The Age of 26/1/20 published on a single page, under the title Comment, lengthy statements by the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader, both accompanied by pictures that could be described as entirely neutral. Any illumination of either statement regarding what the future policies of either party might be was largely doomed to darkness, as motherhood statements and vagaries about resilience and Australian values were the order of the day.
Scott Morrison’s comments were those of a well honed marketing man, skilled at bringing in everyman and woman–constantly using the first person pronoun in the plural in order to bring everyone along with the ride, whatever that ride might be. His is a view of the world that always rests in the present, occasionally looking to the past for verification, rarely to the future. His main reference to the past was an adage from John Howard about Australia that “what unites us is more important and more enduring than what divides us.”
Both men are assiduous in attempting to find a unity of spirit or value in their still muted recognition of what has been a major disaster for the country, one whose long term consequences are only just now being canvassed in some portions of the media, but likely still not appreciated by the majority of the population. A series of gushingly sentimental phrases such as “the volunteer spirit rise to the fore”, “a wonderful outpouring of love, support, courage and generosity,” are found, emotionally appealing, if vague. And we are told that we have seen “Australia’s true strength” and that ‘This Australia Day we celebrate an Australian spirit that is open-hearted and generous, and a people who support each other when the going gets tough.” One would ordinarily expect a list of clichés in statements like this, but Morrison has the advantage of being able to string these onto the narrative of the disastrous fires that have so damaged the country.
Anthony Albanese, on the other hand, looks further back into the past, quoting Tom Uren’s experiences in Changi “where survival depended on looking after each other. The strong, he said, should look after the weak, and the young should look after the old.” He considers that this “values-based principle applies to Australia today.” Like Morrison he too focusses on the narrative of the fire and is able to claim that “it will redefine our understanding of our country and each other.” And finally he concludes that “On the whole, Australians simply want to help each other.”
The mythical basis of these two closely related statements of principle is that Australia is a united country whose values reach back well into the past and substantially define our response to the kind of crisis on which we presently find ourselves. In times of national distress Australians pull together to work for a common good. Unity, generosity and a concern for the other is what runs throughout both statements, almost as if we are constrained to be living in a permanent present where positive values will leap into play whenever a temporary crisis reaches our shores, the positive values always just lurking beneath the surface. Nothing is said about a permanent climate crisis that besets us now, except that Albanese to his credit does allude to “the long –term challenge that climate change represents” and, responsibly, he advances the need to take scientific method and evidence-based results seriously. Of climate change, Morrison says nothing.
To my reading, what underlies both speeches is the emphasis on reaction to disasters rather than proactive behaviour that might have prevented such disasters occurring, or, in the case of the fires, might have prevented their severity. In focusing on reaction they are evoking the oft quoted Australian spirit of stoicism and resilience which so often accompanies community responses to fires in particular, a resilience which certain local government areas in Victoria are attempting to cultivate. Such stoicism has its positive features, but again it is reactive rather than proactive and is only evoked as a characteristic of reaction, even if it draws upon a solid mythological base that can be found often as a response to the harshness of Australia’s physical features, at least to European Australians.
It is this stoicism that unites us, even where the country is riven by divisions, especially defined in terms of economic equity and inequity, between home owners and others, between inner-city residents and everyone else, between the dominance of the Murdoch media and the need for a more balanced view of the world, between older and younger generations. Above all it is a division that will increasingly play out between these who have the resources to insulate themselves somewhat against the ravages of climate change and those who do not.
If this stoicism could be channeled into a force for real unity defined in terms of economic equity, proper respect for the climate we live in and an enduring responsibility for the true conditions of the sustainability of the land, then it might develop into a strong mythic quality that will lead to proactive rather than reactive behaviour. The Prime Minister’s statement of Australia Day is entirely devoid of this possibility, though it is implied in Albanese’s comments, without being spelled out in any pragmatic manner capable of evoking inspiration and acceptance.
Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University. Formerly Reader in Sanskrit.