A simple explanation of seventeenth century physicist Robert Boyle’s Law is: the greater the external pressure, the greater the quantity of hot air.
And none more so than in contemporary Australian politics. Commenting on the shameless political posturing and finger-pointing inflicted on us by our inadequate leaders during this fiery week, Australian journalist Jacqueline Maley nailed it:
“Politicians like to talk sentimentally about how much Australians pull together in a crisis, putting aside differences to help out their neighbours. And of course they have during these bushfires. We always do, when it comes to natural disasters. It was the politicians who failed to. And they keep failing. Increasingly it feels the government, so keen to invoke its “quiet Australians”, is using the phrase as a gag on debate. “Quiet Australians” is a genius political term – mystical and impossible to disprove. If you self-nominate as one, you ain’t one. Strangely the quiet Australians’ biggest boosters in the media tend to be the loudest, un-drown-outable voices”.”
We know the system is broke. But how to fix it?
Author and onetime publisher Steve Harris offers some directions as he recalls the genesis of two seminal books on Australian history, politics and culture and examines their continuing relevance. It is a scathing commentary on the sad state of politics and governance in Australia today and of the wit and wisdom of our elected rulers in addressing the myriad problems confronting our country and indeed the wider world.
“Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” remain ironic.”
Harris writes of our need for a better understanding of our past, present and future We are “led”, he observes, by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councilors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies; and concludes that we have “so much “government”, so little good governance’.
“Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless point-scoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government. Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability”.
The result, he laments, is a re-run of issues revisited but not resolved, opportunities not seized, and challenges not confronted … “it is no surprise that the distance between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement”.
On 16 the November, the Sydney Morning Herald’s economic commentator Jessica Irvine reported on the malaise described by Harris, quoting John Roskam, the director of conservative think tank The Institute of Public Affairs “Public policy in Australia is often made on the run, built on shabby foundations, motivated by short term political gain, and consequently having mediocre outcomes.”
On the same day, the Herald’s political editor Peter Hartcher voiced similar sentiment. He was referring specifically to the politicians’ inability to unite to face a common foe – the devastating bush-fires raging through New South Wales and Queensland – but his diagnosis is much wider than this:
“Now we have to ask if we’re entering a new phase of over-politicization. Where each party is so intent on its own internal politics that they are incapable of coming together to deal with a parched country, running out of water, and burning as never before. This might be premature. The so-called leaders might yet discover leadership. Real leadership would bring the major parties, and governments federal and state, together to soberly deal with a national crisis. There is a much broader agenda than climate change alone, but it’s also hard to pretend that climate change is irrelevant.
And yet, he concludes, “The omens aren’t good. The Prime Minister refuses to meet former fire chiefs who’ve been seeking a meeting since April to warn of fire catastrophe. Refusing expert advice on a national crisis because it might not exactly suit your existing policies is hardly the stuff of leadership. Politics at its best is problem-solving. Guys, it’s your job. Don’t tell us “not now”.”
Veteran journalist Laura Tingle has summed up a widely felt frustration with our leaders: “For so many people, and so many communities, there have been days and nights of sleeplessness, exhausting anxiety, and fear of monstrous firestorms; and for some, the destruction they have caused. And now the oppressive knowledge that it is likely that this could go on for months. It has also been a week of catastrophic failure of our political dialogue. It’s easy to just express exasperation at the sniping of some of the statements made by politicians this week as they have tried to fight a culture war about climate change in the midst of such disastrous scenes. But there is actually something much more alarming going on here. If our political conversation really is at a point when these cultural weapons can’t be downed in the face of a crisis, we really are in a lot of trouble”.
When commentators and opinion-makers on all sides – even conservative platforms like The Australian and the IPA – are lamenting the (sclerotic?) condition of our body politic and the (toxic?) quality of much public debate, I am reminded of what an old Greek once said (or maybe didn’t say it quite like this): those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first render stupid.
For more on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see: Down Under
A failure to create our own luck results in new tyranny
Steve Harris, The Weekend Australian, 2nd November 2019
Dragon years are especially significant in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon being the only animal born of imagination, and dragons seen to be the world’s best leaders because of their traits of ambition, courage, tenacity, intelligence and risk-taking. And so it was in the dragon year of 1964, when the storyline of China was challenged by its own leadership and the storyline of Australia was challenged by three men with a different perspective.
In 1964, China exploded an atom bomb and Mao Zedong made his famous “China will take a giant stride forward” speech, declaring the country had to “not just follow the beaten track traversed by other countries … and trail behind them at a snail’s pace” but be unstoppable in showing that the East could best the West.
And three Australians took some bold strides: a young Rupert Murdoch bravely launched The Australian to start a global reshaping of media. A former newsboy and young historian, Geoffrey Blainey, accepted a commission that became The Tyranny of Distance, a bold and fresh perspective on the story of Australia. And journalist-editor Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, a courageous and challenging critique of Australia’s capabilities.
In their own way, Mao, Murdoch, Blainey and Horne understood Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s sentiment of the 1950s, one Barack Obama also adapted in 2008 in his landmark “A more powerful union” speech that set him on the path to the presidency: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” All understood this, and wanted to impact our knowledge of the arc of history and its consequences, and the capacity to bend it.
The three Australians reflected a view that conventional wisdom is more conventional than wisdom, that status quo can be code for “not good enough”. Today The Australian is an integral part of the national lexicon, so too “tyranny of distance” and “the lucky country”, and half a century on the potency of their thinking remains very alive.
In the final chapter of his study of Australia in the 1960s, Horne lamented that his country had ridden for too long the “luck” of its natural resources, weather, British antecedents and distance from problems elsewhere in the world. It had become manacled to its past, bogged in mediocrity and lacked imagination. “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. Although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”
Blainey ambitiously elevated his commission to write a slim volume on the history of transport in Australia into a deeper exploration and explanation of how Australia’s remoteness and distance from the British “mother country”, and the enormous size of the continent, shaped so much of Australia’s history and thinking. He originally had two equal halves, The Tyranny of Distance and The Taming of Distance, and his first choice for the title was Distance and Destiny.
Blainey was somewhat hesitant about The Tyranny of Distance as the chosen title, and it did not initially sell well, stirring critics and resentment as much as Horne’s Lucky Country. But then the launch of new satellites transmitting images between hemispheres and the first reigning pope visit saw people boasting of a conquering of the “tyranny of distance”. It featured in the Split Enz masterpiece, Six Months in a Leaky Boat, and now, as perhaps the ultimate modernist cred, is the name of a vegan restaurant in Melbourne.
Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” remain ironic.
A 2020 publisher might commission new versions called The Mucky Country and The Tyranny of Distraction, recognising that while Australia has come a good distance and been “lucky” in many respects, we have not made the most of our “lucky” assets and have “mucked about” on too many fronts.
Yes, we have seen notable examples of national ambition and outcomes but they are the exception. And, yes, there has been some taming of distance with the global transformation of transport, trade, communications and economics but it has also brought us closer to world forces of nationalism, terrorism, crime, social unrest, civil rights, people movement, pandemics and the environment.
Such authors might argue that we still have a poor understanding of the many forms, the tyrannies, of “distance”, that distance and proximity can swing between positive and negative. And that “luck” is a fragile companion. They might see new and different tyrannies of distance and more reportage evidencing a country limping along the same beaten tracks, unable to take “giant strides. They might challenge us to think whether it is due to a “she’ll be right” lethargy, insouciance and detachment. Or distraction. Or lack of imagination, ambition or competence.
We have the world’s oldest civilisation yet have not learned much from its people’s practices and powerful sense of “country” or “mob”. And still not closed the distance to full connectedness and acceptance.
On the driest continent on the planet, we still struggle to have national policies on how to optimally trap, maintain and use our rainwater and rivers. Government departments insist we are on “the leading edge” of water policy, yet urban rain and water flows into the sea, we recycle almost anything except water for drinking, our rivers have become ill-used and ill-managed, and we have a mirage of national drought, climate, energy and environmental policies. Dorothy Mackellar’s “sunburnt country” has not seen us become a world technology epicentre.
A scheme that took 25 years, 100,000 people from all over the world to build 10 townships and 1600km of road and track in rough terrain to divert water for farms and energy sounds like a heroic engineering tale from 19th-century America or 21st-century China. Or a pipe dream in modern Australia. But this was the Snowy Mountains scheme just 70 years ago. Forget such ambition and commitment today: we muck around with decisions, let alone delivery, of even modest infrastructure.
Australia’s colonies united in part to end rivalry and inefficiency. But it didn’t prevent passengers from Perth to Brisbane having to travel in six trains and Sydney-Melbourne passengers changing trains at Albury. A century on, we still have inefficient and disconnected systems in and between cities and towns.
We salute the self-sacrifice of so many of our military, the ethos of “mateship”, and ride on the shoulders and self-sacrifices of our parents and grandparents. We have talked about “a fair go” for our soldiers, young, aged, disadvantaged and ill since Federation, and every election features words about “the battlers” and “the forgotten”.
Yet today we have unresolved wounds among our vets and in Veterans Affairs management. An estimated 700,000-plus children live in poverty, 30 years after Bob Hawke’s prepared speech declared that “by 1990 no child need live in poverty”. About 600 children under the age of 14 are incarcerated and frequently held in solitary confinement, despite its condemnation as a form of mental torture. Our age of criminal responsibility remains at 10. Suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-24.
We see more intergenerational disadvantage, with diminished prospects and ambitions, more uncertain paths through education to meaningful employment. The “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” mantra, job security and training-skill balance are victims of globalisation, outsourcing, casualisation, contracting, ageism and wage theft.
A royal commission is demonstrating that our entire aged-care system, despite numerous past reviews, is on the point of collapse, yet there is no sense of urgency or action. Health systems are struggling and one’s wellbeing can depend on a postcode. Inquiries into corporate and financial malfeasance do not seem to prevent new sins.
After decades of prosperity, the dream of home ownership has become unaffordable to many, and we build houses and apartment complexes that are unsafe and unsound in engineering and environmental terms. We celebrate our story as a nation of immigrants, and bristle at any charge of being racist.
Yet 70 years after the post-World War II rallying cry to “populate or perish” in the pursuit of economic and military security, and despite all the economic and cultural upsides of immigration and living in one of the most diverse populations in the world, with almost half the population being born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas, we lack meaningful policies and strategies on population and immigration. Half a century after the Whitlam government dismantled “White Australia” laws, we have not buried latent racism, inequality and bigotry.
Colonial Irish and Catholic settlers were demonised, their religious leaders pressed to disown any troublesome members and avow “loyalty” to Australia. We now have multiple faiths but still slide into moral panic and demonisation when “different” religious and ethnic groups are seen to be threatening or un-Australian “them” rather than “us”.
The Cold War 1960s and “yellow peril” fear has been overtaken by the “luck” of our natural resources being fuel for China’s great strides, and the dollars from fee-paying students and tourists. Now we fret over China’s Belt and Road Initiative economic and military influence across the globe, including our South Pacific backyard.
We don’t know how Brexit and Trump nationalism will impact our longest-standing allies and alliances. Closer to home, outside trade and economic pragmatism and holidays in Bali and South Pacific, few Australians could honestly say they have a real understanding of and/or trust with many of our nearest neighbours other than New Zealand.
Australia’s 43 universities ought to be unambiguously at the heart of curating our past and present knowledge and understanding, and underpinning nation-building. But too many pursue fee-paying students even if it means compromising standards and results; send conflicting signals about academic freedom and assaults on free speech, science and reason; opportunistically offer populist and profitable courses while reducing crucial engagement in Australian history, culture and literature.
The national need for a better understanding of our past, present and future is not for lack of government, reviews and regulations. Or perhaps the need is greater because of it. We are “led” by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councillors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies.
So much “government”, so little good governance. Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless pointscoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government.
Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability.
The result, predictably, is a re-run of issues revisited but not resolved, opportunities not seized, challenges not confronted. And it is no surprise that the distance between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement.
There is something amiss in the national storyline when we have long had many more assets and opportunities than billions of others in the world, yet we have reached a point in our story where many Australians see too many tyrannies of distance in their lives, too many doubts about future “luck” and prosperity.
If we do not better see and respond to needs and opportunities then current distances will become greater, risking whether our destiny is one of our own ambition. One hopes we don’t have a future historian challenging us with a critique of a place called Lostralia, a land where “distance” and “luck” slayed the dragons.
Steve Harris is a former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age and Herald Sun, and author of three books on Australian history. His latest book is The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens, How the British Empire turned artful dodgers into child killers (Melbourne Books).