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Time to celebrate, and few will be feeling guilty about it

Date

Gerard Henderson

Too many members of the intelligentsia in Australia want to project their disillusionment - or sense of guilt - on to the society at large.

Too many members of the intelligentsia in Australia want to project their disillusionment - or sense of guilt - on to the society at large.

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 that 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 that 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 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". 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 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.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.

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0 comment

  • I personally have never, & will never celebrate Australia day. It has nothing to do with 'guilt', simply put I'm not a 'Nationalist' - I see no value in the artificial borders that separate one person or Culture from another, as they were largely established many years ago by an elite for the maintenance of their wealth..
    Cheers
    Scott

    Commenter
    Scott W
    Date and time
    January 25, 2011, 6:26AM
    • Gerard, if you'd ever spent jsut a little bit of time in Cronulla, Redfern, Blacktown, etc you would have a very different opinion on a lot of things.
      Get off your high horse for just once in your life.

      Commenter
      ZeroZeroOne
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 25, 2011, 6:38AM
      • Of the many, many successes of John Howard's time as PM, one that is rarely highlighted as often as the more obvious example such as the GST and effective asylum seeker policy, is his leadership in trying to turn around the "black armband," view of our history.

        Perpetuated, as Gerard Henderson rightly highlights, through the self proclaimed "moral and intellectual intelligentsia," the view that as Australians we should all cloak ourselves in shame and guilt belies our true nature.

        Whilst it is important to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and through this ensure there is no repeat, the idea that today's generations should pay the price for these earlier injustices is quite simply wrong.

        In 1999, following the release of the 1998 Bringing Them Home Report, Howard passed a Parliamentary Motion of Reconciliation describing treatment of Aborigines as the..."most blemished chapter" in Australian history.

        Following that, in 2006, John Howard said in a speech..."Political Correctness" was dead in Australia but: "we should not underestimate the degree to which the soft-left still holds sway, even dominance, especially in Australia's universities."

        The fact that this "soft left," ideology permeates through our education system should be of concern to all Australians. With Labor in government, and the Greens pulling the strings, it is important that mainstream views aren't replaced by a small but vocal group that would see us ashamed of not only our history, but of our future.

        And finally, in 1996 John Howard had this to say..."I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed."

        Happy Australia Day!

        Commenter
        CJ
        Location
        NSW
        Date and time
        January 25, 2011, 6:45AM
        • This article seems a little confusing. My experience of human beings around the world tells me that most people, in or outside Australia, will live together peacefully provided they can meet their needs. Guilt? I couldn't give a toss about guilt. Or whinging about people who feel guilty. It's yet another convenient excuse to do nothing. I want action. Not more procrastination. Better get started. Republic. Flag. Anthem. Constitution. Restructuring 3 tiers of govt, 6 states and 2 territories. Or is sitting around nose-picking the preferable option?

          Commenter
          Make a start
          Location
          Bumup
          Date and time
          January 25, 2011, 6:58AM
          • I am still trying to work out why we even pay attention to overseas "guilt-obsessed intellectuals" such as Geer and Pilger who havent lived in the country for 30-40 years, still see Australia as it was when they left in the 70's and have no understanding of what Australia is like today. The left (and for that fact the right) prefer to see everything as a conspiracy, particularly when it goes against their viewpoint.

            Commenter
            Germaine Who
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            January 25, 2011, 6:59AM
            • Your recollection of the Cronulla riots is somewhat different from the truth.
              Enough locals got jack of a group that had tried to impose a foreign culture and violence upon their beach and decided to fight back.
              Had they not Cronulla may well now share with Bankstown the title of the state's highest crime rate.

              Commenter
              M.
              Date and time
              January 25, 2011, 7:04AM
              • It's rather bizarre to feel guilty for something done by people who are of the same race as you but otherwise have no connection to you. In fact, it's oddly racist itself.

                I don't even feel guilty about things which my parents or grandparents did (not that they did anything particularly heinous to my knowledge), let alone feeling guilty about things done by people who are completely unrelated to me!

                Having said that, I am eternally grateful that I was born to this privileged country at this privileged time when so much is available to so many - both in terms of physical comforts (eg, air conditioning) and in terms of social amenity (eg, women can participate in public discourse).

                How lucky are we?

                Commenter
                Sarah
                Date and time
                January 25, 2011, 7:07AM
                • @Scott W - January 25, 2011, 7:26AM

                  Yep. Good post. I should've stated my own abhorrence of cheap, drum-banging nationalism.

                  Commenter
                  Make a start
                  Location
                  Bumup
                  Date and time
                  January 25, 2011, 7:15AM
                  • The problem with the idea that guilt as unwarranted 'sins of the fathers' is that it turns a blind eye to what's happening today.

                    I don't look at the condition of indigenous Australians with the white guilt of the (dreaded) 'intellectual' - I just think that 6 yr olds being gang raped and getting STIs is an objective problem, and something that no Australian should be comfortable with (regardless of the skin colours involved).

                    Are you really arguing that what is happening in my country today is something I shouldn't be concerned about?

                    Commenter
                    Stuart
                    Location
                    Sydney
                    Date and time
                    January 25, 2011, 7:21AM
                    • I was once patriotic. Now I see myself as a global citizen. Countries are just political borders.

                      Commenter
                      Stewills
                      Location
                      Canberra
                      Date and time
                      January 25, 2011, 7:22AM
                      Comments are now closed
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