6 September 2019, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia
I am a Tasmanian who has lived for the past 35 years in Victoria. What has become apparent to me over that time is this major difference between the two places: Tasmania, in its origins, is Georgian, and Victoria, in its origins, is Victorian.
The difference between the Georgian and Victorian eras is about vastly more than different tastes in architecture and furniture. The two historical eras had profoundly different ways of thinking about human society & what we owe our fellow human beings.
In 1803, when Tasmania was founded as Van Diemen’s Land, Britain was the biggest trafficker of human slaves in the world. The financial interests behind this horrific practice forged the most powerful political lobby group in the country - they owned a block of seats in the British parliament and had high-profile public champions like the future monarch William IV and the great military hero of the day, Horatio Nelson The slave trade had insinuated itself deeply into the British political system in the same way that, in our own time, the NRA has insinuated its way into the American political system, throttling gun law reform.
By the time Victoria was declared an independent colony in 1850, the slave trade had been outlawed by the British parliament. A huge battle had been fought, a huge victory won. For the first time in British political history, people had campaigned politically for the rights of people other than themselves. That’s a huge shift in public consciousness and one that confounded the conservatives of the day. Lord Abingdon, one of slavery’s defenders, had declared, “Feelings of humanity are a private matter and not the basis of public policy”. In the Victorian age, feelings of humanity did indeed become the basis of public policy. And that was another huge shift in the public consciousness.
During the Victorian Age, Britain saw reforms across a whole range of areas - prisons, education, child labour, extending the vote.... It was the Victorians who invented the idea of “progress”. In our own time, that idea has been diminished to mean only economic progress, but, originally, to the Victorians, it also meant social and moral progress. Hence we get the phrase “Victorian morality” which was, among other things, prudish about sex. No-one ever accused the Georgians of being prudish about sex.
So how does any of this impact on Tasmania and Victoria? Well, to begin with, there is a whole chapter of history that Tasmania possesses that Victoria does not. There are characters in Tasmanian history who have no equivalent in Victorian history like one of my journalistic heroes Henry Melville, who wrote “The History of Van Diemen’s Land 1816-36” from the condemned cell in Hobart prison where Governor Arthur had placed him.
But that first chapter in this island’s colonial history came at a price. In the words of historian Ros Haynes “The imagery associated with Van Diemen's Land was too deeply rooted in the history and the literary culture of the island. It lingered on as a malaise, as a sense of inferiority to 'the mainland' “. This was compounded by a corresponding sense of superiority among a certain sort of Victorians. Tasmania, I once wrote, was colonised twice, once by England and once by Victoria.
My subject today is living with the complexity of our times, so why am I talking about history? Because we are all part of a continuum that started long before we were born and will continue long after we are dead. To put it another way: I best understand life through understanding, or seeking to understand, the bigger story that is history. A Jewish man I knew who sold shoes at South Melbourne market used to talk to me about history. I thought he had an opinion worth listening to, having survived the Nazi occupation of his home country, Hungary, during World War 2, and then escaped from the Communist regime which followed. The shoe-seller told me history is like a river. Sometimes it moves so slowly it feels like it’s not moving at all, then it speeds up and suddenly it’s rushing and you’re going over a waterfall. I think we are about to go over a waterfall – if, in fact, we have not already gone over it.
My fear is that we are entering, or have entered, a new technologically enhanced Dark Age, one that currently finds its lead actor in Donald Trump whose depth of character was best summed up, I think, in a story which appeared last Sunday week in the Washington Post about a reluctant visit Trump made in 2017 to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Having paused at a display on the Dutch role in the global slave trade, Trump turned and, by way of a response, remarked to the museum’s founding director, “You know, they love me in the Netherlands.”
This is a man with more than 20 allegations of sexual abuse against him, including one by a woman saying she was procured for Trump by Jeffrey Epstein as a 13-year-old. It is a measure of the strangeness of our times that, not only do these allegations have about as much lasting consequence as sports scores, there are Christian evangelists in the United States who see Trump, literally, as an agent of God.
So what has this to do with Australia? Everything. Sky News in Australia has adopted the lead of Fox News in America where it has been described – fairly, in my opinion – as the propaganda wing of the Trump-era Republican Party. Both organizations are owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp which also dominates the Australian newspaper market. When Pauline Hanson advised the voters of Western Australia prior to the last State election that Vladimir Putin was “a man of vision”, it was because she saw an idea that was working for Donald Trump and thought she’d try it here. More recently, during the George Pell trial, I was surprised to see one tweeter describe Pell as a Christian saint. I went to the tweeter’s home page. He is – or, at least, sees himself as - a highly devout English Catholic. In addition to Pell, the two other causes dear to his heart were Donald Trump and Brexit. What historical forces unite George Pell, Donald Trump and Brexit? I think I know what a feminist, particularly a feminist of colour, would say.
How did we end up in this weird place? Clearly, technology has simultaneously both empowered and disempowered us. From my perspective as a journalist with an eye on the public realm, there are four obvious dynamics at work. One is the internet and social media – again, both carry and disperse a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of ignorance. Connected to this is a loss of faith in education, particularly public education. One hundred years ago, people working for a better world proceeded in the faith that government education would, as a matter of course, produce more enlightened societies. Now we are dropping back to the view that education is a means to the end of individual advancement and, following from this, something only the better-off can afford. The result? Greater public ignorance. A third factor is that we now have a whole new level of sophistication in political propaganda using – or, rather, manipulating - platforms like Facebook. Cambridge Analytica worked in this way with both the Trump election campaign in 2016 and the Brexit Leave campaign. I saw an interview with one of the Cambridge Analytica directors in which he said that politics is essentially a matter of feeling, not thought. That is, by appealing directly to feeling – and, in many cases, by feeling we actually mean prejudice and fear – a person or political organization can circumvent the need for thought, for reason and knowledge, for rational debate.
The fourth factor that I see at work is the 24-hour news cycle. In the 24-hour news cycle, a story is replaced as soon as its loses its value as a sensation, the sensation that makes you go, “I want to look at that”, like you do with an ad in a brochure. What this means that serious political stories never catch up with those who stand accused by them.. Someone like Trump is a master at playing the 24 hour news cycle, spinning it like a chocolate wheel. I want to buy Greenland, he declares - Greenland doesn’t want to be bought, Trump is insulted and says America’s been insulted. He’s led the news for three days with a complete non-story that serves as camouflage. Meanwhile, income inequality rates are surging both in the US and here back to levels not seen for 100 years or more.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has said recently that the era of what he called “western liberalism” is over. He may be right. That may be the best description of the historic change we’re seeing. The Russian media portray American democracy as “a circus”, thereby making Putin’s regime look to have the virtue of sober good order. How better to make that metaphor come true than by helping to install Donald Trump as the ringmaster. Recently, I saw a clip of Steve Bannon – a common link between Trump and Brexit and Cambridge Analytica – tell a crowd of French ultra-right followers of Marine Le Pen, “We are winning”. Bannon may be right. Last year, I did a public interview with Richard Branson at the National Gallery of Victoria. He said he believed democracy was under attack around the globe. So do I. Putin’s Russia is a fake democracy. Donald Trump has no problem with that. The Prime Ministers of Great Britain and Australia have expressed their eagerness to work with Trump.
The world is in a turmoil of change. Traditionally, Australia has been relatively protected from global forces. That may be about to change. Last year, as a shack owner at Dolphin Sands on the east coast of Tasmania, I was taken aback to learn that a giant megadevelopment at the Cambria Green estate on Dolphin Sands had been announced in the Chinese media as a fait accompli, before mention of it even being a possibility had appeared in the Tasmanian press. A number of the local councillors knew nothing of it until four days before the council meeting approved the 1st stage and what we still don’t is the relationship between the Chinese investors and the government of the People’s Republic of China. Investigating this matter, I learned many things. One was that 24 % of agricultural land in Tasmania is leased or owned by foreigners. Last week, a UN committee said food security and water security are going to be two of the major issues of the 21st century.
Most Australians seem not to give a thought to the fact that we are committed to supporting Japan and the United States against China militarily in the event of hostilities in the South China sea. That is, we will be at war with our major trading partner, a recipe, I would have thought, for chaos. This is one of the many things we really should be talking about. But are not. Instead, as I write, we’re talking about Boris Johnson, the comedy actor who could have stepped out of a Bertie Wooster novel and can tell as many lies as Donald Trump, only a lot more eloquently.
So how do I steady myself? How do I respond to the dizzy complexity of our times? I reach for what’s timeless. I will seek to explain by telling a story. A football story. From the time I was 11 and found myself in a not very happy place, a Catholic boarding school on the north-west coast of Tasmania that has been much in the news of late, sport has been an escape for me, a beautiful distraction, one I happen to understand because my family’s been involved with it for generations.
Two years ago, I interviewed an AFL player, a fine young man called Jordan Roughead, for a book I wrote on the 2016 Bulldogs premiership. Jordan has a social conscience and is determined to stand up for the powerless but when I asked him about politics, he recoiled as if he’d seen a snake and said with passion, “I don’t have anything to do with politics!”. I immediately thought of something that was said 2500 years ago by a Greek statesman and soldier called Pericles: “Just because you don’t have an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t have an interest in you”. If you asked anyone in Hong Kong right now what Pericles meant, I think they could tell you in a few short, sharp sentences.
It is said Trump has led us into the post-truth era. That’s a truly frightening idea – a world without any truth would be a very dark place where random attacks could happen at any moment and go unpunished. But I would argue the term “the post-truth era” is too absolute because there are truths that endure. There is a reason we are still repeating something Pericles said 500 years before the birth of Christ, and the reason is that when ideas are expressed accurately and with precision, they become like tools people carry through the generations proving their worth through use over and over and over again. To quote Pericles once more, “Time is the wisest counsellor”.
I never cease to be amazed by what people thought and said in other times, sometimes thousands of years ago. We think we’re “modern”, that we exist in a time apart. My book on the Western Bulldogs’ premiership naturally dealt with the philosophy of coach Luke Beveridge. What was remarkable to me about that premiership was that everyone at the club from the doormen to the women doing secretarial duties thought they played a part in winning it. The players thought that, too. They were a team that existed as a part of a mass movement and thought it odd when I asked questions which suggested otherwise. In the end, I remembered something Lao Tszu, the Chinese sage said, again around 2500 years ago. “When the best leader's work is done the people say, "We did it ourselves." “
The Romans had a quality they prized called “gravitas” from which the word gravity later came. A person with gravitas was someone whose views were given weight by his listeners. Aristotle said this respect was a function of the character of the speaker. The person with the greatest gravitas in Australian public life right now that I have encountered is Aboriginal leader and Labor Senator Patrick Dodson. An example of an Australian political utterance of recent times with gravitas is the Uluru statement. It was swept to one side at the last election but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away. It never will.
One of my favourite Tasmanian stories occurred in the early 1820s on the east coast. A major character in the history of this island called George Augustus Robinson met some members of the Great Oyster Bay tribe who told him their ancestors had come to the island we now call Tasmania via a land bridge across what we now call Bass Strait and that the sea had closed behind them, cutting them off. No-one believed them. We now know it’s true. That means they carried that story accurately within their culture for something like 8000 year or four times the length of the entire history of the Christian religion.
Earlier this year, I was invited to give a speech during Reconciliation Week at Melbourne Grammar which is on the traditional lands of the Bunurong people. I told the boys that the Bunurong people, to this day, carry a story about Port Phillip Bay when it was dry, when it was a grass plain with trees and a river running through it. The reason the Bunurong remember this story is because it was their land and they lost it through this prehistoric act of climate change.
The Aboriginal spirit who presides over Melbourne, together with Waa the crow, is Bunjil the eagle. The Bunurong story says that when the people asked Bunjil why they had lost their land, he gave them two reasons – one, they were getting involved in needless wars with their neighbours, two, because they were killing female fish before they spawned. That is, they were sinning against the future. The common factor in indigenous law-making around the globe has always involved asking the question: how will this effect the generations of our people still to come? I get that. I’m a grandfather. I look at extinction rates for animal and insect species over the past 40 years and wonder, yet again, what is going to be left for my grandchildren and their children. I also wonder how the collapse of various species is going to impact on the eco-systems they inhabit. This is where we encounter another complexity that is relative to our times. The complexity of nature.
It’s commonly said that those who don’t understand the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. That’s true. But it’s also true that those who don’t learn about history are also denied the strength, the courage, the inspiration, to be had from the victories of the past. No tyrant, no despot, no monarch, ever wanted democracy. Somehow it was won. The British political system did not want to end the slave trade, being deeply implicated in its profits. Somehow that was won. There was entrenched opposition to extending the vote, initially to all men, and later to women. Somehow both causes were won....the only strength we have is the strength we have in coming together and it’s got to start generating from meetings like this.
Last year, I MCed a protest rally against the Cambria Green megadevelopment in the Hobart Town Hall which saw me labelled as a left-wing greenie but which I saw as an issue of democracy. Two weeks later, I MC’d a function titled Capitalism With A Conscience at the National Gallery of Victoria which was hosted by Melbourne entrepreneur Radek Sali for the benefit of an organization called Igniting Change which is run by a remarkable woman called Jane Tewson. Fifteen hundred people attended and, in the course of the night, I interviewed entrepreneur Richard Branson on stage.
Branson believes climate change represents the biggest threat to the world since World War 2, in which 60 million people died. That may sound outlandish but if climate change catastrophes start kicking in we could have hundreds of millions of people on the move around the globe. Branson believes if governments cannot, or will not, take action on climate change, business will have to. Not long after we spoke, Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Kashogghi was brutally murdered and dismembered in a Saudi consulate in Turkey. Trump, who has business interests in Saudi Arabia, avoided comment. Richard Branson issued a statement saying that if the details of the murder were proved true, western businesses would have to reconsider doing business with Saudi Arabia. That’s leadership.
Do I agree with everything Richard Branson says and does? No. But I’m open to dialogue with him and people like him. As is evidenced by the Brexit crisis in Britain, which is going to split the Conservative Party and possibly lead to the disintegration of the United Kingdom, we are in a period when the political definitions which have sustained us for half a century are breaking apart and political forces are re-aligning. Would it bother me if women took the balance of leadership roles? No. I think we’ve got bigger problems than gender disputes. I want to hear from people with gravitas.
Martin Flanagan was speaking at a conference organised by Tasmanian Leaders.
6 September 2019, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia