Saturday, 8 November 2014

Memories of Political Things Past

This past week I’ve been besieged by the past – that other country, two of them in my case.  And two events were responsible for this assault – the memorial at Sydney’s Town Hall for Gough Whitlam, Australia’s 21st Prime Minister and certainly the best I’ve known in the 56 years since I came here; and the midterm US elections that have given those antediluvian Republicans control over both Houses of Congress again.

Let’s begin with America, because that’s where I was born and cut my political teeth, so to speak.  It was way back in the 40s that I began to understand that democracy was an ideal that when put into practice could be appreciably tarnished.  The last well-publicised lynching was in 1946, when I was eight years old.  Apart from the ongoing violence, the South was ruled by Jim Crow laws discriminating against African-Americans (Northern liberals called them Negroes or coloured people, certainly never blacks; the African-American designation wasn’t even coined then).  Discrimination, more subtle in the rest of the States, was nonetheless well entrenched.  And North or South, East or West, it wasn’t restricted to African-Americans, though the treatment they got was undoubtedly worse.

The South began as Democrat, because Lincoln was a Republican, and in the country of my youth the racist Southern Democrat bloc was an impediment to anything remotely progressive.  The task of Democrat presidents, from Roosevelt to Kennedy, was to deal somehow with this conservative behemoth lodged like a tapeworm in the belly of their party.  Yet everyone understood that the Republicans were the party of big business, Wall Street, and the banks.  

After Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II, the politics of another war – the Cold one - began to bite deeply.  At some stage my mother had joined the communists and though she soon left the party, a decade or so on she would be punished by the blacklist.  The repercussions whipped through our family and, on reflection, this was clearly one of the reasons why I was willing to go as far away as Australia when I did.  Although Democrats were culpable (the loyalty oaths began under Truman), Republicans made the Cold War their own.  We had J. Parnell Thomas and Tricky Dick Nixon on the House Un-American Activities Committee, and  Joseph McCarthy, a Senator, created untold mischief until he started in on the Army, which is when another Republican, President Eisenhower, a World War II hero, put a stop to him.

In those Cold War days anything that smacked of socialism was anathema, but once in Australia I was amazed to find a somewhat more relaxed attitude to it, though I sensed that Australia was a more materialistic society, less driven by ideological considerations than America was.  Yes, America.  The almighty dollar ruled then as now, but this was masked to a degree by the deeply Calvinistic Protestantism brought to its shores by the dissenting Pilgrim Fathers.  Australia seemed to me then, well, more bread-and-butter in its approach to politics.  Of course, I was young and knew next to nothing about the place I had come to.  I’d heard of the White Australia policy and something of its convict past, but understood little about the depth of the Protestant-Catholic cleavage, though antisemitism here didn’t seem as strong.  I believed what most Americans believed, that Australia was ‘the new frontier’, or, in another way of looking at it, ‘the workers’ paradise’.

But classless it was not.  Snobbishness, I discovered, was rife.  And with censorship and restrictions on drinking and shopping hours it didn’t seem all that free.  And though we hadn’t the word for it then, the naked sexism was abhorrent.  And in the lily-white northern Sydney I lived in - Cammerigal country - Aborigines were all but invisible, if the racist feelings against them were in full evidence.  Menzies was revered by my publican inlaws, if thought an irrelevant fool by most of my generation.  I found, too, that Yanks were either loved or hated, a consequence of their recent bivouacking here during the Pacific war.  My uncle was one of them, billeted in Brisbane, an 18-year-old kid at the time.

Fast forward to the 70s.  I was in Canberra then and it made all the difference.  If the public service was ludicrously hierarchical, Canberra itself was a forward-looking, civic-conscious town.  I learned more about Australia in the first two years I lived there than I had in all ten of my Sydney years.  For one thing, for the first time I had studied Australian history, in Manning Clark’s department at the ANU.  What a privilege that was.  But more important still was my connecting with a group of remarkable sisters in what we then called Women’s Liberation.  We were riding on a powerful crest of reform that carried the ALP into government, led by Gough Whitlam after 23 seemingly hopeless years.  Just before the election I took out Australian citizenship in order to join the public service, and lost my American one because of it.  But the compensation!  To have been in Canberra at that time.  To have served my short stint in Camelot.  I was changed forever.

Now that Gough Whitlam is gone from us and we’ve been reminded of all that he achieved for this country in the three years he was allowed to govern, I’m reminded as well of littler things.  Like when I was on duty in the pm's department the morning Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin, and I was the one to ring him and tell him, addressing him with a tremulous ‘G’day, Prime Minister’ - evidence of my total transformation from Yank to Aussie, if taking him somewhat aback.   And there I was, standing in the outraged crowd the day he emerged from Parliament House after his sacking.  Sacked?  By a governor-general?  The Yank left in me found this quite incredible.  But the forces of opposition lined up against him were formidable, and even after a second, double dissolution election, they cut his prime ministership short, just at the time in the electoral cycle when any government’s standing is at its nadir, so he was certain to lose the coming, coerced election.  As the years went by he dwindled in the public imagination, and Labor in government was cautious ever after but never achieved so much, and it’s taken forty years, and only his death, for him to loom as large he did in those rapturous, tumultuous three years.  As Noel Pearson said in his powerful speech at the memorial, that was the time when ‘reform trumped management’, and Australia was never the same complacent, provincial, racist and sexist backwater though, sadly, traces of that remain.

It was hard to come back to earth after Pearson’s oratory, doubtless a match to Whitlam’s own, and all the other moving speeches that day.  But then something happened that brought the moment even further home.  A son of mine, eleven years old when Gough Whitlam was dismissed, happened to be in Canberra the day after his memorial.  He was walking with a colleague around the parliamentary triangle when they ran into some men who were carrying the portrait of Gough that had been displayed outside Sydney Town Hall.  My son and his colleague asked if they could photograph it on the steps of the Old Parliament House near where the crowd yelled ourselves hoarse and where Whitlam stood when he came out to speak to us.  The portrait was duly placed and photographed with their smart phones.  It was only when that was done that they noticed the inscription on the back.  Signed by Graham Freudenberg, Whitlam’s speechwriter and biographer who also spoke at his memorial, the inscription was addressed to Andrew.  I've yet to ascertain who this Andrew is and would like to give him due credit for his fine painting.  To Freudenberg, it was, simply, a portrait of ‘the greatest man I have ever known’,

There are those who disagree, but they were always the naysayers, and so they will always be.  Small-minded, jingoist or populist, and now, after decades of  neoliberalism, soiled by lamentable greed.   But working for the betterment of a nation’s people – that has never been without its foes.  Just look across the Pacific to where America is now.  


  1. Lovely thoughtful post as always Sara. I like, though that's not quit the word, your comment that "I sensed that Australia was a more materialistic society, less driven by ideological considerations than America was". I find it intriguing to think about the similarities and differences between our two countries. I think you are right about the lucky country being more materialistic, and yet the USA seems more money-driven. That doesn't seem logical but I think it's so. What do you think?

    As for Gough, I was saying the other day that he had such a big vision - a vision for what he wanted Australia to be. Not only has no-one since has ever quite matched it, the visions they have had have just been getting progressively worse and smaller. Can you imagine Gough saying "I want to be known as an infrastructure prime minister"?

  2. Terrific post, Sara. It's hard to believe Whitlam only governed for three years. Like so many others, I've been remembering the day of the Dismissal. I was in Melbourne. A crowd spontaneously gathered in the city centre, huge and practically silent. We were literally stunned. And so law-abiding with it. We went home like good citizens, shaking our heads in disbelief. It has often struck me that the Conservatives, who put such store by tradition, are perfectly happy to overturn it when it suits them, at the same time expecting ordinary citizens to do the decent thing.

  3. I think this will work now. Thanks to both of you. Made a mistake on the blog that I have to correct. The painting wasn't being returned to the Old Parliament House, the painter was just a member of the public, but Graham Freudenberg inscribed it. Still can't find out who the painter is, sad because it's a good painting and he (Andrew someone) should be given credit.

    1. Woo hoo ... your comment worked and I got notified. We're on a roll. Now you just need to repeat whatever it was you were going to say about Gough and FDR! Seriously, if the moment has passed that's fine but I would be interested if you do feel like saying it again.

      Further to the Gough vision thing, I thought of it again when reading your comment in your review of Gillard's book that she was the manager while Rudd was the inspirer. She had her heart in the right place (hmmm ... about some things anyhow) but couldn't get it across.

  4. I think the trouble is with the Mac Air, because I've been using it a lot lately. On the desk iMac it seems to be okay. And I'm not sure what my amazing insights were re Gough and FDR, other than they were both hated by the establishment, were both considered class traitors, and both worked for the people. FDR managed to stay in office for eleven years, Gough only three. The amazing thing about FDR is that he did all his presidencing from a wheelchair, in which he was rarely photographed. Like the day of the Dismissal, I remember vividly the day that FDR died. I was six years old and I was staying with a friend for Easter it must have been on her mother's farm in Connecticut and the news came through and our mothers fell into each other's arms and sobbed. The great leaders of our time weren't perfect, they made mistakes, they had to be cunning at times, but their eyes looked to the distance and their hearts were with the people. I feel privileged to have lived at a time when I could have known them both. Not in the case of FDR personally, but my uncle did work for him as his commissioner for housing.

  5. The Mac Air doesn't make a lot of sense to me because that and the iMac run essentially the same operating systems. Are you using the same browser on both ie Safari or Firefox or something else? And are their operating systems both updated to the same level? These shouldn't make a difference but they might.

    Re FDR, maybe he was just a little more cunning than Gough? Labor had been out of power so long, perhaps they just weren't practised enough at easing the population in. Or maybe, it was the times ... FDR steered the USA through some very demanding times didn't he. But maybe it's just different people, different countries, different situations!

    Have you read Hazel Rowley's biography of Franklin and Eleanor?

  6. Mac Air is newer and is on a different OS. I use Firefox on both but the one on the Air is newer. The IMac is old now and I have to do something re the upgrade - not easy as I need to get hold of a higher one than I've got in order to download something more recent. Maybe it's time to get a new machine. But I also think the Air has been corrupted.

    I haven't read the Rowley biography yet but should. There's so much to catch up on! By the way, I have found a copy of Schemetime, reasonably priced, on Abebooks. More expensive than it was, but doable.