Thursday, August 13, 2015

Land of hope

There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope.

There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world.

There were two such times, when Australia had the chance and rose to the occasion. The first was in the 19th Century when it was seen as the land of opportunity unshackled by the limitations of the ageing, ossified, constricted world of Britain and Europe. The second opportunity was in the late 1940s and the 1950s when thousands of migrants flocked here to build a new life after the carnage and devastation of World War 2.

Pine Tier Dam was one of the earliest dams in the vast network of infrastructure in the Central Highlands of Tasmania, setting the scene for its modern equivalent, the National Broadband Network. The parallel network of social, educational and cultural infrastructure was even more important in giving direction for a modern Australia in troubled times.

It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed.

In the 19th century, Australian unions were being built from the ground up and educated workers were focused on the improvement of education and of labour. Written in the 1950s, during the second of our periods of optimism, ‘The Ballad of 1891’ celebrated the sense of hope and the desire to make the world a better place. There was a sense of excitement about the potential of the emerging nation and the groundwork was laid for Australian literature, painting and journalism through the body of bohemians associated with the popular magazine, the ‘Bulletin’.

Increasingly the voices of those born in Australia, rather than those who had migrated from Britain, began to speak for the nation at the end of the world. There was a real sense that this would be something radically different to the old kingdoms of privilege – a fresh new start for a democratic world. The memorable phrase ‘temper democratic, bias Australian’ derived originally from Joseph Furphy, author of the novel ‘Such is Life’, summed up the approach.

Fleeing the ruins of Europe
After World War 2 those who returned and those newly arrived saw that it was time for Australia to realise its dream of being the beacon of freedom and democracy far from the rest of the world. The old 19th century dream returned – of an Australia free of the rigid, class-bound and narrow world of the Northern Hemisphere, of Europe and Great Britain.

The second moment is inextricably linked to the development of a vision of Australia and of a national capital and to the nation-building so often talked about by politicians but so often misunderstood. We are still drawing on the ‘national capital’ of the great nation-building era after World War 2 when Australia needed engineering, learning, science – not to mention migration.

‘After World War 2 those who returned and those newly arrived saw that it was time for Australia to realise its dream of being the beacon of freedom and democracy far from the rest of the world. The old 19th century dream returned – of an Australia free of the rigid, class-bound and narrow world of the Northern Hemisphere.’

Thousands had fled the ruins of Europe determined to build a fairer and freer life on the other side of the world. As they struggled in the snow and mud to build the massive dams of the Snowy Scheme on mainland Australia and the Hydro Electricity Commission in Tasmania it must have seemed that they had come to the other side of the earth, to the very end of the known universe.

The camps were crammed with nationalities from every country, even those – like East Prussia – that no longer exist. The immigrants – the new Australians ­– had every skill known, some of them unusual. My engineer father was impressed when the German mechanics on the Tasmanian power schemes proved to be excellent at repairing the giant D9 dozers – then discovered they had cut their teeth on Tiger tanks and knew everything to be known about the clanking mechanisms of caterpillar tracks. Here at least they were not making repairs under fire.

Life after war and depression
These new arrivals joined those already here working across Australia in jobs of all kinds. They all replaced the insecurity and anxiety of the world they had left – the immigrants escaping a continent wrecked by war and the local escaping the Great Depression. This is why their working lives were so central to their world. If you had escaped the battlefields of Europe or the unemployment queues in Australia you wanted something better, where your rights and freedoms were protected, where you could earn a living being paid fairly and having security and protection of your conditions in exchange for the hard slog of building a nation.

‘Thousands had fled the ruins of Europe determined to build a fairer and freer life on the other side of the world. It must have seemed that they had come to the other side of the earth, to the very end of the known universe.’

Working life was not just something you endured to earn a living, subject to the whims and currents of employers and their businesses – it was a central part of your identity as an Australian in a country built by the hard work of many people in every occupation. It was something to be proud of.

It’s no wonder this was the great age of the modern union movement, when the historical role of unions in creating a fair and just Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries flowed through into the new post war world.

Making a home – unfinished business
The only deficiency is that, all of us having reached the refuge of Australia at different points over the last 217 years, are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to belong to this land – and how to accept those who were here long before us and others who have come after us to try to do the same.

We have reached a half-hearted accommodation with the original inhabitants, the First Australians who had twigged how to live here over thousands of years. Can we make the most of it too? In their attempt to cross the continent Burke and Wills died because short on food, they didn’t understand how to treat the grains from the native grasses in order to make them digestible. They ignored simple advice from the local people which could have saved their lives.

‘The only deficiency is that, all of us having reached the refuge of Australia at different points over the last 217 years, are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to belong to this land – and how to accept those who were here long before us and others who have come after us to try to do the same.’

What is striking is how much valuable traditional knowledge had been passed on, from as far back as the 19th century, to those interested in listening. Will we also be determined to ignore offers of expertise about how to live on this continent as we try to absorb knowledge which could save us? Or won’t we know how to do so successfully because we don’t know how to really learn new things, no matter how old they might be?

Neglecting our infrastructure – physical and social
In this century, just as we have ignored these bright moments of national hope, we have neglected the maintenance of our physical infrastructure and frittered away the legacy of community action and government response from the 19th and 20th centuries. The same has happened with our social infrastructure, with assets like the public service, and community assets, like women’s shelters and co-operatives and mutual societies, being run down, sold off or handed over to the best-positioned bidder.

The most recent example is the threatened removal of services to remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia – and potentially across the country. Those who originally established these essential services, often at great financial or personal expense, would call down plagues upon their sadly diminished successors.

‘We have neglected the maintenance of our physical infrastructure and frittered away the legacy of community action and government response from the 19th and 20th centuries. The same has happened with our social infrastructure, with public and community assets being run down, sold off or handed over to the best-positioned bidder.’

For all its conservatism and rigidity, the public service is another national asset, constructed over decades. Like all major institutions, private or public, it ranges between sad mediocrity and inspiring brilliance. It’s true that the public service can be short on ideas and slow on the uptake but it also ensures some sort of continuity and makes sure the country still functions, no matter how incompetent the government of the day, year or decade.

The defining moments in our history when Australia lurched sharply forward into optimism and goodwill are such a sharp contrast to recent years, when this vision of hope has been replaced by a pinched and inward looking approach. Yet this has happened precisely as Australia has reached the point where it can in practice confidently play the role it once supposedly was capable of. It is no longer a nation at the edge of the world. However by turning our backs on this we are abandoning our true potential.

New kind of audit
We need a new kind of Commission of Audit, a body to tally all our assets and deficiencies, our strengths and failings and plot a course forward. For some, our greatest assets are problems to be fixed not strengths to be celebrated and built upon. Our cultural diversity enables an intermingling of cultures, at the edges of which innovation blooms. The cultures and languages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities make us distinctive, something different from just another European outpost, with an Asian overlay, trying unsuccessfully to stand out from the crowd.

Thinking about our hopeful national pedigree I started to think ‘what would a contemporary Australia that could be called exciting look like? What do we already have, what do we need and what must we lose to achieve this desirable nation?’

‘For some, our greatest assets are problems to be fixed not strengths to be celebrated and built upon. Our cultural diversity enables an intermingling of cultures, at the edges of which innovation blooms.’

For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. A change in this would see us move from dark to light. Instead of seeing immigrants, including refugees, as a problem threatening our isolation we could see them as a source of talent with a desire to make something of their lives in a new country. This is the force that, in its time, made the United States great – before it too lost its way.

The national asset of cultural diversity
At the time the National Cultural Policy was being developed, figures which are now likely to understate the situation indicated that in Australia more than 43% of the population were either born overseas or had a parent who was. Cultural diversity, from the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, cultures and languages which underpin Australian culture, bolstered by the waves of migration, can be seen as an important national asset. It fosters new approaches and the innovation needed for the modern knowledge economy and the creative industries.

It also gives us an entrée into the countries and cultures from which migrants come. If we are indeed entering the Asian Century and a world where China will become increasingly important, we need every positive feature we have going for us to make the most of the opportunities presented.

‘At the time the National Cultural Policy was being developed, figures which are now likely to understate the situation indicated that in Australia more than 43% of the population were either born overseas or had a parent who was.’

In the tradition of building on our diverse histories we could do worse than follow the path of the ancient Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land who built a thriving trade and cultural interchange with the Macassans from the northern islands which much later became Indonesia – the Asian Century began much earlier than we realise.

The world has changed and we need to change with it – in fact as a nation we are always changing as the world around us changes. However we must not forget our rich history, both good and bad and in-between. Harnessing that we can move forward in a positive way. It’s time to get back to the great Australian dream before it turns to a nightmare.

Guide to optimism for a risky world
We need guides, many of them in every community, who can help us find our way, help us transition from greed and complacency to a calmer world of generosity and optimism. Perhaps we should re-establish the Good Neighbour Councils of the 1950s, the locally-based committees which welcomed newcomers and helped them settle in and feel at home.

'In the tradition of building on our diverse histories we could do worse than follow the path of the ancient Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land who built a thriving trade and cultural interchange with the Macassans from the northern islands which much later became Indonesia – the Asian Century began much earlier than we realise.'

This time though we could make them more inclusive of the neighbours they were welcoming. Perhaps to supplement our ever-declining overseas aid, we could trial a series of goodwill ambassadors, but instead of just spreading goodwill in other countries they would focus closer to home on spreading goodwill to other countries and their inhabitants in our own. Then perhaps our aid to countries overseas which are far poorer than our own would cease to be a convenient budget shortcut.

In a world becoming increasingly risky we could even encourage Australians to travel overseas in their own country by making a virtue of the great diversity of customs and cultures on our own shores as a benefit of decades of acceptance of overseas immigrants.

If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope.

See also

The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future
‘The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic policy or overview to guide Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build broad alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture’, The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future.

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support 
‘In the slowly unravelling universe of arts and culture support, organisations – whether they be small arts organisations or the largest of national cultural institutions – need to think seriously about their future. They need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This means developing strategies to survive the combination of drastic cuts and slow erosion already occurring and likely to continue into the foreseeable – and unpredictable – future’, Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding 
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

The Middle Kingdom
‘When famed medieval Italian traveller and explorer Marco Polo first encountered China, the Cathay of legend, he saw it as a treasure house of exotic customs and riches. In many ways this is still an element in our own exploration of China. However China is not simply the exotic world of our shaky imagination. China is well on the way to becoming the Middle Kingdom of its traditional name. Australia has a long history of interaction with China. Many of the rich goldfield cities, like Bendigo and Ballarat, were built by Chinese labour and based on Chinese business. More recently, the Chinese in Australia are one of the largest components of the cultural diversity which fuels innovation and commerce in our major cities. For all its faults and political twists and turns I will continue to be fascinated by the Middle Kingdom and watch its inevitable rise with deep interest’, The Middle Kingdom.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

In praise of the Berra
‘When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere’, In praise of the Berra.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

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