Fulfilling human potential and saving the planet

Apr 29, 2023
Prohodna Cave in Bulgaria, Eyes of God, sunrays shining threw eye.

Australia, and my Party too, must make a commitment to restoring the primacy of reason, rejecting a paranoid view of history and ‘telling truth to power’. Our blind adoption of irrational policies, supine and unquestioning acquiescence to anything the United States proposes must end. Our species, facing an existential threat to civilisation from climate change, is infinitely complex, infinitely precious, infinitely vulnerable, infinitely destructive, but also infinitely capable of the sublime and transcendent.

Speech delivered at the Barry Jones Oration, Sorrento Writers’ Festival 2023, Friday 28 April 2023, 1700-1745, The Grand Ballroom, Continental Hotel.

My context

I was born in Geelong on 11th October 1932, in the first third – just – of the 20th Century, barely 14 years after the end of World War I.

I can vividly remember the Great Depression, followed World War II closely and anxiously, assumed, correctly, that use of the atomic bomb against Japan would change everything, was shocked by the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Curtin (both 1945), even more shocked by the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi (1948), alarmed by the Cold War, watched Mao’s victory in China (1949) and the death of Stalin (1953) with obsessive interest.

In 1950, as a seventeen year old student, I had been profoundly influenced by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and, as a groupie, observed him in Melbourne at close quarters. He said: ‘Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind’.

If I am remembered at all, I would like it to be for my role in abolishing the death penalty, promoting the arts, especially music and film, and for being a prophet without much honour in promoting linkages between science and politics.

I was the first Australian politician, long before I became Minister for Science, to argue that climate change was an existential threat to civilisation, and to campaign about the genetic revolution, the information revolution, post industrialism and a post carbon economy.

I was too political to be a fully accepted intellectual, too intellectual to be regarded as an effective politician in the Australian context, conspicuously lacking in the killer instinct, too individual and idiosyncratic to be a factional player.

Towards complexity – and escaping from Plato’s cave.

The great challenge for us all is to find out what it is to be fully human – to explore a greater range and depth of personal experience: observation, understanding, creativity, imagination, empathy, even for those who are remote.

High culture, with all its complexity and inevitable elitism, can take us to places where we do not expect to go, and has some aura of danger, exploring outer space or the terra (terror?) incognita of inner space. It can be life changing, producing ‘the oceanic feeling’ and introducing us to transcendence’ (orgasm without the sex?).

In The Republic, Plato describes a darkened cave, with a long entrance leading to daylight and the natural world. The cave’s inhabitants are there for life, chained, but also conditioned through habit. Shadow plays seen on the walls constitute reality to them and they are unable to explore the world outside.

The cave metaphor seemed eerily prophetic in the era, first, of film, then television, then computing, computer games, smartphones and social media.

Getting out of Plato’s cave involves encouraging people to confront ‘the shock of recognition’ in unfamiliar, challenging phenomena, grasping the range of human diversity, trying to reconcile depth of understanding and breadth of experience, distinguishing between the macro and the micro.

‘The shock of recognition’, a coinage by Herman Melville, examines the impact of self-discovery after exposure to, or immersion in, the uncanny, the challenging, the transcendental, relating the specific to the universal, the immediate to the timeless, the individual to all humanity.

I tried to pursue the concept of ‘the abundant life’, rattling the bars of the cage, escaping from a conceptual shoe box, by investing time and concentration, connecting with transcendental creativity, pursuing intellectual and aesthetic engagement, aiming to experience excitement, satisfaction, happiness, and often a sense of awe or the edge of danger. This involves taking risks. High culture, with all its complexity, can take us to places where we do not expect to go.

Tackling complexity is not just a matter of taste but an essential evolutionary developmental mechanism, which strengthens brain plasticity and capacity, wards off loss of cognition and the onset of dementia more effectively than computer games, Sudoku, crossword puzzles or jigsaws.

This suggests an analogy with cathedrals, and their two axes, vertical and horizontal.

The vertical pulls our gaze upward, looking through the vault towards the stars, reaching out for the transcendental and numinous, rapture and the unattainable; for some, Heaven. Pursuing the vertical is difficult, complex, dangerous, involving travelling alone, coming to terms with the mysterious, the aspirational, the abstract, the unique.

The horizontal is comfortable, familiar, reassuring, earthbound, physical, less challenging and safer, with no fear of falling.

In a secular, technological, materialist and self-absorbed society, there may be risk in even mentioning the cathedral analogy since so many have been deeply alienated, even traumatised, by childhood experience of religion.

When I become preoccupied with a subject, the urge to share experience becomes irresistible, even if my audience shows palpable reluctance.

I often feel like Odysseus on a long voyage of discovery, making a connection between me/ here/ now and everyone/ everywhere/ all time, balancing the sublime and unique with the quotidian, recognising the tension between the unique and the universal. It helps me make sense of my own experience, and reinforces a sense of connectedness (‘we are not alone’) with the unfamiliar and remote.

It is troubling to observe that so many lack access to, or interest in, the unfamiliar and transcendental. If they knew nothing of Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Darwin and Einstein they were missing something potentially life changing.

On the dark side of history, if the names of Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and Mao draw a blank then fellow humans, especially the young, are unlikely to grasp the context in which their world has evolved.


Australians often seem deeply uneasy about attempting to examine the range and depth of their beliefs. Like most people, other than fundamentalists, I feel shifty and inconclusive on the subject, because of a deep uncertainty about what I believe. That the universe is mysterious? Yes. That God exists? Possibly. That Jesus was a uniquely powerful and charismatic teacher? Yes. That he had a special or even unique relationship with God? Unanswerable. That the Church is a divine institution? No. That the Bible is infallible? No. That there is a soul, linked to a collective consciousness? Remotely possible. That there is life, as we know it, after death? Unlikely.

If pushed, I generally describe myself as ‘Christian fellow-traveller’ or sometimes ‘a northern hemisphere Christian’ because most of my transcendental experiences have been in Europe. I am not confident enough to be an agnostic. I agree with rationality as a principle, but feel uneasy when it turns into dogma or rigid instrumentalism. Habitual mistrust is unattractive and dangerous, especially if linked with fear of difference/fear of the unknown. I am more of an ironist than a rationalist – an isolated position in Australia where irony never took on, except as a form of mockery.

It is hard to be precise about my core beliefs.

Paradoxically, doubt takes me away from materialism and certainty. I cannot be satisfied with simple materialist explanations when too many elements fill me with awe or perplexity. Religious issues and philosophy are constantly boiling around in my head. So, ‘Dubito, ergo sum’, as René Descartes should have said. I recognise that many secularists have a commitment to goodness, generosity, truth, justice and courage: they feel no need for a revealed religion.

I want to discuss the major issues that I have been most heavily involved me in recent decades

Increasing political engagement

Most voters are now spectators – not participants – in the political process with in which the real and the virtual have been inverted. Until last year’s Federal election it was as if a horror movie on the screen represented the reality, and the audience could not change the outcome.

Party structures are oligarchic and secretive, and their members, in practice, comprise two categories: insiders (small in numbers, but powerful) and outsiders (larger numbers, but ageing, and weak).

But the encouraging lesson to be learned from the May 2022 election is that specific issues – effective action on climate change, an anti-Corruption Commission and issues related to gender equity (and exposure of bullying and intimidation) can encourage voters to become involved, community by community, and reject the nostrums peddled by major parties (This is the way we do things round here’).

This was a major theme in my What Is To Be Done (Scribe, 2020).

Climate change and saving the planet

In 1932, the year of my birth, world population was estimated at 2.1 billion. In April 2023 it was estimated at 8.05 billion, an increase of 383%.

But in 1932 life expectancy globally was about 40 years, with high levels of infant mortality, low levels of nutrition and resource consumption generally, and subsistence agriculture the largest work sector.

In 2023, global life expectancy is 73.2 years, urban population comprises 56%, infant mortality has fallen dramatically, levels of nutrition and consumption generally have increased exponentially.

Per capita consumption has increased in 90+ years by probably a factor of 15:1.

There are seven words, all starting with the letter ‘C’ which determine Australia’s No. 1 ranking of greenhouse gas  emissions per capita: nearly double that of China (although China is far ahead in absolute numbers).

They are:

  • Coal
  • Cities
  • Cars
  • Cement
  • Chain-saws
  • Cows
  • Consumption

Apart from our domestic consumption of coal we are among the world’s greatest exporters. Every tonne of coal burnt produces 3.67 tonnes of carbon dioxide which stays in the atmosphere for about a century, changing its chemistry and physics.

Australia’s pattern of urban development is almost unique – we have two cities with 5 million people, two with 2 million and a fifth with 1 million. Britain, with a population of 67 million in an area that could fit into Victoria, has only two cities above one million.

Our low-density cities are huge – Melbourne is bigger than London, Paris or Delhi. This leads to a very high level of car dependence, and building freeways makes cities even bigger and more car and truck dependent.

The manufacture of cement is exceptionally high in greenhouse gas emissions and its use is increasing in housing, construction generally and public works.

Only 16 per cent of Australia’s land mass is forested, and in many regional communities use of the chain-saw provides economic security – at least in the short term.

What is tactfully described as ‘enteric emissions’ from beef cattle is very significant. Methane is more damaging than CO², but stays in the atmosphere for relatively short periods.

Our very high – but uneven – levels of consumption leads to prodigious production of waste and this contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Latest readings from the North Pole and Antarctica indicate that temperatures are rising at the poles at about seven times the global average. If the Antarctic ice shelf melts, sea levels will rise dramatically, threatening hundreds of millions of people. If the tundra thaws, releasing huge volumes of methane, the prospects for our species may be irreversible

‘I have no idea what is in the Australian Constitution, but I don’t want anything changed’.

The Constitution

Defenders of our existing Constitutional arrangements, say, in effect: ‘I oppose any change to the Australian Constitution, although I have never read it and have no idea what is in it.’

The One Big Idea (OBI) that I want to argue for is this: it is a major mistake to address the republic issue in isolation, as if that was all that mattered.

The simplest action – and the national priority – must be to change the Constitution so that it reflects current practice, rather than our historic relationship with an absentee monarch, whose distance may actually have led enchantment to the view.

We must come out of the closet.

We should come clean and acknowledge that in practice we have already adopted republican forms, and the viceroy to the Head of State has become a cypher.

Our view of Australian history was distorted, with many of our leaders – John Howard for example – acting as if it had begun, quite abruptly, on 26th January 1788, that 65,000 years of First Nations occupation was irrelevant or peripheral and that we never had to address issues such as the frontier wars, slavery, racism, class, inequality.

The republic v. monarchy impasse demonstrates a disturbing degree of Australian infantilism – lack of faith in our own institutions and an ingrained pessimism that if we attempted to change the status quo we’d muck it up.

Infantilisation is essentially a reluctance to leave home.

We must explain what is in the Constitution, and what is not. Schools, universities, the media in all forms will have to be involved – also communities.

It’s a matter of being honest with ourselves.

The Australian colonies were well in advance of Great Britain in adopting political reform and edging towards democracy. We had universal manhood suffrage in the 1850s but in Britain not until 1918 – much later than in Germany or Austria. Universal female suffrage for the Commonwealth was in 1902, in Britain in 1928.

We were pioneers of the secret ballot, payment of MPs, an elected upper house (still lacking in Britain) and an independent commission to draw electoral boundaries.

The Australian colonies were innovators, but the Constitution of the Commonwealth had to be negotiated with the British, and represented a reversion.

There was a remarkable paradox at the core of the Commonwealth of Australian Constitution Act. Australia’s Constitution is the only one in the world where the text was adopted by direct vote of citizens (overwhelmingly male) in a Referendum. However, the Constitution makes no reference to democracy, democratic practice, or the system of responsible government as we have experienced it for 122 years.

The United States Constitution dates from 1789 and has been amended 27 times since then. It begins with the words, ‘We the people…’ The US government still operates pretty much as written in the Constitution.

The Australian Constitution dates from 1900 and although the product of referenda in the colonies/states, and beginning with the words ‘the people… have agreed’, it is in form an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament: a gracious gift to a distant child. In practice, it has proved very difficult to amend: only eight referenda have been carried, the last in 1977.

Under the Australian Constitution, there are only two pre-requisites for our head of state, following the British Act of Settlement (1701): the King or Queen must be a descendent of the Electress Sophia of Hanover and must not be a Catholic. Until the UK law was changed in 2013 there was a third pre-requisite: must not be married to a Catholic. So far, these conditions have been met. Is that enough for the future?

The Electress Sophia (1630-1714) was a granddaughter of James I, a cousin of the childless Queen Anne, a Protestant and mother of George I.

Robert French, later Chief Justice of the High Court, commented in May 2008:

It is unacceptable in contemporary Australia that the legal head of the Australian state, under present constitutional arrangements, can never be chosen by the people or their representatives, cannot be other than a member of the Anglican Church, can never be other than British and can never be an Indigenous person.

I find it hard to improve on that.

With the Australia Act (1986) the Commonwealth Constitution was ‘repatriated’ with the UK Parliament graciously giving up its power to legislate for us. However, the Constitution remains cringe making as Governor-General Hurley’s multiple secret appointments of Scott Morrison to five Ministries demonstrated.

The last exercise of the Sovereign’s power to veto legislation in Great Britain was by Queen Anne in 1707 (even then, on Ministerial advice). But under the Commonwealth Constitution (ss. 58, 59, 60) the veto power is expressly preserved in Australia. Should this be a matter of concern, or just ignored? (‘It doesn’t mean what it says.’)

That’s the position that needs to be questioned, challenged, shaken: it will be central to adopting ‘The Voice’, which will precede, correctly, I think, any substantial move on a Republic.

What has to be done?

Aboriginal Reconciliation and the Republic are inextricably linked. The monarchist cause is essentially the last expression of White Australia, its rhetoric, culture, ceremonials, politics, and the habit of deference. It is a static, essentially nostalgic, position in a society that, although dynamic in some ways, is uncertain how to express itself. It is the politics of amnesia.

The republican cause is essentially multicultural, pluralistic, independent, and irreverent – in a word, Australian. However, after two decades of only muffled (even muddled) debate, the cause does not excite mass support, for example in traditional blue-collar Labor electorates.

Famous last words

Our species is infinitely complex, infinitely precious, infinitely vulnerable, infinitely destructive, but also infinitely capable of the sublime and transcendent. We must continue to aspire to the universal, to explore the galaxy, to explain mysteries, of which humans are the most perplexing.

Australia, and my Party too, must make a commitment to restoring the primacy of reason, rejecting a paranoid view of history and ‘telling truth to power’.

As he lay dying, Tolstoy reaffirmed his commitment to rationality: ‘Even in the valley of the shadow of death two plus two does not make six’. When Primo Levi was a prisoner in Auschwitz, he broke off an icicle and sucked it to relieve his thirst, until a guard knocked it out of his hand. ‘Why?’ (‘Warum?’), he asked. The guard replied, ‘Here is no why’. (‘Hier is kein warum’.) In too many of our public acts, there is no ‘Why?’ Our blind adoption of irrational policies, supine and unquestioning acquiescence to anything the United States proposes is potentially destructive. Our democratic society depends on insisting on answers to the ‘Why?’ questions.

I live in the spirit of Samuel Beckett’s words in The Unnamable:

It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know. I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know. You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

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