Two weeks ago, a number of people in the Australian community, myself
included, raised doubts about a proposal from the federal government to
force school children to take part in daily flag raising and National
Anthem singing ceremonies.
The point made by me, and others, was that this smacked of reactive
sugar-coated US-style patriotism in the wake of the Bali tragedy, and that
one can never force another to be patriotic. The point has also been made
that the Australian Flag, for many, symbolises Australia as Terra Nullius
–a fiction that the High Court laid to rest with its Mabo decision in
This contrarian view was all too much for those whom the English
commentator Christopher Hitchens describes, as "the voices of
piety". On 3AW I was interviewed by Neil Mitchell who accused me of
"irresponsibility" and "elitism"! The
Australian newspaper wrote a pompous editorial questioning the
right of those of us who dissent from this example of patriotic fervour to
raise the issue of whether or not we need to change our Flag.
And when some of us questioned the way in which our Nation has
conducted itself in the past 12 months on the matter of asylum seekers and
indicated that if we are going to talk about patriotism then this might be
a relevant matter to deal with – as is the running sore of our past
treatment of indigenous Australia – we were told that these matters have
nothing to do with flag waving.
Well, actually they do have something to do with it!
If any nation is to be serious about what it stands for, then there
must be a national dialectic. We must always hear the dissentient voices,
listen to the oppressed, and ask – could these voices be right after
all? Is the language that these people and groups use a language of
utility or merely decorative, as the Canadian writer John
Ralston Saul would put it?
And who is to listen to these voices if our government and other
political actors will not? If so many elements of our media are prepared
to sell copy on the basis of slamming dissent, raising fears, demonising
individuals and groups, and accepting without question, the spin doctors
of governments (the Children Overboard scandal being the most frightening
example of this!), then who is left to listen and seek to influence the
forces of bleakness and uniformity?
Might I suggest: it is all of us. It is incumbent on all of us to heed
the call of Socrates, and remember that, again as John Ralston Saul notes:
"doubt is central to a citizen-based society; that is, to
And with this sense of doubt must come the capacity to remain aloof
from the daily flurry of activity. Alfred Deakin, writing in November
1910, near the end of a remarkable life, noted that although he lived
"at the heart of things…with pulses oftener at fever heat than
those of the most confirmed gambler or speculator, I feel and have always
This aloofness, coupled with a capacity for reflective doubt, is what
so many leaders in Australia lack today. The voices of dissent, about
which I spoke earlier, are not being listened to by our leaders, because
they have little capacity of time for insight, no capacity to be as Deakin
Too many in public life today are driven by a dangerous and corrosive
cocktail of pollsters’ focus groups and segments of the media who want
to see the world in terms of black and white.
I say dangerous and corrosive because the liberal democratic values
that have traditionally underpinned our society are today under threat
This is an edited version of an Occasional Address
given to Deakin University on 30 October 2002.
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