September 16, 2021
I was honoured to have been asked to deliver the Inaugural Jean McLean Oration.
Jean McLean is an outstanding illustration of how personal commitment to causes can change outcomes.
She has an exemplary record as a passionate campaigner for great causes – many of them unpopular at the time. She was imprisoned in 1971 for her protests against conscription for theVietnam War, served in the Victorian Parliament from 1985 to 1999, was a tireless advocate for affirmative action, supporting Timor-Leste (before and after independence), establishing a safe house network, law reform, witness protection, promoting the arts and an open inclusive society, developing Victoria University.
Jean Crosland was born in London in 1934. Her father, Arthur Crosland, was an industrial scientist. Hermother, Paula Berezovski, a very able teacher, had been born in Russia and migrated to Canada. The Crosland family arrived in Australia in 1937. The Victorian Parliament’s data base records her education, mysteriously, as: ‘Tutored at home and short periods at state and high schools.’ She was untainted by exposure to a university.
Jean entered the work force at the age of 14 and had a variety of jobs. She describes herself, modestly, as having been, at various times, a non-typing secretary, an occasional model for a furrier, and running a coffee shop in Cheltenham.
In 1957 she married Eric McLean, a great encourager and a very successful builder, and they had a son and a daughter, Adam and Rebecca.
Jean joined the Australian Labor Party in 1965. I was grateful for her empathic support in the campaign to reprieve Ronald Ryan in 1967.
In 1965 she had become convenor of the Save Our Sons movement which campaigned against conscription for the Vietnam War, and retained that position until all Australian soldiers withdrew in 1973.
Jean was one of the ‘Fairlea Five’, women sent to Fairlea Women’s Prison in 1971. It is to the credit of theDepartment of Veterans’ Affairs that its ‘Anzac Portal’ website uses these words:
'Prison was hell' screamed the headlines inMelbourne on 19 April 1971. 'The five women released from prison yesterday all lost weight during their eleven days behind bars'.
The five women in question, Joan Coxsedge, Jean McLean, Chris Cathie, Jo Maclaine-Cross and Irene Miller, were arrested under a charge of Wilful Trespass for distributing leaflets on conscientious objection to boys registering for national service at the Department of Labour and National Service. Already well known for their protest activities, the five women were each sentenced to fourteen days in Melbourne's Fairlea Prison. The case received wide publicity, generated a series of vigils and rallies outside the prison and brought the Save Our Sons movement to the attention of people who had not previously been aware of its existence. The media emphasised the imprisoned women's role as parents, noting that between them they had 25 children, all of whom would have to spend Easter that year without their mothers. The Age called them 'gaoled wives'.
The Fairlea Five were released after 11 days, Jean McLean remembered the prison as being 'soul destroying and an institution rivalled only by something out of the 18th century.' Their experience of incarceration was mercifully brief, but as women of obvious social conscience they lobbied to have conditions improved for those whose imprisonment would last much longer. In 2001 the five women received an official invitation to visit Vietnam where they met survivors of the war and the disabled children of veterans, among many others.
Jean McLean and Joan Coxsedge both became members of the Victorian Parliament and Chris Cathie was then married to a past (and future) Labor MP.
Jean was jailed again for non-payment of fines, and spent another night in a bluestone lockup.
This year a graphic novel about this time and Jean’s role in it was published by Allen & Unwin: Underground: Marsupial Outlaws and Other Rebels of Australia’s War in Vietnam by Mirranda Burton. It centres on Jean’s role as a suburban wife, mother and coffee shop manager who founded the Save Our Sons movement, with encouragement by her husband and collaboration with the painter Clifton Pugh and his wife Marlene at Cottlesbridge. The book also involves Bill Cantwell, an Australian soldier who was a victim of the Vietnam engagement, Mai Ho, a young Vietnamese woman, and Hooper, the Pugh’s wombat.
It would be difficult now, 50 years on, to argue a rational case for our military involvement in the Vietnam War. None of the justifications asserted by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, or Harold Holt and Billy McMahon, make any sense now. The fall of Saigon had zero effect on Australia’s national security. It was soon recognised that the war was essentially a campaign for Vietnamese national unity, not driven by China or the USSR and not part of a global expansion.
Australia was soon offering aid to Hanoi and developing trade links. When Prime Minister John Howard went to Vietnam in 2006 on a trade mission, he was asked if he had second thoughts on the Vietnam War which he had supported as a young man. He cautiously replied that he thought the reasons for entering still held good. I read this as coded language for paying an insurance premium to the US for future protection, essentially the same rationale for joining the US in invading Iraq in 2003.
Jean contested the Legislative Council seat of Monash in 1973, was Director of the Prahran College of Advanced Education Union 1974-80 and Australian Council of Trade Unions Arts Officer 1981-85.
She was elected to the Victorian Legislative Council in 1985, first representing Boronia, then Melbourne West retiring, after 14 years, in 1999.
In 1975 Portugal gave up its colonies, including East Timor.
East Timor’s annexation by Indonesia was acquiesced in by the Ford Administration in the United States and the Whitlam Government in Australia. The justification was entirely pragmatic – both Gerald Ford and Gough Whitlam thought that an independent East Timor would be economically non-viable and soon become a failed state, and a potential threat to stability in the region.
Jean became a passionate advocate for its independence and I agreed with her strongly on that issue. She developed a close working relationship with José Ramos-Horta, who has been linked with Victoria University for many years, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 and became President of Timor Leste.She also worked with Xanana Gusmao.
From 1998 she visited what was to become Timor Leste more than 20 times and in 2016 was awarded the Order of Timor Leste.
Jean was also Convenor of the Namibia Solidarity Association.
She also advocated independence for West Papua, controlled by Indonesia from 1962.
She served on the board of the Victorian College for the Arts and was a member of the Victoria University Council 1996-2005, becoming a Doctor of the University in 2005.
On Australia Day 2019 she was awarded an AM ‘for significant service to international relations, and to the Parliament of Victoria.’
Jean McLean was a courageous person who took on long term projects. She knew the importance of involving government in solutions to big problems and addressing them over time. Because we do not pay attention to ways of solving problems of our country as Jean did, we have a Democratic Crisis.
She is a great Australian and we do well to celebrate her courage.
Now more than ever we need, from leaders and the community, the sort of courage she displayed.
This week has marked the twentieth anniversary of the attack on the United States by al-Qaeda on September11, 2001.
Two Boeing 767s crashed into the Twin Towers in Manhattan, a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon in Washington and another 757 into a field in Pennsylvania, resulting in 2977 dead and more than 25,000 injuries. Some thousands have been later diagnosed with cancers attributable to the toxins released.
If Osama bin Laden’s goal was to damage Western liberal democracy then he succeeded far more than he could have hoped. However, much of the damage was self-inflicted as Western leaders turned against their greatest strength, a free, open, tolerant, reforming, curiosity and evidence-driven society.
9/11, 2001 began twenty years of moral panic, in which liberal democracies morphed into national security states, adopting secrecy as a standard operating practice – more so inAustralia, surprisingly, than in the United States, marked by secret trials, xenophobia and stigmatising of ‘the other’, and adopting a harsh, punitive attitude towards refugees, an approach that proved to be politically popular and was compounded by bipartisan support.
Apart from the barbaric cruelty of elements in the jihadist movement, particularly Islamic State (beheadings, crucifixions, the killing of civilians, suicide bombings), the central beliefs of jihadists, and ISIS militants, include the following:
Elements of this disturbing mind set is to be found in Australia, sometimes in unexpected places. Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has thoughtfully pointed out that women should be grateful that they not shot at.
Democracy faces its greatest existential crisis since the 1930s. Hitler used democratic forms to come to power in Germany but rejected the democratic ethos. What is sometimes called ‘the Enlightenment project’ has come under sustained attack in the United States, much of Europe, and to a lesser degree, so far, Australia.
There has been a sharp crisis of confidence in democratic practice, and the quality of leadership, in the United States, in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Poland, many other European states, Russia, Turkey, most of South America, and virtually all of Africa.
The global scene was marked by the rise of rightist, nationalist, anti-immigrant and protectionist parties, authoritarian rule, corrupted elections, the emergence of kleptocratic rulers, suppression of free speech, suspension of the rule of law, resort to violence and adoption of the surveillance state.
Democracy is under internal threats with the rise of populism, nativism, decaying institutions, with corruption accepted as normal, with vested interests setting agendas, leaders who refuse to be accountable for their actions, ‘retail politics’, where leaders fail to ask of a proposition ‘Is it right’, but ‘Will it sell?’, in a new era in which feeling and opinion displace analysis and evidence, and leaders fail to lead.
Australian democracy is under serious threat and neither the Coalition nor the Federal ALP have any vision beyond the election of 2022. Citizens have to be prepared to engage and challenge to tackle the global threat of climate change. The Coalition, captive of the fossil fuel lobby, lies about meeting global targets for emissions reductions and the Opposition’s line on climate change is vague and shifty. The states, irrespective of political allegiances, have been prepared to set targets: the Commonwealth has not – because there will be three elections before2030 and ten before 2050.
The well respected ‘Democracy Index 2020’, published by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit calculates that only 8.4 per cent of the world’s population live in a ‘full democracy’.
Australia is one of them, but we cannot take it for granted. We have become increasingly secretive, authoritarian, sensitive to criticism and corrupt.
In 1977 when I was first elected to the Commonwealth Parliament, only 2 per cent of Australians were graduates, and 53 per cent of MPs. In 2021 we have a much more tertiary qualified community – 7.0 million graduates – and 85 per cent of MPs have degrees. That ought to mean afar higher quality of debate/discussion on issues than at any time in our history. Right? Wrong, actually.
Paradoxically, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the number of graduates in Parliament and the quality of political debate and it is now impossible to get a straight answer to a question.
Our Parliaments are far more representative as a cross-section of the community than they have ever been – not perfect, but far better. More women – not enough, some younger members, far more from non-English speaking backgrounds. Surely that ought to result in far better debates than in the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s, with all-male, white, English speaking Parliaments? Right? Again, wrong.
Politics has become a profession. This is the era of retail politics, complicated by some feudal elements, in factions and patronage.
The major parties have been privatised, ruled by factions who exercise power by keeping the numbers of active, inquisitive party members well down.
There are 15,000,000 voters but probably no more than 30,000 members of the major parties (0.2 per cent of the total) who are actually alive and know that they are members.
Typically, Members of Parliament are drawn from a very narrow gene pool and follow a depressingly similar career path:
Student politics > graduate > party/union/corporate/lobby group organiser > ‘minder’ > MP or Senator > Minister > 'resign to have time with the family' > lobbyist (gambling, banks, China, minerals.)
Liberal Party is essentially the party of the status quo – of reinforcement of the familiar. Historically, the ALP was the party of change, but I doubt if this is still true. The challenge for Labor is this: in an expanding, dynamic society, can the ALP concentrate on emphasising its ageing and contracting traditional base, with a ‘Back to the 1980s’ appeal?
In the decade 1966-1975, Australian politicians were generally well ahead of public opinion on many issues, for example the mass migration program, ending White Australia, abolishing the death penalty, divorce law reform, homosexual decriminalisation, access to abortion, recognising the People’s Republic of China, starting to reduce tariff protection, support for the arts, changing attitudes to the Vietnam War and conscription, affirmative action for women, needs based education, ending censorship, admitting large numbers of refugees, expanding tertiary education. Could we find an equivalent list for the current decade?
Australia has been a democratic innovator, and major reforms included expanding universities, creating probably the world's best national health scheme, significantly reducing tariffs without causing large scale unemployment.
In recent decades, politicians have been well behind public opinion on issues such as same-sex marriage, effective action on climate change, transition to a post-carbon economy, protecting the Great Barrier Reef and other heritage sites, voluntary assisted dying, ending live animal exports, a rational and compassionate approach to refugees, and the Republic. Political parties are fearful of antagonising vested interests and being ‘wedged.’
GarethEvans points out that so many of these are what he calls ‘decency issues’ and it is odd – and galling – that leaders who puta heavy emphasis on their religion and are supported by happy clappers are strikingly lacking in compassion, and regard cruelty to refugees, for example, as a vote winner.
In The Frontiers of Knowledge (Viking, 2021) the English philosopher A C Graylingwrote (p. 337):
‘Higher education has undergone a remarkable reversal. It has gone from having general literacy as its goal, leaving special expertise to form itself later as the outcome of individual interest and experience, to inculcating special expertise as its goal, leaving general literacy to form itself later as the outcome of individual interest. The reversal occurred without a half-way house, like a switch being thrown.’
We now live in an era of anti-leaders, where the greatest issue is winning (or failing to win) the next election, so politicians are walking on egg-shells, fearful of offending powerful vested interests, incapable of thinking globally, or contemplating the long term future and 2030 or 2050 seem unimaginably distant. There is a bipartisan failure in the hegemonic parties – both the Coalition and Labor, to act courageously on major issues – taking effective action on climate change (where we are determined to be last among developed nations, and proud of it), refusing to plan for a post-carbon economy, elevating opinion and feeling over evidence and experience, refusal to act on corruption, restore the concept of truth and accountability, in government, getting the Constitution right, pursuing indigenous reconciliation, preserving the environment, adopting humane, compassionate policies on refugees, tackling gambling and drug dependence, ending misogyny and exploitation of women.
The last serious debate in the Australian House of Representatives on science and research was in 1989, on involvement in war in 1991, arts and culture in 1995, the Republic in 1998, on human rights in 2001, foreign policy in 2003, the environment and climate change in 2009. Neither major party is willing to debate the rationale for progressive taxation, rational policies on water use, a humane approach to the refugee/asylum seeker issue – or gambling. And on the surveillance state, never.
Few Australians recognise that its House of Representatives holds the Gold Medal for the shortest sittings of any national legislature. It is not surprising that extended debate becomes impossible: it is planned that way. This is not the result of COVID-19 – it has been the case since 1901. But I cannot help feeling uneasy when fears about COVID have been used as a justification for Parliaments not sitting at all – while recognising that the option of electronic voting can be valuable.
As the number of MPs increases, the sitting hours decrease.
All governments regard parliamentary sittings as a nuisance, taking Ministers away from what they regard as their core business. They are particularly irritated by Question Time, which has become a theatre of the absurd, not a genuine search for information, in which personal attacks, gaffes or ‘gotcha!’ moments are scored, like a sporting event.
The words ‘truth’, ‘accountability’, ‘courage’, ‘debate’, ‘analysis’, ‘critical thinking’, ‘compassion’, ‘vision’ and ‘global’ have disappeared from the political lexicon.
Only an active citizenry can prevent sliding towards authoritarian or populist democracy with its endless appeals to the short term and self interest.
This is by far the biggest problem and the biggest failure. The consequences of a 2 degree increase in GMST (Global Mean Surface Temperature) before 2040 would be at least an order of magnitude more catastrophic than COVID-19. The issue has poisoned our politics for more than a decade.
Climate change is the most egregious example of an important policy having been hijacked by vested interests, promoting the expansion of the fossil-fuel industry, whatever the environmental costs.
Neither major party will mention the ‘c’ word – coal or to acknowledge the central problem, that each tonne of coal that we burn produces 3.67 tonnes of CO2 which accumulates in the atmosphere for decades, perhaps longer. Australia ranks with Brazil and Saudi Arabia as a climate change prevaricator or denialist.
The Coalition is bad on this issue, Labor only feeble. Vested interests have captured the Coalition and Labor is fearful of offending workers in coal-mining seats. GetUp! claims to have 1,000,000 followers and asks for strong action on climate change. Gina Rinehart is passionately opposed. Who has greater influence? (It’s embarrassing to even ask.)
Politics always trumps the science. The National Party insists that reducing greenhouse gases, including methane, would be disastrous for farming, but the National Farmers Federation says, ‘We are already doing it.’ Major energy generators propose to phase out or close down coal fired power stations, but Angus Taylor says, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ Banks, superannuation funds and insurers are making lending or investment decisions based on climate change risks, but elements in government insist ‘No, you mustn’t.’ Oddly, State governments, both Coalition and ALP, have been far more courageous than the Commonwealth in setting climate change targets.
In my book Sleepers, Wake!, Technology and the Future of Work, published by OUP in 1982, I predicted – pretty accurately – the impact of theInformation Revolution and development of a post-industrial society. However, I made four false assumptions:
The IT revolution, in practice, has put exaggerated emphasis on the personal, local and short-term, the fragmentation of knowledge, life being experienced through the screen, choosing one’s own reality, conspiracy theories on tap, preferencing opinion over evidence.
Social media has become the predominant source of news and information for most Australians (and Americans). In practice it has become an echo chamber and a vector of misinformation. It is highly democratic, in a sense, because it rejects the concept of hierarchies of information, insisting that choosing the truth is a matter of personal opinion, and that expert opinion, in practice, involves elites rejecting the layperson’s right of free choice. ‘Feeling’ is more important than evidence, the subjective overrides the objective. The controversy about vaccines for COVID-19 is a disturbing illustration of this. And trolling is toxic and destructive.
As Donald Horne argued in The Lucky Country (1964), and I followed on with Sleepers, Wake!, although Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised countries, with two thirds of its population in just five cities, mediocre political leadership still sees us as essentially a quarry or a farm, dependent on high volume exports and ignoring high value added complex products. Harvard University’s Economic Complexity Index ranked Australia as No. 55 in 1995, falling to No. 86 in 2019. In those years South Korea has gone from 21 to 4, Singapore 20 to 5, China from 46 to 16, India from 60 to 43 while Japan was No. 1 in both years. New Zealand is on 49. Australia’s position is not an accident, but a matter of choice – our refusal to transition to a post-carbon economy. However, the good news for Australia is that we are well ahead of Ethiopia and Papua-NewGuinea.
Failure, incompetence or corruption is shrugged off, Commonwealth Ministers are never held to account, and this is now regarded as normality. The ability to count on numbers for a coup, or counter-coup, becomes the decisive factor in Parliamentary parties. The role of political staffers (‘minders’) is excluded from scrutiny. Lobbyists are seriously corrupting elements in determining public policy, and by recruiting from staffers, MPs or Ministers, can change outcomes which are concealed as ‘commercial in confidence’ but have a decisive (and unscrutinised) role in shaping policies and priorities in gambling, liquor, mining, water use, forestry, education, health, taxation and defence spending. Enemies are punished and friends rewarded. Courts, tribunals and boards are stacked and grants given to friends without appropriate oversight. Huge amounts of ‘dark money’ are donated to parties in election campaigns. The Auditor General’s funding was stripped back and the prospect of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission is receding.
Attempts to open up serious debate on our history are attacked as ‘political correctness’ or ‘cancel culture’, both imports from the United States and propagated on social media and by shock jocks and News Corp, especially indigenous issues: poverty, life expectancy, deaths in custody, over-representation in prisons. Consistent failure – and dishonesty – about race, class and gender. Dismissal of Uluru statement. The 1901 Australian Constitution is obsolete and has never operated as written. We are the only Western democracy without a Bill of Rights and party discipline inside our Parliaments is rather North Korean. Sharp increases in inequality compounded by (i) education being used as a class sorting device and (ii) lack of commitment to serious taxation reform.
With the exception of medical, defence and agricultural science, there is a disturbing lack of curiosity about and knowledge of science in the political establishment, especially where the long term is involved. CSIRO, universities, the Bureau of Meteorology are all under-resourced.
The Public Service used to give governments independent policy analysis and ‘frank and fearless’ advice. Now public servants are instructed to do as they are told. Expertise has been hollowed out and advice largely comes from two sources, (i) management consultants, chosen on the basis that they will tell governments what they want to hear, and (ii) ‘minders’, essentially low-grade political apparatchiks in Ministerial officers who are exempt from scrutiny by Parliamentary committees.
Religious fundamentalism – both Christian and Islamic – seems to offer cheap grace, a superficial transaction promising lifelong, even post-life, guarantees, just like buying a commercial product such as life assurance. Questioning, individual judgement or knowledge is not required, and may be actively discouraged. Fundamentalism is not merely intellectually crippling; it is profoundly contemptuous of Jesus or Muhammad, whose teachings are far more profound, universal, stimulating, controversial, and compassionate than fundamentalists will concede. Fundamentalism offers a creed without history, without scholarship, without depth, and without context, and yet its phenomenal growth confirms that it meets community needs and anxieties far more than mainstream churches (or mosques).
Despite the magnitude of the problems, I am confident that there are solutions.
There are ten priorities for our time if we are to survive the next half century without irreversible damage to the biosphere and our social and political institutions.
Oddly, the biggest problem of all – climate change – could be the easiest to tackle with higher levels of community engagement.
The number of Australians with lived experience of climate change from direct observation – farmers, gardeners, vignerons, birdwatchers, bushwalkers, firefighters, anglers, skiers, beekeepers, photographers, aviators –amounts to millions – but they are currently disengaged from, and repulsed by, politics.
Their expertise should been harnessed by the hegemonic parties but was not to ensure that powerful mitigation measures were adopted.
Instead of hand-wringing they must engage, engage, engage. As Ross Garnaut has argued we should not fear transition to a post-carbon economy – we have the potential to be a superpower in that area.
Voters are now spectators, not participants, in the political process.
Much could be achieved in a range of policy areas if even a small proportion of our citizens.
If 1000 citizens in each of the 151 Federal electoral divisions could be persuaded to join the political party that they normally vote for, play an active, principled and informed role, insist on a reform platform, and fight existing factional systems/cliques this would only involve 1.0 per cent of all voters.
But it would be a political revolution.
Is it essential that we not fall into despair, and retreat to the caves. But citizens have to be informed, then challenge, tell truth to power. It will not be easy. It will be exhausting. We will probably lose some friends. It will not be comfortable. But it must be done.
Psychologically, we instinctively react to immediate threats or opportunities. Our species beat the Neanderthals because our responses were (presumably) quicker. But then modern humans began planning ahead for the next season, planted crops, and were no long exclusively hunter-gatherers or grazers.
The year 2030 has to be planned for now, and we must work towards a global network to forestall the potential disaster of 2050. Global emissions must be cut by 7.6 per cent for each year of this decade. The greatest challenge for us all is to enable humanity to achieve its full potential, not just as consumers, and to preserve our home, our planet, to understand what we are capable of.
It is, I suspect, not an accident that the study of humanities at universities has been been singled out for discrimination by sharply increasing charges in a sector already badly damaged by the COVID-19 and the withdrawal by overseas fee-paying students.
We must resist the smug and dangerous implication: Who needs philosophers, historians, political scientists, psychologists, journalists, critics, anthropologists, archaeologists, writers, musicians, and creative artists just because they can throw light on the human condition and help us to find out who we are?
We cannot be part-time humans.
The huge task of exploring human potential has never been taken seriously. Nor has the equally huge task of meeting human needs.
It is about time we found out.
The Inaugural Jean McLeanOration 2021
Wednesday, 15 September 2021