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.
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.