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Monday, 24 September 2012

Understanding Australia's past can be useful for our future

For a moment I thought Fairfax was getting its Crabb on. I refer of course to Annabel Crabb's Kitchen Cabinet, the show on the ABC where bubbly and eloquent journalist Crabb visits pollies and has a nice, long chat over a good, solid meal. With the politician cooking up the necessary, natch. In Today's Sydney Morning Herald there's an odd variation on the theme, with Bill Shorten, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, sitting in a period-style 50s kitchen having a good ol' chin-wag with a Fairfax journo amid strategically-placed tea cups and onions. There Shorten sits, squeezed in between the old-fashioned cast-iron stove and the formica-topped kitchen table, but unfortunately it's not the minister's kitchen we're seeing. The house is a place that most Australians will not know, because we Aussies do not indulge in any American-style patriotic refurbishment of our past leaders and, anyway, Robert Menzies was in power for so long that anything prior to his era is simply, for most people, lost in the mists of time. The house is, in fact, Chifley Home, which is now a museum, in Bathurst, and Shorten went there to give a speech conducted annually, Labor's annual ''light on the hill'' speech in honour of Ben Chifley, the prime minister from 1945 to 1949.

It's an innovative move by Shorten, but also a self-interested one. Since Labor's polling rate has lifted in the past couple of months we have been regaled with media stories about a possible leadership challenge by Kevin Rudd, who Prime Minister Gillard replaced in mid-2010. Varying on that theme, Shorten's video makes a claim on our attention with himself at the centre of the picture instead of Rudd.

The kitchen is heartbreakingly stylish, and to think, as I did, that it was Shorten's own, would be to contemplate a politician with a secret, and serious, obsession. Once you read the story that goes with the video, you know that it's merely a bit of a play for attention within the larger arena of Australia's public sphere. But Shorten's ambition is not totally misplaced. After all, he is clearly being groomed for some form of high office, and as Labor's stakes regain a positive slant it's not surprising to see prominent caucus members talking in the media about the vision thing. And it's this that is intended to occupy our attention, because it does indeed appear that Labor has managed over time to ride out the community's displeasure, and to find itself, now, in a more comfortable place. Credit for injecting fortitude of this nature into the party must, of course, lie with Gillard, for clearly Rudd tended the other way and was wont to react violently to what he perceived as popular opinion on specific issues. Gillard's modus operandi is somewhat different, and by toughing it out she has earned the respect that is the root cause of Labor's stronger popular backing federally.

To return to Chifley and what he might mean to people, I've been reading a biography of Chifley's predecessor, John Curtin. Like Chifley, Curtin was a Catholic. Both were Labor prime ministers. Both were reformers. The reason I got onto Curtin was because of his stance vis-a-vis the US in WWII, so my attention was drawn to him via the normal mechanism of an interest in Australia-US relations; a lot is spoken of the fact that Australia has fought alongside the US in all of its wars, and with China's rise the role of the US in the western Pacific must be a point of interest for most Australians. As I said earlier, Australians, unlike Americans, tend not to give much attention to their past leaders. You might think that this is a shame, but it's this lack of patriotism that lies at the heart of a refreshing lack of jingoism within the Australian's sense of self. So while we might neglect our national story we also do not make claims for our country in such a way that can lead to the making of unwise decisions on the global stage.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of interesting things to learn if you take the time to read about the ancient Labor leaders. There are lessons there that can inform current debates. Lessons to do with poverty, for example, that can help us to avoid the kind of income disparities that so seriously threaten social cohesion in the US. The kind of lives that men like Curtin and Chifley led prior to their entering politics radically informed the kinds of decisions they made once there. In the case of Curtin, for example, who became active politically in the first years after federation, we must be aware of his childhood disadvantage and of the promises of a better world he learned about through his involvement in the socialist movement. I think that Australia has avoided some of the less attractive aspects of the American Dream because of the way that socialism has traditionally been an integral part of politics in this country, whereas in the US it seems to have been associated with violence. By accommodating those elements of society within political discourse and giving them an active role in how Australia has fashioned itself, we have reached a healthier, if less entrepreneurial, state.

It may just be Labor pollies like Shorten who make the effort to read up on these past Labor leaders, but we all should try to do so. In his video, Shorten says that if we do not understand the past we cannot know where we are going in future. That may be true, to a certain degree. What is certainly true is that Australia does have a special identity, and therefore a special role to play in the world. There can therefore be no harm in being more aware of how that identity was created in this, the world's fourth-oldest democracy.

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