Thursday, February 05, 2015

If Not Now, When?

Australia is suffering a crisis of leadership that goes far beyond the machinations of the Coalition party room. It is hardly a huge leap to argue that the latest leadership tussle in Canberra is merely a symptom of a much deeper malaise in Australian society that has rendered ours perhaps the most volatile of the Westminster democracies (with the notable exception of Kenya). Whoever replaces our incumbent Prime Minister (and it is only a matter of when and how), they will be the fourth leader of this country in as many years. And all this at the tail end of a period of unprecedented prosperity that has made us the envy of the world.

As this golden age draws to a close, and our politics becomes ever more fractious, someone is going to have to explain to future generations why we chose to squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to nurture a more equitable and cohesive society rather than the hornet's nest we have become. With the gift of 25 years of almost unbroken peace and prosperity, how to explain a society mired in debt and completely unprepared for the challenges of the 21st century? How to explain rates of domestic violence in this antipodean shangri-la that rank amongst the highest in the world, a generation of barely literate high school graduates, an ever-widening gap between rich and poor? If for the poet Auden the 1930's were that "low, dishonest decade", then the noughties were ours. It seems we are a nation who frets over its children except when it comes to the legacy they will inherit.

It is pointless looking to our political leaders for answers to these questions. Even those easing into a well-funded retirement are too busy sniping about their individual political legacies to acknowledge the collective damage they have done to this country through their mindlessly partisan, pugilistic brand of parliamentary democracy, serenely oblivious to the fact that a turd is still a turd no matter how much you polish it. The politics of consensus, the politics of grown-ups is, sadly, not a concept they ever embraced. The indigenous leader, Noel Pearson, showed what an inspirational leader can mean in his eulogy for the late Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, reaching beyond his own constituency to tell a bigger story that touched us all. But sadly leaders like Pearson or Whitlam are the exception that proves the rule. Pearson's eulogy was like a desert flower amid the arid fare of the spin doctors and the nodding heads of the 24-hour news cycle. It proved that even a society now bordering on sub-literacy can still be moved by the power of words.

The more nuanced thinkers amongst the Australian commentariat, such as Fairfax's Peter Hartcher, do, of course, have a vital role to play in salvaging something from this train wreck. But although it is not our role to influence policy per se, we poets and writers need to be mindful that we do not devolve into a class of glorified ambulance chasers, that our role is not merely to hold up a mirror to society, but to remind it of what it may have left behind and how that may effect what we are becoming as a nation. To do so we need to throw off the last of the old cultural cringe and glory in the language of Pearson and Whitlam, Slessor and Carey, Dransfield and Wright, that great gift from our forebears which in the right hands can be a remarkable tool for change.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content 
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

- W.H. Auden "The Unknown Citizen"

1 comment:

donalmahoney said...

Much of what is said here applies as well in the United States of America in 2015. In some ways it is worse among us Yanks. In other cases, slightly better. But our press has not let us know the problems Australia is facing as they are stated here. The one thing that barks very loud is the dog of illiteracy in both nations. In the U.S., however, it plagues not only many of our children but many of our adults as well.