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Australia is still evolving

By Tony Kevin - posted Friday, 8 September 2006


My father John Charles Kevin was a fourth-generation Australian of middle class Irish Catholic stock, born in Forbes in 1909. Handsome and clever, he took a law degree in Sydney in 1932 and then went off to London, remaking himself as an English gentleman.

I thought he had spent his war at sea as an RAN lieutenant, but I later discovered that he had spent most of it helping set up Australia’s new secret intelligence agency, the Commonwealth Security Service. Entering the new Department of External Affairs in June 1945, he rapidly rose to ambassador rank. Canberra-based, he spent most of his distinguished career overseas. He died in 1968 and is in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

My mother Minnie (Hermine) was Viennese Jewish, from a rich and cultured family. She and my grandmother and uncle were lucky to escape to London soon after the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938. She met my father in London. They married in 1939, and came to Australia as the war was starting. I was born in Sydney in 1943.

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The marriage wasn’t happy: my parents separated early (my father remarried in Ceylon in 1963, and from that marriage came my younger sister, Naomi, now living with her husband and children in Melbourne). I grew up in a small flat in Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay. It was then a safe haven for European refugees and World War II displaced persons - some, but not all, Jewish. It was a place of culture and civility, but also of sadness and prudent silences. The people washed up here from Europe had much they wanted to forget, of great evils done to them or by them.

I floated uneasily between my father’s and my mother’s very different worlds. I was determined to learn no German, though I heard it at home all the time. I realise now that, though born here, I was in spirit one of John Hirst’s immigrant kids (referring to his recent fine essay in Reflected Light).

I envied the easy Australian-ness and simple happiness of life in Sydney’s burgeoning redbrick suburbs. I wanted desperately to be like my Australian (father’s side) cousins in Lane Cove, and the well-mannered Australian families in Canberra to whose homes my father took me on visits during my holiday times with him. I was brought up Catholic, embarrassed by my rich European-Jewish heritage and tried to play it down. I got a degree at Sydney University, and fell in love with skiing and the Snowy Mountains. At 20, I went off to Ireland for a few more years of university study. I did the Barry Mackenzie Australian thing in Europe.

I returned to Australia in 1968, married by now, and followed my father’s career footsteps into Foreign Affairs. He died that year, and my mother and grandmother three years later. I had finally shed or suppressed my background. I was well-educated, cultured even, but would have resisted any description of myself as an intellectual or as multicultural. I was determined to live as a normal Australian, and I did.

Over the next two decades, my patriotism remained complacent and uncritical. The great socio-political challenges of the 1970s and 1980s passed me by. I never went to Vietnam antiwar demonstrations or on aboriginal freedom rides. I was only marginally aware of how rapidly we were becoming a multicultural society: my Australia was still the Australia of the Qantas ads, Anglo-Celtic, fresh-faced, squeaky clean, and by choice I was shutting much out. It was a time still of general public optimism and widening of cultural horizons, of a sense that anything was possible for Australia. To me, we were still, without question, the best country in the world.

By the 1980s, slickness and dishonesty were creeping into Australian public culture. We were entering the world of “whatever it takes”, and the old simplicities and decencies of Anglo-Celtic Australia were starting to fray at the edges.

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I had some idea of the commercial and political sleaziness creeping into governance under Bob Hawke, but I thought that was just politics. I concentrated on my public service career and helping to bring up my two sons in Canberra. A loyal and efficient officer, I did well in my career specialisation of foreign affairs, appointed to my first ambassadorship in 1990. I was then 47.

The death of my beloved second wife Jennifer in 1989, from an unforeseen brain tumour, fractured a till-then-unruffled life. There followed a long grieving, shading into my postings as ambassador to Poland (1991-94) and Cambodia (1994-97). In those years I began to face issues suppressed for most of my life, about myself and my country.

In Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia I saw at painful first hand the ways in which rich European multicultural societies had been destroyed under the madness of fascism and communism. In Cambodia I saw how the people of Indochina had suffered during my lotus years in Canberra, conveniently working always “on other desks”: our ruthless cold-war destruction of these vulnerable societies, and then our long vengeance on weak post-war communist governments trying to pick up the pieces after the wars and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime ended.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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