Monday, February 12, 2007

The Howard Government, Dissent and the Pattern of Change in Australia 2 - A personal explanation

Rereading my first post on this topic, I think that I should make one qualification plus an explanation before going on in a later post to look at education.

I, too, believe in a liberal culture and liberal values.

I have put the words "liberal" in inverted commas to signify that I was referring to the liberal culture that David Marr referred to in his review, the culture and values imposed by the dominant intellectual elites especially in the late Keating period, a culture that (in my view) breached the fundamental principle of a true liberal culture by denigrating and squeezing out the expression of alternative views.

I do not want to mount too much of a soapbox here, and this post is a soap box, but I do want to make my personal position clear.

By the time of the election of the Howard Government in 1996 I no longer felt that I belonged in the Australia that was emerging. I was not alone in feeling this.

Part of the sense of loss, of alienation, came from damage done to things that I cared about, that my family had tried to build.

I had seen the university that my grandfather had helped found, that my father had joined as one of the first five staff, that I had attended and tried to work for, trashed by changing Canberra policy. I had seen the senior staff at that university compound the problem through poor management. I had seen those same staff reject, at least as I saw it, the university's past as simply irrelevant to current needs.

I remember going to the opening of the T C Lamble Building, the new administration block at UNE. Mrs Lamble had insisted, and she had to insist, that Tom's old friends, those with a long connection to UNE, should be invited. Denise and I were there because my parents were dead and we had known the Lambles for a long period.

We gathered at morning tea after the opening. Every person in the group had a long connection with UNE. Someone commented, and everyone agreed, that we were like shags on the rocks, that we did not belong. For the first time, and then aged 49, I felt that time had passed me by, that the dreams of the past were dead.

I was not alone in feeling this. What Governments and others fail to recognise when they change policy, restructure this, close that, is that (especially in country areas where individual contribution is so important) they are often invalidating past lives, past contributions. Individuals and families remember this and respond.

This trend linked with another, an apparent rejection of the Australian past, the desire to replace it with a new model. In part this was simply fashion, the way subjects for study reflect changing interest. But it also reflected the views of the now dominant "liberal" culture as to what was appropriate to study, to celebrate, to remember.

That's fine, but it is hard when the things you believe in cease to be discussed, become ignored. It's worse when the culture reflects back to you things that you are uncomfortable with, do not believe to be important, even reject. Worse still when the culture explicitly rejects things that you consider to be important, when you are not allowed to discuss things.

This last may sound extreme. How, you might ask, can you stop people discussing things? This is not a dictatorship. People are allowed to say what they like subject to the law. Yet the reality is that there are range of social suasions that limit discussion.

One part is access to the major sources of information dissemination and comment, the media. What gets run, the slant put on what is run, is determined by the attitudes of those making the selection, by those doing the commentary. With exceptions, these people formed part of and shared the views of the dominant "liberal" culture.

A second part linked part is the use of criticism and ridicule. Those perceived to be attacking elements of the dominant culture are attacked, parodied, cartooned.

This cascades down to a personal level. Here when I suggested at one point that the ethnic structure of Australia needed to be discussed I was criticised, attacked. The same thing happened when I suggested that multiculturalism as a term lacked meaning.

Those who read this blog will know that I am curious, that I like to discuss things, to identify trends. They will also know that I believe that Australia can accommodate a variety of cultures and groups.

Back in 1991 and 1992 I did a series of studies on change in Australia. This included a study for the Sydney South Western Institute of TAFE on future demand for TAFE courses. As part of that I looked in detail at the changing composition of Sydney's population and what it might mean for education demands.

At that time, I was still able to discuss these issues as well as my other conclusions relating to the dramatic changes taking place in Australia, changes that I thought were leading to the creation of a number of very different Australia's . By 1994 I could no longer do this without attracting criticism that I was being racist.

Repression breeds reaction.

The dominance of the "liberal" culture led to the Howard reaction.

Let me make my own position here clear. I like the ideologues of the Liberal Party and their associates as little as I like the previously dominant "liberal" school. At times I have watched with horror as the Government has dismantled things that I believe to be important.

Personally, I come from a different tradition to both dominant schools, the Country Party tradition. There is not room in this post to spell this out, although I have begun to articulate elements in that tradition in some of my posts such as my discussion on constitutional issues. Suffice it to say at this point that the Country Party tradition is informed by, coloured by, the struggles of the small man to survive in a world dominated by the large.

To my mind, perhaps the single greatest failure of the "liberal" culture and the response it provoked lies in policy towards our Aboriginal people.

If you look at public discussion here over the last decade it has really been dominated by two things.

The first is guilt, the need to atone for sins of the past. This is the "liberal" stream. Then we have had all the discussions about Aboriginal problems, about the failures, about the need for mutual responsibility, about the need to enforce national law. This is the Howard stream.

A pox on both their houses.

Where is the basic information that we need to inform public debate? Where is the discussion of Aboriginal successes, and there have been many. Where is the discussion about how we build on what has been achieved? Where is the basic information that we need to inform public debate?

Policy determined by ideology, and this is the fault of both schools, will not answer these questions or give us the broad vision that will ensure the Aboriginal people become, as I believe they should, a central element in Australian life and culture.


Anonymous said...

Very revealing, Jim, and yet while I obviously took on many of what you call "liberal" ideas, and still hold them, I can see what you are saying. On Aboriginal history, for example, I lean, as you know, more to the "black armband" side, but without pointless guilt or anger. To me it's a matter of us all recognising what had often been hidden before and I think it is good these stories are being told. There are positive voices I can relate to on this -- Boori Pryor (now there is an Aboriginal success story!) being just one, not to mention my friend Kristina. I suspect by different paths you and I end up in a similar place.

Seeing that period from 1990 on through Hanson from a household that included one of those post-Tiananmen students, and working with many more of them, gave me a different perspective of course, but I hope we might have discussed the issues that concerned you without calling you a racist. Mind you, I was sometimes a bit feral too in those days...

Did you watch Difference of Opinion on ABC at 9.30? It was better than I expected, I have to say, and dealt with much that concerns us both. I may reflect more on that later.

Hope you enjoyed my Little Patty entry.

My friend Sirdan is a Rhodesian farmer, by the way... We get on. (I have been educating him, or rather Australia has. He is getting better. ;))

Jim Belshaw said...

I did enjoy the little pattie post, Neil. I did not see the ABC program, but read the description with interest.

My core plaint in all this is the way debate has become twisted.

Take the black armband thing. The focus on the negatives generated a response, so discussion gets squeezed into that frame. Other things get lost.

I can't, write more at the moment, but why is it that I can find lots on line about Aboriginal/European relations but very little about Aboriginal history post 1788 unless it's set in the relations frame? The most basic information appears to be lacking.

Travel Italy said...

Jim - The author of "Cowboy Capitalism" just asked if your Mr. Howard could run for President of the US!

Jim Belshaw said...

Perhaps we could both gain, David!

Travel Italy said...

Somehow I get the feeling this is like the Thanksgiving wishes of Georgia when Carter was elected president.

"We are not celebrating Thanksgiving this year, we sent our turkey to Washington!"

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that's a bit unfair on Jimmy Carter, but you feeling may well be correct!