… Australia is not America
There’s no denying Rumsfeld’s push against anything resembling poetry, inspiration and principle — including through statements such as “stuff happens” and his numbing triumvirate of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, a mangling of words and thought reminiscent of Australia’s own Joh Bjelke-Petersen. But Rumsfeld was deposed after just five years in his top job, while Sir Joh hung on for nearly 20. Howard’s been going for 10, with his own flattening offerings such as there is a measure of “gesture politics” in what the President has done.
IT’S been hard for Australians on the left-liberal side of Genghis Khan to wipe the smiles off their faces since the wholesale Bush bashing in last week’s US elections.
Big grins got broader with the booting of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. I spotted at least one chirpy T-shirt recycled from the 1996 Clinton/Gore Democrat convention in Chapel Street’s pre-summer weekend sun, and positive predictions have started swirling regarding the implications of America Votes 2006 for Australia’s deployed troops, and for Australia Votes 2007. But how much comfort can Australia’s small-d democrats really take from this American landslide?
Answering that is a bit like extemporising on the length of a piece of string. As in other English-speaking democracies, there’s lingering, legitimate lament about the convergence of Republican and Democratic method and content in our superspun age. But even an incrementally progressive shift in ideological gravity in this gargantuan power will have a significant ripple effect — it’s already started on questions related to Iraq, that most bloody of contemporary battlegrounds for hearts and minds. This must have some influence on the leadership stance, policy bandwidth and voter sentiment of America’s close allies, including Australia.
But it won’t necessarily follow that our governing Coalition will lose next year’s election. Despite Australians gulping more Americana than most of us could have foreseen a decade ago, the democratic flavour of each nation remains distinctive enough to make a difference.
Long-standing differentials relating to republicanism, religion and race, and attitudes to rags and riches, were charted in Don Watson’s still-pertinent 2001 Quarterly Essay Rabbit Syndrome. Peter Craven summarised Watson: “America for all its glory and its relative benignity is also a ghastly society, in touch with nightmares of vengeance and bloody-mindedness that little old gradualist Australia cannot dream of or can only dream of by proxy. Australia, that convict success story, has never carried on about freedom, because it took it for granted, but then it also takes for granted its own status (mythological in its own eyes) as a low-rent paradise.”
Watson observed that federated Australia, unlike the grander union of the United States of America, was soldered together not in a fiery furnace but through a protracted series of lawyers’ meetings, concluding that our originating documents are entirely without poetry or inspiration, or even an overriding principle.
There’s no denying Rumsfeld’s push against anything resembling poetry, inspiration and principle — including through statements such as “stuff happens” and his numbing triumvirate of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, a mangling of words and thought reminiscent of Australia’s own Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
But Rumsfeld was deposed after just five years in his top job, while Sir Joh hung on for nearly 20. Howard’s been going for 10, with his own flattening offerings such as there is a measure of “gesture politics” in what the President has done.
Despite his worst efforts, Rumsfeld stood and fell within a Jeffersonian tradition and its accompanying constitutional culture, romantically and legally grounded in the liberty of the individual, and the accountability of both executive and legislature to the governed.
Thomas Jefferson nicely packaged this democratic deal and ideal as follows: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” It’s neat justice that on the road to his influential presidency, Jefferson — also an architect, philosopher, horticulturist, inventor, Francophile, wordsmith and founder of the University of Virginia — was governor of Virginia, a state whose Senate seat result was critical in last week’s election result, as Republican George Allen was voted out of office.
During my own stint in Virginia during Allen’s rule as governor in the 1990s, I marvelled daily at how moralising gun-toting bible-bashers, de facto racial segregation, of which Sir Joh would have been proud, and bumper stickers ranting “Kill Jane Fonda traitor commie bitch”, could spring from the same cultural well as Jefferson’s elegant home and UNESCO world heritage site Monticello, magical jazz, rich public collections of fine art and Faberge Easter eggs, the Declaration of Independence, and Virginia’s state motto “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants).
It was clear to me then, and it’s crystal-clearer today, that the Australian compact includes no state and no place quite like Virginia. That’s Australia’s blessing but it’s also our curse. Appreciating that will be vital to determining our own better political future.
Natasha Cica is director of management and communications consultancy Periwinkle Projects. This article ran first in The Age