A brief and biased social history of Australia since World War Two
Well Tony, we got here at last, to the point of this whole conversation. I apologise for the long-winded way of it, but you needed the background. Why? Well to my mind it seems you walk through life not seeing or hearing anything. Is it your money, or your upbringing? Or is it that superior attitude that your countrymen from all walks of life seem to adopt when they find themselves in the former colonies? I dunno. Of course it could be just the Celt in me, liking a good story and having to come to the point widdershins just because I enjoy the telling of it. That’s the old Australian way you know, Tony, the yarn for its own sake.
Anyway, I better get on. You’ll be wondering what shaped my attitudes and makes me think that I can lecture you on what being an Australian is. Well, it’s the people I grew up with, the people I’ve lived and worked and slept and argued and made love with these past 70-odd years. Not all of them were born in Australia, some came here when they were a lot older than you, but they all have one thing in common: they were Australians through and through, something you’ll never be. Speedos and a red-and-yellow cap don’t make an Aussie – Oh no, Tony, don’t go there, I wore that outfit once, rowed the boat and did the bronze and the belt swims and all. I lived among and worked with these people, talked and laughed and argued with them. People who’d got their education out in the world, learning as they went.
Like old Poppa, a Ukrainian I knew in Fremantle. He was 96 when I was a teenager and he’d been round Cape Horn under sail twice before he was 11 years old. There was Lindsay, who’d been torpedoed three times as a merchantman on the convoys. Didn’t get a war pension though, did they, those blokes? Not till there was only a handful of them left. Jock and Edie helped us kids when our house was quarantined – Jock had also been on the convoys I think. Nana, who was on a Papua plantation before the First World War. There was Grandpa George, an overlander who took cattle from the Snowy Mountains to the Northern Territory and who told me you should never look at the colour of a bloke’s skin; Aboriginal drovers he worked with said he could smell water. Grandpa Frank, crocodile trapper and pump guard on the King River; he got a governor’s commendation for diving into aforementioned croc-infested river in an attempt to rescue two men; he saved one. Uncle Bert who got me started on the guitar: council worker, truck-driver, one of the happiest people I know. Two-Ton Tony, truck driver on Cockatoo Island, who gave me a first edition of Tarzan of the Apes when I was 9. Alan Cust, a POW on the Burma Railway and the tradesman who mentored me. The Wade brothers, owners of the printing company where I did my apprenticeship – Ron was a navigator over Europe in Lancasters during WWII, Nev was RAAF ground crew in Singapore and spent the war as a POW in Changi; their Dad, Bertie, was a Lieutenant on the Western Front for most of WWI. Then there was Mick Christensen, DFC, my instructor in trade theory at tech school; he was a sergeant pilot in Wellingtons during WWII and got his gong for nursing his badly shot-up bomber over the English coast so his crew could bail out over land, then turning back and ditching in the English Channel so as not to endanger lives. Jack Reddington, elderly father of my mate Kev; at 9 years old he served with the army of the British Raj as a drummer boy at the Khyber Pass on the North-West Frontier. My old Newcastle mate, a card-carrying communist from the age of 17 until the disappointment of Hungary and a fearless and tireless publisher of community newsletters and operator of the clandestine radio during Timor’s troubles. And the numberless blokes and sheilas, gay and straight, whom I laboured with in meat works, timber mills, newspapers, printing plants, tin mines, on farms and other jobs too numerous to mention. The men and women I’ve shared the stage with; the girls I’ve loved who loved me back and comforted me because they almost understood me. These are the people who shaped me, and many Australians of my generation and younger have been shaped by people like them.
And these are the people you have never known and can’t know, because they live in a world whose values and ethics you are unable to comprehend. They believed in a fair go and didn’t turn on people less fortunate than they were; they didn’t want to see a country divided into haves and have-nots; where people copping the burnt stick in the eye are turned against people without a pot to piss in.
Real Australians don’t wave flags or beat their chests about patriotism and loyalty and ask god’s blessing for their homeland because they don’t need to. That’s not the Australian way – or it wasn’t when I was growing up. God was the business of sky pilots and wowsers but it was okay to believe as long as you did it in private. My old man and his mates didn’t fight for a bloody flag, or a king, but they sure as hell would’ve knocked your block off if you’d said something about their colour patches. The flag was the government, officialdom, the establishment. Australia was in your heart, in your soul, your being – it was a state of mind, not of cheap Barnum and Bailey gee gaws and gimcracks, of Gilbert and Sullivan Border Force uniforms. Australia is Henry Lawson and Ned Kelly; Judith Wright and Dorothea Mackellar. Speaking of Ms Mackellar, you’ll never understand what she meant when she wrote:
Sheen of the bronze-wing; blue of the crane;
Fawn and pearl of the lyrebird’s train;
Cream of the plover; grey of the dove –
These are the hues of the land I love.
Which brings me to love of country, Tony. Love of country. You don’t have it, I don’t think anyone in your cabinet has it either – I’d hazard a guess that very few politicians do. You don’t feel it through the soles of your feet or see it in the old red gums hunching their shoulders and settling their roots deeper into the red dirt to wait out yet another drought. You’re too busy to see that, it’s all just countryside whizzing past you or under you while you’re on your way from A to B to tell yet another bunch of people – in whom you really haven’t the slightest interest – that you feel their pain.
You don’t hear it in the maggies yodeling in the morning, or the cheeky laugh of a little kid ringing out in the disgrace of the blacks’ camp on the fringes of a country town, or the cough of a big red boomer breaking the morning quiet out among the saltbush. You don’t hear Australia’s ancient choir singing to you in the heat of a midsummer day, or warning you that you’re only here under sufferance as the great Southern Ocean throws the giant waves against the cliffs at Albany. You’re going too fast and are too preoccupied to hear that chorus.
You’re blind and deaf to all these things, Tony, because like so many of your mates you’re only interested in what you can get out of it. In how much money you can rip out of her to satisfy the avarice of you and your ilk. You value Australia for what you can get out of her, Tony, not for what she is.
I feel sorry for you in a strange sort of way. Australians don’t like their politicians much – never have really, except for a select few. I can remember the big black headlines when Ben Chifley died, and Malcolm Fraser got a decent eulogy, but they’ll be battling for nice things to say about you. As I said, we’ve never liked our politicians much, but we do expect them to show our country in its best light. Which is why Howard was doomed as soon as he started wearing that miniature Army combat camouflage outfit. And what possessed you to wear the shiny-arsed pushbike rider suit and wheel in your bike when you met the Japanese PM? I wonder what he thought. If you heard about some unemployed kid turning up dressed like that for a job interview, you’d be pontificating for days.
And yesterday’s joint party room vote on marriage equality proved something else. You’re gutless. Bloody gutless. You were worried about what your church might say and that you might lose a few votes because your hold on power is about as tenuous as your grip on reality. And it shows, too, that you don’t give a stuff for what the Australian people think or want. It’s all about you, and power and hanging on to it. Well, mate, no sub-editor is going to write the headline “POMMY MUG LAIR MAKES GOOD”, so you might just as well get used to the idea.
When you retire, Tony, the best I can hope for you is that you do a Bob Menzies and rack off to England. Maybe, like Bob, Her Majesty will make you a Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and you can wear a funny hat and annoy the tripe out of the locals. Or you can ride a pushbike to John o’ Groats and some rock-throwing Highlander might or might not bounce a boondee off your scone.
Whatever you do, Tony, do it somewhere else but in Australia. Your mentor John Howard set social attitudes in this country back 50 years – you’ve added another 25 to that. You’re the worst PM in the worst government this country has ever had, and we’ll get on better without you.
So that’s it I suppose. I could go on but what’s the bloody point. I’m preaching to the converted on one side and making speeches to the deaf on the other. Go back to bloody England, Tony. You’ll like it better there.