Sunday, March 11, 2007

Country Music and Australian Popular Culture - a note

One of the things that I find interesting is the resilience of Australian popular culture.

I was again reminded of this by two stories that I have put on the New England Australia blog, the first on the returns to Tamworth from this year's country music festival ($A113 million), the second on Slim Dusty and the attempt to establish a Slim Dusty Centre in Kempsey.

From the seventies there was a growing divergence between what I suppose we can call "official" cultural activities as presented by our cultural elites and key elements of our past. We were meant to put aside these past childish things as no longer relevant to our modern multicultural Australia with its international outlook, its diverse ethnicity, its ballet, orchestras etc.

The problem in all this is that the "official" cultural activities ceased to reflect Australia back to us. Here I suggested that one of the reasons for the decline in interest in Alex Buzo's plays, a writer who loved the Australian idiom and specialised in presenting us to ourselves, was that he had somehow become unfashionable among the elites. I also said:

At the first level, pluralism and multiculturalism may be important aspirations, even attributes of our culture, but they are not core descriptors of the culture. The abolition of the idea of an Australian culture, of the idea of a distinct Australia, effectively invalidated our past, creating a cultural void.

Just so I do not get caught in semantic traps in saying all this, I am very comfortable with the idea of Australia as a nation of ethnic and cultural diversity. Just as I am proud of my English, Scottish and New Zealand heritage while also being Australian, so I expect other Australians to be proud of their ancestry.

My own daughters add the Irish Catholic tradition to the mix from their mother. Should they marry a Lebanese, a Chinese, an Indian, an Aborigine or whatever, then I would expect their children, my grand children, to be proud of this added stream.

I also take pride in what I see as the growth in those things covered by "official" culture. I, too, can take pride in the increase in standards in those European cultural pecking order things such as opera, ballet or classical music.

Where I part company with at least some of our cultural elites is that I am very comfortable with being Australian and see no need to cringe or apologise for our past. In fact, I am proud of it.

I do see the need to redress past wrongs, but that's a different issue.

In a funny way, this - Australia today - is one of the the most morally sensitive societies in history measured by the way public discussion is so dominated by questions of morality. It is also a risk averse and censorious society, one that seems to think that the solution to problems is to make a new law or regulation.

In some ways this is not new. Australia has always been a remarkably law abiding country, one inclined to follow the lead of Government. We practice a democracy of manners, yet in a personal sense will go along with quite undemocratic approaches if a Government says that they are necessary. As an example, the use of migration rules to exclude perceived undesirables has a long history, and I am not just talking about White Australia and the dictation test.

Yet in all this. the Australian popular culture has always provided a balance against the dictates of the power elites. Central to this is the concept of a fair go.

Take David Hicks as an example.

I am sure that the bulk of Australians initially accepted the Government's position on Hicks, as did Mr Beazley and the Opposition. Then as time passed and it became clear that Hicks was not getting a fair go, public opinion swung. This took time. But after a certain point the momentum became such that even the hard liners in the Federal Government were forced to shift position.

Hicks is not an isolated example.

Take Tamworth and refugees. I have no doubt that initial public opinion in Tamworth was against the refugee resettlement program. In that sense, the first council decision reflected Tamworth opinion as expressed through the consultation process. When council changed its mind, that also reflected changing public opinion.

Some might argue that Tamworth changed its position because of external pressure. There is some truth in this, although my fear was that external views would cause locals to dig in. But when you look at the process that Tamworth went through, it really was growing local opposition to the decision that forced the change.

From the beginning, and immediately after the initial council decision, locals and local groups organised. Yes, the local paper, The Northern Daily Leader, played a role through editorial and news coverage. However, this was only effective because of popular on-ground action. Further, change was aided because most of those opposed to the program focused their opposition in terms of weaknesses in the program itself, not the race card.

There is no doubt that the whole imbroglio did us damage internationally because of the way it was picked up by the metro media. But it is also something that I think that we can take considerable pride in because of the way a community worked the issues through in the face of massive media scrutiny.

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