The perverse ideology of our adversary culture
This is the 2005 Earle Page Memorial Oration, delivered at Parliament House, Sydney, on June 22 2005
Two years ago, when the journalist and broadcaster David Marr gave the Colin Simpson Lecture, he chose the title “The role of the writer in John Howard's Australia”. He opened with a quotation from the novelist Patrick White:
In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blinkered blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.
White wrote those words in 1958. David Marr acknowledged that Australia's subsequent economic prosperity made the country more generous, less parochial, more curious about the outside world. But by the mid-1990s, he said, Australian politics began to shift backwards, to the point where White's Great Australian Emptiness once more became an apt description of our own time. Marr urged Australia's writers, especially novelists, playwrights and poets, to recognise this reversion to the 1950s, to address the big issues of today — reconciliation, republic and refugees — and shake off the “new philistinism” of John Howard's Australia.
There are some writers who have taken up Marr's advice with fervour. Elliot Perlman translated his novel Three Dollars to the movie screen. Released in April 2005, it tells of the fragile existence of a young, tertiary-educated, middle-class couple who both lose their public sector jobs. She is a university tutor in politics whose contract is not renewed. He is a chemical engineer in the Victorian public service. Their existence is fragile indeed. Perlman would have us believe that within one day of being escorted out of his building, this graduate engineer could be reduced to rummaging through city garbage bins for discarded food. He is guided by his new friend, an alcoholic derelict. Another homeless man gives him an old, greasy army greatcoat, which he dons gratefully.
In other words, the plot is ludicrous, the scenario utterly unreal — and yet our film critics have praised it to the skies. “One of the best Australian films yet made”, wrote Bob Ellis in Encore magazine. “ I loved it!” said David Stratton on ABC television. “A sorrowful critique of the unfeeling market forces that rule our lives”, wrote Evan Williams in The Australian. “A searing portrait of John Howard's Australia ”, said Peter Thompson, on Channel Nine's Sunday. There is obviously a good market for this kind of thing. Though targeted at art house audiences, the film took more than a million dollars at the box office in its first two months.
Another writer catering to the same cultural constituency is Hannie Rayson, whose play Two Brothers has enjoyed extended seasons in both Sydney and Melbourne. In the program notes, the playwright claims her work is set in the future, but it is actually based squarely on the events preceding the 2001 federal election. The idea for the two main characters might have originated in the contrasting careers of Peter and Tim Costello, but the evil central character, James Benedict, is closely based on Liberal Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock.
The minister in the play knows that an Indonesian fishing boat full of asylum seekers has sunk and that an Australian Navy vessel has found the survivors in the water. But he orders the navy to turn back and abandon them to their fate. In other words, the play is saying the Coalition government in 2001 not only engineered the Tampa incident and the Pacific Island solution, it deliberately let drown the 353 people on the fishing boat SIEV X. What's more, the Ruddock character finds a Muslim refugee at his holiday house and kills him. His personal assistant, a tough-talking career woman with whom he is having a predictable affair, single-handedly disposes of the body without anyone ever discovering it. His Labor Party brother then discovers his dirty secret but decides not to tell, in return for his teenage son getting off on a minor drugs charge.
In short, this play has as little connection with reality as the film Three Dollars. Yet the program notes — replete with sombre quotes critical of Ruddock's policies by Robert Manne, Marcus Einfeld and Julian Burnside — make it clear it is intended not as a political fantasy but a true-to-life drama about contemporary events. Moreover, like Three Dollars, Two Brothers is doing good box office. I saw it on a Monday night at the Sydney Opera House's Drama Theatre where it played to a full house, and an enthusiastic one. When the Ruddock character was told there was a call on his line from the ABC's Phillip Adams, two men sitting near me cheered. When it was followed by a call from Alan Jones, they groaned. When one character said Australia was turning into a North Korea or a Burma, they murmured approval.
Hannie Rayson is not only following David Marr's advice to pursue the politics of refugees, she credits the book he co-authored with Marian Wilkinson, Dark Victory, as her principal source. Her other sources were books by Tony Kevin, Frank Brennan and Raymond Gaita. Dark Victory was a work of non-fiction published in 2003 with the principal aim of arguing that John Howard's 2001 election victory was illegitimate because it was based on the Prime Minister's exploitation of popular xenophobia about middle-eastern boat people. The book tries desperately hard to blame the drowning of the passengers on SIEV X onto Howard. Marr and Wilkinson are unable to find one scrap of evidence to back this thesis but they nonetheless insinuate there is still more to be told.
Howard's brilliant untruth the morning those deaths became known is still working its magic … The spin, contradictions, evasions and lies of politicians and government agencies involved in disruption operations in Indonesia before the boat sailed, and the blockade of Christmas Island at the time it sank, have inspired a number of determined Australians to pursue the truth of these terrible events. The story of SIEV X and those who drowned in the midst of Operation Relex continues to unravel.
However, one thing their book does unwittingly reveal is that the now oft-repeated claim that the government lied about children being thrown overboard, is itself a lie. In canvassing the evidence from several official inquiries into people smuggling from Indonesia, Marr and Wilkinson reveal one case of a three-year old child thrown overboard (page 321), four cases of boat people threatening to or trying to throw children overboard (pages 326, 330), and one case where they deliberately set fire to their boat, putting 100 people who could not swim into the sea, including several children, a twelve-month old and a two-week old baby (page 353). The children overboard business was a scandal alright, but the culprits were not John Howard or Phillip Ruddock.
It is important to recognize that the efforts of these writers, while obsessed with demonising the Howard government, are not simply exercises in party politics. In Hannie Rayson's play, the brother in the Labor Party talks a lot about human rights but when it comes to action, he lacks the spine for it. Indeed, Rayson writes in her program notes that “the greatest political indictment in the play is surely directed against the Labor Party … In my play, the defender of human rights is a refugee advocate. Not a Labor politician.” Who, she asks, is real the leader of the Opposition? It is human rights lawyer Julian Burnside. The ultimate villains of her piece are not so much the opportunistic politicians who use the refugee crisis for their own ends, but the Australian people themselves. Public opinion, Rayson observes, was solidly behind the Howard government and sanctioned his hard line on refugees.
It is this despair about the majority of the Australian people that constitutes the principal unifying theme of the adversary culture of this country's tertiary-educated middle-class professionals. This social group is a minority but a sizeable one. Its critics sometimes call it the inner-city Left, the new class, or the cultural elite. It dominates our film and theatre industry, our arts and literature, public broadcasting, the Fairfax press and the humanities and social science departments of our 38 universities. Its leading lights were educated and radicalised by the upheavals within universities in the 1960s and 1970s. Its support for a republic and the Greens means most commentators put it on the left of politics, but it is a very different kind of leftism to the traditional variety.
Before the 1960s, being on the Left meant siding with the trade union movement, the left of the Labor Party, or the Communist Party and its various fronts. The leading Marxist historians of the 1950s Robin Gollan and Ian Turner romanticized the militancy of the industrial and rural union movements. Russel Ward's history, The Australian Legend, published in 1958, argued that the true Australians, the outback workers, were inherently left-wing, and the ideal of mateship stood for collectivist and socialist values.
A decade later, however, a new university-educated Left rejected all this. By the 1960s, the industrial working class seemed too satisfied with its lot to constitute a revolutionary vanguard. The Left went looking for other constituents. The movements that emerged among radical feminists, homosexuals, Aboriginal activists and other so-called marginalised minorities were not impressed by the traditional Marxist concept that the leading role in history was to be played by the white, male, blue-collar working class. Moreover, the university-educated left itself had little empathy with those who worked down mines, in shearing sheds or on the factory floor. Avoiding those kinds of occupations was the very reason they went to university in the first place.
The upshot was that they ditched the old white working class and then proceeded to vilify it. In Humphrey McQueen's 1970 history of Australia, A New Britannia, the workers and the trade unions are painted as racist rednecks, and the Labor Party is more concerned about race than class. Although this new, intellectually-trained class professed their motives as social justice, they held contempt for the majority of Australians, who they thought remained mired in materialism and shrouded in xenophobia.
The author of the most illuminating analysis of the sociology of this emerging class is Katharine Betts in her book The Great Divide. Betts says that in the 1960s members of the new class could choose between two existing cultural options: the Anglophile norms of established wealth, with its big houses, gardens, wine and golf clubs, and the locally-produced culture of the lower orders, with its suburban quarter-acre blocks, poker machines, beer, barbecues and football. Employed on salaries, they could not hope to emulate the rich, and suburbia was what they were desperately trying to escape. So they created a third option by developing a culture of their own.
It meant moving back to the inner city districts that their parents' generation had regarded as slums, buying and gentrifying then cheap nineteenth century houses, and switching their allegiance from British to European culture. They constituted the market for art-house films and European literature. They ate at ethnic restaurants and switched from beer to wine. Several of the films of the 1960s, especially Zorba the Greek, established the idea of the “marvellous ethnic”, of continentals who really knew how to live the full life, untrammeled by uptight Anglo-Saxon inhibitions. “Traditional southern-European society is in fact tightly bound by values of honour, female chastity and family authority,” Betts writes, “but cultural tourists will always find the foreigner they imagine.”
The same group opposed the Vietnam War and, although they drew much of their inspiration from writers in the United States, they adopted the prevailing anti-Americanism of the Western intellectual Left. They were firmly against what remained of the White Australia Policy. They decided that support for these policies by older and more parochial Australians was based on racism. Hence, the fashionable causes of the day defined traditional Australians and their way of life as the problem, and immigrants and their way of life as the solution. Cultural diversity became a symbol of social prestige that distinguished this new class from the old Anglophile establishment. More importantly, these values were radically different from those of the outer suburbs from where most of the new professionals had emerged. Their principal object of hostility was not old wealth but the Australian masses, with their materialism, racism, sexism, and insularity.
Multiculturalism became their beacon. Multiculturalism in Australia originated as a perfectly civilized policy to ease immigrants into their host society. However, in the hands of its most fervent academic and bureaucratic exponents it became a program for radical political change. It rests on the proposition that the culture of the West is an elite hegemony of white European males, which marginalizes, represses, and victimizes women, the poor, indigenes and adherents to non-Christian religions. Multiculturalism turned into an attempt to use immigration to transform the host society. By demanding that other cultures should be preserved intact, it encouraged immigrants to withhold loyalties and affiliations to the host nation. It also aimed to destabilise Australian traditions, values and institutions by censuring the nation's original character.
The major themes of this cultural creed were laid down in the 1960s and early 1970s. Among the early academic architects of the movement was the Maoist historian Humphrey McQueen, whose thesis about Australian racism I have mentioned. In 1968, the anthropologist Bill Stanner used the ABC Boyer Lectures to create the myth of the Great Australian Silence about the Aborigines. Also influential were the feminist historians Miriam Dixson and Anne Summers whose books The Real Matilda and Damned Whores and God's Police in 1975 portrayed Australia as the most male chauvinist country in the Western world. They said this about a nation which in 1902, a year after Federation, became the second in the world (behind New Zealand) to give votes to women, 16 years before Britain and 18 years before the United States followed suit. Summers wrote her thesis at the University of Sydney, an institution that admitted women as undergraduates in 1881, some 39 years before Oxford and 40 years before Cambridge did the same. Clearly, none of those who rewrote Australian history at the time wanted to let the mundane facts intrude on their exciting new theory.
Two non-academic creative writers also stood out: the playwright Alan Seymour and the novelist Patrick White. Both were homosexuals who regarded themselves as outsiders and critical observers of conventional society. Seymour's 1960 play The One Day of the Year portrayed the generation of soldiers who defended this country in World War II as a bunch of clapped-out, alcoholic sentimentalists whose ideal of mateship was a sham version of masculinity.
Perhaps more than any other single work, Patrick White's 1961 novel Riders in the Chariot defined best the values of this emerging social class. The novel has four heroes, all heavily victimised characters: a wealthy but mad spinster; a stoic battered housewife; a sexually-abused Aboriginal artist; and a brilliant Jewish academic who escaped the Holocaust only to find in Australia that all he can get is factory work. They all live marginal existences in Sydney suburban society, which eventually overwhelms them. The mad woman's grand mansion is destroyed to make way for the fibro houses of encroaching suburbia. A group of ocker workers, driven by ethnic prejudice, assault the Jew in the factory and literally crucify him. He finally dies on Good Friday. Any reader not already prejudiced against the suburbs would find White's crucifixion scene so implausible as to be ridiculous. Nothing remotely like it has ever occurred in real life and, anyway, on the eve of Easter what most Australian workers would be thinking about is not persecuting Jews but enjoying the long weekend. Nonetheless, White's novel injected the Nazi comparison into Australian cultural discourse, where it has been ever since.
White's views were far from being alone. Contempt for the suburbs where most Australians choose to live has reverberated down through our elite culture. One of its most influential expressions was made by the ABC broadcaster Alan Ashbolt in 1966 when he wrote in Meanjin magazine:
Behold the man — the Australian man of today — on Sunday mornings in the suburbs, when the high-decibel drone of the motor mower is calling the faithful to worship. A block of land, a brick veneer, and the motor-mower beside him in the wilderness — what more does he want to sustain him, except a Holden to polish, a beer with the boys, marital sex on Saturday nights … At age of sixty-five, equipped with dashing sports coat, matched luggage, good wishes from the bowling club, and two P&O cruise tickets, he imagines he is about to begin living, not knowing that he died many years before.
Now, many people in the arts have long poked fun at suburbia and much of it has been good natured, such as Kingswood Country or Kath and Kim. On the other side of that coin, however, and just as long-lasting, has been the patronising, venomous sneer so evident in Ashbolt's voice. When he wrote those words, Ashbolt was a maverick broadcaster at the ABC, then a largely conservative organisation. Ashbolt managed to find jobs for a small group of Marxists and radicals like himself. In the ensuing thirty years that group, its appointees and values, have captured the organization.
Ashbolt's views have not only survived, they have built a house culture that even the appointment of a board now dominated by conservatives has been unable to displace. The other public broadcaster SBS, founded ostensibly to service non-English-speaking migrants, has been captured by the same social class and social values. SBS is now the principal vehicle for the screening of those art house films that have long functioned as social markers and signs of cultural prestige, not of recent migrants, but of the tertiary-educated, inner-city Left. SBS's news and current affairs are now more left-wing than even the ABC.
The cultural creed of the Sixties was so compelling that subsequent generations of writers and academics all worked within its parameters, content simply to add extra verses to the original articles of faith. Patrick White's stories of victimisation and his comparison between Australian workers and German Nazis have found plenty of supporters, especially in the history departments of our universities. Unless they have taken a university course in history in recent decades, most Australians would be surprised to learn they inhabit one of the world's most shamefully racist countries. But the academic consensus today is that the White Australia Policy — a series of restrictions on non-white immigrants dating from the gold rushes of the 1850s and culminating in the Commonwealth's Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901 — made this country the moral equivalent of South Africa under apartheid.
Some historians label Australia at Federation one of the “ herrenvolk democracies”. Herrenvolk is German for “master race” and those like Andrew Markus who use the term are making a direct comparison with the racist nationalism of the Nazis. According to Richard White of the University of Sydney, the Australian national character projected by the outback pastoral worker and the sun-bronzed surf lifesaver “was uncomfortably close to Nazi ideas about the Aryan master race”. Some even indict the Anzac tradition for its alleged racism. Gavin Jones of the Australian National University claims Anzac “equated race consciousness and white supremacy with Australian fighting spirit”.
Moreover, the White Australia Policy purportedly lives on today. The unanimous opinion of an academic history conference on the policy in December 2001 was that John Howard's border protection measures tapped into deeply-embedded sentiments of “blood and race” to ensure his election victory that year. Robert Manne claimed Howard's political strategy was to appeal to a populist constituency on the basis of race, anti-immigration sentiment and to ancient Christian fears about the threat to civilisation posed by Islam. Another speaker, Alistair Davidson, compared Howard's nationalism with the emergence of skinhead racists in Europe and neo-fascists like Jean-Marie Le Pen. He added: “I hang my head … about what was done to the Tampa refugees, and think ‘poor fella my country'.”
These arguments bear little relationship to reality. Davidson's comparison between the immigration policies of the Howard government and the emergence of racist skinheads or neo-fascism in Europe is impossible to take seriously. Australia in recent decades has never experienced skinheads or any other right-wing hoodlums intimidating political opponents with violence. Indeed, the only political meetings broken up have been those of the populist nationalist Pauline Hanson, where the perpetrators were not skinheads but long-haired, left-wing university students. To portray Howard as a neo-fascist is not only factually inaccurate but literally absurd.
Similarly, at the same time as Robert Manne was denouncing Australia for its “astonishing cruelty” and for treating refugees more harshly than any other western country, the responsible minister, Philip Ruddock, was announcing that Australia was increasing its annual refugee intake to 12,000, making it one of only nine countries offering a dedicated resettlement program each year. Per capita, Australia has one of the highest refugee intakes and one of the largest immigrant programs in the world. And no one would ever guess from all the accusations of racism and xenophobia at the 2001 conference that for more than thrty years Australia has had a bipartisan policy on migration whose first principle states: “immigration policy must be non-discriminatory in terms of race, religion, colour and ethnicity”.
In my recent book The White Australia Policy, I demonstrate that mainstream Australian nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not based on race and bore no parallels to the ideology that emerged in Germany. Immigration restrictions were directed primarily at cheap Chinese and Melanesian labour. Instead of racial nationalism, Australian identity was based on a civic patriotism, which encouraged loyalty not to race or ethnicity but to Australia's liberal democratic political institutions. At the time, Australians also owed loyalty to the British Empire, an institution that specifically rejected the notion of hierarchies of race.
The greatest enthusiasts for White Australia, and the genuine racists of that era, were the members of the late nineteenth century Left, especially its writers, artists and intellectuals who influenced the left-wing of the emerging Labor Party. In the late nineteenth century, racism, along with socialism, republicanism and feminism, was one of the latest trendy ideas from the continent. Its strongest opponents at the time were traditional liberals, like the Sydney Free Trade politicians Bruce Smith and Edward Pulsford, who supported free enterprise and criticised the growing power of the state.
Despite the incongruity of applying the term “fascist” to the liberal democracies of the West, the middle class Left has no compunction about using the label. One of their favourite authors, the expatriate journalist John Pilger, routinely describes the United States as a force of “geopolitical fascism”. Pilger distinguished himself in September 2001 as author of the most offensive single response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. In his column in the New Statesman, Pilger said the real terrorists were not Muslim radicals but the Americans:
If the attacks on America have their source in the Islamic world, who can be surprised? … Far from being the terrorists of the world, the Islamic peoples have been its victims — that is, the victims of American fundamentalism, whose power, in all its forms — military, strategic and economic — is the greatest source of terrorism on earth.
What made these comments especially reprehensible was not so much what they said. In the days that followed, similar sentiments were expressed by a number of Western commentators such as Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag and the British journalist Robert Fisk, today a familiar face on ABC's Lateline. It was more their timing. Pilger's statement was published on September 13, which, given the deadlines operating on New Statesman, means he must have written these words on September 11 itself, while the horror of the events was still unfolding on television. The fact that he offered no sympathy for the victims and refused to condemn their murderers on the very day itself, revealed the insincerity of the purported universal humanitarianism he and his readers pride themselves on.
Today, Pilger gives his political support in Iraq to the pro-Saddam insurgents and suicide bombers, or what he calls “the Iraqi resistance”. He has described coalition troops as “legitimate targets”. That is, he supports the killing of American, British and Australian soldiers in Iraq. Like Wilfred Burchett in the 1950s, this journalist is an activist for the other side. However, Pilger's support for the enemy causes no problems for him within the adversary culture where his books are best sellers and his personal appearances can fill Sydney Town Hall. For taking the same line, the British Marxist, Tariq Ali, has been invited twice since September 11 2001 to speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival, an event largely funded by the Labor government of New South Wales, whose Premier over that period, Bob Carr, was also Minister for the Arts.
The tertiary-educated Left reveal the same proclivity over Australia's treatment of the Aborigines. For more than twenty years their historians have freely deployed the terms “genocide” and “holocaust”. However, since they have lately come under pressure from sceptics like me, some academic historians, notably Robert Manne and Bain Attwood, now want to walk away from the terminology, pretending their colleagues have never used it. Manne's critique of my work in the anthology Whitewash makes no attempt to defend the concept of genocide in Tasmania. He and his colleagues present no evidence against my case that the intention of the authorities in Tasmania was not to foster violence against the Aborigines but to prevent it — a silence that represents concession by default. Around the world, however, historians and other authors still believe the myth expressed in Robert Hughes's 1986 history The Fatal Shore that Tasmania represented “the only true genocide in English colonial history”.
Another attempt at the Nazi comparison was made in the 1997 Bringing Them Home report on the welfare policy for Aboriginal children from the 1930s to the 1960s. That report, co-authored by former High Court judge, Ronald Wilson, embedded the terms “stolen generations” and “genocide” into the national consciousness. However, a sustained critique of Wilson's inquiry — including its failure to cross examine witnesses or call any evidence from those who administered the policy — has found it seriously wanting. This critique was mounted partly by a number of writers in Quadrant magazine in 2000 but was done most effectively by the complainants themselves in a test case that year before Justice Maurice O'Loughlin in the Northern Territory Supreme Court.
Justice O'Loughlin found that neither of the two plaintiffs had been stolen or removed from their mothers without consent. Moreover, he found no evidence of any policy of forced removal of part-Aboriginal children, let alone a policy of systematic removal. Ronald Wilson later told the Bulletin magazine that he subsequently regretted using the term “genocide”. Another of the original enthusiasts for that term, Robert Manne, now grudgingly admits the policy did not amount to genocide. But he still hankers after the same terminology, claiming that its administrators had “genocidal ideas”.
Despite all this climbing down, there is one major national institution that still enshrines the genocide thesis. This is the National Museum of Australia. Opened in 2001 to coincide with the centenary of Federation, and built with $155 million of government funding, the National Museum borrows its central structure — shaped as a lightning bolt striking the land — from Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin. Its design signifies that the Aborigines suffered the equivalent of the Holocaust. The museum's original director, Dawn Casey, described the institution as “a birthday gift to Australia”, but to symbolically accuse the nation of the most terrible crime possible is hardly a present anyone would welcome. As the Melbourne architectural critic, Conrad Hamann, has written (approvingly), the building is “clearly one in the eye for the Howard government, who have been bashing away at Aboriginal council groups for some time.”
Once it realized how its funding and good intentions had been abused, the Howard government replaced the original director and appointed a committee to review the exhibits. Little, however, has subsequently changed. The exhibit Snapshots of Australian History still gives Gough Whitlam credit for the successful 1967 referendum to change the status of Aborigines, even though Whitlam was only Opposition Leader at the time and the referendum was actually an initiative of the Holt Coalition government. The section on frontier conflict still has as its centerpiece the Bells Falls Gorge Massacre of the 1820s, an imaginary event for which there has never been any credible evidence. The museum's mocking of popular taste, inspired by the sneers at suburbia of Alan Ashbolt and Patrick White, are still intact.
One of the most disturbing products of the museum is its education program, organized to complement high school curricula for the study of society. There you will find the comments about suburbia by Alan Ashbolt that I mentioned earlier, also a cartoon with similar sentiments by the inner-urban Left's favourite artist Michael Leunig, together with a verse from the 1950s American Communist folk singer Pete Seeger:
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky …
Little boxes all the same.
The Anzac tradition gets a similar treatment, with a display of medals, statues and documents, and questions like this:
World War I was mostly a man's war, and Australia had relatively little cultural diversity at this time. Does the ANZAC tradition that came out of this war have meaning today for a more feminised and multicultural Australia ?
Leading questions of this kind are not educational, they are a form of crude political indoctrination. In this case, the agenda is to suggest the Anzac tradition is sexist, anti-migrant and thus irrelevant. The museum is encouraging school children to devalue their own country and to regard their political and cultural heritage with cynicism. The National Museum is not only one in the eye for the Howard government but also for the nation itself.
Although most of Australia's public sector cultural institutions have long been captured by the same social class and its world view, there are, thankfully, some hopeful signs on the horizon. Time is on the side of its opponents. The Sixties cultural ideology and its fables about the oppression of women, gays, ethnics, blacks and other fancied victim groups has been around so long it is now wearing very thin. The American phenomenon of “ South Park conservatives” is visible among Australian young people today, who see the baby boomer generation not as figures to take seriously but as objects of satire. Young women today visibly roll their eyes at the pronouncements of the aging feminist diehards of the media and the “gender studies” departments of our universities. Large numbers of young people now make pilgrimages to Anzac Cove where they treat its history with the respect it deserves.
In the same vein, calls by Aboriginal activists and their white academic allies to maintain the rage today fall largely on deaf ears. More than 70 per cent of Aboriginal people now live in urban areas where their lives are not all that dissimilar from most other Australians. More than half are married to or cohabit with a non-Aboriginal person. Among the urban young, that figure rises to 90 per cent. More Aborigines now live in the suburbs of Sydney than in all of Western Australia, outside Perth. The shocking statistics of poor health, domestic violence, dysfunctional families and substance abuse that regularly fill our news media are largely confined to the remote communities, the policy legacy of thirty years of social engineering by white theorists like Nugget Coombs who thought that separate development and self-determination based on land rights would solve everything. In reality, what progress has been made in Aboriginal affairs has been made in the cities, not the bush, and through the policies of assimilation, not segregation.
Other ethnic groups show the same desire for integration with mainstream Australia. Multiculturalism attracts a low level of support from migrants themselves. Only one-third of first generation migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds think of themselves as belonging to an ethnic group, and only ten per cent belong to an organisation with an ethnic affiliation. Those most in favour of multicultural diversity are, predictably, the people who developed the policy in the first place and who now gain most of the public sector jobs and grants plus the private sector legal fees involved in administering it: the tertiary-educated middle-class Left.
In short, this social class is rapidly running out of victim groups to parade. That is why there has been so much moral posturing lately about the sad cases of two mentally disturbed young women who have been mistreated by the Department of Immigration. The publicity surrounding these women has been out of all proportion to the significance of their cases, but, when the pool of potential victim groups is rapidly drying up, our moral publicists have to grab what scraps they can.
Having combed society for thirty years in search of casualties of the harsh, oppressive, unfeeling capitalism we allegedly inhabit, there is really only one social group remaining who might qualify as victims. The writer most in tune with this is Elliot Perlman, author and screenwriter of the novel and film Three Dollars. He knows his audience well and has cleverly defined the members of the tertiary-educated middle class themselves as the victim group du jour. In the wake of his success, we can expect a new spate of films, plays, books and other cultural artifacts tracking the bitter, wretched lives that university staff, filmmakers, public sector employees and arts grantees are forced to endure in John Howard's miserable Australia.
What, then, is to be done? The thing that stands out most about this adversary cultural edifice is how much of it is publicly funded. Apart from the Fairfax press, the rest of it — the humanities departments, the film makers, the theatres, the ABC, SBS, and the National Museum — is either entirely or largely dependent upon taxpayer subsidies. So far, the Howard government, apart from a few boardroom appointments, has done very little to change this.
In the immediate future, the best solution lies not in politics but in economics. The government should put all these institutions on a commercial footing. SBS already takes television commercials, without any apparent detriment to its operation, so the ABC should do the same. As the readership of the Fairfax press and the sizeable audiences attracted to the various arts festivals, to John Pilger lectures, and to productions like Three Dollars and Two Brothers all demonstrate, there are now many well-heeled people who consume these cultural products. If it were commercialized, the ABC would not only survive, it would probably thrive. There is also the question of equity: why should those of us who don't care for the offerings of Radio National, Triple J or the 7:30 Report subsidise others to get their political entertainment commercial free? And why should Derryn Hinch and Dave Gray be the only ones reduced to doing television commercials for toilet paper and erection problems, when the ABC's Phillip Adams and Kerry O'Brien could do them just as well?
On the same principle, the National Museum should charge an entrance fee. This would not only allow auditors to make an accurate count of its usually-inflated attendance figures but also focus its mind on exhibiting things the public values, rather than continue its policy of sneering at the culture of most of its visitors. Contemporary film, art and theatre should all make their way in the market place, just like everyone else. Subsidies for the arts should be confined to high culture and great art in order to preserve cultural products whose value has long been proven, for the same reasons we should preserve heritage buildings. But let those people who want to produce contemporary or experimental art raise their own funds in the market place. It would do them good. Sit-down money is not only debilitating for Aborigines; it is every bit as bad for writers, artists and filmmakers.
In the humanities departments of our universities, the best prescription for reform comes from the philosopher David Stove. Twenty years ago, Stove said the rise of Marxism, semiotics and feminism in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney had left it a disaster area, and not merely of the passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that had been flooded. It was a disaster, he wrote, “of the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle”. He said the solution was to reintroduce full fees for Arts students. This would greatly improve the quality of students, and at the same time greatly reduce their numbers. The way would then be open for a similar reduction in the numbers of academic staff in Arts, and for greatly improving their quality too.
To date, the culture of the tertiary-educated middle-class Left has been largely sheltered from the effects of the economic rationalism that has done so much good for the rest of the economy. Yet at the same time, the members of this class have relentlessly campaigned against these very measures. If the Howard government were to introduce economic reforms into the arts and education industries of the kind suggested here, these complaints would no doubt still continue. But there would be one indisputably positive outcome. The complainants would gain some direct experience and first-hand knowledge of what they have been protesting about all this time. Hence, the storylines of their plays, films and novels might, at long last, gain some small connection with the real world in which most Australians live.