For we are one and free
Happy New Year! I know I promised not to write until after the Australian Open which is, somewhat precariously, still scheduled to start on February 8. However, too much of note has happened in recent weeks not to consider its import.
Regrettably, the commencement of a new year never wipes the residue of its predecessor entirely away. Quite the opposite it seems. Australians have had to take a collective New Year’s deep breath and wonder whether recent outbreaks of the Corona virus in New South Wales and Victoria will presage a return to the grim lockdown days of 2020. The Sydney-Hobart yacht race has been cancelled for the first time in its history. Doubts continue about where and with what restrictions the final Test matches of the Australia-India series will be played.
The year began with the Prime Minister announcing that the Governor-General had, with the stroke of his executive pen, approved a change to the lyrics of our national anthem. To promote greater awareness of the ancient history of our indigenous culture, our citizens will now sing that, as a nation, we are “one and free”, rather than “young and free”.
No sooner had this change been announced than the ongoing effects of Corona virus made it clear that the fractured Australia of 2020 was re-emerging. Australians are, again, no longer one geographically with Western Australia having closed its border to residents from NSW and Victoria; South Australia having closed its border to NSW; and Queensland and Victoria also both excluding residents from New South Wales. Talk about “one brief shining moment”: Western Australia had only re-opened its borders to Victorians on 8th December. The freedom to travel, so longed for in the summer holiday following the Covid restrictions of 2020, has all but evaporated. A sort of “travel nullius” if you will.
Vaccination of millions upon millions of citizens against the virus has commenced in America, England and many European countries. Notwithstanding this encouraging development, rates of infection in those countries continue at levels that makes Australia’s “outbreaks” seem less than negligible. Last week in Britain an average of 50,000 new daily infections were recorded. England appears also to be the crucible of a new strain of the virus that is more contagious, but thankfully no more punishing. England’s daily infection rate is the equivalent of all the residents of my hometown of Launceston testing positive every day. Over 20 million Americans have now been infected by the virus and over 350,000 have died.
For Americans, the notion that the virus is only fatal for the elderly or those with “co-morbidities”, was shattered by the recent death of 41-year-old Congressman elect Luke Letlow from Louisiana.
For Australians, the brutal nature of the virus was reinforced by the plight of expatriate golfer Greg Norman. Norman, 65, twice British Open Champion, is now a resident of Florida. For many years Norman has been the poster Baby Boomer of outrageous middle-aged health and fitness. Like his close friend, President Trump, Norman does not have a retiring ego or self-image. However, after contracting the virus Norman let his social media followers know that, notwithstanding his high tolerance of pain, the virus was “kicking the s*** out of him.” Let’s remember also that Norman’s wealth enables him to have the finest Floridian health care and steroid cocktails available.
Keeping perspective on these events is difficult at the best of times, even when adopting a long-term view.
Indeed, the long-term view makes one even more perplexed. It has often been observed that the nineteenth century belonged to England and the twentieth century to America. To now see both nations at best becalmed and, at worst, broken by the ravages of the virus is remarkable. The US military acronym, SNAFU*, is sadly apt for both nations.
President Trump, whose denial of his impending political fate continues to be more outlandish with every utterance, maintains that a victory against the virus, based on immunisation of citizens with “his vaccine”, is imminent. So, too, is his departure from office. Will there ever be a more disorderly transfer of power from one President to another?
For the moment both President Trump and President-elect Biden have Georgia on their mind. Trump is being asked to explain the nature of his phone conversations with government officials in the State which suggest a coercive attempt to establish Trump’s claim of voter fraud in the Presidential election. Biden hopes that run-off elections in Georgia for the remaining Senate seats will deliver the Democrats a majority in the upper House of the Congress.
Across the Atlantic, the inability of England’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to either coherently articulate or implement a plan to manage the virus has added to the sense of calamity in his nation. Today we have the announcement of another national lockdown, more restrictive than previous ones, which is to last seven weeks. Wasn’t it only a fortnight ago that Boris was saying that everyone “could have a very Merry Christmas”? Then it was to be a “very Merry little Christmas” and now it is back to home barracks for everyone!
Johnson’s pronouncements are as bizarre as they are baffling. How could anyone think that a man with a permanently windswept coiffure who struggles to construct a proper sentence, resembling as he does a hungover undergraduate who has had nothing but a Red Bull power drink for breakfast, could occupy No.10 Downing Street is mystifying. The notion is almost as puzzling as the perplexing Brexit deal that Boris negotiated in the dying days of 2020. Britain is free of Europe, but European nations can fish with impunity in British waters for another five years. One of my university professors said that an English friend had written in an e-mail to him that England will have to rely on “the piece of cod that passes all understanding.”
At least Julian Assange will not miss out on too much as he waits to see whether he can be released on bail pending an appeal by the United States government against an English judge’s decision that Assange cannot be extradited to America to face espionage charges. The rationale for the decision was based on fears that Assange may take his life in an American prison, given his depression and Asperger’s syndrome.
Our perceptions of the permanent greatness of nations have had to change. Likewise, with our tennis heroes. Roger Federer’s announcement that he will not be playing in this year’s Australian Open is a reminder that Federer’s era of dominance is coming to an inevitable end. He will be 40 in August, and whilst Tom Brady can still orchestrate an NFL team as a quarterback at that age, Federer’s weaker knees make it harder for him to continually win best of five-set matches against the world’s best.
At this year’s International Tennis Awards Federer was voted the fan’s favourite player for an unparalleled 18th year in succession, notwithstanding he did not play a match after his semi-final loss to Djokovic at last year’s Australian Open.
Even in his absence, we still pretend that he is there! It seems Roger’s ambition is to ration his appearances in order to focus on winning a maiden singles title at the deferred Tokyo Olympics – Roger, why bother as tennis victories at the Olympic tournament are barely footnotes in the game’s history?- and have a last hurrah at Wimbledon and New York. Now he is the tennis emperor playing on one knee.
Other sporting greats have permanently departed the arena. Diego Maradona’s death- how did the bloated drug addict live for as long as he did? -led to wailing in the streets amongst Argentina’s soccer fans. In overtones of reaction to Michael Jackson’s death the response was to blame the attending doctor rather than the addled patient. “Show me a hero and I will show you a tragedy”.
Those who have been departed for a long time and are truly great received due acknowledgement. Beethoven’s 250th birthday was celebrated on the 16th and 17th December, given the unreliability of birth records in 1770! Notwithstanding protests from some that Beethoven has received unfair recognition and adulation, the world rightly remembered his genius. I am sorry to remind the inclusivity and diversity brigade that when there is universal agreement about a person’s brilliance, it is churlish to suggest that such fame is an ill-justified by-product of gender privilege and/or racial background. I will take the joy that Beethoven has given the world any day of the week in preference to the rancor and self-loathing that so many critics of our past wish to generate against so many.
If Beethoven’s symphonies and concertos have kept the world inspired, then the end-of-year fake Tweet sent by Chinese Embassy official, Zhao Lijian, depicting an Australian soldier committing war atrocities in Afghanistan, sent diplomats searching for new words to describe the state of the once cordial relations between Australia and China. If the nadir has not been reached, it is not far away.
Scott Morrison’s Christmas present to the member for Wannon, Dan Tehan, was to promote him from Education Minister to Trade Minister. Maybe the new Minister will be able to plead for a return of foreign students to the university sector, so that Australian students do not have to pay the price of a 1980s mortgage to pursue undergraduate studies.
The new Minister for Education is the member for Aston, Alan Tudge. There may be some conservative schools who will be equivocal about Mr. Tudge attending their Speech Days given that Mr. Tudge admitted to a consensual affair with one of his staffers, whilst trumpeting the virtues of the ‘traditional’ family in debates about same-sex marriage.
However, in terms of hypocrisy, Mr. Tudge is light years behind former Hungarian Minister, Jozsef Szajer. In early December, Mr. Szajer, a Vice-President of Hungary’s governing political party that has opposed LGBTQ rights was arrested abseiling naked down a drainpipe after fleeing an early December party in Brussels that violated lockdown laws. All he had on his person were drugs in his backpack. If that was not bad enough, it was revealed that the party Mr. Szajer left so hurriedly was a male only sex orgy. A Minister with no clothes indeed!
Australia’s turbulent debate about climate change politics continued to wreak havoc in the Australian Labor Party, with the member for Hunter and former Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, quitting the Opposition frontbench. The reason for his departure is his concern that the “workers’ party” has forsaken the coal mine workers of his Hunter Valley electorate in New South Wales.
Our natural environment was no less turbulent. Fraser Island, a focal point for a major environmental debate in the early 1970s, was affected by an extensive bushfire that was only extinguished when severe storms that washed away beaches from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to Byron Bay, doused the island’s flames in mid-December.
Byron Bay is located within the Federal electorate of Richmond. One of its former members was Doug Anthony, whose father, Hubert, and son, Larry, held the seat before and after him. Doug Anthony passed away just before Christmas aged 90. Often mocked by cartoonists as a simplistic hayseed, he presided over a change in the name of his Country Party to National Party and was Australia’s longest-serving Deputy Prime Minister, serving under Prime Ministers, John Gorton, William McMahon and Malcolm Fraser. Also dying just before Christmas was Michael Jeffrey, one of the few State Governors who also served as the nation’s Governor-General, having been Governor of Western Australia from 1993-2000, before being Governor-General from 2003-2008.
Three of our last four Governors-General have occupied these dual roles: Jeffrey, Quentin Bryce (Queensland) and the incumbent David Hurley (NSW). Both Anthony and Jeffrey were citizens of the Cold War, whose vestiges were further diminished with the deaths of English novelist John le Carre and British agent turned Soviet agent, George Blake.
2020 ended with our national leaders rightfully acknowledging the resolve and determination of Australians to “do what had to be done” to combat the effect of the virus. There have, however, been opportunity costs. The emergence of puffed-up, overly parochial, and often petulant Premiers is high on the list along with the development of a debt and deficit dependency.
Yet maybe there is something greater that we should all be worried about. Such has been the focus and energy directed towards combating the virus, it seems that our nation may have lost the interest, imagination and energy to consider how it can respond to other challenges in our society. Not so much “reform fatigue”, but “reform resistance”.
Two issues ,out of many, illustrate this point.
Before the Federal Parliament rose for its summer recess, the Federal government announced proposed changes to industrial relations laws. Even the most partisan participant in our industrial relations system concedes that the nation’s economic productivity is stymied by an overly complex system of labour awards, regulations, and dispute resolution procedures. Yet the response to any suggested reform of the system is always shrill and predictable: “an attack on rights”, “an attack on the living standards of decent Australians”. Another Senate imbroglio looms. Economic recovery from the virus is paramount, but could we not think of how that recovery could be even stronger by taking the opportunity the virus has presented to fix a system that is partially, if not significantly, broken?
Another equally predictable and discordant round of rhetorical flourishes followed the announcement of the changes to the national anthem. Most disappointing were comments from Noel Pearson and other indigenous leaders, many of whom dismissed the change as a cosmetic ploy to deny indigenous Australians recognition in the Constitution. Why are the two issues mutually exclusive?
Maybe, just maybe, when Australians now sing their reworded anthem- (yes, it is hard to be rejoice and joyful when its tune is so dismal verging as it does on a dirge)-they will recognise why the change was necessary? Is not an understanding of our indigenous culture the necessary prelude to convincing Australians of the need for constitutional recognition?
Australians are politically pragmatic. Sensible explanation and justification of the need for significant change will always be needed. Shrill lecturing of the masses by those “who think they know better” will rarely charm the constitutional reform birds out of the trees. In relation to indigenous issues, an “us and them” approach is doomed to failure.
In Troy Bramston’s recent biography of Robert Menzies, Bramston cites a Sydney Morning Herald editorial of 29th August, 1941, which noted that Menzies tenuous hold on the Prime Ministership* showed that in politics,
“…the most brilliant qualities of mind are ineffective unless they are associated with an understanding of public psychology, ability to choose adequate assistance and a capacity for teamwork.”
If Noel Pearson and others wish to achieve their goals, they should heed this advice.
After the deprivations of the lockdown, and subject to irritating minor third waves erupting piecemeal across the States, Australia may be able to spend much of 2021 celebrating its success in managing the virus.
Hearing of the current effects of the virus from friends in Northern Ireland, Canada, England, France, and Italy has been salutary. The plight of India should also not be forgotten. In addition to the ravages of the virus, Indian society has been convulsed by the nation's largest ever strikes in protest about agricultural reforms proposed by President Modi. Small landowners fear the appropriation and consolidation of their land into larger allotments. The opposition to the proposed laws has overtones of the unrest against the rural enclosures that occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England. The history of the coloniser is visited on the former colony.
Australia, through a combination of good luck and management, is, amongst the world’s nations, a virological Garden of Eden.
With mass vaccinations may come a great sense of vindication. Such vindication, however, must not come at the expense of formulating a vision of what type of post-Covid nation we should strive to be. The forthcoming vaccination programme must not inoculate us against either the imagination or inspiration needed to consider matters outside of the Covid constructs and constraints that risk permanently curbing our development.
5th January, 2021
*SNAFU- the acronym stands for “Situation Normal- All F***** Up
*Menzies lost the Prime Ministership on 29th August, 1941. Banished to the political wilderness, Menzies became Opposition Leader of the United Australia Party in September 1943. From the UAP he created the Liberal Party of Australia in 1944, lost the 1946 election and then led the Liberal Party to victory in the Federal election held on December 10, 1949. Menzies then won successive elections in 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958,1961 and 1963 before retiring as Prime Minister on Australia Day in 1966.