Annual John Curtin Australia Day-eve Lecture, 25th January 2022

Tuesday 25th January, 2022

Annual Australia Day-eve John Curtin Lecture

John Curtin Research Centre

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Who are we, Australia?

Craig Foster AM

It is time to talk about a new Australia. Most timely, just hours from Australia Day 2022.

To explore the fractures that have been exposed during the Covid-stricken years and the broader picture as to Australia’s future, our national psyche, the underpinning principles we rely on as our bulwarks against division, hatred and a diminution of the rule of law and what we might look like as a country, fifty years from now.

Not only the next election cycle, which is as far as those with current political responsibility seem willing, or able to see.

We have much to discuss and may struggle to recall a time when so many issues weighed heavily on our conscience and equally our international credibility, which is absolutely shot to pieces, shattered like so many shards across the floor of humanity.

Australia has become the hermitic recalcitrant with our mendacious political merry-go-round on climate, our now parody-like obsession with borders and ‘border security’, our willingness to shut out and criminalise even our own citizens to save ourselves during a pandemic which is abysmal on any measure.

And yet, here we are and accordingly we must ask, who are we, Australia?

It is not necessary to remind ourselves of the wonderful aspects of this island paradise, though it is always helpful when prosecuting our shortcomings to capture the macro context before diving into the morass of contemporary reality.

Australia is an incredible place.

We must not take for granted the aroma of bush and palette of beautiful red earth, the whitest beaches and wildest surf, the harbours and countless waterways, nor our historical character traits of egalitarianism and anti-authority irreverence. These are vital aspects that act to keep people honest, at least strive for an elusive equality and to create a place where everyone has a chance.

But we have a long, long climb to live up to these important ideals.

I have lived on multiple continents and there is nowhere I would rather be. That’s why we must push back, speak out, explore and explain who we have become, simply because it is through love that we are obligated to commit to improvement for now, and for the future.

This being said, let’s get into it.

Ahead of tomorrow, there are four, core issues to reconcile.

The date of the National celebration, the Constitutional model, Indigenous reconciliation and the broader concept of who we are and what we represent.

Firstly, non-Indigenous Australians like myself need to shoulder far more of the argumentative and advocatory burden to find a day for a national celebration that speaks to us all. Celebrating an occasion that deeply hurts our friends or family is not something we would do, so why persist with Australia Day on 26th January?

What does that say about our genuine commitment to equality and anti-racism? Not much, if you’re wondering.

Our First Nations have carried a heavy burden on this day for many decades, rightly referring to it as ‘Invasion Day’ and pushing back against prevailing wisdom and cultural stasis at their own punishing and tiresome intergenerational cost. The annual polemic is stale, we’ve moved beyond it thanks primarily to their strength, and most of us no longer want to expend energy arguing over something so obvious and simple.

A day that is hurtful to our First Nations is not a celebration. It’s a manifestation of lingering division and refusal to account for past wrongs.

Let’s move it.

Then we can talk about the anthem, the flag, symbols that are just that, artefacts that are supposed to capture who we are which means they must be malleable and capable of adaptation over time as we come to terms with hidden truths.

Secondly, for goodness’ sake, when are we going to stand on our own, two feet?

In 2022, it’s ridiculous that we hang on to the coattails of the British monarchy and have failed to sever the umbilical cord. No one need ridicule the monarchy in order to see simple sense in our own independence and self-rule, merely acknowledge the concept that after 65,000 years of ancient cultural life and 121 years since Federation, we can’t bring ourselves to grow up, and move on.

Even my English friends are embarrassed for us.

We are 26 million adolescents still living at home, not willing to get our first unit with our mates and take on the responsibility, to pay our own bond.

For all our strength, achievements and courage, this is an anachronism that can’t be shed soon enough.

An Australian Head of State, elected by us all to represent us with deep commitment, a longer vision than just the next political cycle and expected to speak and act entirely to that end.

One of us. By us. For us. Wonderful.

An Australian Republic means that we govern ourselves, that our Head of State is no longer hereditary which runs counter to everything our culture that developed after 1788 is about. Let me illuminate with an anecdote.

I remember welcoming young Bahraini refugee, Hakeem al-Araibi back to Australia in early 2020 and visiting Foreign Minister, Marise Payne at Parliament House as we ate breakfast in her office before official duties. Having finished some ‘vege’ toast, Hakeem started to clean the crumbs from the table when Marise stepped over and nonchalantly swept them up with her hands and dropped them into the bin.

Hakeem looked at me in a state of incredulity, he simply couldn’t comprehend that a politician, a Minister no less would clean up after a commoner, a citizen. ‘Never in Bahrain’, he said. Government officials are mostly Royal family members and untouchable, others do the mundane things, they are considered superior and the people inferior. There is a separation that public life seeks to maintain, not to break down.

‘Not here’, I told him. In Australia, we don’t care who you are, and certainly not what your title is, we consider everyone our equals. And we relate to each other in this way. Minimum pomp and ceremony, maximum realness, authenticity and speaking and acting directly as a display of equivalence.

I hold this to be an irrefutable, Australian truth.

One with which the present Australian Prime Minister is very well appraised after the ‘firie’[1] from Nelligen on the South Coast of New South Wales, Paul Parker famously gave him a classically Australian verbal directive and fairly succinct social commentary on his performance as Prime Minister throughout the crisis to ‘go and get f#@#*d’ during the bushfires in early 2020.[2]

If you’ve never used the term in relation to a politician then you have a wider vocabulary than I. Or, alternatively, you might not be keeping up with current events.

The very act of telling a ‘pollie’[3] unambiguously what we really think of their performance without repercussion sets a robust democracy apart from other political ideologies and is to be treasured.

Otherwise known as the famous Australian ‘bullshit detector’, it is central to the Australian psyche and as a country boy at heart, I say, long may it endure.

And yet, we are still part of the British Monarchy, a concept of hereditary entitlement that is complete, cultural anathema. Post-colonial Australia was built on an admittedly deeply imperfect, nevertheless important concept of merit, not entitlement or class, a connecting line that runs horizontally between each of us irrespective of where we’re from, our culture, colour, religion, language, profession, circumstances, title, sexuality, gender, income or financial means.

This line must never run vertically, so that one is above the other.

That’s not the Australia that I am committed to.

It is time to make our own way and as the new Australian Republic Movement campaign says, ‘we can take it from here.’[4]

Thirdly, reconciliation is a fundamental part of our shared healing and thereafter advancement.

Attempts by present day politicians and parties to hide the truth whether in our workplaces or schools about colonisation and the racism that persists today, about frontier violence and massacres, about the ongoing trauma of child displacement from Indigenous families and world leading incarceration rate, our national shame, will fail.

Too many of us want to know.

We want to be truthful about our history. We’re not scared of the truth. Our world will not fall apart though some power systems of privilege certainly will. Rather, we’ll be stronger together for having faced our history as a collective.

And we want to move beyond ‘Welcome to Country’ and smoking ceremonies, which have been an important bridge to enable connection and deepen intercultural conversations, to official recognition of history, the Uluru Statement[5] and treaty.

To move from ‘sorry’ to substance.[6]

For this, too, it is time and now we are envisioning a country reconciled with its Indigenous people, at ease with its true past, in control of its own destiny, self-governed in its entirety and confident in its future.

Finally, and given time constraints, let us consider some of the aspects of contemporary Australian life that go to the heart of ‘who we are.’ These can only be gleaned by the way we act. Not what we think about ourselves, but what we would think about others who act as we do.

Perhaps the most important measurement of any Nation State is the way it treats its vulnerable, and the vulnerable.

Like us as individuals, how we collectively treat those with authority or who can benefit us in some way is not the measure, but whether we stop on the street to help, step over those in need and conduct ourselves as a positive multiplier or otherwise.

We are not isolated, individual vessels as some would have you believe, and our net assets do not equate to our intrinsic worth but rather are a communal species that survives and thrives as a collective and where each has access to social infrastructure paid for by all.

No one’s life or achievements are independent of everyone else, and similarly, neither is Australia an isolated island without dependence on the rest of the world.

Throughout our history, cynical politicians can too easily trigger the mass mind through Nationalistic and isolationist comments and policy, witness how we locked out our own people during Covid rather than invest in infrastructure for their return and this is a deeply dangerous cycle under which many people have been and are being harmed.

Refugees, foremost.

Since Howard lied to the Australian people about children and boats and was returned to office through a triggering of mass xenophobia and fear,[7] the ‘border politics’ playbook is now worn out, dog-eared and desperately in need of a new edition.

In recent weeks, Novak Djokovic brought 33 refugees and asylum seekers who have been incarcerated for almost nine years to the attention of more Australians and most certainly the world.

They are, by definition, the most vulnerable people in the world, many are my friends, and are still stuck in the interminable cycle that Australia will never live down. One of torture, demonisation, deflection and lies.

Propaganda is defined as ‘information, ideas, or rumours deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.’[8]

Refugees in Australia have been subject to a sustained political campaign of propaganda and humans have been destroyed, died, rendered living husks because of it. Even while current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison ekes out the remaining political currency from their carcasses, we know that history will damn us, and future generations will shake their heads in dismay.

‘You did what to innocent refugees? How did that happen?’ Good question. Where do we start.

Their suffering will eventually end but, my question to you is, what does this say about us as a people?

Who are we, who are so willing to torture innocent humans, some of whom literally burned themselves alive, children who became catatonic, mothers who lost children at birth, families obliterated?

One beautiful Iranian family that I met in Darwin, refugees all which simply means they passed through the onerous process to document their persecution had been incarcerated for eight years despite their own septuagenarian parents being Australian citizens, taxpayers.

‘We are paying taxes to torture our own daughter and son in law’ the mother told me, as she explained her mental health deterioration and pharmaceutical addiction such is the torture for those whose children we have broken.

Perhaps in the spirit of a better vision of Australia, we might propose a simple test that would stop so much harm at the source, that we only treat other Australians, or other humans, as far as possible in a way we would accept for ourselves?

And pose the related, following questions.

How would we react if our own children were tortured for nine years?[9] Then why do it to Iranian, Sudanese, Syrian, Pakistani or Kurdish children? Their mode of travel should not supersede their humanity, or ours.

How have we learnt to compartmentalise our humanity, of which Australians are rich, and apportion it out only to those seen as worthy, freely leaving others to die?

How would we respond if Ash Barty was detained and her basic rights denied in Serbia?[10]

If we were denied re-entry to our own country during a pandemic?[11]

If our child was a student left destitute elsewhere?[12]

Would we want our friends or family to live below the poverty line on social lack-of-welfare?[13] Why make others do so, what is in our psyche that we can explain that away?

Why not accept the simple reality that gender equality is fundamental to any sense of egalitarianism and the need to set about putting it right?

Why can our politicians cynically appeal to our Nationalistic tendency to demonstrate to the rest of the world that we are not concerned about the effects of climate change, only selfishly about ourselves and act like absolute boofheads trudging clumsily on the international landscape at COP26, the most cringeworthy manifestation of the nature of what it means to be ‘Aussie’ in my lifetime?[14]

And how do you think we would respond if our island Continent was threatened by rising seas, and friends in our region completely disregarded our concerns, carried on regardless, laughed in our face and in fact spoke and acted against the interests of our future generations?

How would you respond if your child was incarcerated at age ten, contrary to international legal norms and psychological evidence of the age of responsibility, leading to a lifelong struggle with the law?[15]

How would we respond if our children were stolen from their parents, part of the most incarcerated people in the world?[16]

The answer is, we would be in pain. So too, are they.

All these questions go to the nature of our culture and collective psyche.

Our actions represent who we are, not our rhetoric, nothing is more Australian than that core truth.

And our actions in respect to climate, our global citizenry, people coming to our boundless plains that we purported to share[17] and our own Indigenous Nations are crass, capricious and cruel, frequently embarrassing and vastly unrepresentative of the vision of Australia that so many of us carry in our heart.

Yes, Australia is amazing but we must commit to the renewal of what we now represent and, holding firm to basic principles of humanity, strive for a brighter vision of who we are.

We can be a brilliant, independent, reconciled country of courageous people who treat others well, look after the vulnerable, stand with the persecuted around the world, commit to human rights, climate action and all forms of equality and play an important role in the progress of humanity as a leading global citizen.

Why not?

We are leaders and courageous global contributors by nature, not cruel isolationists.

Let’s start the climb.

Beginning tomorrow, 26th January, 2022.

Craig Foster AM

[1] Australian colloquialism for fire fighter.

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/news/as-told-to/the-firefighter-whose-denunciation-of-australias-prime-minister-made-him-a-folk-hero.

[3] Australian colloquialism for politician.

[4] https://republic.org.au/.

[5] https://fromtheheart.com.au/.

[6] https://www.aph.gov.au/Visit_Parliament/Art/Exhibitions/Custom_Media/Apology_to_Australias_Indigenous_Peoples.

[7] https://www.theage.com.au/national/children-overboard-the-most-despicable-of-lies-hawke-20040825-gdyiky.html.

[8] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/propaganda.

[9] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-01-09/park-hotel-detainee-speak-out/100745456.

[10] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-60004874#:~:text=Novak%20Djokovic%20has%20been%20detained,a%20threat%20to%20public%20health..

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/may/06/rejected-and-betrayed-australians-stranded-in-india-speak-of-heartbreak.

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/apr/17/we-feel-abandoned-international-students-in-australia-facing-coronavirus-alone.

[13] https://theconversation.com/there-are-lots-of-poverty-lines-and-jobseeker-isnt-above-any-of-them-158068.

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/nov/03/australia-puts-fossil-fuel-company-front-and-centre-at-cop26.

[15] https://www.theage.com.au/politics/victoria/detention-damages-these-children-new-push-to-raise-age-of-criminality-above-10-20210518-p57svf.html.

[16] https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-020-08794-3.

[17] 2nd stanza, Australian National Anthem, lines 5 and 6: ‘For those who’ve come across the seas, We’ve boundless plains to share’: https://www.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/files/national-anthem-2021-words-sheet.pdf.