The Lucky Country – part seven: the sickness at the heart of Australian culture

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

‘Bruce Ruxton is right: we should embrace the legends of defeat,’ Richard Glover, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20.04.90

I arrived home to find my partner ashen-faced. The cat was wailing in the kitchen and the kid was clearly upset. The words came gushing out as soon as she saw me: “I don’t know what to do. I just found myself agreeing with Bruce Ruxton.”

Since she had confessed, I thought I could too. A healthy marriage, after all, is based on sharing such dark secrets. “Yep,” I said, “I agree with him too.”

The issue, you understand, wasn’t Asian immigration, gay rights, or whether environmentalists are all dole-bludging hippies. It was Anzac Day.

Ruxton, the Victorian president of the RSL, is currently doing battle with the journalist Phillip Knightley, who has expressed the view that next Wednesday should be Australia’s last Anzac Day.

It is absurd, argues Knightley, that the battle at Gallipoli should provide our key national image of war. Gallipoli, he says, was a defeat; and a defeat in a battle waged for British interests.

Better to celebrate, he says, the taking of Damascus by the Australian Light Horse, or the victorious battle by General Sir John Monash’s troops on the Western Front in the last months of war.

“Monash’s scientific breakthrough tactics,” he says, “were a powerful factor in the German decision to ask for an armistice and  thus a real turning point in history. Yet the Australians who fought on the Western Front appear doomed to live forever in the shadow of Gallipoli”.

But Mr Ruxton replies that these triumphs, along with others, are already marked by Anzac Day, and that traditions, once established, carry their own weight and importance.

But we can take the argument further. Knightley is right: Anzac Day does mark a defeat. But as such it is in keeping with one of the most consistent themes in the Australian legend: the celebration (or at least worldly-wise acknowledgement) of failure.

Any country can make hoopla about its victories. What makes Australia unique is the way it has always preferred to remember the brave-but-defeated, the underdog and the loser.

Consider, for example, some of the subjects of Australia’s successful historical films: Phar Lap, the story of a horse with  international promise who was poisoned; Les Darcy, the story of a boxer with promise who was killed; Breaker Morant, the story of soldier with promise who was shot.

And, of course, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, the story of fighters of promise who were misled and misused.

Dad and Dave never expanded and made it rich, they just battled on against flood and rain – two steps forward, three steps back. The heroes of Lawson and Paterson were triers more than they were doers; just as the great national bards were humourists rather than battle-balladeers.

Waltzing Matilda, the real national song, is about a tramp who can only find freedom through suicide. The Dog on the Tucker Box comes from a poem reciting the multiple disasters of an accident-prone bullocky.

Oh, to live in a country that makes a national icon of a dog that relieved himself in a bullocky’s food hamper.

But not, it seems, for Knightley.

He wants Australia to follow every other nation: to edit the defeats out of history and concentrate on the victories; to puff itself up and worship the tall poppies.

His Dog on the Tucker Box would be straight from Walt Disney – a heroic pup who saved the bullocky’s life rather than spoilt his dinner.

But I rather like Australia’s curious traditions: I like being part of the land of the rising inflection, where every statement is turned into a question; I like a tradition that sees the grim absurdity of life and embraces legends of defeat with a wry smile.

There are many who have argued against Australia’s traditions: arguing our lack of self confidence has held us back; that we have driven away our talented by rejecting a culture of success.

There  may be some truth in this, and certainly we face continuing battles to wean ourselves from cultural and economic cringes of various kinds.

Of course, we do need to wave the flag and be proud. But my problem remains: how can you be flag-wavingly proud when what you’re proudest of is the lack of a pompous, flag-waving pride?

All in all, it seems to me a perfect symbol. And that’s why Bruce Ruxton –  just this once – is right.


The benefits of being boring – the ideology of ‘the lucky country’


The article below is designed to crush at its centre creative vision – the concept most vital to the spiritual growth of any community.

Vision and the questioning that goes with it threaten authoritarians, the ‘decent’ comfortable and the status quo; it is also a necessity that inspires, that can give a direction that can be believed in and committed to and in that process, unite.

Instead of Australians finding their core values in a stoic response to loss, failure and defeat and to the suffering and waste of lives in the service of dominant powers, they should find them in vision – in eagerly looking forward, not back.

It was because of such an absence of spirit as Glover exemplifies in this article that Jørn Utzon and many others have left this country – a country yet to rise to the lesson of the necessity for vision.

Richard Glover is prominent in the Sydney media.


Richard Glover, ‘The benefits of being boring in our two-party race,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 07.06.16

I’m so bored with people saying they are finding this election boring. “Boring election, eh?” has become the “hello-how-are-you” of Australian life. You can’t get in and out of a shop without both parties nodding in furious agreement and letting loose huge disappointed sighs.

Well, can I make one tiny point? It’s better than the alternative.

The Americans are about to have an exciting election, with the polls showing a slight edge for the man recently described as “looking like the guy who would play the President in a porno”.

Trump wants to build a wall on the border with Mexico and ban all Muslims from visiting the United States, with the possible exception of the new mayor of London – whom he likes on the grounds they both equally dislike British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Oh, and he also wants to see criminal charges against women who have an abortion. Or did so until he was asked about it a second time.

Now that’s exciting.

The British, too, are about to have an exciting vote. In less than a fortnight, they may vote to leave the European Union – the urge to leave bolstered by the current anxiety about what is seen as “uncontrolled migration”.

If they leave, the Scots say they’ll demand a fresh referendum on independence because they’d rather stay with Europe, and frankly don’t mind the idea of a few more migrants in their sparsely populated uplands.

Once all that happens, Scotland will surely fill with Polish plumbers and Bulgarian butchers, at which point the English can rebuild Hadrian’s Wall. Donald Trump could lend them the construction diagrams.

Again, you’d have to say: it’s exciting. If the English vote to leave Europe, there will be a material shift in people’s lives, perhaps not as great as the scaremongering on either side, but still sharp and real. Migration might slow down; but so will the economy. Depending on which box you tick, your life will alter.

In contrast, when we wake up on July 3, nothing much will have changed. If Shorten wins, negative gearing will be somewhat restricted; if Turnbull wins, superannuation will be somewhat restricted. That’s about as dramatic as it gets.

In fact, you feel the need for a calculator and a spreadsheet before you can even consider the policies on offer. Talk for more than a minute about the government’s superannuation changes, and you’ll be uttering the phrase “a 15 per cent earnings tax due to an arrangement change on the Transition to Retirement Income Stream (or TRIS) pension scheme”.

Try dropping that at your next barbecue. Actually, do drop it because in the right crowd it will go gangbusters.

And so we all complain: “It’s so boring”. “Why can’t we have some vision?” “Why can’t they both be a bit more exciting?”

Well, if you want excitement in politics, try Austria where they have just come within a few thousand votes of electing a far-right president. Yeah, I know: a short, fascist Austrian, what could possibly go wrong?

Or try Argentina, where the new right-wing government has sacked 154,000 government workers, and yet also reinvigorated the country’s main export industries – industries that had been effectively taxed into oblivion by the previous left-wing government.

In places like Argentina, the government changes, and then everything else changes. Each swing of the pendulum is like a wrecking ball for whoever isn’t in sweet with those in power.

For those who live there, it’s certainly exciting.

I understand the hunger for vision in politics, for radical change. The trouble is that one person’s breath of fresh air is another person’s tsunami of unfair consequences.

So, in American politics, the only two politicians who have generated excitement are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – both representing policies that would be first, often impossible to implement, and second, an anathema to half the population if their implementation proved remotely possible.

Are these men selling radical change, as their fans argue, or just packaging anger without locating a real way forward?

In Britain, meanwhile, the next election may well offer the choice of Boris Johnson on one side and Jeremy Corbyn on the other – two men who are like caricatures of their respective sides of politics. They are like cartoons made flesh: the blond-haired, Eton-educated daffy toff on one side, willing to say anything to win an argument; on the other, the thin-lipped Hamas-loving socialist, with a willingness to tolerate anti-Semitism.

And so we are back with our boring campaign. Two decent people – Turnbull and Shorten. Both well equipped for the job. Both smart, honest, and yes – even articulate. Both dedicated to winning the middle ground; to finding policies that most of us can live with.

I don’t like everything they stand for; you don’t like everything they stand for. But it’s not a winner-takes-all contest. Australia will still be there, enjoying the things we’ve enjoyed under both sides of politics: 25 years of continuous economic growth, a mostly achieved balance between freedom and fairness, the rule of law, multiculturalism, a fondness for each other.

Boring? Yes. Lucky, aren’t we?



Images: top/bottom

Recommended: Richard Glover, ‘Bruce Ruxton is right: we should embrace the legends of defeat’

 Robert Poposki, ‘Why Australians Aren’t as friendly as You Think’