Fair dinkum?

June 26, 1998

THE AVENUE OF THE FAIR GO. A group tour of Australian political thought. By Donald Horne. 8pp. Sydney, NSW: HarperCollins. Paperback, Aus$24.94. - 0 7322 5867 7.

The Avenue of the Fair Go begins with the author entering, in a dream, a theme park of Australian politics with some companions. "We seem to be a selected group but I have no idea who selected us or why." Neither does the reader find out why. The format, with echoes of Dante, seems too esoteric for the general reader and the content too trite for the specialist (we are told who Talleyrand, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Bismarck are). It is, therefore, hard to know what Donald Horne is after. By ascribing opinions to characters as they talk, he partly obscures his own position, but some themes emerge. Once a fierce opponent of pro-Communist "peace" fronts, he later became a fervent Whitlamite, and now seems to attack Whitlam's economic-rationalist successors in the Labor Party as well as the Liberal Prime Minister John Howard and global marketeers. He also seems to dislike Australian state governments.

In one way the book expresses a tragicomic dilemma: Horne seeks a national identity that can hold Australians together in troubled times, but the Australia Horne and those like him consign to the past seems the only thing that identity could be built on. Australia, at present, shares the general angst and bewilderment of Western societies confronted with the decay of recently strong traditions and institutions. The military legends of Anzac, Tobruk and Kokoda seem out of step with the times, sport has been commercialized and institutionalized almost out of recognition, community organizations tend to have scanty, ageing and dwindling memberships. Much of the history of Australian radical liberalism which Horne refers to seems to have become irrelevant too. At one point he mentions "the larrikin through the ages". How many Australians use words like "larrikin" or "bonzer" or "cobber" now? How many would now even use "fair go"? Every book on Australian society seems obliged to tell us that sexually explicit writers were banned a generation or so ago and shops were shut on Sundays in the 1950s. Why does it matter now? Kipling is credited with creating Australia's imaginative vision of the Empire, but Horne might profitably have read his warning poem of old men who "peck out and discuss and dissect, and evert and extrude to our mind, the flaccid tissues of long-dead issues . . .".

Certainly there are issues in Australia that are not dead, but just what and where are they? We get little guidance here. Current support for Pauline Hanson, the extreme right-wing campaigner, may rise not only from red-neck racism but also from ill-focused rage and a bloody-minded feeling that my enemy's enemy is my friend. But rage about what? What enemy? The collapse of traditions and institutions? Perhaps the enemy is sheer cultural boredom. Horne perceptively points out that, in the Empire, Australia was part of something exciting and cosmopolitan. He does not seem to realize, however, that much remaining Anglophile sentiment in Australia is informed not only by monarchical reactionism but also by the attractions of the idea or ideal of a rich and interesting culture.

Horne promotes the idea of the "fair go" as the great Australian political achievement, but this is only a platitude about general Western liberal tradition and seems a small foundation for a national identity. This book hardly considers what must in its own terms be a crucial problem: how does a society like Australia maintain any identity in the face of an American-dominated international mass culture and its regional clones?

Some quotations are memorable - the Korean industrialist's comment that Australians could improve their quality of life if they spent less time on the beach - but, in the end, Horne's book goes round and round without getting anywhere. The feeling is not of strolling through a theme-park avenue, it is of being lost in a maze of small galleries in an ill-attended provincial museum, repeatedly coming back to the same rooms with the same dusty exhibits and looking with increasing urgency for the Exit sign.

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