Who won the wooden spoon for obtuseness among the swarm of the ABC’s apologists for putting Zaky Mallah on Q&A? Barrie Cassidy? He, with the Lindt café siege fresh in memory, could see no problem in inviting a convicted criminal and terrorist sympathizer into a packed TV auditorium. Tony Jones? He had no problem in allowing Mallah to broadcast his views to a million viewers? Mark Scott? He compared Mallah, who has never even been threatened with the loss of freedom of speech, with the Charlie Hebdo journalists who sacrificed their lives for it. There are many candidates, but the clear winner is Mark Scott.
The US Supreme Court has settled the law. By a majority of 5 to 4 it has declared that same-sex marriages are now legal throughout America. But the Chief Justice in his dissenting judgment predicted continued conflict. The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees religious believers the freedom to ‘exercise’ their religion. So what happens when, relying on the Constitution and in the exercise of its religion, a college refuses to provide accommodation for a same-sex couple, or an adoption agency refuses to place children with a same-sex married couple? Would Jesus, evangelicals ask, bake a cake for a same-sex wedding?
In an earlier book with a splendid title, Australian Intellectuals. Their Strange History and Pathological Tendencies, Greg Melleuish rejected the idea that the Howard government had turned things around in Australian cultural life. Basically little has changed. The achievements of the Howard years included many major reforms – tax reform, industrial relations reform, deregulation – and the creation of what David Kemp calls ‘the freest economy in the world’. But the culture remained Leftist – from the ABC to the schools and universities, and the arts. A fitting symbol of the Howard years is the Museum of Australia, conceived and built in those years, which presents Australians as Nazis. It is, as one of its Left admirers put it, ‘one in the eye for the Howard government.’ Melleuish’s latest book, Liberalism and Conservatism, a symposium edited and partly written by him, is an attempt to show how to ‘turn things around’. One of its themes is an attempt to rehabilitate the words ‘conservative’ and ‘British’.By international standards, Australia has long been one of the more conservative countries in the world. How did this paradox come to be? The truth is that Australian Lefties, especially the historians, have done a job on Australian history. Their narrative or legend of Australia runs from English chartism to socialism, to the Labor party and on to Whitlamism. But ordinary Australians, Melleuish believes, have ignored the intellectuals and ideologues and maintained traditional conservative values. It is these people – he writes confidently, ‘as I see every year when I teach students from backgrounds which are decidedly non-elite’ – who embody ‘the common sense handed down from the past.’ The men and women who established Australia’s basic institutions had no revolutionary ‘1789 moment’. They were determined to remain ‘British’ meaning conservative of a liberal bent. Relying on their instincts and with no thought of repudiating the past, they set out only to transfer liberal British practices and institutions to their colonies. Throughout the nineteenth century these conservative liberals or liberal conservatives triumphed. They created bicameral parliaments, free public schools, business enterprises for trains, trams, ships, gas and electricity. They established an arbitration system. But by the end of the 19th century and in the wake of the 1890s depression, Australian nationalists and socialists combined to undermine the liberal conservatives and to create what E.O. Shann called ‘the hermit nation’ based on protection, restrictive immigration, and welfare. By the 1930s Shann saw Australia as a pushover for foreign invaders. He was nearly right. But in the post-War years an era of conservative re-liberalisation began. It has limitations. Take Chris Rath’s chapter on the proposed national curriculum: ‘What I wasn’t taught at High School’. Schools have given up teaching Western Civilisation. They ignore or marginalise the historic influence of Judeo-Christian ethic in shaping Australian life and law, and they have purged British history from any meaningful role. Rath knows that a curriculum cannot include everything but ‘we are condemning students to ignorance on the foundations that underpin Australian society’, foundations which he sums up as ‘Christianity, capitalism, the nation-state, law, democracy and freedom.’ The baffling fact is that it is often Liberal Party spokesmen who sing the praises of the national curriculum and state ministers of education, responsible for the schools, who remain silent. Rath calls for the urgent scrapping of the national curriculum. But only the states can bring it about. The restoration of federalism as a bulwark against the centralising Commonwealth is one of the underlying themes of the book, a useful contribution to the re-liberalisation of Australian culture.
The Hero of Waterloo pub put on a play to honour the bicentenary of the historic victory over Napoleon in 1815. So did the Sydney Theatre Company and one or two schools. It may have taken months for the great news to reach Sydney but the Australians of the time quickly began naming towns and suburbs, streets and creeks after the famous victory. They knew that if Napoleon had won, it would have been the end of Australia as we know it. Worth a few words from the great and the good. But there was only silence.
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