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With loyalty tests, we're on the way to dull conformity

By Natasha Cica - posted Friday, 29 September 2006

A chunk of my early career occurred in Britain. The weather was terrible, London's tube was packed with begging homeless and we lived in a basement shoebox. Plus my Australian passport meant queuing for visas with desperate asylum seekers at a grim if nicely named processing centre called Lunar House, although I didn't have to sign or salute any Pommie Values Manifesto.

"Why on earth are you here?" asked a Scottish friend who worked for the BBC. "It's the 1990s not the 1960s. And Australia has such wonderful beaches."

Good points. Tempted to say "proximate to Paris", I picked three more apt words. "Reading Julie Burchill," I answered. "Great point," he conceded.


British Burchill, now in her late 40s, started paid and published writing in the punk era. Lots of drugs and husbands (three to date, including one toy boy), two sons, one lesbian love affair and a host of books, columns and TV shows later, Burchill's made her mark as a kind of perceptive-pen provocateur. She's taken aim at established correctness wherever she's selectively spotted it, from her broadsheet perches at The Guardian, then The Times.

Her roller-coaster ride of favoured polemical positions has made Germaine Greer look staid and stable. In the 1980s, Burchill miraculously blended support for Thatcher and the Soviet Union, and she's subsequently whacked Islam, Europe, wowsers, wet liberals, Camille Paglia and Prince Charlie's consort.

Tony Blair declared Britain's class war over in 1999, but Burchill's kept fighting it tooth and lacquered nail - most colourfully in her championing of chavs, the British equivalent of our cashed-up bogans, at the expense of their so-called betters who, opined Burchill, "should be more shame-faced in their weird, status-needy spending, be it on five types of extortionately priced organic lettuce in a poxy salad, (or) a king's ransom on a fortnight's living death in a mausoleum in Tuscany".

I have rarely shared Burchill's point of political view. That's almost beside this point. I love a sunburnt beach, but what the Brits do better is allow mainstream space for perspectives and styles of expression, that directly challenge familiar frames of wisdom and dissidence. Edgy energy does exist in Australia - in spades, but where does it end up? Consider Ryan Heath, whose recent book Please Just F* Off: It's Our Turn Now is a full-frontal attack on what Heath terms the boomer-heavy Australian mediocracy.

Local critics reacted harshly but, with too few exceptions, paid little serious attention to the core argument. (Melbourne academic Mark Davis' important book Gangland, criticising the clubbish, negative attitude of Australia's entrenched culture brokers, met a similar fate in 1997.)

London-based Heath's counterblast: "There's a noticeable schoolyard mentality among reasonably powerful people in Australia. You get treated with suspicion or contempt if you are different in some way. Where I find that problematic, apart from lack of exploitation of talent or innovation, is that in England difference is something that generally marks you out as an asset rather than a liability."


As playwright Stephen Sewell wrote in The Age last weekend, "we are entering the world of the whispered conversation, where the only people who can speak loudly - shrilly - are the ones endorsing the official line". What this spells, says Sewell, is dull conformity.

Instead of iconoclasts who prick our thought balloons, we're gorging on Aussie icons. There's nothing inherently wrong with celebrating Peter Brock, Steve Irwin, Germaine Greer or Shane Warne (OK, there are big problems with Warnie), but there should be limits and balance.

There's so much more to 21st century Australia than the tired comfy-zone of sporting heroes, larrikins and the Oz gang of '69. Where were the feature spreads marking last week's death of children's author and teacher Colin Thiele, illuminating his special contribution to our national identity?

Where was coast-to-coast outrage at the recent ousting of Scott Meek as newish head of drama at ABC-TV, a talented Scotsman who reputedly doesn't suffer fools, believes that writers and directors are hired to be creators not bureaucrats, and that the national broadcaster should be spending its paltry budget on high-quality products that pack some meaningful punch?

What does all this say about the Australian values that visitors, migrants and citizens are increasingly expected to sign on to? And who's crafting that party-line jingle, and accompanying lunatic loyalty tests built on misty-eyed jingoism? Bert Newton?

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First published in The Age on September 13, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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