Reflections on 26 January 2015

For the past few years, I have mixed it with the flag bearers on the 26 January long weekend. This is not because I think jingoistic and cringe-worthy flag fetishism, as rekindled by the terror-mongering wedge-master John Howard, is a worthy reflection of our national character.

No. My choice of company on the 26 January long weekend is rather because I am middle-aged, and can no longer attend gigs with the gusto and regularity I one did, and still love going to live music events. For over two decades the 26 January long weekend offered the opportunity to see a years’ worth of live music in one jam-packed day and night.

And so I would book Big Day Out and totter along and hang with the flag capers and bikini fashionistas and people who choose to get neck tattoos and do a spot of participant-observer data collection (cultural studies – Australia) and see a great cross-section of new music, techno, and bands I first heard back in the 90s when TripleJ went national.

Not a Nirvana veteran, I came late to the charms of Big Day Out. But it became something of a family tradition, and this year was to be the first BDO for my youngest son, he having turned thirteen and started high school last year.

Never mind. We attended a different concert as a family, and went to Yabun for the first time since BDO Sydney moved back to “the actual day”. The BDO/26 January nexus was recalibrated, you may recall, because of outbreaks of overt racist violence in December 2005 in Sydney.

Ah, yes 26 January and racist violence. Is there anything more Australian?

There is nothing particularly new about racist violence in Sydney, or anywhere else in Australia for that matter, or not since these places have been called ‘Sydney’ and ‘Australia’. Overt, physical, structural, institutional racism, violence and racist violence are endemic across this continent and its islands. It is not difficult to see, nor is it difficult to trace. And nowhere is the structural racist violence more starkly apparent than in the public eye on the 26 January long weekend. This year was an absolute doozy.

But first, Yabun. The Sydney celebration of Aboriginal survival has moved from Redfern Oval to Victoria Park. This gorgeous site on the corner of Broadway and City Road nestles in the shadow of the sandstone glory of Sydney University. Despite less than ideal weather, there was a great turn-out, and the day was an absolute pleasure. Everyone looked happy and friendly and committed to the optimism and dialogue of the day. The Aboriginal and Islander music, dance and culture on display, from the stage to the Corroboree ground to the food hall to the services stands to the clothing stalls, were beautiful and moving and spirited – creative people with a shared outlook in a peaceful space.

And as someone who switched off analogue at the last possible moment, I have to confess a whitefella moment when I saw the NITV set-up and coverage afterwards. I was so seriously impressed at just how good is that station. I know how that sounds, I really do. I can’t seem to express these thoughts clearly without some kind of patronising tone creeping into my voice. But I am saying it anyway (rather than avoid saying it altogether): NITV did the most fantastic job.

And I am saying this (on less shaky ground, because it goes to my people, the white Australians): The survival of Indigenous people and culture, in the face of overwhelming violence and destruction, enriches us all. I continue to wonder when this self-evident truth will become a mainstream Australian value. We all share in celebrating the unique strength and pride and beauty of Aboriginal culture at events like the Sydney Olympics. Yet so many of us do so without recognising the incredible resilience of the holders of that culture; without honouring the strength, resourcefulness and integrity that has seen the culture passed on, generation after generation, in the face of unrestrained oppression and aggression by the coloniser and descendants.

It is the unrestrained aggression of the remnant colonial state that marks the downside of our 26 January long weekend. This year, as usual, there were many: historical, contemporary, jingoistic, parochial, cringe-worthy, elitist, exclusive and as always, illogical. For a demographic that insists it has a monopoly on what is rational, reasonable, and logical, your conservative leadership and commentary – your paid shill white man and wannabe Devine types – rarely make any sense at all. When the obviousness of this is noted, the range of responses is narrow and, again, aggressive: shout down, attack the messenger, change the subject, whinge.

Whether heartless politicians traumatising asylum seekers, or paid shills doing whatever it takes to push the dole-bludger line, or large groups of drunk white men wearing flag capes and shouting the old two-word six-beat slogan, these people are dangerous. They wield enormous power and lack conscience. It is not particularly necessary to compare them. Large groups of drunk men such as we encountered on the way home from Yabun (on public transport) are frightening. Powerful elites who cut essential services are frightening. They are less frightening to me than to some others – because I am less vulnerable. The relevant comparison is this: the power-drunk pollie and the alcohol-drunk flag caper are much more frightening than a  day in the company of a group who are regularly demonised as aggressive and drunk. But moving on.

The reconstruction job awaiting us, when the Abbott government falls, boggles the mind. The economic incompetence alone is breathtaking. When was the last time a budget delivered in May was still not passed by the following new year? Yet Abbott insists this is due, and only due, to an “obstructionist” Senate. It is as though Abbott has no political memory, no historical sensibility, and no understanding of the role of the House of Review. Abbott in this mode strikes me as the epitome of an old meme that kicks around online political debate in the USA (or US electronic graffiti, as Abbott would have it): IOKIYAR. This stands for ‘It’s OK if you’re a Republican’. Our very own LNP speak and act in much the same way.

A high-ranking unmarried woman who is in a relationship but who is not a mother? IOKIYALNP.

A government that crafts its message to the 24-hour news cycle? IOKIYALNP

Policy backflips based on polling and public opinion? IOKIYALNP

Deals with macro/minor/independent Senators to pass your legislative agenda? IOKIYALNP

And that’s just the examples where ALP government actions are remotely comparable to the current fiasco. When it comes to the hundreds of lies, vested interests, and broken promises; to people broken and abandoned to their fate, be it domestic violence, mental illness, or caring for those with a disability; to legislation that actively dehumanises some of the most vulnerable people on earth and policies that actively impoverishes the poorest Australians; not to mention the creepiest political leader we have ever had the misfortune to see elected … all this and more … is OK if you are LNP.

Abbott talking about obstructionist Oppositionism should have anyone with the memory span of a gnat snorting into their teacups or crying into their beer. He is a one-man obstructionist machine. He knows nothing but oppositionalism. He admits that his only qualification for captain, his single skill, the one thing he does better than the next bloke, is sledging. That is, Abbott has the same cricket skills as his oily paterfamilias, the man who gave us this monster, John Howard: can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field. Yet Abbott rose to captain because he can win in a single capacity: bullying. The sports-field-specific term for bullying is “sledging”.

If chess is a battlefield, cricket is an English politico-legal system. Every day, commentators on government invoke foundational principles, rules and conventions shared with a common ancestor: elitist and eccentric rationales born of the upper class English mind. The landed gentry, your aristocratic gent, is lord and master. His common sense is the common common sense. He wants to appear fair, and compels others to agree that he is, but has not the remotest desire to cede power. Incredible, enormous, exhausting work – wars, civil wars, armed struggle and peaceful revolutions – have been prosecuted to achieve the most obvious and incremental transfers of power away from his monopoly on privilege (they are not rights until we all have them). Suffrage for those who do not own real property. Suffrage for those who once *were* the private property of the white man.

In cricket, the bowler is the prosecutor and the batsman is the defendant. The bowler appeals to the judge, but it is the batsman who gets the benefit of the doubt. Like a minister of conscience held accountable by Westminster convention, a batsman who knows he snicked and was caught is supposed to walk. Yet neither Minsters nor batsmen fall on their swords these days. In cricket, batsmen don’t walk anymore because of technological uptake – the third umpire – and new rules around it. Batsmen stand their ground, either brazening it out or letting their opposition exhaust the appeals process. Traditionally, batsmen walked because it was the right thing to do – even when the umpire missed the snick.

In politics, ministers also brazen it out when they are caught behind, or rather, with their snouts in the trough. This is because the judge is the electorate, and the technology is the 24-hour news cycle, social media, endless message management, and gotcha journalism. Ministers, like batsmen, brazen it out because they can. The rise of sledging, like the rise of Tony Abbott, is just not cricket – but then when did power-seekers ever abide by the rules that are designed to curb their power? If there is an option not to do so and a chance to get away with it?

Cricket was traditionally played on the green. The green was the commons, yes, just like the House of the same name in English tradition. The Lords are called peers although they were only peers of each other and their title which stemmed from their entitlement was your Worship which, like the term lordship itself, hopelessly muddled political leadership with godliness. On and on it goes, the deployment of language to crystallise in the mind of the Englishman the inherent place of the Lord and the commoner (who is simply a peasant with a vote). The commons were always defined by the Lords, whether we are talking about the houses of parliament or the feudal land ownership system. The two were inextricable, of course: eligibility rested not on reaching the age of majority but on land ownership, which in turn rested on the outstanding achievement of being born first, and with a Y chromosome.

It is claimed that monarchy has been replaced by democracy, and that feudalism has been replaced by a meritocracy. These sorts of claims are made by those who have benefitted most from massive mal-distribution of wealth and power, as entrenched during centuries of brutal and irrational systems of colonial imperialism. Despite widespread acceptance and reproduction, such claims are demonstrably false. Try googling ‘men property ownership 99%’ or ‘women world income 90%’ and see what kinds of results are sent back.

Likewise, contemporary democracy is taught as some kind of principled transition of power, the same kind of pedagogy that exhorts teachers to be apolitical, or omits the unicorns and fairy dust from stories about judges being impartial, or legislators acting in the interests of all. Democracy was – and would be, should we ever achieve it – revolutionary. Political power was not handed from landed gentry to commoner because someone asked nicely. It never is, as women suffragettes and black freedom fighters and contemporary feminists and rights campaigners of all descriptions can testify.

Like slavery, disenfranchisement of all but white male property holders is no longer socially or legally acceptable. Few would publicly suggest that outright ownership of human beings is a defensible position, or advocate banning women or people of colour from voting, or support re-criminalisation of sodomy. It takes a special kind of privilege to continue to spout the kinds of views that are consistent with such abominations. This is so despite the long long tail of the legacy of primogeniture, with its concomitant entitlements: literally, titles – whether Your Grace or M’Lord or titles as in deeds to land, which as mentioned carried such privileges as owning people and property, and voting for governments.

Yes, I am cherry-picking. Of course this is an unapologetically meandering stroll through the annals of feudal and colonial times. It is a blog post. I am writing it. All writers have to start and finish somewhere. That the past co-exists with the present, that particular slants on history are chosen by particular groups, is nothing new. It is the perogative of the writer: the blogger on their blog, the academic must meet different standards, the novellists set or conform to another set of norms altogether. But it has a point. And the point is this: the Knighthood nonsense is not a joke. It is symptomatic of the rottenness of the Australian polity.

I appreciate the resilience inherent in laughing at our leaders, and feel enormous gratitude to the satirists who have declared satire dead, and the commentators who have attempted to dismiss the Knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh as a mere aberration, a brain fart from toxic Tony. And indeed, it is all these things as well, and we must remain sane and not too despairing as we see out his term, however long that may be. But it is not nothing, this noxious stupidity, this fawning embarrassment. Yes, there are far more important issues. But this one is a very loud, bright signal as to all that is wrong with Tony, his government, the political debate and commentary thereon, AND OUR FAILURE AS A NATION TO ADDRESS THE COLONIAL LEGACY.

The colonial legacy will never be redressed if we dismiss contemporary actions that reproduce and reinforce that legacy as a joke. It is not a joke. It is a disgrace. It is an actively, knowingly, arrogantly deliberate gesture that one fellow blogger and tweeter called immediately as ‘thumbing his nose at Indigenous Australians’. This is exactly what Tony is doing when he makes himself Minister for Indigenous Affairs while cutting essential services such as the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme and Aboriginal Legal Aid. It is exactly what Tony did when he “knighted” a racist old chauvinist of the first order.

The announcement has re-ignited the Republic debate. Did Tony not see that coming? How could anyone not? It has re-ignited leadership speculation. Could he seriously have not known that would happen? It has confirmed that Murdoch has dropped his support. That was already coming, but still. Does Abbott really think he would have got into power without it? Questions continue to be raised about his mental capacity. Has Tony really not heard the chatter about his punch-drunk lizard-man demeanour? Even hardened lefties are reeling at the scale of audacity and thick-skinnery. The claim that social media is “electronic graffiti” confirmed his idiocy: Tony does not even know to use “digital” in this context, not “electronic”.

The knighthood nonsense is gobsmacking, but only in its scale. The move itself is Tony in a nutshell. It reeks of everything we know about him, and everything we know about the LNP, from the “oh this is a distraction” apologists to the “he stuffed it up” dissemblers. He didn’t just stuff up the politics. The distraction is from the budget, which is not just a problem of an obstructionist Senate. It is not an indulgent blunder, nor a “captain’s pick”. It is landed gentry eccentric English entrenched privilege on steroids, and Tony has either been or aspired to be that the whole way along.



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