About fifty per cent of Australia’s adults – if I dare call them that – have just sent you a message: they have told you that your future and the future of the planet on which you live are unimportant. They have told you that their concern for their own wellbeing and way of life overrides any concerns you might have about future employment, education, and a place to live.
They have told you that being able to spend their remaining years on the deck of a pleasure launch – assisted in part by a handout from taxpayers – is more important than contributing to your education and healthcare; more important than fighting to mend the earth you will inherit, an earth so badly damaged by previous generations that your very existence is threatened.
They have told you that education should be only for those who can afford it, as it has been for all but a few years of the last several centuries; that first-class health care is only for the wealthy, and that the environment doesn’t matter. They have told you that self-interest is more important than the good of the nation and the health of our beautiful, ancient land.
They have told you they believe they are more worthy than you.
In a few months’ time, I shall be 79 years old, an age that is beyond your imagining – I know this, because I remember what it was to be young – and I have seen and done a lot of things. Some things I am not proud of, but I don’t regret them; regrets are futile, mistakes are lessons. But one constant in my life has been my love of people and the love of my country.
I love people because they are human, and being human means that they are all different with a different story to tell. One of my grandfathers, a man named George Hamilton, once told me to “never look at the colour of someone’s skin”. That worried me until I was old enough to understand what he meant.
When I was growing up, Australia was a country frightened of difference. The indigenous peoples were different and, having at last become ashamed of our efforts to exterminate them, we tried to change them. We tried to make them whiter by regulating who they were allowed to marry, and when that didn’t work, we used other laws to regulate their lives. The general public just ignored them for the most part.
We were frightened of the Chinese who came to Australia during the great goldrushes and so passed into law the “White Australia” policy. We were frightened of the Italians and Greeks who came here in large numbers after World War II. We were frightened of the “Balts”, the peoples of Eastern Europe who were allowed in as refugees.
Did you know that before these migrants came to Australia, zucchinis, tomato paste, capsicums, egg plant, salami, and a thousand and one other now everyday foods were unheard of? That olive oil was sold in tiny bottles and used as a medicine? It’s true, I know; because it was in my lifetime.
But our country grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s and we became accustomed to different faces and customs. And we came to love different foods and new celebrations. We rejoiced in our diversity.
A Prime Minister named John Howard changed all that. In his time in office, he fought hard to send attitudes back to the 1950s, a trend that continues to this day and has now been reinforced. And like John Howard, many politicians hate the changes that have been made and want us to be frightened of everybody who is not “us”: they want us to demonise people born in Africa and Asia and to mistrust anybody who is a Muslim, regardless of their ethnicity. They would prefer it if we were all white and Christian and certainly not gay or vegetarian.
Conservative governments have always used this fear of “the other” to divide us to their own advantage. But “the other” has broadened. It now includes the unemployed, the less wealthy and those people for whom life has never been easy. For a brief time, the “fair go” was an Australian certainty, it is now a myth.
When the Indigenous peoples indicated that they would like to see a First Nations committee set up to advise government on formulation of any policy affecting them, they were given a blunt refusal. It would, the government said, amount to another Chamber in Parliament. They had become “the other” again; more than 60,000 years occupation of this continent apparently doesn’t entitle them to a voice in government.
When next you attend an Anzac Day ceremony, bear in mind that the men and women whom politicians glorify as wonderful and heroic Australians – particularly those veterans of the two World Wars – are the same people whose votes gave us the benefits that conservative governments are now bent on taking away. Votes for women, health care, free education, pensions, and numberless other things we once took for granted but no longer can. They have become “privileges” not entitlements.
These same politicians are fond of telling you how much they “love Australia”, but what they are saying is that they love it for what they can get out of it, not what it does for them. They really have no concept of the land itself, that mysterious “thing” that sustains both their mental and physical health. They don’t feel its heartbeat through the soles of their feet, for they “have no time to grow; they have no time to waste”*. If they did, they would be in Parliament today and every day, addressing the biggest crisis to face this planet and all creatures that rely on it since the day a hominid first picked up a burning stick.
The people who voted against your future have benefited most from programs put in place by more enlightened governments and it seems those benefits have shortened their memories and made them selfish.
But there is hope. When brave young Greta Thunberg made her appearance on the world stage, my heart lifted; she is, or should be, an inspiration to us all. The door will only be open for a very short time before the processes our politicians ignore become irreversible, and because fifty per cent of your elders – and sadly it seems, some of your contemporaries – refused to put the interests of the nation ahead of their own, this huge burden is now on your shoulders.
My generation and the one just after seem to have forgotten that we took to the streets and stopped a war; we took to the streets and ended apartheid in South Africa; we took to the streets to help our Indigenous brothers and sisters in their fight for dignity. Young people were jailed – and in some countries, the USA among them, killed. But they won. In the end they won. And you can win this fight, you must win, there is no alternative worth contemplating. Fifty per cent of us will be behind you as best we can, but it will be your energy and determination that will save our planet and your future from the barbarians.
*From A B Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow