Don Watson can hardly be surprised at the reaction to Rabbit Syndrome (Quarterly Essay 4, 2001), as he went out of his way to be provoking. He now says that he didn’t really mean that Australia was such a comprehensive failure as a nation that we should apply to become America’s fifty-first state – but why include such hallucinogenic speculation in a work presumably intended to be taken seriously, at least as a meditation on “the way we are now”?
Watson’s essay reads like an historian’s version of Blue Poles: a tortured outpouring of existential angst from an artist incapable of thinking straight at the time. In an Australia Day conclusion to the Age newspaper’s series of responses to Rabbit Syndrome, Watson protests that his position is “pro-Australian”. If so, why couldn’t he have spared his country and his countrymen more than a grudging kind word on page 46 of a 59-page essay?
To be fair, the country to which Australia so comprehensively fails to measure up (in his view) is at least America. The standard-bearers of the Left have made this much progress that they no longer lament Australia’s deficiencies compared (say) to Sweden or East Germany. America is a worthy yardstick against which to fail. Even so, Watson’s essay is a classic statement of the “black armband” perspective on Australia’s past and present.
Hardly a page turns without some manifestation of the author’s deep unhappiness with his own country. Rabbit Syndrome opens with a comparison of two federation-era portraits hanging in the Bendigo regional gallery: “Gentlemen, the Queen” depicts a bevy of imperial officers, “smug, effete and goatish” says Watson. By contrast, “Charles Schneider Esq. of Cincinnati USA”, is “clear-eyed and clean-shaven, impeccably groomed, unambiguously masculine, confident, whole”. There are strong echoes here of Watson’s spiritual mentor Manning Clark, and Clark’s juxtaposition of the “old dead tree” and the “young green tree”, only at least Clark’s “young green tree” was Australia rather than someplace else.
On page 5 there is a sneering reference to Mark Twain’s description of South Australia as a working-man’s paradise. This is the only “with feeling” criticism of an American Watson makes – and it’s telling that it’s for praising Australia. By page 13, Australia’s attitude to America (and this, after all, is supposed to be about the Australian–American relationship) has been reduced to the basest subservience possible: “We found all sorts of ways to pretend we were upright and standing on our own two feet but in truth we bent over the barrel and were willing to bend further as the occasion demanded.” “Indeed”, says Watson, in a revealing and revolting low blow, “this seemed to be the way we liked it.”
On page 21, he works himself into a real lather of disgust: “The country which declares itself the luckiest and best on earth and listens avidly to shock jocks abusing anyone who suggests otherwise while all the while telling us how bad it is; whose appetite for crap is bottomless; that talks high principles but values pragmatism and practices unqualified self-interest; substitutes platitudes for wisdom; suffers the same Protestant curse but without the fires of hell to warm it …” and so on and on. It would be tiresome to enumerate all the further manifestations of despair and loathing which the essay provides. Quarterly Essay readers inclined to doubt just how bad this is should re-read it without the rose-coloured glasses of Watson’s cheer squad.
How a respected historian, former prime ministerial speechwriter and celebrated man of letters could have come to this state of contempt for the culture that nurtured him and the country that honours him is a subject best left to psychologists. Certainly, these bilious fantasies describe an Australia that would be all-but-unrecognisable to people who don’t share his particular set of prejudices. Watson’s silky denials after the event notwithstanding, Rabbit Syndrome frequently degenerates into an anti-Australian tantrum. So fair-minded a judge as the Quarterly Essay’s editor declares in his introduction that it is Watson’s purpose, in part, “to suggest that Australia is the arse-end of the earth”.
Watson burnishes his left-wing credentials by dwelling, parenthetically, on America’s militarism and materialism. Even so, on every comparison, Australia comes off second best. Our universities, our literature, our music, our immigrants, our history, our art, our religion, even our attitude to law and order (just as unenlightened but tepidly so) are pallid, tawdry impostors compared to the attainments of the “great republic”. Should anyone ask Watson: “Whose side are you on?” he’d doubtless claim “Australia’s” – it’s just that in every comparison, at least in this essay, he always finds for someone else.
In Watson’s eyes, it’s to Australia’s discredit (somehow) that Burke and Wills found a desert while America is mysteriously ennobled because Lewis and Clark had the good fortune to find “majesty and riches beyond measure”. “No person in his right mind would choose a gaol over a republic,” declares Watson in one of his bursts of only semi-coherent bluster. It never occurs to Watson, at least in this essay, that a population ten times as great might have something to do with America’s comparative success.
Buried among the rhetorical slagheaps, Watson finally concedes this much to his country’s credit: “The pity of this is greater because … the story (of Australia until the 1960s) is powerful and moving. It tells of a flourishing democracy, sentimentally … attached to Great Britain, a continent tamed by hard work and ingenuity, not as it turned out to establish a new Britannia in another world but an Anglo-Saxon society of distinctive Australian character; with sound institutions, a spirit of social progress, a facility to battle through, a loveable tendency to larrikinism, good sportsmen and even better soldiers.” Here, belatedly, is at least a passing nod of appreciation for the spirit of Australia pre-Whitlam. There’s only one problem. “It’s over,” declares Watson.
Is it? Is it really so hard to imagine the men of Gallipoli and Tobruk among the patrons of the Steyne Hotel in Manly last weekend? As much as some things change, more things usually remain about the same. And what’s new starts to resemble what’s old under the gravitational pull of the Australian way of life. The differences between the Maloufs and the Chans on the one hand and the men of the First AIF on the other might turn out to be only skin deep. If two centuries of dispossession and swamping by “invaders” has not destroyed indigenous culture, mainstream Australian culture is more than capable of adapting to a few decades of technological and social evolution.
The Australia for which Watson-the-historian feels nostalgic is not an Australia which Watson-the-polemicist can unselfconsciously celebrate. That’s why, in this polemical essay, he can’t bring himself to acknowledge the strengths of “traditional” Australia until he’s done his best to bury it. It’s precisely the new life now breathed into old virtues that drives this former Keating adviser to such fury. Just as one expects Watson’s next attack to be on cricket (such an effete game compared to baseball!), he sobers up and comes to what was always going to be the main point: “If the country has a problem, so has John Howard.”
Since 1996, the Howard Government has introduced work-for-the-dole, overturned the Northern Territory’s right-to-kill law, targeted specific benefits to single-income families with children, blocked free heroin trials in Canberra, and provided a new funding deal for Catholic and independent schools. Thanks to Australia, East Timor is free for the first time in nearly 500 years. A government which was supposed to have divided Australia as never before and a prime minister who was supposed to have “broken Australia’s heart” now attracts more than 75 per cent support for its border protection policy (including 58 per cent of unionists).
What really annoys Watson-the-polemicist is the thought that a generation of political correctness hasn’t entirely killed off the Australia of Anzac Day marches, CWA meetings, inarticulate attachment to traditional values and a presumption that Australia deserves the benefit of the doubt. The old Keating acolyte might have been prepared to overlook these manifold defects but he just can’t tolerate a country that will re-elect John Howard.
Tony Abbott is the Leader of the House of Representatives and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 5, Girt By Sea.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY