Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Intellectuals

Hitchens less than dangerous idea

In case you missed it, here is the speech by Christopher Hitchens at the recent Sydney ‘Dangerous Idea’s Festival. He speaks for about 40 minutes, with an hour or so of questions from a (slightly disappointing) Tony Jones. Jones claims to play devil’s advocate, but ends up with a lame ‘but the faithful do good works’ line of questioning. If he wanted to really be contrarian in Hitchens style, he’d ask if the idea ‘religion poison’s everything’ is even a dangerous idea as the festival name implies. Hitchen’s extended ovation was guaranteed before he spoke a word. Though in other parts of the world he would still be shot or run out of town for it. Likewise the most interesting stuff in the interview is right at the end when discussing the difference between agnostics and atheists (where I think Hitchen’s claims far more wiggle room than he is entitled to). Either way, what he has to say is still well worth saying, and none do it better. Enjoy:

Affable Alfred

Today marks the 153rd birthday of Alfred Deakin. ‘Affable Alfred’ as he was known departed us 90 years ago, (though mentally was going quiet some years before that), but for any who value Australia, the Australian political system and way of life, he can not be forgotten.

Back in early 2000-2001 the taskforce set up to celebrate the centenary of Australian Federation, ran add’s asking ‘what sort of a nation would forget its first PM’, but whilst Barton is a notable figure, a more important question would be how could we have forgotten the man who established Australia as we know it today. Whilst he doesn’t always appear on lists of Australia’s founding fathers (Parkes, Barton and Wentworth usually dominate), no man can make a better claim for having laid the foundation of modern Australia than Alfred Deakin.

Deakin was a barrister, journalist and scholar before entering Parliament at age 23. He was instrumental in the development of advanced irrigation techniques in Australia, having traveled to India and the United States to learn their techniques both ancient and modern. Whilst having every opportunity of staying on to become Victorian Premier, in the 1890’s Deakin turned his attention to Federation and was one of the leading advocates. Whilst parochial Victorians contend he ought to have been our first PM, Barton was probably the better choice. A former cricket umpire, he brought an order and stability to the chamber for the first 2 years that was sorely desired in later times. Meanwhile, his first choice as colleague and deputy Alfred Deakin undertook the real work of the government, introducing most of its major pieces of legislation such as the White Australia Policy. In September 1903, Barton resigned as PM for a spot on the high court, and Deakin became PM. He was to be PM three times, covering the entire first decade of Parliament. He introduced protectionism for Australian industries, copyright law, quarantine protection, established the census and meterology bureau and as I mentioned recently was instrumental in kick starting Australian foreign policy and development of its own defence force.

The Prime Minister and Deputy in 1901. Deakin on Right

The Prime Minister and Deputy in 1901. Deakin on Right

It took Australia over 80 years to move beyond some of his key policies such as protectionism and White Australia, yet in political organisation his influence is still keenly at work. Today we see debates about whether the Liberals should move in a moderate or conservative direction, with Deakin brought up as the archetypal Small-L liberal character they should emulate. In 1904 he voluntarily resigned as PM (no election was called) and allowed the Labor government under Chris Watson to take office. This hugely significant and generous move both forced Labor to become more professional by giving them a taste of the demands of office, also brought them instant credibility paving the way for their wholehearted involvement within the political process of Australia. Had this move not taken place, the Labour movement may have decided peaceful political engagement was useless and turned to more radical means, by keeping them inside the process, within sight of government, Deakin (who was somewhat sympathetic) guaranteed their peaceful, pragmatic form.

Deakin however lead the Protectionist Party (the opposition were the Free Trade party, with labor the minority ‘3rd cricket team’ of the chamber in Deakin’s unbeatable phrase) who were slowly dwindling in strength. In 1908 however he decided that a merger had to happen, both for the stability of the Australian government, and the political pressures of the day. Deakin was closer in ideology to the Labor party, however rejecting their caucus driven system (and they in turn rejecting his liberalism) he turned to the free trade party to form the ‘Fusion’ Party. The first major non-labor party setting up the essential two party system in Australia as it remains today. The possibility that Deakin could have sided with Labor remains one of the great ‘what if’s’ of Australian history, tantalizing in its prospects for all those who’s sympathies lie in between the two parties, supporting neither the union wing of labor, nor the conservative wing of non-labor. If you have ever cursed or praised the two party system in Australia, or marveled at it’s century long stability as a democracy (a rare rare feat in this world) then it is Deakin to whom you owe recognition.

He visited London twice in a representative role, in 1900 helping persuade the British Imperial parliament to support the passage of the Australian Constitution Bill, and later as Prime Minister. He wow’ed English audiences both times with his rhetoric and oratory, being regarded, as one of the best ever heard by a generation of English aristocrats and politicians who had only recently witnessed the passing of the likes of Disraeli and Gladstone. Deakin however was much more than just a politician, an intellectuals mind with a spiritual bent, he was a great reader and scholar, and remained a keen commentator for much of his time in parliament. Indeed whilst PM (and completely unknown to his colleagues) he often filed anonymous commentary for the London Times, even giving his own actions a whack when he had made mistakes or failed to anticipate his colleagues intentions. His penmanship was only discovered long after he had retired from federal parliament. His other works such as his recollection of the story of federation, remain some of the key documents in Australian political history, and keen visitors can even still read his extensive diaries at the National Library of Australia in Canberra (though be warned, his writing is rather hard to read at first!).

This anecdote to me reveals another crucial and charming feature of Deakin’s life and mind. Despite all his achievements and successes, perhaps unrivaled in Australian political history, politics was always a distraction for Deakin. Had the pressures of the colony and his compatriots not invaded, he would have been much happier to have simply lived as a poet, scholar and writer, quiet and alone in his study. In 1908 whilst PM, whilst deciding the future of Australian politics he wrote:

‘Measuring happiness by quantityt its fullest source for me has come from books. A life of activity and of considerable public adventure and reward with all its delights and ambitions, has so far as I can judge yielded less than reading…more and more the height, depth and breadth of life I have led in and through letters expands as I recall it, until I wonder whether I have not lived more, and more intensely in and through books’

Whilst Howard and Rudd are both big readers, (and the latter clearly likes to put pen to paper) can you imagine either political animal making such a claim. Both men live lives entirely obsessed with politics, with anything else seemingly reduced to its ability to help or hinder their political interests. Deakin however, whose achievements dominate both of them combined however was always slightly torn between the demands of the public and his own wish for a private meditative life, as a writer and scholar if not mystic. The last PM to have even seemingly wished for a private non-political life, Paul Keating was pilloried for his love of classical music and French architecture; just imagine what today’s press would make of a man who claimed to see spirits and communicate with the other side, or who wrote poetry.

Deakin may not offer many great policy lessons to current politicians, but in the art of politics, and of the good life there is few finer figures to view and emulate. He was, always, true to his own views and values, willing to play the game, but also happy to walk away from it all should it have required a compromise too far. he voluntarily gave up or refused power on several occasions in both the victorian and national parliaments*, awaiting the right opportunity, keenly aware of the streaming passage of time, taking him away from his study, his home life, his books and his thoughts. Yet when brought into the public he rarely failed to charm, delight and impress, not just a statesman who held his country together in its rocky first decade, but by all including his enemies long recognised and respected as a kind and gentle man. That too is his legacy, and part of the great Australian tradition, which decries the intolerant, shallow attitudes which seem to proliferate in this mcmansion new Australia. It is for these reasons that today, August 3 2009, 153 years after Deakin was born, we ought to remember his legacy for each of us individually, and for this country at large.

* In 1879 when first elected, Deakin resigned on his very first day in the Parliament due to complaints of a shortage of ballot papers in some areas of his electorate. He told the parliament ‘If I am the representative of the majority of electors… I will be returned again. If I am not their representative I have no right here’. He was soon returned. This his very first office for a very ambitious young man. But power without honour was no power at all for him.

Rudd and the Australian Character

The commentariat at large (both the media and blogosphere) seem to be taking a faint air of unreality towards Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s stratospheric poll numbers.Nielson polls put him almost equal to Hawke’s record popularity, whilst Newspoll has Rudd at 67% in the beauty contest of preferred PM. Responding to this Andrew Norton wondered if this was just a Political Bubble:

I don’t think it is just my own political biases that prevent me from seeing what so many voters are seeing. He has none of Hawke’s charisma, none of Keating’s style and wit, none (OK, little) of Howard’s Australian everyman persona. He is our first nerd Prime Minister. I’ve got nothing against nerds. I am one. But I’m amazed that 74% of the Australian public approve of a man who must remind them of the annoying kid in grade 4 who answered all the teacher’s questions.

By some accounts, these numbers are amazing, Australia is in a recession, unemployment is up, and a number of big Rudd policies have stumbled (WorkChoices, National Broadband Network) or fallen over (Net Filter). So why is this nerd-in-chief well liked ? To answer that I want to use a quote from Alan Watt (one of our greatest, though now forgotten diplomats) who penned this sketch in 1967 that seems to age well:

‘The personality of the Australian could scarcely be confused with that of an Englishman by anyone who knew both well; nor was there any lack of pride amongst Australians in their own country and people – indeed, they could more justly be charged with aggressive self-confidence. But Australians, overwhelmingly British in origin, isolated in their island continent from significant contacts with non-british peoples, did not feel the urge to underline in the constitutional field the nationalism they were more than ready to assert on the field of sport. They were pragmatic by tradition, unaccustomed to and thus suspicious of theorising, preoccupied with taming a reluctant continent and with wringing from it the necessary basis for a high average standard of living for the average man, and hesitant to move speedily into new fields of independent thinking and acting.’
– Alan Watt 1967: page 30-31 ‘The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy 1938-1965. London: Cambridge University Press.

In this way, Australia is quite often ill-served by its commentariate and academy, precisely because the type of people who are inclined towards such issues and theory, are in this and this alone distinct from the community they seek to analyse and understand. The further they remove politics from its current context, the less able they are to clearly define what is happening. This is a burden that falls much more on the progressive movement, as the spirit for change is often easiest motivated in those who want to substantially move beyond mere improvement in the average standard of living. Take H. V ‘Doc’ Evatt. Foreign minister during WW2, a man who set up the entire Labor tradition in Foreign Policy, he was also first president of UN General Assembly, critical in drafting the UN charter and universal declaration of Human Rights, a man who did more than anyone to preserve free speech & the freedom of association in this country in his courageous efforts to stop Menzies ban of the Communist Party in 1951. And twice failed opposition leader and largely forgotten by history. Evatt was a middle class intellectual, it was his embrace of the theoretical that enabled him to see further than perhaps any man of his generation (certainly much further than his great, and much more politically successful opponent Robert Menzies), and yet he was largely unliked by the public and never trusted with the keys to the lodge.

In our Prime Minister, the public want someone who appears to be focusing on the here and now, and who is seeking to deal with the problems in a pragmatic and sensible way. I’ve already critiqued some of the dangers of operating on pragmatism alone, but as a political strategy it is one much closer to the Australian character. Take the man Rudd now nearly equals in popularity: Robert J. Hawke. Hawkey may be remembered today as bobhawkethe man who could scull a yard glass, or told boss’s they were ‘bums’ if they sacked anyone for turning up to work hungover after Australia won the America’s Cup. But, despite this iconic Australiana image, his political character and strategy was of a compromiser and negotiator who would bring people together to solve issues. That was his appeal, that was his claim. It was also the basis of his great successes (such as the Accord), and the means by which he could justify his more radical economic and social reforms (from economic liberalisation, to medicare to HECS). In terms of stereotypes: It was not as a bushman, but as a diplomat that Hawke won over the Australian public.

Rudd is following a similar approach and style to the confusion and anger of his critics. Take the National Broadband Network. Those on the right attacked it as re-nationalisation, those on the left as privatisation, whilst the general public just asked “will it work?”. Rudd may get credit as an intellectual PM, but his real success (like Howard before him, who was just as much a nerd) is that he’s made most people overlook it, and judge him on his policy and approach. Indeed, I think his critics have him backwards, seeing him as an intellectual pretending to be an everyman, when really he is a smart everyman, pretending to be a intellectual. His essay’s are well written (surprisingly moreso than his wooden, boring speeches and doorstop rhetoric), but there is a certain emptyness and lack of driving conviction and argument development that would identify a real first-rate mind at work. Rudd appropriates labels and terms “Christian socialist” “economic conservative” “social democrat” and figures, both Heroes like Andrew Fisher or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or villans such as Friedrich von Hayek, represents a certain undergraduate style of intellectual engagement. At once both passionate, certain and yet single-sided and temporary. Rudd changes and shapes his ideas and idols as they pass through his readings or as suits his political needs, rather than being long term significant life identifying features of his mental landscape.

Rudd’s popularity will slowly fall, the next election will have a few close moments for Labor supporters to bite their fingers during, but if Rudd can remember to stick to the pragmatic tradition of Australian policy making he will do just fine. All to the confusion and frustration of the ideologues and men of ideas who make up the the commentariate. From both the media, but especially the blogosphere and from opponents who warn darkly of his radical moves, to supporters who wish him to get on with actual progressive change.