Mate, where's my country?

1:05pm 29th January 2006

I am becoming more and more alarmed by recent events in Australia in the post 9/11 world and the resulting political and legal changes this country is undergoing. Politicians and lawmakers tell us we are under attack from global fundamentalism of various kinds, that we should accept a stronger government hand in the fight against lawlessness and terrorism, and that fighting "preventive wars" abroad is a good thing. All the best things about Australia, her loving protection of everyday citizens, her blindness to racial, religious and cultural differences between her people and her provision of opportunities for all are falling apart.

John Howard's Australia Day speech should be unsettling for anyone who believes in the traditional moral, social and political values that Australia is built on. Australia was once called "The Lucky Country". It is for this reason that my family moved here in 1979. We came here from Apartheid South Africa, leaving behind a repressive regime intent on maintaining a singular moral and political ideology, forcefully and lethally imposing its values on those who would live differently. So today, 27 years later, hearing a speech from the most powerful man in my new home say "We expect all who come here to make an overriding commitment to Australia, its laws and its democratic values. We expect them to master the common language of English and we will help them to do so", I find myself afraid. Australia is not the place it was 2 decades ago.

Between federation and the 1980s, Australia had transformed itself from an insignificant collection of colonies in the British Empire to arguably the best place to live anywhere. Despite having a total population less than some cities elsewhere in the world as well as a land mass larger than Europe, she had a highly developed national infrastructure. Her roads, railways and telecommunications networks were as good as or better than those found anywhere. She had a public health care system that was among the best and most equitable in the world. There was a vibrant and politically aware culture, imbued with a unique sense of pluralistic commonality, where "live and let live" was more than just a catchy phrase. Government funded education put all levels of education within the reach of all. Even those with the lowest incomes were able to attain the highest levels of education, thanks to a framework of education policies such as HECS, the overall design of which was nothing short of benevolent genius.

Sure there were problems. Crises of conscience, arising out of the atrocities of colonialism and the racist "White Australia" policies provided reasons for the nation to collectively have a long, hard look at her history, acknowledging that all was not well for all segments of her population. Nonetheless, the people of Australia showed no fear in confronting these issues, and with developments like the "Mabo" cases, the formal establishment of communities from foreign lands and the public promotion of multiculturalism, it seemed that the Australian people were going to be among those few to make real progress in resisting the imbalanced, elitist, social order that has been imposed on most of the world by a colonial Europe.

And then something happened. Globalization. September 11. The spread of neo-conservatism among western governments. Terrorism. Precisely when it happened, I don't really know, but somewhere, somehow, Australia seems to have lost its way, hijacked by the corrupt forces of fundamentalist militant corporatism. Gone are the values of "fair go" and "equal opportunity for all", which are now nothing more than nostalgic phrases used by Australians fondly remembering a time that has since passed. Gone is the simple recognition that life is more than just dollars and cents and that happiness for individuals and families comes from a healthy society rather than a profitable economy. Gone are the ideals that drove Australia to reject the ideologies of uniform social order that she inherited from her colonial forefathers. They have all been replaced in Howard's brave new world, and frankly, I am terrified by what he has replaced them with.

In his speech Howard says:

"The great struggle of Australia's first century of nationhood was to reconcile a market economy with a fair and decent society. At the start of the 21st century, we have found a healthier balance in our political economy between public and private - one in keeping with the times and the contemporary character of the Australian people."

Well what does this mean? My interpretation, coloured by recent developments, is that Australia is degenerating into a raw capitalist society. True, in most of the first century after federation, Australia established a nation that did very well in balancing market ideology and liberalism with the values of a fair and decent society. She had the best of both worlds. The benefit of free markets were reaped; entrepreneurial activity was strong, her companies flourished globally, her standing in international trade was far higher than the tiny population would have suggested was achievable. Yet the people, the mothers, fathers and children that made up Australia, were not exposed to the raw chaffing that accompanies unfettered market activity. There are no economic indicators that show this, but have a chat with any Australian over the age of 40 and they'll tell you all about it. They'll tell you about a government that genuinely cared about the people it was elected by. They'll tell you about a time when economic policies did more than induce economic growth benefiting the rich. They'll also tell you that Howard's Australia is corroding these things. No longer does economic policy consider the "common good" as being what is good for common people, rather it now considers it to be increases in GDP, business growth and expansion of international trade, regardless who or how many actually see the results. Howard pays lip service to the ideals of equity in income distribution and claims to care about issues like poverty, but his policies belie his true views and disregard of the people he is supposed to lead. Examples abound, such as his decision to privatize Telstra in the face of clear opposition from a majority of the public. His policy of reckless privatization places all Australians at the mercy of the ruthless plutocracy it will create, turning Australia into an American styled society where money is the only measure of value, and only the rich benefit from Australia's health care, education and entrepreneurial opportunities. Another example was his blatant disregard for due process in pushing though anti-terror laws that do nothing to protect citizens from war, but create an environment where the government has far greater control over its citizens' activities and placing undue pressure on their rights. These laws, in the years since the pretext for their creation, September 11, have been getting more and more repressive, inching Australia towards Howard's apparent vision of a police state, ruled with the iron fists of his corporate friends. Oh, and let's not even discuss his decision in 2003 to send Australia to war with Iraq, a country she had no fight with, in a dispute her citizens wanted no part of, to support an ally the world is deeply suspicious of, for reasons that were questionable at the time and have since been proved to be false. Howard claims Australia has found "a healthier balance in our political economy". If it is healthier for someone, it certainly isn't the average Australian.

Howard also outlines his idea about what it means to Australians to be Australian. His new and improved idea of "one people, one destiny" harks back to Cold War era politics where nationalism and a singular set of national values drove nations to self-destruction in their struggles against one another. As though the wars of the twentieth century had never happened, Howard lays down his nationalist agenda with cultural, political and religious overtones. He proposes an Australia where we all sing the national anthem, our hands on our hearts, gazing in wonder at the majesty of the Australian flag, flapping in slow motion. Never mind that many in Australia consider the Australian flag to be a relic of colonial times, reflecting only that view of history where Anglo-Saxon settlers were heroes and pioneers. Never mind that many in Australia even consider flags and other such national symbols to be shallow meaningless celebrations of nationalism with no place in the modern, global world of the twenty first century where cultures, people and ideas know no borders.

By defining Australia as a Judeo-Christian nation rather than a nation that imbibes the views and ideas of all of its people equally, Howard places Australia at odds with the three quarters of the world that cannot be described as Judeo-Christian, including her nearest neighbours. At a time when globalization forces the Western and Eastern worlds together in such a way that they are exposed to the innermost workings of each others' ideologies with the differences resulting in varying levels of conflict, Australia is in a unique position to demonstrate to the world how an ideologically agnostic and socially compassionate government can lead to harmony and prosperity by allowing Australia's existing cultures of "fair go for all" and "live and let live" to simply continue. Howard instead chooses to redefine Australia as officially supporting a particular moral and religious point of view, while merely tolerating the existence of others. He does not seem to realize that other cultures have more to offer than souvlaki and tandoori chicken. This is at odds with my experience with the Australian people, who throughout my life here, did not merely tolerate the fact that I am Muslim, but embraced it and showed a willingness to have me actively participate in and be represented by the social fabric into which I have become woven. I am thankful for the benefits I have derived by living among such hospitable, principled people.

Howard doesn't stop at imposing his own personal ideology upon Australia's domestic political landscape, he has also irrevocably changed Australia's foreign profile from a historically peaceful nation, content to isolate itself from global conflicts, into one supportive of a particular global social order, willing to fight to further that cause. In doing so, Howard places Australians into the global, ideological battlefield. This, more than anything, is the real reason Australia has become the target of terrorism, and it seems that Australians now are going to have to take the blows that fall as a result of Howard's big mouth.

There was little gain from Australia's involvement in the Iraq war. The invoking of the ANZUS treaty was complete rubbish, as the flaws in the arguments for the war, the unreliability of the intelligence presented as supporting the need for the war and the complete absence of any indication that there was a link between the Iraqi government and the September 11 attack meant that there was no grounds on which Australia could consider its treaty partner to be "under attack". This is required by the treaty, which was established for the purpose of mutual defence, not mutual support in aggression. By choosing to enter the war, Howard has categorized Australia globally as another member state in the Anglo-American alliance of ultra conservative regimes spreading their particular brand of political order through military force. The so-called anti-terror laws, his dismantling of the bulwarks of Australian society such as her traditional labour protections, Medicare and HECS systems and willingness to commit Australian men and women to battles far away lay bare his right-wing alliances.

On a side note, the current situation in Australia highlights the flaws in the British style political culture that Howard is so keen on. With the opposition currently in administrative disarray and their views being an obsequious exercise in towing the official line, who do Australians vote for in order to effect real change? The Democrats? The Nationals? The Greens? The Australian Labor Party has clearly stated that they will not reverse the draconian anti-terror laws forced upon Australia by the Howard government, nor will they withdraw Australians from the unpopular war in Iraq, nor will they commit to cancelling the privatization of Telstra. Heck, why doesn't Kim Beazley just apply for Liberal Party membership? Even were Labour to be elected in the next election, it is doubtful they will have either the ability or the will to reverse the majority of the damage done to Australia's social fabric.

So it seems that Australia has started down the road to unfettered right wing conservatism. This road leads to a commodification of everything from health care to education, putting even these basic social services out of the reach of everyday citizens. This road leads to rampant erosion of civil liberties and an overbearing government. This road leads to a militant Australia starting fights with global opponents she has neither the will nor the resources to fight. This road leads to suffering. Perhaps, like my parents 27 years before me, it is time, sadly, to look for a more peaceful, more balanced place to live. Perhaps South Africa?