I have not found it easy to comment on the Abbott Government in its first year, partly letting it find its way but increasingly concerned not just by what the government is doing but also by the muddled way opinion has evolved and parliamentary opposition has mumbled, as well as the way some of the press has covered issues... dishonestly.
It seems time to begin to write again.
A decade ago when the Iraq war was young, I concluded a speech (all of which remains relevant) with these words, which I now nail up again as the basis of this blog:
Rage is easy, painting historical parallels is easy.
What is hard is to know where to go from here.
We will have to work out what to do next. This is a collective task in a democracy. Let me venture some broad ideas as a start point:
FIRST: we should be very wary of people of whatever hue who say they have the absolute truth. Not because there is no truth available, but because truth is individual. I hold passionately to my beliefs, you hold passionately to your beliefs. But this is a crowded world now, even here on the south coast, and if we do not put first an ethic of dealing as community with each other at grass roots level, we will never be able to deal sensibly with international issues. Fundamentalisms, fanaticisms, uncompromising pursuit of whatever absolute belief is what will kill us all.
SECOND: We should avoid shallow moral relativism. We do not ask that asylum seekers be treated well because we think they are all bonza blokes. We demand that they be treated decently because we expect this country to maintain decent moral standards generally. We do not want to know that the way our lot torture prisoners isn’t as bad as the other lot’s torturing. We don’t want to know that an unjustifiable war was ok because Saddam was a bad guy and the Iraqis didn’t need him.
We want just international behaviour because there is no boundary between international and domestic behaviour. If we behave unjustly and poisonously abroad, our own society is poisoned and becomes more unjust. Violence abroad feeds into violence at home and in the home.
THIRD: We deny that an alliance demands acquiescence. We decline to accept that two or three democracies can, as allies, embark on international adventures which defy any democratic principle, which impose will, which are narrowly military in their design and perspective, without poisoning our democracies at home. But we can’t just blame the Americans if they think the natural perpetual Australian stance is that of toadying. There are other ways to conduct an alliance relationship, as a wise and sensible and steadying friend. If such an approach were rejected by our major ally, then what value is the alliance?
FOURTH: We ask that the cost of war fighting be compared with the costs of doing things to alleviate conditions in the Third World and doing things in the developed world to reduce our gross consumption of resources — that people try to find their way back to sanity. How can it be smarter to fight and fight and re-equip fighting forces, while holding it to be too hard, too risky, too wasteful to resolve the problems of Third World debt and industrial world resource consumption. Why do we point to the risk of waste in generous policies, while being extravagantly wasteful in military matters?
FIFTH: We do no deny that there are evil men in terrorist movements, but we ask for understanding that the so-called War on Terrorism will increase the number of terrorists and increase their vividly imaginative ways of stirring us up.
SIXTH: In the present climate, the Moslem community has been under attack. If you do not have Moslem neighbours at whom to smile, I commend to you that you seek opportunity to do something practical. When I go to Sydney, I like to visit Lakemba, just to be a smiling face and to do ordinary things like shop and bring custom and fair dealing to this community. The coffee, the food, the ice creams are well worth the visit. Take an interest. Browse the bookshops...We are here because we reject racism and despise racial hatred. Often though, we are shy of taking steps to advance this abstract notion to practical affirmation. Let’s not be shy about extending a friendly hand.
FINALLY: We all know that we live in troubled times. It is not easy to see the way forward. It is easy to create fear of threats to security at all levels, to sell people insurance, to sell legal services, to sell home security, to sell a national security policy based on fear and suspicion. We are told a lie when we are told that if we do not accept this fear-based national security policy we are being isolationist. Nothing could be further from the truth. We believe that a national security policy can be based on a constructive international policy — policy not focussed on fighting but on building a more constructive world.
The irony of the demand for us to conform to the narrow fear-based international policy is that it reflects fear on the part of political leaders of thinking more openly about the world. They are indeed like the politicians and generals of WW1 who fed a generation into the mincer of war because they feared looking and listening, they feared thinking, they feared learning.
We are at a hinge point in world history now, a rare privilege.
Now is a time and a chance for innovative policy, delivering at home as well as abroad a strengthening of democracy and community spirit, and perhaps even a return to trust in government.
Without that, we will continue to fight each other. We are a rich and lucky country, we have no right to be mean spirited.