I’m speaking tonight, not just as fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs, but as patron of Worldwide Support for Development, that’s sponsoring this event.
That’s one of the many charities, of Dr Haruhisa Handa, one of the world’s serious philanthropists, whom you might know better, as the founding sponsor of the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, taking place right now, not far from here.
Dr Handa is one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met, almost uniquely selfless, whose businesses give away all their profits to good causes, right around the world – from hospitals in Cambodia, to universities in Britain, to wildlife protection in Africa, to performing arts here, and to disability golf everywhere – and I thank him for helping to make this night possible
Only last week, the Northern Beaches rural fire brigades were helping to clean up, after the second one-in-a-hundred-year flood to hit the Hawkesbury in just 12 months.
Yet despite the clinging mud, the ruined furniture, the lost possessions, and the financial cost of rebuilding twice, in an area where flood insurance is almost impossible to get, the general sentiment – apart from getting Warragamba Dam better managed – was stoical: “at least”, the people cleaning out their places routinely said, “at least no one is trying to bomb us!”
This readiness to have a go, and to keep having a go, despite difficulty, and despite bad luck, was very much in evidence; plus the understanding that however hard things might be, right now, we’re still lucky to live in Australia.
Having a go, and counting our blessings; courage and optimism: these should be our chief characteristics as Australians.
Just a few days after Governor Phillip raised the flag and toasted the king, on that very first Australia Day in 1788, came our first Christian sermon, to the soldiers, sailors, and convicts who’d just travelled eight months, in leaky ships, half way round the world to a strange and often perplexing land.
Its theme: “what shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me”.
It’s worth remembering, too, the British government’s instruction to Phillip: to “live in amity” with the Aboriginal people; plus Phillip’s declaration, that “there can be no slavery in a free land”.
Because it wasn’t just a motley crew of men and women that had arrived; it was a set of values and a way of life and a determination to improve.
And so we got on with it: learning to farm and to herd, through drought and flooding rains; settling over vast distances and coming to terms – it’s still unfinished business – with the indigenous people; turning an ancient land into a modern economy; and generally welcoming newcomers, first from the British Isles, but later the four corners of the earth, to create a life as free, as fair, and as prosperous as any.
Failure didn’t really matter, provided you never gave up; or to put it in the Australian vernacular, if you had a fair go, you’d get a fair go.
As WC Wentworth put it back then, Australia stands “with flag unfurled, a new Britannia in another world”.
We became the world’s best source of wool, and for a time its biggest source of gold; “marvellous Melbourne” was briefly the second city of the British Empire, while we kept fed the “workshop of the world”.
Victoria invented the secret ballot; South Australia was the first place to give women the right to stand for parliament; and Queensland was the first place to have a democratically-elected, constitutionally-formed worker government.
“Humbly relying on the blessings of almighty God”, we formed “one indissoluble federal Commonwealth under the Crown”; in 1901, one of the world’s very first democracies, now one of the oldest; with an indigenous heritage, a British foundation, and an immigrant character.
An island nation we might have been; but insular, never!
When Britain chose to resist the violation of Belgium, and the conquest of Europe, a great Labor leader vowed that Australians would “stand behind the mother country…. to our last man and our last shilling”.
From a population of scarcely five million, 450,000 volunteered – fully half of all men between 20 and 40; 330,000 served overseas, 155,000 were wounded, and 60,000 never came home – 46,000 lost defending France.
As Charles Bean said of the first Anzacs: “their story… rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages, a monument to great hearted men; and for their nation a possession forever”.
It was much the same a generation later.
And while John Curtin famously said, in our moment of greatest peril, that “Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional kinship with the United Kingdom”; he also said, in a 1944 speech to MPs in London, that “we regard your history as part of the legacy that we ourselves claim…and ourselves as trustees for the British way of life… a people…corresponding in purpose and in outlook…to the motherland itself”.
Even in this greatest cataclysm, we tried to act with honour, not least when the Japanese submariners who attacked Sydney Harbour were buried with full military honours.
“Should we not accord full honours to such brave men as these” declared Admiral Muirhead-Gould when criticised; because “it must take courage of the very highest order to go out in a thing like that steel coffin…How many of us are really prepared to make one thousandth of the sacrifice that these men made?”
Today’s intimate partnership between Australia and Japan was part-founded on this extraordinary act of magnanimity.
Given all our post-war achievements: the 1966 referendum; the multi-cultural migration; the unlocking of our mineral wealth and the harnessing of our rivers while creating the world’s most liveable cities; the development of some of the world’s finest universities under Menzies, plus the economic reforms of the Hawke and Howard governments which made Australia the best place in the world both to live and to work; it’s hardly surprising, that though the global G20’s smallest member, in terms of population, we’re by no means the least in terms of power and influence.
It’s an amazing story – that we shouldn’t take for granted, or be oblivious to.
Yet though there’s never been less racism and never been better treatment for minorities, instead of applauding all that’s been achieved, the “black armband view” of history, as Geoffrey Blainey puts it, is ever more pervasive.
Our school students deserve better, than politically correct brain-washing, with every subject taught from an indigenous, sustainability and Asian perspective.
All of us deserve better, than being treated like irresponsible children, as we have for much of the past two-lost-years, locked up in our homes and behind our borders, and scolded by officials, lest we not take a virus seriously enough.
There’s a bolder, braver, better Australia that’s always within our grasp, if only we have a go, and this Centre for the Australian Way of Life will be a reminder of it.
If there’s one thing to be gained from the horrors now unfolding in Ukraine, it’s a restored sense of perspective.
A flood, even an unprecedented one, that’s a tragedy; a pandemic, even one unknown in our lifetimes, that’s a trial; but a war of aggression – well, that’s an atrocity that just has to be resisted, by all feasible means.
It’s our freedom that the Ukrainians are fighting for, as well as their own.
Because if one smaller country can be bullied by a bigger one, so can others.
A people who’ve survived hundreds of years of foreign rule, and Stalin’s man-made famine that killed perhaps five million; who’ve endured poverty and kleptocracy, are now showing the whole world how freedom and independence should be valued and fought for.
It’s their version of Lloyd George’s vision to a generation about to enlist: “the stern hand of fate has scourged us to a new elevation, where we can see the great everlasting things which matter for a nation..the great peaks we had forgotten, of honour, duty, patriotism, and clad in glittering white, the great pinnacle of sacrifice, pointing like a rugged finger to heaven.”
Maybe the Ukrainians will pull off one of the most miraculous victories ever, maybe the Russian people will revolt against what their tyrant is doing – we can but hope and help – or maybe they’ll be ground into a sullen submission as the world enters a sterner, poorer, darker time.
Putin’s pretext is the supposed mistreatment of ethnic Russians; peoples, he claims, who still identify as Russian, even after being in what was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and then independent Ukraine, for over a hundred years.
Putting aside the fact Putin seems to have united Ukrainians as never before, whatever their cultural backgrounds; isn’t it one of our singular achievements, here in Australia, that national loyalty transcends cultural difference?
Regardless of race, faith, culture, class, gender or sexuality; here in this country, what unites us, should-always-be-more-important than anything that divides us; and the past is something we learn from, not live in.
If Ukrainians are ready to die for their country, what about us, who would seem to have even more to cherish?
The liberal, humane order that has made the whole world more free, more fair and more safe than ever before, only-came-into-being because countries like ours created it, and fought for it.
We should better appreciate this achievement, especially as the Ukrainians strive so mightily to emulate it.
I can’t think of a better time to launch this Centre for the Australian Way of Life; and to announce that my next project will be a new history of Australia reflecting the pride I feel, and that more of us should feel, in our great national story.
A story that might formally have begun, just over two hundred years ago, yet its origin lies in millennia past, in English forests and in outback deserts and on Mediterranean shores, and now extends into the wider world, wherever we can lend a hand.
And finally, given his own family’s history-making and shaping role in it: from telling the hard truth about Gallipoli, to founding our finest newspaper, to telling all sides of the big stories, to a preference for individual freedom and personal responsibility, I can’t think of a better person formally to launch this Centre than Lachlan Murdoch, when that happens later tonight.