Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Nation building - dam busters turned dam builders

The building of community culture is about nation-building from the ground up – but a different kind of nation-building. It’s not so much about bridges, dams and buildings but about connections and skills and capabilities and social institutions that can make a country worth living in.

Chou En Lai once famously (and perhaps actually) said when asked what he saw as the long term effects of the French Revolution, that it was too soon to tell. I like that sort of sense of history. We all have different histories that steer us in different (and similar) ways. My uncle was a navigator on the bombers that burned Dresden. My father was an engineer who built dams. He was part of that generation which helped build a modern Australia that embodied diversity and tolerance – his generation turned from dam busters to dam builders.

It’s a mantle I am happy to have tried to pick up. It’s partly why I feel an affinity with Canberra – it’s integral to a sense of national development as opposed to the narrow state-based view we seem to be moving back towards and it is central to the nation-building vision I identify with so closely.

Disused mining equipment near Maldon, Victoria, © Stephen Cassidy, 2012
It’s no accident that Kevin Rudd, despite all his faults, managed to combine that nation-building vision with the requirement for an apology to the Stolen Generation. As in South Africa and Germany, true leaders saw that grasping modernity had to include coming to grips with the past and mobilising that history to take the country forward. A bad history doesn’t have to be a negative for the future as well as the past, it can actually be something that empowers future generations to do better.