At the Australia Day lunch in Sydney last Friday, Germaine Greer delivered a brief and dignified address. She spoke on behalf of the four prominent women honoured as recipients of Australia Post’s Australian Legends awards – Greer, Eva Cox, Elizabeth Evatt and Anne Summers – and whose images appear on the 50 stamp.
Ever the thespian, Greer gave a polished performance. However, she felt compelled to make one broadly political comment when referring to “the guilt that hangs over this country”.
The reference was clearly to the events of 1788 and after – when those sent from Britain (then one of the most developed societies on Earth) began to interact with indigenous Australians (then among the most traditional of cultures).
The concept of guilt is a phenomenon felt by many members of the Australian intelligentsia. But there is unlikely to be much evidence of guilt when the increasingly popular Australia Day celebrations take place tomorrow. Guilt for the deeds, or rather misdeeds, of others is essentially a condition embraced by intellectuals.
The novelist Tom Keneally has taken a stance between guilt and celebration. On The Late Show on SBS TV last week, he saw reason for Australians to commemorate the existence of a highly successful contemporary society while not forgetting that errors were made in the past.
It’s just over five years since the Cronulla riots of late December 2005. The attacks by an intoxicated group of Australians of Anglo-Celtic background on Australians of Muslim Lebanese background were an unpleasant manifestation of tensions which exist within all democracies.
But, as the scholar James Jupp pointed out at the time, they were not the worst racially motivated incident since the Lambing Flat attack on the Chinese in 1860. He commented that “the Kalgoorlie riots of 1934, directed against southern Europeans, and the Battle of Brisbane during World War II, directed against US servicemen, were worse and lives were lost”. There were no fatalities during or following the Cronulla riots.
December 2005 was a time for high theory from guilt-obsessed intellectuals. From London, Greer predicted riots and counter-riots from the Gold Coast to Perth. This “looks like being a bloody summer in Australia”, she prophesied. It wasn’t. From La Trobe University, Professor Marilyn Lake saw the events as evidence of Australian support for “racial exclusion in the name of the nation”. In fact, nothing occurred at Cronulla in Australia’s name during 2005.
Soon after, journalist academic Peter Manning depicted the occasion as a “seminal event” in Australian history which demonstrated “the true face of Australian fascism”. Yet more hyperbole. The years after the Cronulla incident saw one of the largest, and most diverse, inflows of immigration in Australian history. This took place during the final period of John Howard’s Coalition government and the early years of Kevin Rudd’s Labor administration. What has been remarkable about Australia during the time of the global financial crisis has been the lack of ethnic tension.
Meanwhile, rates of inter-marriage between ethnic groups remain very high. In other words, the intelligentsia misread the times.
It was much the same with the dismissal by the governor-general Sir John Kerr of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, 35 years ago last year.
Monash University academic Max Teichmann put out a pamphlet in which he presented Australia in November 1975 as being in much the same pre-fascist condition as existed in Germany just before the Nazis came to power. Teichmann even predicted that the election of Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition would lead to a dictatorship, since it was most unlikely that he “would merely surrender office” after losing an election. Fraser surrendered office in March 1983.
There were a few who rejected Teichmann’s hyperbole at the time. Professors Hugo Wolfsohn and Rufus Davis, both of Jewish European background, wrote to The Age that “Australian democracy is not in crisis nor has it come to an end”. They queried the “alarming statements” of many fellow academics and described the constitutional crisis of 1975 as a “temporary technical difficulty in the working of our parliamentary system”. And so it turned out to be – Wolfsohn and Davis understood what real fascism was like.
It was much the same with the dismissal of the Lang Labor government in NSW in 1932 by governor Sir Philip Game. Despite the view of some historians, Australian democracy was not threatened at the time.
All too many members of the intelligentsia want to project their disillusionment – or sense of guilt – on to the society at large. But the success of Australia’s continuing democracy suggests that this is an empirical society in which there is little room for high theory and scant feelings of collective guilt.