Why I won't play for team Australia
Prime Minister Tony Abbott wants to captain team Australia as he would a boisterous boarding school. Photo: Brett Hemmins
I don't want to play for team Australia, or for team Abbott.
And I wouldn't encourage my children to, either. The real community of
Australians is not a band of footy thugs ruthlessly enforcing
conformity, led by a bully who doesn't hesitate to punch people on his
own side, who divides people according to whether they are for or
against him, and who wants everyone to defer to his judgment about
matters of the general interests of the team.
This is not a partisan matter. I would no more be a happy
Vegemite marching for Julia Gillard against the Palestinians, or Kevin
Rudd against boat people. A part of the privilege of being Australian is
that I don't have to march for anyone, sing to anyone's hymn sheet, or
listen to anyone's tendentious and pretentious nonsense about patriotism
and duty, respect for authority, honour and sacrifice.
These are people who cannot inspire, whether with their
deeds, or by their words. All too often their words pander to selfish
instincts of particular members of the team, not to the natural
generosity of the human spirit. These are leaders who cannot galvanise,
and whose every reach into the abstract should be carefully parsed for
hidden self-interest, while at the same time checking that one's wallet
is not being stolen.
They may have notions of what is in the public interest, but
their right to enforce these notions is contestable, and at best on
leasehold. As things stand, the only argument in favour of extending the
lease at the next opportunity is the feeling that Labor has yet to
learn anything from its last trouncing for failing at exactly the same
My own aversion to playing in the team comes in part from
Groucho Marx's injunction against belonging to the sort of clubs that
would have people like yourself as members. I was once thrown out of
school cadets on the grounds that I was bad for morale (the other troops
would get dispirited about my being the only one in step).
But my aversion to others playing in the team is not unlike
the fears of mothers about letting their darlings play rough games, like
rugby, which seem to them brutal, unscientific and managed by bruisers
of no conspicuous moral or intellectual leadership values such as Tony
Abbott and Joe Hockey, or, for that matter, Bill Shorten or Tanya
Plibersek. The only reason I would follow any of them, and then at a distance, would be out of curiosity about which fresh disaster they were leading us to.
One can, of course, be entirely sure that Tony Abbott has no
partisan game in mind when he speaks loftily of team Australia – the
collective, or family, that we are regardless of our different
backgrounds, types, political opinions and disagreements. The squabbling
family that is still, nonetheless, a family at heart. And the family
that recognises that there are rules for resolving arguments and values
we all share. Rules we all agree on, and are bound by.
Team Australia is like a boisterous boarding school, such as
Riverview, where Tony Abbott went. Those who go there are the cream of
the Catholic crop, having much more uniting them (particularly access to
a lot of money) than dividing them (such as how far an ethic
of obligation to others has to be taken in real life.) There are
prefects and seniors, rules and traditions, and, of course, lots of
little factions and friendship groups – but everyone cheers for the same
side at the big games.
Members of team Australia might be defined as those who feel a
burst of pleasure and pride when Australian wins a gold medal at chess,
or the first Ananga child to graduate from high school. (The latter
hasn't happened yet, though by the time she should have done so, about
$850,000 will have been paid to various non-Aboriginal members of team
Australia "helping" her with life's struggles.)
In this Enid Blyton or Frank Richards vision of the world,
the example is, of course, set by the senior boys and girls, and the
enduring culture of the place. That's a culture that is British, of
course, or perhaps particularly English. Certainly not Scottish,
apparently. And who could better encapsulate it than Tony Abbott
himself, the reason why we are all so delighted when he, as a captain's
call on our behalf, anathematised any idea of the end of the 1707 Act of
Union and a separate Scotland.
It is never quite clear just when Tony is making a captain's
call – when he is presumed both to be infallible and to be speaking on
behalf of all in the team. Or when he is simply being a divisive,
rancorous and fallible figure leading team Abbott out to play against
the leaners and takers.
His pronouncement on Scotland came in the middle of a host of
other pronouncements, about the sheer wickedness of the Russians, and
of soldiers in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, where he
appeared to be speaking ex cathedra, as it were. I am, for that
matter, never quite sure into which category his occasional comments
about Indonesia, Israel, China and Japan fit, though I am often
uncomfortable with the remarks he has made on those as well.
I have, of course, no objection to his saying what he thinks,
to his putting forward arguments in debate, and even to his right, as
prime minister, to carry forward into action the things he thinks right.
What I object to is his claim of a right to have us all fall
obediently into line behind him when there has been argument and
deliberation, on the basis that father Tony knows best. And in saying
that this claim of a right sticks in the craw, I would also observe that
he was never, either as a leader of the opposition or as a follower of
other leaders of the opposition, conspicuous for loyalty either to the
leader of the team, or his team.
Abbott has a right to denounce terrorism, and to demand that
others do not practise it, here or abroad. I am not so sure that he
should be able to formulate, on behalf of all Australians, just what
classes of Australians – Muslims say, or Tasmanians – should think about
the civic obligations, or their duty not to kill those with whom they
disagree, unless Tony Abbott, on behalf of the team, has declared them
to be enemies of all Australians.
There are several reasons for caution. Even in my lifetime,
some regular Australians – Catholics such as myself, for example – have
believed things about our right to impose values on others that we no
longer can do in the secular society we have become. Not so long ago
Spaniards, in the name of Catholicism, were offering Jews conversion,
exile or death. It would be relativism, surely, to say that values and
cultures can be defensible in different contexts.
My other reservation is that sometimes I have a slight
sympathy for the sentiment of our captain, but contempt for his
explanation. Such as, for example, about the problems of Syria being
about bad baddies and not-so-bad baddies, or the readiness with which he
has assumed that the shooting down of MH17 was a positive act of
Vladimir Putin's will.
And much as I tended to agree with his assessment of the need
to render urgent humanitarian aid and protection to the Yazidis and
Christians in northern Iraq, I was a little concerned at his idea of a
fresh and unprofitable war in the area.
For all I care, Abbott can even categorise things as
"un-Australian", though, given the things that some "great" Australians
have done and won praise for, here and abroad, I have often wondered
whether there are any clubs to which Australians cannot belong on the
grounds of being too ghastly or too evil.
I think, frankly, he should concentrate on leading team
Abbott, which is not doing at all well, and leave the saying of uniting
encomiums to governors-general, and other, more natural and uniting
leaders, not so obviously muddied by battle on the field.