November 5, 2021



How we sound and look to the world – and ourselves. Part Three: What will the future bring?

An exclusive three part series by Robyn Archer AO

Robyn Archer is a singer, performer, writer, artistic director and public advocate of the Arts

Part Three: What will the future bring?

No-one here can ignore that there is tension and power play in the Indo-Pacific region and that, alas, all countries feel the need to flex a bit of military muscle. But AUKUS is something else.

I voted for a Republic in the deliberately obfuscated referendum, but both AUKUS and the breakdown of relationships with China and with Europe make me wonder whether we could any longer effectively go it alone. AUKUS ties us (and the public can have no inkling of the implicit deals made) to the US and to a UK no longer part of Europe, in ways that make us look vulnerable.

It perhaps does the very opposite of its stated intention to make us seem stronger. If we are now more intricately militarily tied to the US than we have already been (the complexities clearly underscored by the fact of a continuing and possibly increasing US military presence in the Northern Territory where the port of Darwin is owned by the Chinese), what might the situation be if Donald Trump or his ilk succeeds Biden?  AUKUS then feels typical of a boof headed rush into a fix which inspires big headlines and inflated rhetoric at the time, but fails to consider the possible consequences, including the off-siding of a valuable European ally.

There are alternatives – alternatives which can be illustrated by the significance of vocal and performative differences in our leaders.

Think of the vocal/performative difference between Obama and Trump. Then forgive me mentioning the obvious example of Penny Wong, whom I understand is regularly voted the most trusted politician in Australia.

I can't help wondering where our international standing might have been had Penny Wong been our Minister for Foreign Affairs in the last few years.  Intelligent, considered, her expertise delivered in a calm and gently-spoken tone, there’s no hint of an upward inflection, and we rarely hear her raise her voice and certainly never in the way that Scott Morrison has in recent weeks. And yet she is heard and understood.

It reminds me of the late Cathy Santamaria, the most softly spoken public servant I have ever encountered, yet every time she opened her mouth, everyone round the table leaned in, stopped shuffling, and made sure they took in every word. So why isn’t Senator Wong our voice to the world?

I hate to believe that ‘the people get the government they deserve’, but the most simplistic answer is that Bill Shorten was proposing a couple of measures to achieve first steps towards a sustainable economy – and the electorate wouldn’t cop it.

Many people in finance, including some Liberal voters I know, knew that cutting certain tax concessions was absolutely the right and fair thing to do in the interests of a sustainable economic future. But greed and a sense of entitlement drove some of  the electorate once again to ignore the future, check the weight of the wallet and vote selfishly.

How long can this go on? The pressure on the planet demands we do with less, we must reduce our footprint, reduce our consumption, yet our economies are predicated on consumption. People stop spending and what does Treasury do? Lower interest rates in order for people to go out and spend and consume. People discover during lockdown that they don't need all that cheap clothing which, once they throw it away in order to buy more, ends up in a massive landfill somewhere in Africa.

But what is the government’s call?  Get out there and spend; more cheap throwaway apparel, more environmentally dangerous plastic for the kids at Christmas. And companies like AfterPay, congratulated on innovation and applauded for the massive financial gains of its founders, have made spending just that much easier. The drive for endless and escalating consumption is as much a recipe for disaster as the untrammeled pollution which the majority of Australians now care about. Unless there’s leadership to convince Australians that the current economic model, based on ever-increasing spends for creature comforts, has fatal flaws, then it’s hard honestly to predict a healthy future.

As we may glean from the micro of anti-vaccers and non-compliance, selfishness has never been so costly – it’s the price of human life, and so it is in the macro.

When I first started working and living in the UK and Europe, I was proud to be an Australian.  The national character might have felt a bit rough round the edges, but essentially hard-working and honest, with the possibility of being funny, self-deprecating, intelligent and innovative all at the same time. It seemed to me we had a good reputation.

In the last 45 years I feel that reputation has been diminished on many fronts: climate action resistance, treatment of refugees, the cricketing sandpapergate, the rejection of First Nations Statement from the Heart and the ongoing inability to close the gap: and all of this as a background to the current contentious list.

I believe our reputation is tarnished. I believe we may now be viewed by many not as generous and intelligent, but as selfish and stupid.  I would like our reputation to be restored because I know we have as much good and great about us as those in other countries.

Who will do that for us and how?  I can't see it being achieved by leadership incapable of a quiet reasonable tone of voice and far too quick naturally to resort to shouting and grimacing on the one hand, and grinning platitudes on the other. This does nothing to restore confidence on a world stage.

No doubt there have been as many Australian advances and achievements in the past 45 years as there have been things that detract from our international standing. It’s just that they don't get the headlines. They are not the focus.

Is it possible that the recent survey showing 72% of Australians want more action on climate change means we have stepped into new territory? Is it possible that coming generations will really understand the many changes we need to make in order for their world to be habitable and interesting, honest and productive for them and their children. And if so, who is going to make their case? Who has the voice that can persuade the need for change in economic structure, that can persuade we are largely well off enough to do with a little less of everything and at the same time ensure better equity for ourselves and others? Who can speak to us, and to opponents as well as colleagues, in calm respectful authentic tones?

We urgently need dignified and authentically representative statespersons and if they do exist at present, they are not being heard.

They are being either quietly gaslit by the smirk or drowned out by the kind of loud and bullying voice which in almost any era, and any situation, people find increasingly difficult to trust.