Election 2001: this is not my Australia

By Richard Flanagan
The Age
Friday 9 November 2001

It was a land of fear and uncertainty and gas masks selling out in the Blue Mountains and anthrax scares in Darwin and an election no one cared less about because no one any longer felt any connection to either party and its apparitchik parroting focus group polling parroting shock-jock denunciations parroting doorstops and five-second grabs.

It was a vortex of meaningless nonsense, occasionally seasoned with a racist overtone to give it the semblance if not the reality of veracity. It was the season for charlatans, for lies and for hate sold as a righteous fear.

Yet in the end the most haunting image the election threw up was not that of a presidential Howard embracing world leaders or an avuncular Beazley embracing punters. Rather, it was a picture of three smiling young girls, three girls who looked radiant, beautiful children who drowned on a boat along with some hundreds of others falsely hopeful of becoming Australians.

In the end it was a vile time to live through and a vile place to be, this nation that once seemed so generous and open, and it happened because finally it was once more all right to do and say such things because the people who we were going to suffer were wogs, and wogs were what we once more no longer wanted, with their diseases and their violence and their closet horrors.

Because in the end, of course, it wasn't so much a national election as a national disgrace in which our two major parties did not so much play the race card, as back it to the hilt with cracked rhetoric about the integrity and defence of borders that sounded eerily reminiscent of the arguments that built in Weimar Germany of threatened living space.

The ALP had long ago established that its venality and chicanery were beyond doubt, but this callousness without care for the consequences was new and horrifying.

Labor tried to pretend it was about domestic issues. But the only job they were after was a job for the big puffy boy who, with his one great ironical gift, that of diminishment, managed to make a national election sound like a botched pitch for the job of assistant manager of a bottle shop - oh yes, he was qualified all right, he and his mates, conceited bastards all born to rule as much as those they derided on the government benches; the only health they cared for that of their pirates' fortunes depicted in the polling charts; the only education they knew the re-education of any who dissented with a line that now so resembled the Liberals that only girth and eyebrows could be used to distinguish foe from friend.

There was no doubt that the times were weirdly out of joint. Dick Smith called for the country to become a dictatorship and no one thought perhaps not talcum-powder-dusted letters but people advocating such lunacy were the real dangers we faced as a democracy and perhaps it was the likes of Dick who really ought be banished to the Nauru laager.

At the end of such I went to visit an old friend in Sydney's west, a carpenter, and I ended up laboring on a house he was building to wash the whole madness out of my head by working my body. But on the very first day at morning smoko we sat down with the electrician, a Krajina Serb called Ivan who bemoaned what had befallen his country, by which he meant the old federation of Yugoslavia and not the new lesser Serbia. He spoke of how the horror had begun there by politicians teaching the people to hate others.

In the ALP, senior figures would say in private that of course, this was just Kim's strategy, that in victory a new generosity would emerge. But in public, of course, they said nothing, and the moral torpor that has so long affected the party shaded into a larger and unforgivable cowardice.

Public men have to be judged by public actions, and Beazley's solution to the boat people, to forge a new understanding with Indonesia, harked back to the old days when Hawke and Keating revelled in playing toe rags to that rotten imperium. Now the empire was in collapse and the naivety of one who thought any understanding could conceivably be enforced seemed breathtakingly idiotic, but perhaps appropriate for a bottle shop pallet stacker.

In Sydney, the film of the moment was a thoughtful meditation on trust and betrayal. Called Lantana, it posed the question whether trusts betrayed can ever be made whole again.

In a room in that same city a father refuses water because every time he drinks it reminds him of the mouths of his three beautiful daughters filling with water, irrevocably, fatally. The media tell us Kim Beazley is a good man. But like John Howard, Kim Beazley says rules are rules and like John Howard does not think this man ought be allowed out of Australia to visit his grieving relatives.

This is not my Australia, I want to say to that grieving father. I want to tell him things that are not possible: how if I could sing the sea out of his sweet daughters' lungs and have them Australian, oh how I would. To say that I am ashamed and lost and my country with me and no one any longer knows the way back from such terrible shame, this shame that is now ours.

But words were cheaper than children's lives in Australia now, and all were relaxed and comfortable inside their lounge rooms, curtains firmly drawn, and no one wished to venture outside to see the corpses that flecked the distant ocean like storm-tossed kelp leaves.

Richard Flanagan is the author of Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, and Gould's Book of Fish.


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