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May 17, 2011

The Sound of Scratching in the Ceiling

As I sat in the kitchen supping a late-night hot drink, the sound of scratching overhead announced the unmistakeable presence of a possum in the ceiling. I pause long enough to acknowledge the sound and announce its presence to the family before returning to the drink and the book I was reading. It was an experience not unlike the previous week's budget and the reply speech - I lifted my eyes long enough to acknowledge them before resuming what I was doing. The distinct lack of any narrative, let alone an inspirational or aspirational one, relegated the budget speech and the reply to the recycling bin and the back of our minds before the week was out. All that remained was that unmistakeable scratching in the ceiling, annoying but ultimately meaningless.

The budget was delivered without any connection to a narrative, failing to ignite passion, resonance or ownership through a story about who we are as Australians, or who we are becoming. I took a quick mental survey of Australian history and brought to mind a sample of narratives which are deeply engrained in our national psyche, which our political leaders could have drawn upon for inspiring us to their grand plans.

Much of our early Australian iconic imagery is marked by the willingness to rise up in the face of adversity - often in the face of the establishment - to bring about change and the emergence of a fairer society. The Eureka rebellion is an enduring image of a small band of Australians standing up for an important principle, leaving a hallmark of justice which still stands as a powerfully evocating symbol in our day. In a different way we similarly look back with romance upon many of our Bushranger legends, preferring to lean on the side of fighters for justice and equality against an unfair establishment over against the lawless rebels they could so easily be painted. Over time this morphed into the loveable larrikin image, epitomised in, but not limited to movie character Crocodile Dundee, whose knockabout and casual approach, with its running commentary on establishment, takes the world by storm. Without taking ourselves too seriously, we can still show the world a better way of being and doing.

The turn of the twentieth century brought the enduring narrative of a nation riding on the Sheep's Back, resonant in the ballads Click Go the Shears, and the enduring Waltzing Matilda. These stories remind us that we are a nation born of the land, and built with blood sweat and tears. We overcame the obstacles of the land, in particular its harsh and often unforgiving climate, to forge a new nation.

The legend of the ANZAC, born on the shores of Gallipoli in 1915 has endured as one of the most important symbols of our nation, adapting to new generations and new situations. That it was a moment of defeat on the battlefield is less important than its capacity to represent enduring and key qualities to succeeding generations: sacrifice, and mateship, and boldness as we seek to forge our identity as individuals and as a nation. The ANZAC legend has risen to a place of pre-eminence among all Australian narratives in recent years, but its focus remains squarely on history - to remind us of the need for gratitude for those who have gone before.

As the post war years of building and construction unfolded, the dream of owning our own home was symbolised in the Quarter-Acre block, often partnered with the Hills Hoist and Victa motor-mower. These symbols - paraded at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics - became emblems of our egalitarianism. The Great Australian Dream came to be regarded as the right for all, a story which has faded and now directly challenged in the pursuit of higher-density housing, and as the impact of negative gearing pushes the dream out of the reach of many.

One of my favourite narratives is the much-maligned Tall Poppy Syndrome. I believe it to represent one of our most precious attributes. Popularly understood as our capacity to pull down successful people, it proves itself to be much more selective and strategic. Not all successful people find themselves subject to this, as memorials to Lionel Rose this past week have attested. The Tall Poppy Syndrome represents the Australian capacity to bring back to earth successful people who have lost touch with their roots - or worse - turned their back on them. Australians have never resented the success of its own on the national or world stage - unless and until we sense that the individual has lost contact or turned their back on their heritage. As we have moved away from the ideal of an egalitarian society, we see this characteristic less.

Being a small country in terms of population, it has always given us great joy to see one of our own leading the world on the sporting stage. Black Caviar's catapulting itself onto the top of the world rankings has raised the interest of many Australians in the sport, bringing to mind the feats of another great horse, Phar Lap. We have all held our collective breath with Greg Norman in his quest to conquer the great golf tournaments of the US, and when Australia II finally lifted the Americas Cup from the US. The feats of The Don are legend, not just as a cricketer, but as an Australian icon, his domination against all comers. Sporting heroes remain an enduring symbol of our ability and perseverance.

Donald Horne's The Lucky Country birthed a mantra of good fortune which paradoxically undermined the challenge he articulated. In popular terms it articulates the belief that we are destined for good fortune, in contrast to Horne's warning that we not squander the opportunity afforded us by the riches of our land. It has, in many ways, inspired a lethargy and complacency which, in times like the present, allow us to be satisfied with what we have and not strive for even better.

And herein, perhaps, lies the core of the problem facing our political leaders: we have never developed a sustainable narrative of success. Our celebrations of triumph on the international sporting stage have that mark of the upstart about them - that we a young nation with a small and remote population are able to triumph over seasoned adversaries reminds the world of our presence and capabilities. The celebrations still have that air of the younger child beating an older sibling in the back yard… less a sense of we have made it, but that we are capable of punching beyond our wait. In a similar way the Lucky Country imagery retains a deep sense of Horne's irony, even though we deploy it in denial of that.

But the last two decades have taken Australia on a long ride of economic growth and success. Even as the rest of the world ground to a long and deep pause, our economy merely slowed, retaining a resilience and resourcefulness which gave flexibility to respond. And now that this moment has passed, politicians find themselves unable to articulate a story to carry us - to inspire us - on to the next stage. Some might point to the single moment when Kevin Rudd lead the parliament in an apology to the stolen generations, but it withered on the vine as a symbol of the future. It is with a deep sense of angst that the only narrative we find lingering is one we would rather deny - the xenophobic Australia, encountered most keenly by early immigrants from non-English background, who endured the cruel taunts - and more - of early Australians. In the dog-whistling which accompanies political posturing on refugees (more accurately, refugees arriving by boat) there is a not-too-subtle nod and wink to the racist tendencies which have long marked the experience of new immigrants, and of Indigenous Australians, conveniently masked by the relatively harmonious nature of Australian society. We celebrate many of the benefits of this cultural diversity whilst still managing to impugn the character and motives of many recent immigrant communities. There is a good story to be told here which is drowned out by the dog-whistling.

And so we find ourselves mired in the present moment. Our political leaders apparently aren't able to fashion a story to lead us into the future - it surely can't be obtained through opinion polls and group samples. It requires an ability to lift the eyes of the people to a future worthy of our aspirations and energies, one which is attractive enough, and within the realms of possibility that we can all be motivated towards paying the price of achieving it. As long as we continue to think small, and seek only to offer small targets (which are quickly fired upon), the hope of such a narrative emerging are small, quelled and quenched by a media and an opposition which reward point-scoring in relation to minor things - of which they are being supplied in plenty.

Many of the narratives outlined above have periodically found their way into the political narrative. Some of them were historically more readily associated with one side of the political spectrum or the other. But they have all, bar the ANZAC legend, largely disappeared from our political discourse. Narrative itself seems to have disappeared. Both sides of politics seem to have given up on the idea of a unifying story which leads us into the future.

Can such a dream be born in the midst of plenty? Is there someone who can raise our eyes to a future which fulfils our sense of destiny and purpose? Or must we wait for such moments of injustice that inspired Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech? Or times of desperation such as inspired Churchill's "We shall fight them on the beaches" oration. Only JFK's vision of putting a man on the moon stands out as a narrative born of possibility and hope - of attaining something significant out of prosperity. Without a vision and a narrative which calls us to be what we CAN be we will find ourselves wallowing in the mire of petty nitpicking and naysaying. For which we will all be the losers. We wait to be inspired to lend our full creativity and ingenuity, along with a preparedness to pay the price to a future worth striving for. Until such a passionate cry emerges, the sound of budgets and leaders will, like the possum in my roof, distract me for a moment before I return to what I was doing, to what we have always been doing.

Posted by gary at May 17, 2011 02:11 PM

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