Rudd: Alternative Visions for Australia’s Future
Or, The Complacent Country on the Stage of History
The 26th Prime Minister of Australia opened his lecture at the University of Queensland boldly, introducing a new adjective with which to describe our wide, brown, sunburnt, antipodean home: complacent.
Speaking of a ‘complacent country’, of course, echoes the sentiments of Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country — to wit, that we are a nation whose prosperity is in spite of continual apathy and squandering of potential — though Rudd clearly had no time for larrikin satire in that vein, managing to squeeze in only a couple of jokes about handball and the cricket.
Suffice to say not a breath was wasted, for none can be upon the cusp of great history.
We are intimately familiar with the problems on the horizon, wicked and worrying: climate change, destabilising technology, fractious geopolitics, political polarisation — so on and so forth. Rudd listed seven issues,¹ and none of them are trivial — far from it! They are of a magnitude and complexity that would trouble any nation. Yet it is arguable that never before have the currents of change flown so strongly; never before have we been faced with such a convergence — a confluence — of global and domestic factors.
Thus, our ex-PM set the stage — the impending resolution of multiple, generation-defining and mutually-reinforcing developments, and a juvenile nation in the midst of them.
Why now a juvenile nation? Well, to draw from the essay that was the foundation of Rudd’s lecture, Australia still believes itself to be the Australia of the past century. The notion of “punching above our weight” seems ingrained into the national psyche, but one must wonder for how long this will hold true. To glibly take it for granted is to nullify the competitive drive that sustains it, and almost guarantees a decline into stagnancy and mediocrity; our expectations would once again outstrip reality.²
Australia cannot rely on the myth of some perennial capacity for success without actively doing anything to acquire it. Rudd asks, then, what shall be our response? Will we rise to the occasion? The PPE student ponders: will we heed the Machiavelli of the Discorsi and insert ourselves into the flow of time — or will we remain atomic, isolated, hedonistic, and anaesthetised?
Assuming we move to act, how would we face such immensities? Rudd offered no particular solutions (such is the prerogative of an ex-politician), but did suggest a path towards them — a stronger national identity, and identification of our values and goals. Beyond fuzzy rhetoric and catchphrase, these must be meaningful concepts actually capable of informing the political direction of the nation in the face of internal and external changes. Without defining these things, he argued, our politics will drift further into ineffectuality, rent by oscillation between two widening extremes and a lack of durable consensus.
Fundamentally, our ship of state needs an anchor and a lodestar; crucial assurances against the vicious and encircling currents.
Rudd thankfully made some attempt to move beyond spouting vagueries and rhetoric of his own. A possible foundation for Australian identity, for instance, was sketched beyond classroom mumblings of ‘The ANZAC Spirit’ or the apt-but-oft-abused ‘larrikinism’.³ In Rudd’s eyes, Australian identity is divorced from race or ethnicity, and is instead characterised by institutions and inheritance. Inheritance of the country and its golden soil from its original custodians; inheritance from the Anglo-Celts — both their systems and a “sense of continuing rebellion” against them (and everything else); and inheritance from those who’ve come across the seas, finding refuge and offering skills, food, music, and art.
These and more all make their mark upon the institutions — formal and informal — of our society. Although an individual may not themselves embody every contributor to cosmopolitan Australia, their values and attitudes are almost inescapably shaped by the institutions which do — thus a certain ‘Australian-ness’ is inherited, if you will.
Though here the question of what exactly an Australian ought to value arose. Rudd retreated to a descriptive voice in attempting to provide an answer: human dignity, freedom, individuality, enterprise, family, community, security, justice, compassion… the list goes on. His conclusion is unclear (the ‘fair-go’ receiving mention presumably as the best-available synthesis of the above), though perhaps this is reflective of a nation still uncertain of its commitments and character.⁴
Less hesitant was he in spelling out Australia’s geopolitical interests, however, not that these came as much of a surprise. The majority of them were textbook — territorial integrity, political sovereignty, economic prosperity — though with the addition of sustainability, and maintaining the global rules-based order. Rudd notes that last item as particularly important. Empires and regional powers can achieve their goals with reasonable ease, almost by definition — but it is small- and medium-sized states (like Australia!) that rely upon the mechanisms of international co-operation to protect themselves and their interests. Moreover, as a consequence of a globalising world and the collapse of the ‘great divide’ between internal and external affairs, the need for co-ordination is apparent given that unconditional autonomy seems an increasingly remote possibility.
So, where were we left at the end of the night?⁵ Without any silver bullets, certainly, though I doubt Rudd ever intended to deliver such a thing. Instead we witnessed what could potentially be the beginning of a new national discussion — and as trite as that phrase is, one must concede that the nation as a whole cannot transform itself (and thus, cannot reorient and sustain itself) without some kind of civic discourse. Most essentially, I think, Rudd highlighted the importance of some kind of national project — “without a vision, the people perish”, he quotes from the King James Bible in his original essay.
There is no pretence in the suggestion that we as Australians might attain great things, or that we should aim ever higher. Our federation, for instance, did not occur spontaneously, but by the excellence of many unified hands. The capability is more than there — we are after all the inventors of Wi-Fi (and the venerable Hills Hoist). It would be complacency of the highest sort to presume that these are insignificant times, that our actions will have no impact. The latter will hold true so long as we allow it to; hopefully we realise this before the truth of the former is revealed.
¹ 1: Destabilising technology. 2: Climate change. 3: A “fracturing of the global order”. 4: The loss of durable political consensus. 5: Party-political collapse. 6: A lack of underpinning values. 7: The simultaneity of the above.
² Horne might feel vindicated. A depression in the 1890s was catalysed by a marked gap between expected and actual investment returns. The lesson was not wholly taken to heart, and history repeated itself with debt-financed construction in the 1920s. Thus we were positioned quite tenuously even prior to the Great Depression in 1929.
³ The ascendancy (and notoriety) of Australian ‘shitposting’ would seem to suggest that this is indeed a cornerstone of our national character — but secondary-school textbook authors might not have quite the same thing in mind when they speak of larrikinism.
⁴ He is, however, more forthrightly Whiggish in his essay, where he casts the defense of these values as the progressive’s burden.
⁵ That is, other than in a line, waiting for signatures.
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