers and pinnacles of churches, synagogues, mosques and shrines to almost every god conceivably known to humanity.
In the post Nine Eleven era, while George Bush was moving decisively with the weight of conservative America behind him to annihilate Muslims and their god, so too was Howard of the view that this presented an opportunity to limit Asian and boat people immigration and bring all the disparate songs and their gods to account in multicultural Australia under his newfound values.
This was also a moment for Howard to signal his departure from multiculturalism, distinguish himself from Menzies’ and Curtin’s White Australia legacies, and more recently Keating and Labor’s partly successful policy of assimilation of Australia into Asia and APEC, to write a new song of mate-ship and fair go for all Australians, new and old, to sing in unison.
With the realization of the rise of a New World Order came something else that bothered Howard who was sitting at the bottom of the Pacific looking up the mini skirt of the world, so to speak, glancing back and forth between Asia and America.
With China and India rising through the artifice of capitalism to take their proper places in history, Howard’s Australia could no longer glibly take its foreign policy cue carte blanche from the United States whose power under his mate Bush was clearly waning. Howard had to somewhat define Australia’s position.
It is no longer a secret that America has been living way beyond its ability to produce; its hand weakened by debt, could no longer enforce the global rules to keep every dog in its place. Howard, placed in a precarious position as world events unraveled fast, while waltzing and tangoing with his friend Bush, had to keep an eye on the others on the dance floor.
While Bush was unawares Howard had to occasionally spin, unfurl his dress and show his wares to the others to keep them interested. That has always been the double tonguing, double faced and double talking character of Australian foreign and trade policy in so far as the Americans are concerned, and vice versa.
The AWB wheat sales to Saddam Hussein in breach of UN sanctions was one such example of Howard unfurling his dress, double tonguing and dirty dancing. Thankfully, for him and Downer, he was the one who set the terms of reference of the Cole Commission of Inquiry to escape answering any questions for what could otherwise have been a dirty-flour bomb exploding in his face.
Australia’s current trade policy with China is another example of Australia playing double games over China as far as the Americans are concerned. By way of insurance, the US has a strong lobby in Canberra to ensure Australia does not betray the US Defence interests for thirty pieces of silver from China.
Australia is also playing double games with China itself, tricking China into believing it is a bona-fide trading partner, when it is not, prompting recent call by businessmen like Andrew Forrest (Fortescue Metals) on Australian leaders to abandon their narrow racist phobias against China and be genuine about doing business with China. Australia has deep and abiding prejudices against China, which includes defence policy modeling of China as the new enemy.
American trade policy, on the other hand has been no different as far as Australia was concerned when it came to selling beef or wheat in terms of competing for the same export destinations, refusing in trade negotiations to sign protective exclusivity or reservation clauses that Australia preponderated to keep certain markets to itself.
Howard realized that, APEC and WTO aside, he had to take advantage of changing dynamics and perceptions, and artfully keep China and India economically engaged beyond just exporting iron ore and coal to China and taking Indian students into Australian universities. Howard also wanted to assert a new position for Australia in the order of things with the US in decline.
For Howard’s Australia, the historical European Common Market access could no longer be taken for granted. The European countries transforming into a wider European Union with a unified currency and open and flexible (Intra-European Union) market access posed a serious dilemma for the traditional Australian agricultural exports to Europe.
The inevitability of Australia losing its market share in exports into Europe became a huge challenge a decade ago. Now a decade on, the challenge clearly became how Howard could keep positive foreign policy engagement, especially in trade, with the Europeans, the Israelis, Arabs, Indonesia, India and China and at the same time do everything under the sun to keep them out of the growing important resource rich economies of the Pacific’s mainly Melanesian countries.
In so far as the United States was concerned, Howard had to figure out just how Howard could assure it to keep Australia as a worthy defence ally in the Pacific, and at the same time keep the United States businessmen and their capital markets out of the Pacific. In a sense Australia wanted to be to the US regarding investments in Melanesia, what England is to the US regarding investments in the European Union.
Australia’s export capacity in agriculture to Europe and elsewhere has markedly declined in the last twenty years in most sectors in contrast to New Zealand’s comparable products in the same period.
This is partly because Australia pursued unwise domestic economic policies that have had the effect of stripping its farming base and debasing its sources of rural innovation, resulting in displacing some of its key rural industries and attendant populations.
Certain market policies were pursued to make way for Australia’s entry into more liberalized and globalized capitalist markets underpinned by free trade and free market theories of capitalism.
Some rural industries, like fruit farms, fruit processing and canning businesses like Letona and Watties, owned and operated by large multinationals in southern New South Wales and rural Victoria, folded or downsized responding to decisions in head offices elsewhere overseas for reasons of achieving greater global efficiency or in response to popular push for free trade. Others folded for industrial relations related adverse cost and efficiency factors.
Whole townships dependent on single industries simply died and became ghost towns with remaining population going on welfare and the dole. Many generational orchards and farming lands have been let go and families have fled the bush for lack of government support in times of difficulty, including years of lack of drought support in some areas.
Commercial banks who have lent to farms in good times refused to reschedule terms when the commodity prices faltered. Some banks who provided negligent or questionable foreign exchange advice to farmers and supported their heavy foreign currency borrowings abandoned the farmers without recompense when they made extraordinary losses.
In some cases the government has not come up with workable and innovative farm-gate financing solutions for those farmers engaged in the direct export of commodities. Instead many generational farming communities of Australia have been left high and dry, and in some cases hung to dry by deliberate shifts to pursue capitalist ideologies of free trade. Yet others have been challenged to give up their profitable farms in favor of coal, coal seam or iron ore miners moving in.
Water has been another major issue for farmers in certain parts. Governments, both Federal and State, have become more and more part of the problem than the solution in coming up with coherent water use policies that would benefit all inhabitants of Australia, especially along the Murray-Darling and the Murrumbidgee river basins. This has adversely affected farmers in several States through which these great rivers once flowed so freely and prolifically.
The problem is not just in accessing use and even distribution of water by farmers upstream and by other users downstream; there is a serious issue relating to the type of industries accessing the water- whether the economic returns and the comparative advantages gained are worth the volume of water consumed in industries like cotton for instance, comparing to returns on say rice or wheat?
There are other pressing issues of maintaining fragile areas of the environment for preservation of fish, bird and other wildlife species in wetland type zones that are threatened by drought type conditions brought on by artificially snuffing the life out of river systems.
Then there is the overall problem of lack of volume of total available water. In some parts of Australia ‘…no man never saw it rain, for fifty years at least. Not when the blessed parakeets are flyin’ to the east!” New South Wales has spent upward of 24 billion dollars on a desalination plant to supply Sydney. Queensland may do the same. This very expensive option has not factored into the equation the needs of their respective farming communities who are left to the vagaries of changed weather patterns and increased drought conditions.
The demand for water for farmers in most affected States of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia has reached a point where the price per unit of limited supply has been somewhat heated to the extent that the States have not been able to agree on drawing rights and pricing. This has caused the Federal Government to intervene and legislatively assume water powers and administration, creating a Federal Ministry for Water, taking debate on it to a national level.
No matter what the final pricing or distribution rights they finally agree to, the issue of overall total available volume in a dry continent frequented further by regular and severe bouts of drought will not be solved within the current paradigms evident and contemplated.
When one stops to consider the magnitude of the problem, it does not take much imagination or cost in comparative terms, in the final analysis, to sink a few draw pipes into a river or two from the Gulf of Papua and pump down to Australia all that clean fresh pristine water from the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea.
They could easily pump that water right into current dams and reservoirs and supply the farms and cities directly at a miniscule of what it is costing them now, and the small fortune that lack of water is likely to cost them in the future.
When one considers that the volume of water that flows through the Murray-Darling in one whole year flows through any one of the Strickland, Lakekamu, or Purari rivers in less than a day, it is not such a silly idea after all!
However, such dreams of huge water pipes and a dry and barren land coming alive, lay only in the realms of possibility of those who are called by the mover of man and mountains to be visionaries and leaders of men. It is for those who are born to be hunters to hunt, fishermen to fish, and fortunetellers to tell us about tomorrow.
For Australia’s tomorrow, it will be a long time before it births a leader who has both promise and passion, with a real connection with the land, who is not faint of heart, possessed of such dare and vision to see those still dry bones rise once more, those dry river beds and canyons rejuvenated, and the deserts greener than ever before, to feed an ever growing and ever hungry world.
Sadly, the reality of Australia’s loss is not just in abandoned properties and dilapidated farm sheds over what was once productive and thriving rural Australia. The real loss is in farming and land management skills developed over generations of working with the land.
A significant body of knowledge, wisdom, and the gritty spirit of the Australian bush borne out of living with and living off a dry and harsh landscape, may well be lost through lack of imagination in leadership. As TS Eliot would ask, “where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?”
With its leadership adopting glibly the Harvard business school type productivity and efficiency prescriptions based on economic models that are usually at odds with the interests of real Australia, the bush will continually come under immense pressure until it can no longer hold the spirit of its inhabitants. For some that is already the case.
The prescriptions of World Trade Organization, APEC, GATT, the failed Uruguay Round, the nearby the DOHA round, the recent G8 leader’s post-GFC designs, aimed at preserving capitalism, if not carefully adjusted and adapted, can be at great odds with preservation of real lives and an iconic way of life in Australia.
At the end of the day real people and real lives are sacrificed at the altar of capitalism, for the sake of preserving and perpetuating what in reality is an ideology, an ideology that is proving to unravel at the seams with the world in financial turmoil.
Handing out huge amounts of cash to banks by governments is an obscene transfer of public wealth to the hands of those mega rich few who own and control these financial institutions, all for the sake of perpetuating a system nearly collapsed by the sheer greed of these very financial institutions.
It cannot possibly be fairly characterized as giving the bush or the rural populous a fair go by any government, let alone Australian, when you consider that these very banks have closed down hundreds of farms and sent thousands to the jobless and homeless ques.
Try explaining the imposts of free trade to the Innisfail banana farmer in Far North Queensland, the rice farmer in Leeton, or the wheat farmer in the Liverpool Plains, in whose hands Australia continues to pin its hopes of a place in the new economically altered world order, but fails to tangibly support.
The other cause for loss of the farming productivity and way of life is failure by successive Federal and State governments of Australia to reinvest in and follow through funding in research and development in agricultural crop and livestock productivity, and pest control research.
Pests like rabbits are back stronger than ever in destroying the mallee, pasture land and crops because of government failure to conduct follow through research for their eradication. In comparison to the US, Japan, China, India, Singapore, Malaysia, and other progressive economies, Australia has failed to invest in R&D at the same level in the last 30 years to capture its own ingenuity.
It is obvious that successive Australian leaders, like Howard, Rudd and now Gillard have run out of new and fresh ideas for increasing farm productivity and have opted instead to take the soft option in placing the Australian economy on an almost irresponsible footing with heavy reliance on (including taxing) its finite natural resources to save the day and bring home the bacon.
The Howard government privatized large publicly owned corporations such as Telstra, sold huge chunks of Australia to foreign interests like the Chinese and the Arabs in terms of large tracts of pasture land and rural properties, stud farms, coal, iron ore, aluminum and natural gas properties, before they were voted out.
Howard even changed the media ownership laws and sanctioned Publishing & Broadcasting Limited, the iconic Australian media company that Sir Frank Packer founded the Packer family fortune on, to be sold.
Unconfirmed word in certain sectors has it that a large chunk of PBL was ultimately sold to fronts for suspected Chinese interests trading off gaming industry opportunities in the former Portuguese, now Chinese, controlled Macau. To India, Australia has begun a process to sell them uranium and other resources like iron ore. This is all part of Australia responding to the ordering of the new world.
When climate change policy threatened the natural resources sector, Howard opted to join the skeptics, as it was politically convenient to save the coal industry- the goose that lays the golden egg for Australia. This created one of the biggest macro policy dilemmas Australia has ever faced. Australian government and its leadership have had to decide whether they are interested to save the planet, or stay in government.
The choice between keeping the jobs of the mine workers in the coal industry or save the world has not been an easy one. The Howard government lacked courage to take this decision. The Rudd government was also beset with the same dilemma. It has found out that it is not enough to have a vision. Vision must be supported by knowledge and understanding; but above all else courage, and courage in the face of a powerful mining lobby.
For Rudd this presented itself as the moment of difference between world leadership and remaining a mediocre (Australian) politician, and there are many, who inevitably like a field of daisies, bloom in the morning and fade with the setting sun. Rudd was not going to be a daisy, and he paid the price with a knife to his back.
Once again, a leader of men, a man of abiding courage and deep conviction, a dreamer, a prophet and a political-entrepreneur, a social democrat- if you like, is yet to emerge from the pack who will distinguish himself or herself with the ability to engender big hearts and big enough minds to dream Australia out of the unhealthy and imbalanced political, social, and economic paradigms that it finds itself entombed in.
A leader that will, as Howard attempted to do, forge a common basis of identity (aside from meat pies, vegemite, Holden utes and footy games) to provide a truly spiritual basis for coming together, is yet to emerge. This lack has seriously undermined and will continue to afflict Australia’s bid to become a significant political and economic player in the region as part of the new order of things.
Australia at times sees itself as stuck in the Pacific, so far away from everyone, every group and everything else that matters to it economically and culturally. As such, Howard realized that unless, it grew a voice and perhaps could shed its umbilical cord and unite its people under some form or shape of common values, and started to make some noise of relevancy likened to some sort of a median player in the region, it is destined to become redundant and a non-event.
Hence Howard’s quest to become a middle power or regional power was an attempt at addressing this fear, which lies at the heart of an even deeper crisis- a crisis of identity. It is almost a desperate bid to remain and maintain some potency and relevancy on a stage where the scenery and the props are constantly changing. For Asia, the show has definitely moved on, and Australia has to catch up.
Howard’s new-found concept of being a median player may well have been inspired by Peter Jackson, a New Zealander, who directed the film sequel Lord of the Rings which hit the box office about the same time. Howard echoed the notion of the existence of a mythical land known as Middle Earth as seen in that film’s adaptation of Tolkien’s famous novel.
By asserting a position openly, Howard felt that he could with the stroke of a pen put paid to the deep spiritual crisis of identity that has plagued white Australia ever since John Banks suggested the idea of convicts and jails in the Antipodes.
One of Australia’s other great phobias is that it will be seen as just a big hole in the ground where natural resources are dug out of, and nothing more.
The perfect solution for Australia, it seemed to Howard, was to create for itself a role on the world stage and then superimpose that role on the neighboring countries and the region through regional Aid policies, whilst domestically mobilizing the population to fight the scourge of Muslim terrorism, and getting everyone to rally to sing a new song of Mateship and Fair go.
Hence, he put himself forward as Bush’s deputy sheriff in the Pacific, aided by an Irish catholic in Mick Kelty as his go to man with equally expansive ideas and designs on the role of the Australian Federal Police.
Howard embarked feverishly on activities aimed at greater regional cooperation on developmental and security interests to put Australia at the helm of the Pacific, sought observer and member status in regional forums like ASEAN, sought a seat on the UN Security Council, used aid and treaty based institutional strengthening programs as effective tools of imposition in the Asia and Pacific regions- all in a bid to remain relevant, and fight its demons at the same time.
On Australia Day in 2007, Howard used the event to also serve notice on New Australians not to deviate from his stated values. His desire to create a homogenous society caused his values to be written into official government (Immigration) policy and pledges.
Howard also attempted to use the proclamation of these values to somewhat under-pin a new culture of egalitarianism based on mate-ship and a fair go in Australian society, just as the Puritans and other Pilgrims did in founding the Americas, culminating in the proclamation of the Bill of Rights, the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
However, even if Howard’s speech on that Australia Day was intended to give a certain Jeffersonian resonance, or a semblance of a Washingtonian moment, to convey him deep political gratification and a lasting legacy, the terms mateship and fair go are a far cry from language befitting a constitution of federation or declaration of independence.
They are not exactly the rousing and deeply venerated prose of idealism that stirs the spirit and beckons the soul of every Australian toward the lofty, the sublime, and the noble. Nor are they words that inspire Australians to scale the majestic heights of idealism and be held enthralled and captivated by principles higher than their own mortal selves, like the timeless spirit and essence patently alive in the wonderful prose of the American Constitution, and in that of the Declaration of Independence.
These terms of mateship and fair go, in actual fact, respectively, dangle like a broken pendulum in the wind, resonating precariously between a melancholic lament and a protest of malcontent. As a result they are no more than common slang that represent more fluff and feathers than the real turkey because, in actual contemporary Australian society, they neither reflect a past that is commonly shared nor a future to be commonly hoped for by all who have now come to call themselves Australian.
The challenge that remains, still, for Australian leaders is how can they, as leaders of disparate groups of mainly migrants, on Aborigine soil, in Melanesian Pacific, without the threat of the oppressive manacles and artifices of statute law, come together and freely assert a cohesive position and place, birthing a new spirit of the Australian people, of a singular soul, to be made self-evident as one people, as the new world order unfolds- living with due regard and reverence for the place and position of the Aborigine and the Melanesian on this side of God’s earth?
As for mateship and fair go, they remain for now common slang, reminiscent of a time and a place, a mariner’s survival catch-cry that cannot give, take or hold life, let alone the soul of a disparate people.