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7.30 Report -

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BARRIE CASSIDY: Tonight, an exploration of the Australian character and what we have learned from this year of change and challenge.

BARRIE KOSKY: ...there are inherent paradoxes and crises within the collective psyche of this country which make it fascinating and frightening.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Welcome to the program. Tonight, a special 7.30 report program on the Australian character. We'll take a look at the events of 1996 and what they say about us. We'll look at what our cartoonists think of the year that was and how the food we eat mirrors who we are. Joining me are four Australians who take a keen interest in the Australian character.

Mary Kalantzis is the director of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at north Queensland's James Cook University. Donna Tsang is the founding chairperson of the East West Orchestra. Melbourne-based theatre director, Barrie Kosky, was also the 1996 director of the Adelaide Arts Festival, and Federal National Party MP, Bob Katter, who hails from north Queensland.

But before we throw up some of the ideas about who we are and what we are, let's have a look at the year that was and where it took us.

ROBERT HUGHES: This has become a very interesting country, a very, very interesting country, and one of the reasons why it has become so is because of the mix of immigration.

PETER HARVEY: It is the most sanitised, the most remote, the most isolated - with the exception of the Prime Minister climbing onto a fence in a school yard the other day and waving at a bunch of girls, they are not getting anywhere near people.

CLIVE JAMES: I don't think Australia has anything to fear as long as the Government has the confidence to go on asserting what matters, which is individual rights.

JOHN HOWARD: ...and I am very conscious of the enormous responsibility that has been placed upon me and upon my colleagues by the verdict of the Australian people today.

BILL CLINTON: May God bless Australia, the United States and the great friendship between our nations. Thank you very much.

JUDY DAVIS: I think there was a sweetness in the Australian personality that maybe we're losing a little bit, maybe we're becoming a more materialistic culture now.

PAUL KEATING: Our sense of national identity was built on legends born of the struggle to subdue a difficult and alien landscape, on our deeds, in more in sport, on a great soprano and on a horse.

UNIDENTIFIED: Kieren's looking terrific. Perkins is going to win this.

KIEREN PERKINS:There was a lot of doubts in there but, you know, I had to do it. I just had to get in there and do it.

UNIDENTIFIED: Australia is at risk of being a little too bland sometimes. It's a great place to spend a long weekend. It sometimes feels like it is not right there in the centre of world events.

UNIDENTIFIED: I think 'carnage' is the simple way to describe it. It's probably the only single word that I know that would describe what was experienced in there.

UNIDENTIFIED: I went into the cafeteria and I .. there were people everywhere .. bodies. It's just so indescribable what had happened in there. I thought at the time, being a nurse, I've seen dead people, I've seen blood, I've seen things like this but what I saw in there nobody .. perhaps a soldier would know what it was like.

JOHN HOWARD: It is an historic moment in a long debate for a nation which is still coming to terms with the tragic circumstances which took place in Tasmania at Port Arthur only a short while ago.

UNIDENTIFIED: What should be appreciated is that Indonesia, a developing country, like any other developing country, has problems under human rights [...] but is trying to improve them, is trying honestly to come to grips with them. Does Australia not have any human rights problems? What do you do with your Aborigines? We know how many have died in the prisons.

PAULINE HANSON: I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.

UNIDENTIFIED: Well, we're talking about verbal abuse, written abuse, physical as well as being spat on.

ROBERT HUGHES: People like Pauline Hanson will jump up and say that our fair polity is being corrupted by excess numbers of Asians or whoever it might be. There is a deep-seated fear of this in Australia. I am sort of sorry to see that the old 'mainstream' Australia suddenly stuck its head up like this. I don't think it's going to last forever.

BARRIE CASSIDY: So one way or another there were some defining moments through the year. We had a change of government, those terrible events at Port Arthur and the ensuing gun debate, the Olympics in Atlanta and then, of course, the race debate - the seemingly endless race debate.

Mary Kalantzis, given all that, did we learn anything new about ourselves during the year?

MARY KALANTZIS: I think we have, Barrie. I mean, this was the decade where we, as Australians, finally publicly recognised that we were a nation that was made up of indigenous people and people that had been invited to come here from all over the world.

I think what we have learned this year is three things. First is that we can't take that cultural diversity for granted and assume that it will naturally lead to social cohesion. I mean, I think we have seen this year that anything can come out of that diversity, including extraordinary cruelty towards each other.

The second thing is that in order to have a cohesive society that we need very strong leadership, and I think what we have learned this year is that without that leadership Australia will drift on these issues.

But thirdly and sadly, I think what we've also learnt this year is that Australians have an extraordinary tolerance for fools and liars.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, that is a rather sad assessment of the year. Donna Tsang, do you agree with that?

DONNA TSANG: Well, I know for a fact that the orchestra is a perfect example - mixed cultures working together in harmony, playing the same tune and working together as one. So I think, to be more on the positive side I would say that it can work very well.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, Barrie Kosky, how did you see the year?

BARRIE KOSKY: I think the year sort of represented to me, the central metaphor for me is almost like in the Garden of Eden, sort of, people started to nibble something called the Tree of Knowledge. And it's almost like around Australia culturally in the sort of the diversity of the society you see people saying 'Oh, the sky isn't blue all the time and birds don't sing all the time and life is actually not good all the time', which is, I think, for most Australians a huge shock. And I think what's interesting is that no longer can we say that there is one type of Australia, there is one type of image that represents the country, that there is one type of thing that is Australian. I've always thought that was a fantasy anyway and I think that this year, and I think the years ahead, will show that you can't, on one hand, say 'diversity, celebration of wonderful differences and extraordinary different cultures' and on the other hand say 'but we can all sum it up in one image or one song or one anthem or one costume or one image'. And I think that it's about time I think Australians realised that the culture can't really be reflected as if it's some ad from the Australian Tourism Commission.

BARRIE CASSIDY: What do you think, Bob Katter? Was it that sort of year?

BOB KATTER: For me of course, being in politics, the great change that occurred this year was after 13 years there's been a change of government. There was a leader there who emphasised the differences. There is a leader there now - and I have attacked him on many occasions - but on this particular area, he was trying desperately to assert the things that bring us together rather than the things that create differences between us.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Mary, you were arguing there was a lack of leadership through the year.

MARY KALANTZIS: Absolutely. I mean, he says one Australia, things that bring us together, but he doesn't put any content to that, and because be doesn't put any content to that and he leaves it unstated, it refers back to the single image that Barrie was referring to and I think it's done this particular leader - but not only John Howard, also the Labor Party - I think we have seen a lack of leadership at the moment around Australian identity. People have backtracked, they have been spooked by a number of by-elections. They have been spooked by the level of antagonism towards multiculturalism and instead of showing us a way forward out of this, they have kind of gone back into their own closets and they are hoping it will go away; it won't go away.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Donna, you seem to be convinced that beneath it all we are still a tolerant society?

DONNA TSANG: I think we are a very tolerant society and very friendly. I've been here for 32 years, I've never been abused, fortunately and I just feel that once .. at first there were quite a lot of suspicions as far as the migrants are concerned.

BARRIE CASSIDY: So do you think then we spend too much time on multiculturalism, for example, trying to define something that nobody seems to agree on anyway? Nobody seems to agree on the definition of the word.

DONNA TSANG: Because things .. whoever comes with his or her cultures, they will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It's not something we need to promote. It's there, it will never die, but what we need is not to have any divisiveness and work together -assimilate. I do think that is so important.

BARRIE CASSIDY: What does multiculturalism mean in north Queensland?

BOB KATTER: Well, I mean, what you have there is huge numbers of people from Germany, huge numbers of people from China, huge numbers of people from Italy. You know, there really is an amazing diversity of people there but they are not thought of that way. You know, I mean, if a person rings me up on the telephone with a name ending in A, E, I, O, U, I don't think of him as an Italian. I can count upon him having a long nasal drawl and having all of the attitudes that are so endemic in north Queensland, regardless of where his parents or grandparents come from.

Now, maybe it's different in a melting pot such as Sydney, but Donna is saying it is not different in Sydney. She is saying that if we hold to those values and keep moving in that direction, then we will be able to achieve the things that are achieved in north Queensland where people, on the whole, don't see the differences.

MARY KALANTZIS: Look, you cannot produce cohesion any more by insisting, no matter where you are in the globe, on a single view of what a national identity is. Those nations that will survive and prosper are those that recognise difference, protect people in their difference while they encourage the orchestra or building things together or the theatre. So how do you create that? That requires leadership; it requires national policies. We had a policy which was called multiculturalism. All that meant is that you worked towards creating that level of cohesion, whether it was in education or the arts and that you protected people in their difference. That has now gone. It's been replaced by another M word - it's called 'mainstream', and all the good work over the last decade is unravelling around us.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Barrie, do you see it that way, that this year was a defining year in that sense? That we were headed towards....

BARRIE KOSKY: No, I am opposed to defining years or defining moments because I think that we live in a sort of an intricate web of reflections and resonances and fragments and that things are constantly moving and changing.

I do think, though, this year has been extraordinarily interesting and I agree with a lot of what Mary says. I am fascinated by this notion that you can still promote people's individual identities. And let's face it, the fact that you are made up as a person of language, of experience, of particular experiences you may have had in another place, in another time, and that actually defines who you are. By actually saying, when you come to Australia - you don't check all that in at the door and adopt some other mode. I think it's interesting. There's a dilemma and it's actually quite complicated and I don't think there's a [...] solutions to it. I think it's creating an environment whereby people understand and appreciate diversity, at the same time realising that Australia now - and I believe actually since the prison camps were set up here by the British - that Australia has basically been a place of bizarre contradictions. And I think that this notion that suddenly this sort of celebration of the Utopia and this wonderful great country - yes, it's a fantastic country full of fantastic people, but there are inherent paradoxes and crises within the collective psyche of this country which make it fascinating and frightening.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, Bob, much of the mood of the country is reflected in our cartoons, and we're about to see a report on that. As a politician what do you think about cartoonists?

BOB KATTER: I mean, I don't read other overseas papers, I've never been overseas, but you know, if there are better cartoonists in the world than those in Australia, I most certainly would like to see them. I enjoy them immensely and I think they are very, very prescient observers of the Australian identity, I suppose, and what is preoccupying Australians, far better than any other group in society.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay, well, let's pause then to hear from one of those sharp-eyed critics who deflate our Honourable Members every day and have a wonderful talent for reducing complex questions to a single picture that can ruin a politician's day even before breakfast.

Bill Leake is a political and editorial cartoonist for the Australian and he has just won this year's Walkley Award for cartooning.

Justin Murphy asked him to review his highs and lows for 1996 and to look forward through the eyes of his beloved Federal Treasurer.

BILL LEAKE:At about five o'clock in the afternoon I found a note on my table saying to go and see the editor urgently and I thought: Oh, no. I thought they might have had a problem with Senator Alston's middle finger.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Bill Leake is a painter and national newspaper cartoonist who lives looking over Bondi beach, so he's got a view of Australia. And among our illustrious band of biting satirists, he has a style like no other, with both the brush and the word.

BILL LEAKE: Howard's nostalgia for the flag was precisely that. He doesn't have an attitude of looking forward. He doesn't have a vision. He looks backwards. And so he wouldn't wrap himself in any other flag other than this one. And beware the man who wraps himself in the flag - he expects to be paid for it.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Is this a worry to you?

BILL LEAKE: It's a huge worry to me, yes, because I think that the very best thing that can happen is that you get really angry. And I get very angry, and I get very angry very often, and that is usually the thing that prompts the best cartoons. They are the ones that have that edge of savagery which I always think is an essential ingredient in any really good cartoon. And I think it actually was a core promise, it wasn't just an ordinary promise, I think it was a core promise - John Howard was going to provide high ministerial standards of accountability and higher standards of parliamentary behaviour. You only have to look at when Reith challenged the Speaker's authority, and was backed by his Prime Minister, to see that the standards have done anything but improve.

When Alexander Downer misled the House over the DIFF scheme and said that no one had complained about it, which was patently .. obviously untrue. Under normal circumstances that would have been a hanging offence.

And I think to start cutting a swathe through our educational institutions is just downright reckless, and I think that that is precisely what we're seeing at the moment, and Amanda Vanstone's heading the whole charge.

JUSTIN MURPHY: But what really saddens Bill Leake is what's happened to the republic debate.

BILL LEAKE: Its time has come, and everyone knows its time has come, but we can still put it off. Why put off till tomorrow what you can put off indefinitely?

JUSTIN MURPHY: What difference would a republic make to this country, though?

BILL LEAKE: I think too many people get sort of strung out on the whole idea of identity and they run around the place trying to invent one. Well, you don't have to invent one because it already exists.

What we've got to do is claim it as our own and I think that that's what becoming a republic would do for us all. It would cement in the public consciousness exactly who we are, where we are and where we're going.

JUSTIN MURPHY: And that, obviously, is a good thing and something we ought to do.

BILL LEAKE : Well, I think it's something that we have to do. I think that it's one of those ideas we have been putting off for 100 years.

JUSTIN MURPHY:Would it make us all feel better?

BILL LEAKE: Well, I think so. It will certainly make me feel better - much better.

JUSTIN MURPHY: But what really makes him feel better is pondering 1997 Costello style.

BILL LEAKE: What the Treasurer has in store for us is one thing; what he's got in store for John Howard is another thing altogether. I think the political intrigue is going to be very interesting to watch next year.

JUSTIN MURPHY: What are you implying, Bill?

BILL LEAKE: I think that there might be a certain agenda that our Treasurer is pursuing and it might involve the knocking off of a certain Prime Minister. At the same time, we also have Peter Reith who seems to me to be stalking Mr Costello at very close quarters. And I think all of that's going to be very interesting to watch as a sort of a sideline to the general mayhem.

This is John Howard. So you draw John Howard .. see the lip .. out she comes. A bit of sweat coming off him - that's him, yes. It's a funny thing about John Howard - his minders have fixed up his eyebrows. They've trimmed his eyebrows and they've straightened up his teeth, but I still draw him with teeth like that .. I've been doing it for years. Old habits die hard! That looks like he's being pulled along. Now, here's the mad eyes of Costello .. the big hooter .. here's the leash. I like to always put a bit of dark around the Treasurer's eyes, it seems to give him that almost maniacal leer that he seems to share with Richard Alston. I think that's more or less the situation we've got as we come into the new year.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Justin Murphy with Bill Leake.

Donna Tsang, in a country that draws its population from so many parts of the world, is it possible to talk about a typical Australian?

DONNA TSANG: Well, I think overseas would see Australia as a country which is young and sports-loving, enjoys life, down to earth, loves the environment and nature, but with very little culture.

But in reality, actually there is a lot of culture in this country. By that I mean we have a lot of talents in the performing arts, music, dancing and the things .. there is very little promotion on those. A lot of emphasis is on sports.

BARRIE CASSIDY: So is that right, Barrie, we are in fact a cultural country but that's not the perception?

BARRIE KOSKY: Well, I think any country is cultural. I think that the notion that somehow there's this definable identity called an Australian, is yet another one of the mythologies that seems to permeate the country - the fabric of the country, whether it's the arrival of the First Fleet or Gallipoli or whatever. I think what's dangerous is that we are already seeing now that the Olympics in the year 2000 are being set up as another defining moment in Australian identity, in Australian culture, when in fact it's just a money-making exercise for sports people.

I don't object to that at all but let's not pretend for one moment that the Olympics in Sydney for the year 2000 is somehow going to go down in world history or even Australian history as an extraordinarily important moment culturally.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Mary, you recall during the Olympics there was a lot of attention given to the fact that our swimmers refused to win. What did that say about us?

MARY KALANTZIS: Well, I think we're very quick as a nation to condemn each other and to scapegoat each other too, and our shame - we were feeling a sense of shame as a nation - and we're very quick to put it on our swimmers and then we looked very silly at the end when they did as well as they did. And I think that's a problem we're having at the moment too. We're too quick to judge who and what we are.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Barrie, just while we're still on the subject of the Olympics too, if we saw the cultural cringe during the year, it was in the assessment of the after-the-Olympics entertainment when the Kangaroos came out on the bicycles.

BARRIE KOSKY: Yes, I think that was interesting. I was fascinated - about seven minutes and everyone was talking about it's going to define what Australia is to the world stage. I mean that was grotesque. But also I thought the fact that .. I mean, to me I thought it actually was very Sydney. I mean, there were cockatoos, there were sequins there was, you know, a bit of glam, a bit of camp, bit of sort of dots on the kangaroos, a bit of appropriation of cultural imagery from another culture which the advertising industry doesn't understand. It was all thrown together. It was all light, it was all superficial, it was all banal and, to me, it was Sydney.

BOB KATTER: Just on a point of winning. I do think there is a cutting down of tall poppy syndrome. People tell me that we're the only country in the world that travels in the front of the taxi instead in the back, and I think that's something to be immensely proud of. And I've got to say, the first Australians, it is very much an inherent part of their culture and I cannot help but think that that is something that the bigger Australian picture now got from the first Australians, because it's so much a hallmark of their particular culture, but I think that's something to be immensely proud of.

And the term 'cultural cringe' - it's always fascinated me because I have never ever been able to understand what it means. I've never felt culturally self-conscious at any stage at all. I know who I am, I know what I am. I am apologising to no one for being an Australian and that's all I want to be. I don't aspire .. if people want to laugh at me going to the football with stubbies and a pie, well, I mean, they can laugh at me but it doesn't worry me much one way or the other and I think it's a foreign term to me, the very term 'cultural cringe'. I don't understand it.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Where will the next decade take us in terms of the big influences? Where will the big influences come from, Donna? It seems that our migrants essentially come from Europe and Asia and yet, more and more, the trends seem to come out of the United States?

DONNA TSANG: Oh, I thought there's more coming from Asia. You go to any top hotels in Sydney; they all serve you food which is east and west. You've got soy sauce with steaks. I mean, it's there.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Yes, we'll be having a closer look at that very subject in a moment.

Mary, what do you think about the influences into the next decade? Where will they come from?

MARY KALANTZIS: Oh, I think we have a very robust community in this country and it is hybrid in the way that Donna just suggested. But we are at a watershed. I mean, we can go anywhere. I don't think there's any trajectory that's fixed for us. I mean, we make what we are and we have to make it with generosity and I think there is enough goodwill in Australia.

And I think, at one level Keating was right when he left and said, 'This country has changed'. And although there's some breaks that are on at the moment, I believe that robustness that we had arrived at before the kind of breaks of this year will return because it's in our self interest, in the interest of our food, in the interest of our pockets and in the interests of our children. So I am confident that Australians will come together and continue that trajectory towards this robust hybrid sense of what it is to be an Australian, and an Australia that can show leadership to the rest of the world and particularly to our region, again, because we have lost that possibility this moment.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And that's where we must leave the debate. Thank you everybody for joining us.