Richard Flanagan Published in the final edition of The Bulletin, 28 January 2008
MY FATHER was one of Dunlop’s Thousand, that now mythical group of POWs who endured the horrors of the Death Railway under the Japanese, led by a doctor called Weary Dunlop.
Recently he told me how one day on the railway a digger called Slappy Oldham turned up to sick parade with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. An English major called Driscoll made a swipe at Slappy, which the POW evaded by the slightest move of his head.
‘Lucky you missed,’ said Slappy Oldham.
Driscoll angrily demanded to know why.
‘If you’d touched me,’ said Slappy Oldham, ‘I’d have dropped you, you bastard.’
Driscoll grew more agitated and was speaking of charges when Dunlop arrived. Slappy walked up to the Colonel.
‘You know that bastard, Driscoll,’ said Slappy Oldham, ‘he tried to swipe me, and I told him off.’
‘Good on you, Slappy,’ replied Weary, to the amazement of the upper echelon. ‘Always look after yourself.’
I once spent a memorable evening with Dunlop and he told me of how as a young doctor in London in the 1930s he had gone into the East End and taken on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists blackshirts at their rallies. I knew this was unusual, for Dunlop was a distinguished rugby player, capped for Australia, and Mosley recruited heavily from London rugby circles. So concerned was Dunlop by the rise of fascism he told me he very nearly went to Spain to fight with the International Brigade.
Was he attracted to the Communist Party then? I asked, knowing well how many of the very best had at the time been.
‘Not at all,’ Dunlop said. ‘I just didn’t agree.’
After a dirty, lost decade Australia finds itself standing bewildered and slightly befuddled by the age in which it has suddenly woken up. After the most sustained boom in Australian history Australians may fairly ask: Where did the money go? It will be an interesting question to ponder when our cherished property values begin to drop and portfolios start to plummet and we stare out at our great UV irradiated land and wonder why our public schools are worse, our hospitals worse, our social security worse, and our cities less liveable? How is it we have come to face perhaps the greatest environmental catastrophe since creatures even slower witted than ourselves ruled the planet, and still, for example, happily not just endorse but subsidise with our taxes the destruction of Tasmanian native forests?
Perhaps we have agreed with too much that was wrong for too long.
If we look at Australia over the last several years we are presented with the unedifying, indeed disturbing image of a society whose major institutions failed. This was not necessarily so in other countries. If it is the case, for example, that the present US Administration has committed crimes—at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo, in rendition centres—then it was US journalists who first brought them to public light, it was US legal systems and US lawyers that began bringing them into question, it was US public figures who began pressing for change. Nothing similar happened in Australia.
If we look to another example, that of Britain, we see that they had what we didn’t: a major debate in Parliament about whether they should go to war in Iraq. On the tombstone of the former British foreign affairs minister, Robin Cook, who resigned his parliamentary positions over the Iraq invasion, are his own poignant words: ‘I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war.’ One after another, loyal Tory MP and loyal Labour MP stood up and said they disagreed with their party leadership’s support of the war.
To the shame of all Australian parliamentarians, not one here could claim the same epitaph as Cook, for in contrast our parliament was quiescent. In Australia such a questioning of the party leadership’s position on any issue has become not just unacceptable, but pilloried in the impoverished political judgement of the Canberra press gallery as political suicide. To speak out is to be declared a rat, a party renegade and a political naïve.
Yet not so long ago both parties were accepting of difference and criticism from within their own ranks. When he was prime minister, Malcolm Fraser is said on occasion to have told lobbyists that he agreed with their position but as his senators would not back him, he could not help.
Now there are only two sins in Australian political life: being charged and being different. Any Labor member would be terrified to be caught having a cappuccino with disgraced former Western Australian premier Brian Burke. Contrast this with current Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon, with whom any Labor member would happily be photographed, despite controversy over his alleged closeness to forestry giant Gunns. Lennon’s colonial mansion was primarily renovated by Gunns while they were seeking approval for their pulp mill project. Estimated in The Australian to have cost close to $400,000, Lennon’s comments suggest he has paid Gunns “well over $100,000” for the work though Lennon has always denied any suggestion of impropriety.
And so our parties failed us. Our parliament failed us. Our media failed us. The question as to why is difficult to answer, though it clearly is to be found in an uneasy examination of a new conformity at the heart of Australian life. There is a new censorship that involves not overt government repression, but a gradual and real capitulation by so many individuals—journalists, middle managers in the media, public figures—to the idea that many things in Australia are now better left unsaid.
What we have witnessed is a very real corrosion of the idea of the truth and respect for those whose views differ from that of power. What we have experienced is a coarsening of public rhetoric by standover men who claim to speak for the ordinary Australian, but seem to represent the interest of government and corporate power. They are given opinion columns and radio talkback programs. They are accorded the status of minor celebrities and there sometimes seems no end to the uniquely Australian cross of their public belligerence in defence of private interest at popular expense.
While many, for example, righteously demanded David Hicks apologise to the nation on his release, none seemed to think it worth demanding the same of Alan Jones when in the wake of the Cronulla riots, he was found by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to have had broadcast comments ‘likely to encourage violence or brutality and to vilify people of Lebanese and Middle-Eastern backgrounds on the basis of ethnicity’.
What we hear parroted at ever more shrill frequencies are the old mantras of Stalinism, once used to justify the great crimes of a century, being ironically recycled by the right to defend the indefensible. Those who speak out are inevitably demonised as out of touch elites. This pejorative use of the word elite begins with Stalin in 1948 when he used it to describe Jewish intellectuals upon whom he was about to turn his terror.
We are being told, as the old USSR was told, that there are things that matter more than the truth and individual freedom—national security, the needs of the security forces, special international commercial undertakings. But there is nothing higher in this life than the truth and individual freedom. The striving for these two things is the essence of who and what we are.
We now have provision for secret trials and secret imprisonment in this country. With the Dr Haneef case we have been presented the disturbing spectre of an innocent man appearing to be framed and imprisoned for what can only be seen as political advantage, in which our security forces would seem to have lied to the Australian public. Late last year a Sydney court found that an Australian citizen, Izahar Ul-Haque, had been illegally kidnapped and threatened by ASIO operatives. This blatant abuse of power by our secret police and what it might bode for our future seemed of little concern to either major party or the media, and the lack of attention the case received was all the more remarkable given it happened in the middle of the Federal election.
We are no longer in the twentieth century of class and ideology, of endless economic growth, of left and right, of centre and periphery. It is a confusing new world of religious zealotry and economic uncertainty perhaps unseen since the 1930s, of competing superpowers, of politics as little more than corporate cheerleading, with various gods renascent and the sudden recognition that the earth is not only finite in its fecundity, but also in its charity towards its ultimate parasitic species.
Internationally it is not that we are no longer capable of pursuing an independent foreign policy, it is rather that our new obsequiousness to power, masquerading as the realpolitik of contemporary international affairs, means that we cannot even dream of the possibility. We are caught between a rising superpower, China, and a declining superpower, the USA, with not so much a policy as an ingrained servility on the part of our political class that does not bode well.
Historically the world seems to be setting upon an era of unprecedented global barbarity. This would seem an extravagant claim, particularly in the wake of the 20th century, which was after all the most murderous in history. Yet beneath the ceaseless blathering about democracy from the White House and from our own leaders, our political systems are increasingly unresponsive to the democratic impulses in their own societies. If our economy is globalised, so too is our human destiny. We have in absolute terms far more people living in poverty than at any time in history. Our own society is ever more stratified, and the divisions of wealth and power grow daily, and daily grow more offensive, and represent a slow accumulation of grievances which will, if not addressed, invite a terrible denouement.
At the same time we have been taught to accept that endless change in our economic lives is inevitable and unavoidable, but that political change of any consequence is impossible. Cynicism is the new naivety. We believe in abstract forces too much, in human capacity too little. We have lost faith in the only real power in this world: our faith in ourselves.
For as a society we need to once more rediscover and reassert the necessity of witnessing and questioning as the greatest guarantee we can have of democracy. If I am left believing in anything it is something very simple: that truth matters above all else. Anything that honours and guarantees the truth is not just good, but necessary. For the road to tyranny is never opened with a sudden coup d’etat. It is a long path paved with the small cobbles of silence, lies and deceit that ends, inevitably in horror. In Australia we stand at the head of that road. Only history will tell us if as a people we chose the terrible folly of continuing to walk down it.
But nothing is given, and hope is ever as real a possibility as despair. People have once more begun finding courage and giving voice to what concerns them. Whether it’s the Chaser—our very own Radio Free Europe—or journalists once more beginning to question and show courage, as they did with the Dr Haneef case, there is a new mood in our nation which we ought welcome.
I don’t mean by this the recent change of national government. We in Australia make too much of our political leaders and their work, and too little of our own failings and triumphs. The world advances to a better place through the countless act of everyday goodness shown by millions of people too easily dismissed as everyday.
In the end none of these things are ever a matter of party. Dunlop most likely voted Liberal, yet it is no paradox that Tom Uren, once known as the heart of the Left, said he learnt his socialism from Weary Dunlop while a POW. Uren, like Dunlop, didn’t agree. And whilst a Labor man through and through, Uren has endorsed the Greens’ Bob Brown, another man who doesn’t agree, as having the blood of Mandela flowing in his veins. These are matters of character, and to use a word little heard these days, courage. More than ever, in this new age, Australians need to once more recover their voice, and that power of not agreeing with power. It’s time, like Slappy Oldham, we looked after ourselves a little more, and deferred to power and its Driscolls a little less.
Richard Flanagan collaborated with Baz Luhrmann on the script of Australia. His most recent novel is The Unknown Terrorist: