by Hon Fred Chaney
Presented at the Perth Day of Ideas, 2nd August 2003
My participation in this seminar is based on a strong personal belief that enlightened audiences such as this, if I may use Terri-ann White's words from earlier today, are comprehensively losing the argument, losing the public. They are increasingly irrelevant. That, I think, is a tragedy for Australian and will be tragedy for my grandchildren. That is why it is worth putting in this day. As to whether any good can come of this day, that was captured by the question to Alan Robson when talking about the short term of politics and governments. Alan Robson replied that these matters should be bi-partisan. I think that is true. I think that if the case were made that our future fortune, our future safety, our future prosperity and future security will be based on a truly excellent public education system, the demand on our politicians would be such that they would have to deliver.
That is not the demand that is upon them at the moment and I would hope that it would be understood in an audience such as this that if you win the battle of ideas, if you put ideas into circulation and plant the seeds, then the politicians will follow like tail-wagging dogs. That was my view for my 20 years in political life and it remains my view today. There are exceptions, such as the Prime Minister taking us into a singularly unpopular war and Malcolm Fraser taking us into an extensive process of resettling refugees in the 70s. Politicians act generally in accordance with public will and we are part of what should be helping to shape that public will. To those who say 'well, it has been an interesting day, spent in interesting and indeed distinguished company,' I say that this audience and room is littered with people who do make a difference in a time of fear.
I bend my knee to my wife who is an excellent example of how the gentlest can make a difference. It is all very well to wring one's hands about the sins of Philip Ruddock. Philip is an old friend of mine and I am bitterly disappointed by his behaviour and his policies which are, of course, the policies of the Government. Whilst I am bitterly disappointed about that I am grateful that some people have accepted that, although we cannot change the situation while even the Labor Party supports concentration camps, we can in fact give a face to these people. We can treat them as human beings and identify them as human beings. The gentlest among us can help to do that.
A young woman in today's audience is, I find, taking up an idea I raised recently at a meeting of disability people. Noting that many families caring for a disabled member find a holiday beyond their means, I pointed out that this State is littered with holiday homes owned by people like me, and others here. Surely we could make our homes available on a short term basis for people who will otherwise have little chance for a change of scene and a break from a demanding routine of life.
Rob talked about personal fears earlier today, and you might have noticed my own nervousness in addressing this audience. I understand the fear he was talking about but I think the lack of moral courage in this community is a lack of a capacity to stand out and to speak up, for whatever reason. This stands out as a serious problem and if we wish to move forward in a time of fear we have to conquer that. I can tell you that, at the state conference of my party, in successive years as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, my position was defeated by three hundred to ten. Only ten people were prepared to stand and support my position. The ten I think were all women.It confirmed my view that men in Australia are moral cowards who hate to be a minority and certainly don't like to be on a losing side.
One thing we can take away from Rob's presentation is the reminder that the issue of moral courage, including in the party rooms of the Australian Parliament today, contrasts our Parliament with the British Parliament and the United States Congress, in the current great difficulties that face us and the wider world. I see the lack of any moral courage as a serious problem for this nation, and a serious disadvantage in terms of us moving forward in a time of fear. I think there are endless lessons already that we can take away from this seminar and ponder over, and perhaps act on.
Isn't it a welcome thing to find that the Chief Executive of the premier university in this State, the University of Western Australia's new Vice-Chancellor, expresses a passion for public education. What would be easier for the education establishment than to properly document, display and popularize the view that we are impoverishing ourselves as a nation and destroying lives. We are leaving people on the trash heap because we give inadequate attention to education as an investment, rather than an expenditure. So I would hope that the leadership that Alan Robson has shown today will contribute to a change in the intellectual climate and lay the groundwork for new ideas.
I want now to say something about us - the 'pointy headed intellectuals' - ignored, despised and left on a discard heap. I think we bring it on ourselves in part. I think we have very often failed to learn the language of communication or to understand that, from the comfort of our privileged position, we don't sufficiently deal with the terrible pressures and uncertainties that affect so many people's lives. Perhaps we need to remember that if you want to move forward in a time of fear that these are real fears. People like us, and I certainly include myself, were notoriously reluctant to understand the brutality of the Soviet Union and the mass murder of people in Russia. That failure is made clear by the few writers of the time, such as George Orwell, who saw the lie. The truth is that the Cold War was a real war. There was an international Communist movement that would have liked to convert ours and other democratic countries. That was no fiction, but something that needed to be addressed. People were entitled to be fearful of that.
We are entitled to be fearful of terrorism today. We are entitled to be worried about being swamped by refugees when there are 23 million refugees in camps and God knows how many not in camps and uncounted. We are entitled to be fearful of war and its consequences. These fears are based on real threats and the question is what are we offering as a realistic way forward in terms of dealing with those fears. I am a member of A Just Australia, a lobby group which hopes that we might change the views of Australian people, Australian Government, Australian Opposition on the issues of refugees. But I have to say I knocked back the first draft of the policy that was sent to me because it paid no attention to the issue of border control and border protection. I don't recall that it paid any attention to what Malcolm Fraser was smart enough to pick up, that Australia must act internationally and deal with refugees on a worldwide basis. Only then could we honestly say to the Australian people these matters are being comprehensively dealt with.
But there is no proper answer and so I am suggesting that we need to be a little bit humble about our contributions. We should note that we are being blaggarded and I have brought an article by Janet Albrechtsen, my least favourite reporter, from a couple of days ago. We are all sinners, to these fanatics, having mastered the art of self-loathing. It is no wonder the left is losing the culture wars. She said the left has mastered the art of self-loathing and that is why it is losing the culture wars. Since I am left of almost everybody in Australia now, let me say that I can identify with her point. I mean I think we need to think about that and to ask the question and there is certain internal inconsistency. Albrechtsen says reasonable people can disagree on these difficult moral and political issues and that doesn't feature in the new fundamentalism. I think we should think about that. Are we accepting for example that the Federal Government and the Federal Opposition have an enormously difficult task in dealing with the immigration issue and refugees? I think it is true. I have an enormous pride in my recollection of the way Malcolm Fraser and Mike MacKellar handled that in 1976/77. I am sorry to be saying this in the presence of Kim Beazley, but frankly, the Labor Party was pretty crazed on this issue and the trade union movement was worse.
I took out every press clip for two years, 1976 and 1977. Every statement by the then Prime Minister, every statement by Michael MacKellar, was to the effect that 'we can manage this'. Now that is still possible but these are difficult issues. The trouble is, Janet Albrechtsen goes on and talks about us. So much for her appeal for a more reasoned exchange! But I do think that we do need to consider very carefully how we present. Do we acknowledge that those we think are doing things that we think are wrong, and perhaps even immoral, and against the national interest, may well feel there is a strong case for what they are doing? Do we recognise a responsibility on ourselves to actually produce a better option?
Here are half a dozen lessons that I think we can take away from our present dilemma. The first is that we must be realistic and we need to acknowledge the truth, the difficulties we face, and we need to pose positive alternatives. Otherwise, we are simply waving our arms and making ourselves feel good. Second, I think we must understand the basis of fear and accommodate it. Perhaps that is really the same point: accommodate it by dealing with the cause of the fear. I don't blame a wage and salary earner in Australia for feeling insecure and ready to lash out. Current economic policies give very few of us, perhaps only a fortunate forty percent of us, secure employment. We have already heard today that thirty percent are in part time or casual employment and another thirty percent are on social security. No wonder people feel fragile.
I think we need to be analytical about the values that underpin our responses and I am grateful that there are people in the judicial system like Justice Nicholson. But indeed most of the people I know in the judicial system are imbued, I think, with the values that underpin a free and democratic society. That is a tremendous richness in this country.
The fourth point is that I think we should do what we can. There is the old story about the little girl and 2 million starfish on the beach. She threw one starfish into the water and someone asked 'What are you doing? 'I am saving a starfish.' Well, he says, that is pretty silly. You are not going to save all these starfish. 'No' she said, 'but it will be pretty nice for the ones that I do.' And there is no excuse for inaction. There is no excuse for crossing the road and diverting your eyes. If you are doing that, and spending time and money to come here, then in fact you are a hypocrite. I don't mean that you should necessarily work with refugees but I am saying you should do something about the issues which you claim to be concerned about.
I see a real problem for Australia in that we don't really understand that the things that Rob expressed concern about are threats to all of us. Threats to our freedom. Who knows who will be next, who will be demonized by Government, demonized by Opposition and made a non-person available for persecution. Read the letters to the editor about David Hicks. Many of them are chilling, in that they are presenting him as a non-person who deserves no support from Government or anybody else.
As Pastor Niemoeller said, and I apologise if all of you know this, but I think it is always worth remembering: 'First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out as I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists but I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. They came for the trade unionists but still I did not speak out as I am not a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and by then there was no-one left to speak out for me.'
The final point that I would make is that we must, in our frustration and in times of despair about changing what we think is wrong with this country, retain our sense of what we share for the future. Anzac Day belongs to me as much as it belongs to John Howard or Kim Beazley. Anzac Day belongs to me because my father fought and I walk in his place. I don't care whether I am a trendy lefty or a Chardonnay-swilling socialist or whatever. That will not be taken away from me as part of my Australia and there are many things about this country I love and admire. I think it is really important that we who are the critics are seen to also be among the nationalists, the people who are concerned for the value of equality in the future of our country.