It wouldn't be late January if Australians were not being drawn into pointless, damaging and embarrassing "national conversations" about Australia Day, its placement on the anniversary of British settlement and the beginning of Aboriginal displacement, and what, if anything, it means to be Australian.
I used to think the anniversary the more embarrassing because it seemed that the argument each year began as a sort of unforced error, usually with some divisive statement by a politician pretending to be seeking national unity while actually seeking to divide or to provoke. Increasingly, however, I have come to see the interventions as deliberate, as dog whistles to particular classes of Australians, and as having a distinct resemblance to, and relationship with similar messages that were tweeted over the past four years by Donald Trump. And for much the same purpose.
People often talked of the tweets of Donald Trump as a somewhat quaint stream of consciousness emanating from a sleepless Trump at four o'clock in the morning. All too often they were offensive to particular groups of non-Trump voters, they attacked political enemies of the Donald in highly personal and somewhat threatening tones, or foreshadowed some drastic and possibly unconstitutional action, for example against Muslim or Mexican immigrants.
By mid-morning, the White House would be in full row-back, adding in lots of conditional clauses, redefinitions, disavowals, and explanations of the president's exasperation. The official record would suggest something altogether more mild than the early morning provocation.
We now know that many of these statements had been focused-grouped and carefully targeted. Rather than being the random, and sometimes ungrammatical, ramblings of an insomniac, they were part of an intense social media message being focused by a highly professional full-time campaign and communications team at core Trump constituencies.
They served an array of purposes. They were, first, very effective in setting the agenda, even, or particularly, among the "fake" mainstream media, many of whose journalists would palpitate all day about the president's rudeness, unconstitutional instincts, lies and prevarications. That they were hostile or critical didn't necessarily matter, as long as everyone was talking about it. It was always a part of the Trump talent that he was so outrageous that most of his advertising was free because it was news. In any event, the polarisation of America was such that criticism by the mainstream "liberal" media could be denounced as fake news and propaganda.
Second, the messages were interpreted by many Trump followers as evidence of what he would really like to do, were he not constrained by nervous nellies in his team, the opposition of congress, or governors, or foreign presidents, or sometimes inconvenient facts that even he could not deny. The electorate understood that Trump could often not do what he wanted, but were encouraged to think that he would do it if he could, and that his heart was in that direction. Many people gave him credit for saying what he thought, or saw his apparently undisciplined statements as a sign of a person who had not gone native in the Washington swamp. The smooth and sophisticated politicians who were forever "on message" had proven themselves unreliable, corrupt, and in it more for the lobbyists than for the people. That Trump was erratic made him seem more authentic as a non-politician, and, at least until January 6, more legitimate among those who had enthusiastically taken the Trump Kool-Aid.
Scott Morrison is not the first Australian politician to have played the system in the manner of the annual Australia Day distractions. John Howard was a dedicated player of the cultural wars. As such, he was not only conscientious about where he would draw the lines, and generally firm about matters of core belief, but adept at finding distractions that would drive his opponents mad, or have them entirely preoccupied with some minor Howard outrage just as Howard was taking the opportunity to perpetuate far greater enormities. As a politician who saw almost every event in terms of its political potential, positive or negative, he was as focused on positioning the opposition at some disadvantage as he was in preparing his own ambushes and his own positions.
Tony Abbott was a total culture warrior, but without the ear, the eye or the nose for popular opinion that Howard had. Abbott delighted in outraging or surprising the opposition and distracting them from his real purpose or priorities, but his pyromaniacal tendencies sometimes meant that he burnt his own house down. In theory, he was under the eagle eye of Peta Credlin, as tough disciplinarian, but sometimes his mischievousness was such that he would consciously exclude her from his clever plots, believing, as he once said, that it was sometimes better to ask for forgiveness than permission. A good example of a grenade bursting in his own hand was his decision to reinstate knighthoods and to give one to Prince Phillip. He did not do either to please any particular Liberal or National constituencies. He did it primarily to enrage Labor, and perhaps to twit republicans in the government's own ranks. He imagined that his decision would set off the "chattering classes" to the point that they could talk of nothing else. That would have been a welcome relief from a Christmas holiday that had begun with talk of a ramshackle ship of state in need of a good barnacle scrape. That might stop the talk about erratic decision-making, his leaking against ministers, and his secretive and crafty style of administration.
But critics inside his own party saw knights as a perfect example of just what was wrong with Abbott as prime minister. He acted without consultation. He didn't consult or think things through. He had a tin ear for public opinion and even for the opinion of his own party.
Scott Morrison is somewhat more conservative, and more regular, in the messages he starts planting about Australia Day. His eye for a slogan might be good, but his ear and feel for public opinion is just as cack as Abbott's. He has made it clear from the start that Australia Day - indeed far more than Anzac Day - is right at the centre of his idea of what it is to be a patriotic Australia, proud of its culture, its history and its progress. Though the anniversary date was only adopted as a public holiday in all states and territories in the 1990s, it has for him become deeply vested in tradition and culture in a way that should never be disturbed, least of all by people undermining his sense of a basic unity of society, white or black, of ancient, old or modern arrival, or creed, outlook or prejudice.
If the Australia Day date as a national day is of recent invention, even more recent is the notion that its celebration should involve an orgy of ceremonies, festivals, flag-waving, anthems (with, for some jingoists having a feel for the bogus and the unctuous, confected emotions with hands on hearts). And grand pronouncements by politicians claiming, in effect, to own not only the day but what its meaning should be to the ordinary Australian. Often with nudges about who was Australian and who was un-Australian. Our current authorities on such matters come from the son of a policeman, a former policeman, and folk belonging to a foreign religious cult closely associated with Trumpism. None are disqualified from having an opinion, but none could be said to be representative of the nation.
Australians all let us forget, that we are not all free
Until recently, the main significance of Australia Day for most Australians was as a long weekend for doing nothing organised - the last blow-out before the resumption of school and work after the summer holidays. I yearn for a return of this thinking. Who wants immigration ministers feeling they have the right to decide what Australians should wear, and what they should be doing? That culture of official bossiness and intrusiveness is a necessary precursor to the national security state, a culture of official meanness, social exclusion and corrupted ideas of government and political accountability.
It took a good deal of work, mostly by highly subsidised committees of worthy folk, to turn Australia Day into a day of conscripted busyness. I'm not sure they have achieved any sort of enthusiasm for ceremony, ritual, outpourings of national pride or banal comments from our politicians or civic leaders. National pride rang strong, but it was more about sporting success than about complacent (and in the case of Morrison, chronically inaccurate) remarks about the history of Britons in or around Australia, or some sense that we should wrap ourselves in the Australian flag. Indeed, the appropriation of the Australian flag by ultra-nationalists, including Cronulla rioters in Morrison's own electorate, and by politicians such as Tony Abbott has probably undermined its reputation and unifying qualities. That's quite apart from the fact that the idea of the Australian flag as something "we fought under" is, like the history of a national Australia Day, much exaggerated.
Aboriginal Australians are one group particularly hostile to the idea of celebrating the British invasion. That is not a feeling to be appeased by changing one word of a national anthem with which many Australians, not just Aboriginal Australians, feel uncomfortable as bland, next to meaningless and musically uninteresting. It is quite clear that Morrison understands intellectually the argument for another day, and the particular offence it gives, as will always give, to indigenous Australians. But it is also quite clear that, for him, it is a matter of heart rather than head, and that the idea of any retreat on the principle involves some concession against general equality, or national unity.
It's a bit like the specious argument put up, originally by Malcolm Turnbull, ruling out the Uluru statement from the heart as an impermissible demand for a third chamber of parliament and special legal status for indigenous Australians. Morrison is happy enough to have eminent Australians, earnest politicians, and the cream of indigenous national leadership dicker around forever looking for some formula of words, perhaps including acknowledgment of original sovereignty in the constitution. The more they do so indeed, the less time they will spend making trouble about the growing gap, about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic in exacerbating Aboriginal disadvantage, or about the "law and order" crisis which sees disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal Australians in custody.
The real question is why Australia, now almost alone of the industrialised world, ignores the overwhelming evidence and is so fixated on doing the very least it can get away with.
But under him, any Aboriginal voice will never involve any barrier to the exercise of the sovereignty of his parliament or his government. It will be that thing Morrison has specialised in marketing - a statement of good general intentions without any imposition of legal duty, or any accountability.
Morrison has vague feelings of goodwill for Aborigines, implicitly so long as they keep their place in a way such as to avoid the wrath of a policeman. His father is said to have had a bundle of views about Aborigines, not so surprising given that cops from his police station once loaded in Aborigines, indiscriminately, into the paddy wagons at the Empress Hotel, Redfern. And those who doubt the strengths of such sentiments around the government should measure the palpable outrage among conservatives at the High Court's notion that people of Aboriginal ancestry cannot be deported. How un-Australian could judges get?
The Biden inauguration earlier this week may have given Australians some feel for American pomp and circumstance, even without crowds. It was entirely American and entirely un-Australian. Yet it was impressive, not least with any number of speeches expressing sentiments and positive unifying intentions. They contained an intellectual and emotional power - and a grasp of history and religion - beyond anything Morrison, or anyone in his government has ever been able to express. The appeal was the greater because it followed a consciously polarising and divisive presidency, ending with a riot by Trump supporters said to be insurrectionary. Morrison was slow to criticise Trump supporters, and even slower to criticise Trump, with whose policies and approach he has become associated, and from whom he has accepted a bogus and empty honour that was once of some prestige.
But it will not be for that that Australia will be straining to become besties with Biden. It will be over climate change - the subject of a new sense of urgency in Washington, but one on which Morrison has not moved. His defiant insistence that Australian climate change policies will be set by Australians rather than world bodies invites the question of who is suggesting otherwise? The real question is why Australia, now almost alone of the industrialised world ignores the overwhelming evidence and is so fixated on doing the very least it can get away with. Just what does that say about the patriotism, the vision and the moral leadership of Morrison, his government, and the sectional interests to which it is so shamefully beholden.
It would be wonderful if the close conjunction of the US inauguration and Morrison's Australia day could inspire a statement of positive intent about decisive action on climate. What could be even better would be a speech that went beyond civic platitudes about unity, duty and the glorious examples and achievements of our British pioneers. One that addressed modern issues and problems in society, and the role that government and the community could play in dealing with them. One that contained vision, rather than slogans, and moral force rather than complacent boasts. Methinks it is too much to ask from a man of limited vision, pedestrian ideas, and decidedly unchristian sentiment.
Morrison's approach to the meaning and significance of Australia Day may end up delaying any change of the date. But it is not disposing of any of the arguments, or reducing their momentum, or the long-term opinion which makes a change inevitable. His replacement indeed may get more plaudits by announcing a prompt change as a symbol of a new woman, or man, in charge. It will seem more significant than the substitution of a word in a national anthem. A majority of Australians - even of cricketers and footballers - after all cannot remember more than its first two lines. How delicious that a self-proclaimed champion of free speech thinks sporting artisans should stick to their trades and leave the politics to him.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org