Everyone loves Australia, or at least they should. A land of true wonders and remarkable myths, Australia is home to some of the most talented people on earth. Actors, writers (this being a mostly literary site, take a look: Peter Carey, future Nobel Prize winner for Literature, joining his brilliant country mate Patrick White, winner in 1973: https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=Carey%2C%20Peter&cm_sp=det-_-bdp-_-author https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=Patrick%20White&cm_sp=det-_-bdp-_-author), athletes–anything to do with entertaining the world. Also they . . . they . . . what else are they known for today other than their famous immigrants who play American superheroes?
The history of Australia is dazzling and densely complex. We can disregard for the purpose of this piece those early days that have also sank into myth when the whole chunk of land was merely a penal colony for Great Britain, shipping out the scum of the earth to work the land until the king found profit. We can even try to sidestep the atrocious treatment of the aboriginal people, slaughtered like in any other genocide. Of course the issue of race is much more difficult to avoid.
Australia is an enigma, the political factions still less aggressive than in the United States, although it is rapidly catching up. There is a crazed, far left gang that does battle with the lunatic fringe on the right. Both of these sides are becoming more mainstream as parliamentary arguments grow increasingly severe, teetering on the edge of violence.
Australia’s current social problems reflect many of the same concerns of the western world. Increasingly conservative after years and years of liberalization, society seems to be at a crossroads, with notorious factions on either side vying for power. The conservatives have been in power in Australia since 2013 (interestingly, the right-wing party is the Liberal Party). If we go back in time just a little, to the eleven year reign of John Howard from 1996-2007, we can see the growth of a movement that has since overtaken much of the nation.
John Howard promoted “traditional family values,” and stated a strong opposition to multiculturalism, declaring it a threat to “Australian identity.” These are, of course, pretty standard conservative views everywhere in the world, but there are a few specifics worth noting about Howard’s proposals and enactments, and their impact on the current generation that now rules Australian politics.
To start with, Howard made some eventually taken back statements about immigration that many critics claim led to his eventual downfall. He stated that Asian immigration needed to be “slowed down a little.” This is a generally polite way of declaring a publicly racist view, “a little” offering a rational defense to those of a similar mind.
But John Howard’s primary concern, like many conservatives without much interest in the social climate of their nation, was economics. When he went into office the Australian economy was in shambles, the past thirteen years of inept Labor party leaders destroying much of the hard built up credit of the previous hundred or so years. Howard declared himself an “economic radical,” surely a nerve-wracking term for those concerned about his “social conservatism,” which included renouncing gay rights and attempts to re-instate the death penalty. To outlaw abortion and reverse many long fought for aboriginal rights.
Like a traditional conservative, Howard instituted new tax laws, cutting the rates on the wealthy and seeking a ‘trickle down’ effect that never comes to fruition. As a result of this slowly lumbering economy, social issues and controversies were needed to distract the nation from their gloom. There is one notable incident involving a disgraced Liberal Party member named Pauline Hanson, an open racist who brutally and repeatedly mocked and condemned various minorities. She had been met with a rather violent kick back–protests and provocations in the streets. John Howard, meanwhile, remained silent on his colleague’s words for seven months, giving the impression that he supported her views. After all, his own words in the past were working against him.
Eventually Howard condemned Hanson after enormous pressure. It seems pretty obvious that the Prime Minister found Hanson’s words–and the woman herself–distasteful. The real problem for him was the fact that within the far right base, Hanson maintained a growing popularity that threatened to undermine him in the next election. Seeking the approval of the more moderate wing of the Liberals, Howard ultimately kicked Hanson out of the party, declaring that should she win her election she would not be allowed to sit as a Liberal. (Hanson eventually formed her own party, which she actually calls Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, a virulently nationalistic faction that declares Islam to be the greatest threat in the world.)
John Howard is also notable for another split from his party regarding gun laws. After the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 (the first year Howard was Prime Minister), where a lone psychopath named Martin Bryant open fired on a crowd, eventually killing thirty-five people and wounding another twenty-three, Howard initiated strict gun ownership laws (not every influence for the man was American). This outraged the far right even more
In the years following Howard, mostly in exhausted opposition to the way things had been for so long, the Labor party took over the agenda of Australia once again. These six years were rife with inner party conflict and the general malaise society suffers when, after having lived one way for so long, an opposite ideology attempts to reform society, confusing everyone now coming of age. It was a chaotic period of disillusion featuring two Prime Ministers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Rudd was in office twice, interrupted by Gillard deciding to challenge him after his first term. Knowing that he would lose, Rudd withdrew from the election, settling back into bitter cabinet life until the time came for him to retake the government for another forlorn stretch of time.
After the standard left-wing attempts to protect the environment and secure the rights of the oppressed, the Labor government collapsed, mocked severely, and declared weak and ineffectual–especially in those days after 9/11. While John Howard had dedicated a number of troops to the war in Afghanistan, Rudd merely whined about this and did next to nothing. When he was finally defeated in 2013, after two single terms split apart, by Tony Abbott, Australia seemed to take a terminal step to the right.
Abbott, in many ways, was a kind-hearted man, but his policies often ran afoul of his best intentions. For example, on the issue of same sex marriage, which had become one of the few remaining left-wing rallying cries in the nation, Abbott wrote, “The love and commitment between two people of the same sex can be as strong as that between husband and wife… There is more moral quality in a relationship between two people devoted to each other for decades than in many a short-lived marriage. Still, however deeply affectionate or long lasting it may be, the relationship between two people of the same sex cannot be a marriage because a marriage, by definition, is between a man and a woman… Let’s celebrate all strong relationships, whether they are between a man and a woman or between people of the same sex but let’s be careful about describing every lasting sexual bond as a ‘marriage.'” This statement certainly displays heart, but comes across as ultimately submissive and cowardly, that of a man who disagrees fundamentally with what he is saying, yet is forced to bow to the political pressures of his party overlords. Abbott was also deeply in favor of environmental regulations, recruiting children to lead a movement. And yet, regardless of anything the man wished to accomplish, both right or left, all he received was demoralizing criticism.
After serving for only two years, Abbott was replaced by the much more classically conservative Malcolm Turnbull. In the years since his time in office, Abbott has been re-evaluated, considered, in retrospect, a rather progressive liberal (Americans: remember the opposite meaning in Australia!), who was concerned about climate change, about the treatment of aborigines, even about Australia’s version of reparations to those who had their land stolen from them.
Turnbull was a monster of an entirely different sort.
Malcolm Turnbull came to prominence when he helped to form a new Republican movement in Australia whose primary goal was to replace the queen of Australia with the head of the federal government. This did not go over well with older and stuffy traditionalists, but became a major issue with the young, seeking to reshape society and join the modern world. The queen, of course, had only a ceremonial role, being sought out for her opinion only before the government made all the decisions for itself. Turnbull rapidly rose within the Liberal Party and by the time Tony Abbott was ready to be replaced, Turnbull jumped at the chance.
The primary thing that Malcolm Turnbull will be remembered for in history, I believe, is his disgraceful policies on immigration, moving the vetting centers (extreme vetting centers) offshore to Manus Island and Nauru. Inevitably protests exploded on the mainland, declaring those processing centers guilty of torture, rape and murder. Whether this is true has not been fully verified, but the number of voices on the matter makes this finally irrelevant. Enough people believe it to be true and so facts lose much of their power.
Turnbull also reversed many of the safe energy policies of previous administrations, looking more to the pocketbook than to the future of a habitable society. He denounced renewable energy and decided that carbon emissions weren’t as bad as the scientists claimed. Turnbull also smugly decided to turn the question of same sex marriage and the “redefining of the meaning of marriage” to the public, assuming that the prejudiced masses would vote what he considered a perversion down. He lost. He was humiliated. Same sex marriage was legalized and there was no longer anything he could do about it other than offer some vague concessions to religious bodies that allowed them to refuse to go through with this without any consequence.
After several years of Turnbull’s angry and mostly unsuccessful administration, Australia decided that it was time to move on. They elected the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who strikes me as a slightly more moderate Donald Trump clone, setting about as his first order of business the moving of the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, intentionally provoking Muslims worldwide. Morrison, considered a compromise candidate, moderate enough not to offend anyone, has yet to prove his stripes. Australia awaits whatever may be their next scandal, panting slowly and surely not breathlessly, losing interest in the very mechanisms that run their society.
Lately there have also been some creeping restrictions on the freedom of speech in Australia, initially designed to ban the “advocating of terrorism.” This has since led to blockades on travelling to certain areas of the world, government insistence on the retention of individual internet data–on everything, porn lovers!–as well as drastic oversight on journalists, threatening to jail them for up to ten years should they report on any vaguely defined “state secrets.”
For all of these questions and all the struggles that have caused this once joyful and relaxed society (other than the random cowboy-style acts of violence that would take place along the plains) to become every bit as tense and sullen as most of the rest of the world, there remains a certain character–a righteous and fascinating sincerity to the citizens of Australia. And even through, like the rest of us, they have become far more interested in getting in the face of other people’s business than they ever were before, we can still always laugh–laugh at the humor, the self-regard that still remains and keeps these wonderful people from taking anything too seriously.
Tomorrow? Get ready. Europe . . .
©2019 Lance Polin