Saturday, January 22, 2011

David Williamson reassesses Australia Day and much more

Has Williamson become a conservative, or has this 'wind sniffer' par excellence just sniffed the wind again?

Playwright David Williamson is the muse of the middle-class Left. His ideas seemed to be just the driftwood on the current of the Left’s most fashionable cliches.

So he once despised signs of Australian patriotism - like Australia Day - when it was fashionable. He was a global warmist when it was fashionable. He was a believer in the fundamental racism of Australia when it was fashionable. He was a Howard-hater when it was fashionable. He was a sneerer at “aspirational Australia” when it was fashionable (among those richer than their inferiors).  Indeed, his biggest success was to climb on board the Gough Whitlam bandwagon with Don’s Party.

His eye for ideological fashion has been as keen as his desire to sign up for it. The column he notoriously wrote in 2005 of a cruise he’d taken betrayed all these Williamson characteristics:

It struck me that this cruise ship was a kind of metaphor for Australia. Cruise Ship Australia, all alone in the south seas sailing to God knows where. And in fact, like Australia, many of the passengers didn’t care where we were headed. The cruise itself was the thing. The sunbaking, the chatter, the eating, the very solid drinking, and the all-important on-board entertainment…

Right-wing columnists and commentators have a habit of sneering at what they call “elites”. Elites are presumably those who are not aspirational Australians. We are urged by the columnists to accept that all wisdom resides in aspirational Australia and none in the ranks of the effete elites with their wanky interest in art, films and their bleeding-heart concern for the future of Australia and indeed the world. The pathetic “elites” should accept the ballot box wisdom of the aspirationals and stop their whining, say Paddy, Andrew, Piers and the boys. Perhaps if they spent time on a cruise ship they might start to question this belief…

The credo seemed to be that whatever we Australians had was thoroughly deserved. Not perhaps because a small, manageable population came to inherit a British concern for judicial, parliamentary and human rights in a land that initially seemed limitless in its natural resources. A land of abundant pastures for sheep, wheat and cattle, abundant water, and huge reserves of coal, iron ore, gold and many other metals. A land in which the original inhabitants could be reasonably easily pushed aside.

Except of course that first appearances were deceptive. In fact we’d inherited a very fragile ecosystem; probably after Iceland, the most fragile in the world. And the fact is ... we’re all living on borrowed time…

With climate change now well and truly upon us, the prime agricultural and urban areas are getting less and less rainfall and already NSW has decided a huge desalination plant, with its profligate use of energy, is the only way out… Some economists already believe that we’d be better to shut down our farming efforts completely as they’re a net cost to the country rather than a net gain....

Our present prosperity isn’t from farming; it’s largely coming from our vast coal, natural gas and iron ore deposits… But coal and gas and iron ore are non-renewable… And if President Bush finally concedes that the ferocity of the natural disasters hitting his southern states might have something to do with all that extra energy in the biosphere due to greenhouse warming, then our coal exports might not be as welcome as they are now… Coal is proving such a disastrous polluter (try finding a patch of blue over any Chinese city) and greenhouse gas generator, that its use may well be banned not too far into the future.

But if Williamson is a tide marker in the flow of suburban Leftist thought, what should we conclude about his column today? Several apparent changes in the Williamson world view seem significant.

First, there’s the implied mea culpa about his past fashionable attitude to Australia Day, now dated:

IN MY early years, our national day raised no other passion than resentment.  January 26th signalled that school holidays were coming to an end…

The next stage for me and for many Australians, was that it was a non-event. Back then we were embarrassed by anything hinting at patriotic fervour… Basically we found the attempt to ratchet up sentiment about January 26th off-putting. Did we really want to be reminded that Arthur Phillip had come ashore with a heap of flea-ridden debilitated convicts and that that had constituted the birth of Anglo-Celtic Australia?… The overwhelming feeling back then was to forget Australia Day as quickly as possible.

Who is that “we”, David?

But now:

Then came the bicentenary of Phillip’s landing in 1988 and all those magnificent tall ships sailed up the harbour. The national mood began to change. There had to be something good about our national origins and we started pushing a new way of looking at them. We started to reframe the event as a success story.

Again, who is that “we”? Does it include, say, Geoffrey Blainey? John Howard? Bruce Ruxton? Dorothea Mackellar? Me? All those people who kept marching on Anzac Day back then? The many people who saw not shame but enterprise and even redemption in the earliest settlers - much as does Williamson now:

Despite Anglo-Celtic Australia starting with a bunch of convicts dumped in a hostile and infertile land, they had survived, many showing enterprise and fortitude… Their arrival on January 26th, 1788, had given us all the chance to live in a country that has become one of the most prosperous and liveable in the world

Second, Williamson seems to have dropped his once fashionable sneering at the “aspirational” mob, and even the assertion that we have a racist core.  It seems that he, like some common conservative, is now seeing the virtues of our citizenry and remembering that for every racist you inevitably find anywhere, there’s hundreds of better people around them here to drown their malignancy: 

(This is) a country that’s far from perfect but allows us political and personal freedom and the kind of lifestyle which causes Australians to rate themselves as one of the happiest people on earth…

(Some bigoted) Australians wrap themselves in the Australian flag and glower menacingly at anyone who isn’t Anglo-Celtic. Fortunately there are many more Australians who welcome Australia Day and its gradual evolution into something more complex than 1988…

There are still occasional ugly flare-ups of ethnic hatred such as the Cronulla Beach riots in 2005, but there are also very positive signs of our future. The intermarriage rate between Anglo-Celtic Australians and Australians from indigenous and other ethnic backgrounds is the highest of any multicultural country on earth.

It’s as if we all know, perhaps as a result of our egalitarian beginnings, that whatever its faults, we’re lucky to live in a prosperous democracy that prizes decency and tolerance. We’re a people who’d prefer to live in harmony with each other than hatred.

Williamson even tut tuts Aboriginal activists who claim white men ruined an Aboriginal paradise: 

Our indigenous activists sometimes go over the top when they claim that their culture was a garden of Eden before the arrival of “whitey”. It wasn’t. It was a tough and precarious life in a deeply male-dominated culture and there was frequent tribal warfare.

Goodness me, Williamson is sounding the very model of a modern conservative columnist now. In fact, now that the battle is over, he’s even prepared to admit that the One Nation protest vote was created in part by a high-handed elite that wanted to remake Australian on ethnic lines without bothering to consult the despised masses who’d have to live with the consequences:

The depth of that resentment was shown by the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, which garnered an astonishing one in four votes in a Queensland state election. Those Australians feel the ethnic nature of Australia has been changed by the political elites who didn’t bother to consult them.

When I said this at the time, it was evidence of my evil.  When Williamson says it, now that it’s safe, it’s a sign of his magnaminity.

Same with Australia Day itself. Williamson damned it when sneering was fashionable, and now praises it when the day has become fashionable:

Australia Day to many means that we’re all in this together. And if that becomes its meaning to most of us, then it will become a very important day indeed.

Williamson implies with this that the meaning of Australia Day has changed, and his views with it. In fact, Australia Day for generations had the message he claims now to discern. It’s just that it was once chic to pretend it meant something shameful, and guess which side of that battle Williamson was on then?

But he’s home now, I guess. And rather than carp, I should take heart, and especially from this change in the Williamson credo: 

The early settlers had assumed our country would have a settled and regular climate like Europe and tried to farm it accordingly, not realising that La Nina and El Nino, those villains lurking out there in the Pacific, were going to inflict on us forever those droughts and flooding rains that were going to make life unbearable for so many.

See? No mention at all of climate change or global warming. Natural phenomenon only are cited to explain the droughts and now these floods.

One more fashionable thought is now suddenly so yesterday. I know, because Williamson, albeit still a believer, now proclaims it less loudly.

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