Paul Keating, the Arts and Australian identity

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This is an abridged version of the Stephen Murray-Smith Lecture given by Dr Anne Summers, AO in which she explores Australia's development as a literary and creative nation and asks, ‘Is "bias, Australian" still possible in a globalised world?'.

Dr Anne Summers AO

TONIGHT we honour the memory of one of our most ardent advocates for the assertion of a uniquely Australian cultural identity. Stephen Murray-Smith was an academic and an author. He was an editor and an anthologist. His subject matter was diverse, with his books ranging widely across topics as diverse as a history of the RMIT to a traveller’s account of the penguins of Antarctica, as well as his constant writings about his beloved Bass Strait.

He championed the Australian short story and the Australian language. His Australian dictionary of quotations, published in 1984, remains a key reference. I was honoured to be included in this seminal work with several quotes from my book Damned whores and God’s police (1975).

But perhaps Stephen Murray-Smith’s most significant contribution to Australia’s literary life was the journal Overland that he founded in 1954 and which continues to this day. Only Meanjin can claim a longer life in publishing Australian literary and cultural works and thereby helping to shape who we are and how we see ourselves.

Stephen Murray-Smith
From that first issue, dated Spring 1954 and priced at one shilling, Overland set itself the mission of asking its readers to ‘share our love of living, our optimism, our belief in the traditional dream of a better Australia’.

Just what would constitute ‘a better Australia’ was contentious then and now.

Easier, perhaps, to try to figure out exactly what we wanted the word ‘Australian’ to mean. From the first issue, Overland carried the slug ‘Temper, democratic; Bias, Australian’.

These words had come, of course, from a letter written in 1897 by Joseph Furphy to the editor of the Bulletin: ‘I have just finished writing a full-sized novel,’ he told JF Archibald, ‘title Such is life; scene, Riverina and northern Vic; temper, democratic, bias, offensively Australia’.

I would like to begin my ruminations on what ‘bias, Australian’ might mean in today’s world by sharing with you my recollection of an event that took place in 1993, on February 28, which was a Sunday, in Sydney at the State Theatre.

It was called Arts for Labor, and was a tribute to Paul Keating. It was intended to be an expression of gratitude for his support for the arts, organised in a rare show of unity and setting aside of its usual bitchery and rivalry, by the arts community. It took place the in the early afternoon, the day after Mardi Gras and a great many of the performers, as well as people in the audience, had not been to bed the night before. The prime minister was equally exhausted, although for different reasons.

It was two weeks out from election day, an election that everyone had pronounced he was certain to lose. He had been campaigning hard and would have preferred a rest day that Sunday to arriving at the State Theatre for what he saw as yet another obligation.

I was waiting for him at the curb with the actor Sam Neill who was to escort him in. As he emerged from his car, looking tired, Norman Gunston swooped, cameras following, with some inane questions. Sam managed to pull him away and as I handed him his speech notes, Paul said to me: ‘Annie, I don’t think I’ve got a twenty minute speech in me today’.

‘Well, just thank them’, I urged him. ‘This is for you. All you have to do is watch and enjoy’.

I followed Paul and Sam into the theatre which was in semi-darkness except for the spotlight on a lone Circus Oz aerialist who, clinging to a rope, swung daringly across the void above the heads of the audience. He was a bit like Paul Keating the politician who was also a high-wire act performer, taking risks, no net, putting on a dazzling show and you could see, as the prime minister watched the brave performer swing from side to side in that cavernous space, that he felt something of a connection. He seemed to perk up a bit. Then the audience realized that the prime minister had arrived and there was a huge roar.

A tumultuous wave of sound swirled around the room that bore within it the affection, the admiration, the gratitude and, also, the fear of what was to come when this man would be swept from office and be replaced by John Hewson who, that very morning, when he had spied Sam Neill handing out pro-Labor propaganda at the Double Bay shopping centre, had threatened him with the words, ‘You will never work in this town again.’

The applause was raw and raucous and it bore Keating along with its velocity, down the aisle towards the seat near the front from where he would watch the performance. You could see his shoulders lift as he surveyed the screaming adoring crowd, a huge grin breaking across his face. He sat down and the show began.

I had been living in New York for almost seven years and, I realized, that despite my frequent visits home and the many American tours to the Big Apple of everyone from Midnight Oil to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, I was out of touch with Australian creativity. I watched spellbound. I had never seen anything like it.

The concert began with a scene-setting speech from Bryan Brown which was followed by a short, sizzling dance by Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice the couple from the film Strictly ballroom. Mercurio was wearing his trademark white singlet, the same one that – unwashed and still smelling of sweat – would be auctioned off at the end of the week along with many other significant items, including a prime ministerial tie, to raise money to pay for the costs of this extraordinary show.

Then the actor Robyn Nevin arrived at the podium with a sheaf of papers in her hand. She read the testimonials, from grateful recipients of government financial support, including almost every single person who had benefited from a ‘Keating’, as the generous two-year Australian Artists Creative Fellowships instigated by Keating in 1989 when he was still treasurer to provide financial security for mature artists across all genres, were called.

The words were followed by more performance: the Hermannsburg Ladies Choir – a group of middle-aged Aboriginal women who had never before travelled from Central Australia; Jane Rutter did a sexy flute performance; a Manhattan Transfer-style group sang some amazing harmonies. All the while, Roger Foley (aka Ellis D. Fogg) projected brightly coloured psychedelic images onto to a screen at the rear of the stage. There were other acts. My memory has failed to preserve all of them, but I do remember the final one.

Several men from Bangarra, the notable Aboriginal dance company, performed, a moving reminder of the ancient culture on which everything else we do rests. When they had finished, Keating walked onto the stage.

He was a radically different man from the one who had dragged himself out of his car just over an hour earlier. There was a spring to his step, he was grinning. You could tell that he was profoundly moved by the show itself – and by the fact that it had all been put on for him.

He said later that it was the turning point in the campaign. He was suddenly energized – and motivated. He was not going to let these people, and this country, down. As Don Watson describes the event in his book, '...the prime minister could not stop smiling and bowing’.

He threw aside the notes Watson had prepared for him and launched into a passionate address. He told his avid audience of his ambitions for another term: the economic motor, the links with east Asia, the republic, the Aborigines, the unemployed and the arts.

He said the Coalition could never understand ‘the meaning of all this…because they did not see or understand the synergy between the arts and the economy, how they sprang from the same creative instincts’. He spoke for forty minutes.

When it was over, the performers joined Keating on stage in an exuberant throng. The newspapers the next morning showed a photograph of the prime minister, wearing a trademark light grey Zegna suit, standing close between two Bangarra dancers who were wearing not much more than a laplap and a bit of body paint.

It was an endearing – and revealing – image of contemporary Australia.

Paul Keating

Paul Keating was a very different kind of Australian from the hard-drinking, womanising, sports-loving Bob Hawke. (Although both excelled in their profane use of the Australian vernacular.) Keatng's nationalism – his Australianness - exhibited itself in spectacularly different ways.

In his kissing the ground at Kokoda, with his two most famous speeches – the Redfern speech and the one on the unknown soldier, and in his inventive and often inflammatory aphorisms. He thrilled his admirers with such outbursts as: ‘If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re just camping out,’ or, ‘A soufflé does not rise twice,’ ‘All tip and no iceberg’ and, memorably from a few months before this Arts for Labor event, when John Hewson pestered him as to why he would not call an early election, he said: ‘The answer is, mate, because I want to do you slowly’.

At the same time, the leader of the country was urbane and elegant, a man whose tastes ran to Regency furniture, Georgian architecture and the late-Romantic Austrian composter Mahler. And, now, here he was that Sunday in Sydney, embracing the Indigenous descendants of one of the world’s most ancient cultures.

How great our arts will be, Keating had said in his speech, when we are as one with Indigenous Australians, ‘When we say sorry for the murders and the dispossession and mean it, not just write a cheque off the budget’.

That was just seventeen years ago. Since then, another prime minister has said sorry to Indigenous Australia, but no other prime minister since Keating has shown much interest in arts or culture. There has been no policy designed to expand our arts and, hence, our economy.

In 2010 we have a prime minister who has never been to the Sydney Opera House for anything other than a political function, and whose interest in culture is confined to attending an occasional play – which is more than her two predecessors managed – and reading crime fiction.

The Opposition leader is more renowned for his iron man achievements than for his embrace of arts or culture. Here in Victoria, you are fortunate to have had leaders who understand the connection between expanding the arts and the economic benefits this reaps.

In Sydney, where I live, while we have a thriving literary culture, an internationally renowned building for opera and other arts, the arts are not central to the way the city works. In Bob Carr, a former premier, we did have a leader who would rather read than go to the football – or, if he was obliged to attend a match, would attract scorn by taking take his book along.

These days our premier, Kristina Keneally, could scarcely be less interested. Last week she felt the need to preface her tribute following the death of Dame Joan Sutherland with a comment that she was not a fan of opera.

Politically, we’d have to say, culture in this country today is mostly struggling. It is tolerated but it is not championed. We look for other ways to talk about ourselves. Just recall the $180 million we spent on an international television advertisement featuring a blonde on a beach asking, 'Where the bloody hell are you?' That ‘spend’ was roughly equal to the $175 million the government spends annually on the arts via the Australia Council.

And it was a total failure. An embarrassment. It attracted few, if any, visitors. It revealed us as vulgar and crass. It was a total waste of money.

By contrast, the $11.7 million spent between 1989 and 1996 on 65 artists under the Australian Artists Creative Fellowships (‘the Keatings’) produced the following:


  • Grand days and dark palace, by Frank Moorhouse – the first two books of his League of nations trilogy. Dark palace won the Miles Franklin Award.

  • The glade within the grove and Ballad of Erinungarah, by David Foster, the first of which also won the Miles Franklin

  • Drylands, the last novel by Thea Astley

  • The drowner by Robert Drewe which won a record of four state premier’s Literary Awards

  • The idea of perfection by Kate Grenville, which won the Orange Prize for women’s fiction in the UK

  • Rodney Hall’s 600 page trilogy The island in the mind

  • Sojourners, Eric Rolls’s first volume of his history of the Chinese in Australia, as well as his From forest to sea – and he began Citizens.

  • Memoirs by John Bell and Reg Livermore

  • Les Murray wrote his collections Dog fox field, Translations from the natural world and Subhuman redneck and won the Queen’s Gold

  • Poetry

    John Tranter finished two poetry collections, The floor of heaven and At the Florida as well as editing The Penguin book of modern Australian poetry and starting a book about Martin Johnston.

    Theatrical works

    • Neil Armfield created Cloudstreet, one of the most successful theatrical productions this country has ever seen and is, incidentally, the one work nominated by the prime minister as something she has seen

    • John Bell and Reg Livermore both did theatrical work as well as complete memoirs

    • Other Australian artistic greats to receive ‘Keatings’ were Emily Kngwarreye, Dorothy Hewett, David Moore, Richard Meale, Jack Davis, Geoffrey Tozer, and Garth Welch.

      The country got a lot for its $11.7 million bucks. But in 1996 the Howard government came to power and, like so many good things the Keating government had put in place, the ‘Keatings’ were got rid of.

      If we can no longer rely on government, especially the federal government, to value our creative industries, what are our other options?

      Philanthropy is increasingly replacing, or at least complementing, business as a source of funds. Business seems less interested in associating itself with the arts. Sport is a more attractive option. Arts organisations report that it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to obtain business sponsorships.

      Tellingly, the Bangarra Dance Company has not been able to attract a principal sponsor in recent years.

      But if philanthropy is a welcome alternative to business sponsorships and to complement government funding, it has to be recognised that raising philanthropic funds is labour intensive, is rarely long-term and so cannot be seen as the panacea for the arts-funding problem. So we best get used to the idea that we do not just measure the health of our creative nation in terms of the funding the creative industries receive.

      Stephen Murray-Smith knew what it was like to operate on the smell of an oily rag, to not be deterred by the lack of money.

      He battled to keep Overland afloat, constantly raising funds via donations, subscription hikes and – before too long – advertising. Issue no 6 Summer 1955–56) was the first to bear what would be the regular back cover advertisement for wines made by S. Wynn and Co. Pty Ltd. Having a regular advertiser must have been a tremendous relief to the finances of Overland.

      (Back then there were just two types of wine: red and white. The red was a Coonawarra – a ‘claret’ – as they were still allowed to be called, and the Modbury Estate White was called just that – ‘white’.)

      I also imagine that were he embarking on his magazine project today Stephen Murray-Smith would be fully engaged online. Like many proprietors today, he might be struggling to reconcile the two worlds of publishing: the rapid and vast reach of online to people who have accustomed themselves to not having the pay for what they read, and the rapidly declining returns on the old business model for publishing magazines and newspapers.

      And he, like all publishers today, would be obliged to have a website, a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. He would be just realising that, as the worldwide web starts to fade in relevance, it is time to develop an Overland app. Finding the money for all these manifestations of his primary literary endeavour would probably be a challenge, finding the time to tend to them all would be an every greater one.

      And yet they are essential to maintaining a presence in today’s complex and multi-layered world of instant communications, to staking out one’s plot in the digital universe, and to developing, and keeping, an audience in the face of ferocious competition.

      Which brings me to the second question I have posed for myself this evening: How does one assert ‘bias, Australian’ in a globalised world? To elaborate:

      • How do we represent ourselves as Australians in a world where borders are less important (unless, of course, you are an asylumseeker)?

      • What does it mean to be Australian in a digital universe where physical presence is no longer a prerequisite to experiencing so much of what the world has to offer

      • How do we retain our ‘Australianness’ in a world where instant communications and digital publications mean we no longer have to wait what used to be weeks or even months to digest books, magazines and other media from around the world?

      • Should we even be trying? Maybe it does not matter anymore.

      • It certainly mattered to Stephen Murray-Smith and those who read and wrote for Overland. It was, in a sense, their central project. But I think it was perhaps easier to assert ‘bias Australian’ in the 1950s. It was a simpler proposition, in a smaller world, in a country where one could, if one wished, be totally across all the creative activities of the nation.

        I recall that even twenty years on, in the 1970s when I was just getting started, it was still possible to read every Australian book as it was published.

        Today, one struggles to keep up just with the books written by friends and colleagues.

        The early issues of Overland were in no doubt about their Australia: Australia was the bush, the working person and that brand of nationalism that was forged in adversity against both the hostile natural elements (flood, fire and drought), and authority (the squatter, the copper, the Pom).

        The very first issue of Overland had on its cover a line drawing, by Noel Counihan, of a swaggie.

        We have always been – like most countries – reduced down to a couple of crude cultural stereotypes but in the past these at least tended to have some kind of cultural reference. When I first travelled in the United States, in the late 1970s, people sought to find common ground with me by telling me they had read The thorn birds. A decade later, it was Crocodile Dundee that was the reference point.

        What would it be today? You’d like to think The slap or Ransom, Nam Le or Lisa Gasteen, Slava Grigorian or Guan Wei, the Australian Chamber Orchestra or Circus Oz. But even among educated elites in New York or London or Berlin, however, such identification is unlikely.

        Our ‘brand’, according to a visiting ‘British branding expert’, does not involve culture or the arts. Rather, it was reported last week, Australia is viewed as the ‘dumb blonde’ of the world. ‘That is so unfair to Kylie, Warnie and Hoges’, said the accompanying Wilcox cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald.

        We Australians have always been obsessed by questions of identity. ‘Self-definition is still the great unfinished cultural project’, as Hilary McPhee puts it.

        We have, perhaps, moved beyond the ‘cultural cringe’ identified by AA Phillips in 1950, whereby we needed the validation of British (or European) approval in order to appreciate our own worth and our creations. We went through a period of cultural self-confidence, even brashness, beginning with the Whitlam era, when we experienced a cultural renaissance – in film, in theatre, in writing, both fiction and non-fiction – that in turn mirrored the pride in Australian creation that the early issues of Overland devoted themselves to exploring and celebrating.

        Today, we are less confident and less self-assured. We worry that what makes us uniquely Australian is being quashed by a global culture that is largely defined by America. We mourn the loss of our unique language, with ‘ocker’ words being replaced by Americanisms. At the same time, we crave American validation of a kind we once sought from Britain. We want our actors to win Oscars, our playwrights to succeed on Broadway, our writers to hit New York Times best-seller lists, our astronauts to be chosen by NASA. Once, we found American flag-waving distasteful and ‘over the top’. Now we try to out-wave, without having experienced the trauma of a terror attack on our soil to justify such displays of national pride and  defiance.

        We have no such defence when we see, mostly on television, crowds – we might even say hordes – of people, mostly young, with flag decals or  green and yellow stripes on their faces, flags draped over their bodies, asserting their Australianess in ways that are a million kilometres from any of the phases of Australian life that Miles Franklin had in mind.

        It’s ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi’ – a crude assertion of nationality but not much else. It has become our international anthem and, quite frankly, I find it quite repellant. It may, just, be the right response at a sporting event, but how can it be at a dawn service at Gallipoli, or a canonisation in St Peter’s Square? Have we reduced our sense of who we are to a crude alliterative chant?

        So it is no surprise that many of us today are more anxious and insecure than ever before about who we are. Are we right to be?

        Paul Keating said famously in 1996, warning of what was about to happen, ‘When you change the government, you change the country’. He was right.

        The country did change, especially in the areas that we are talking about this evening: culture and the arts, and there has been no going back, even with the change of government in 2007.

        Our creative nation is no longer central to who we are and what we do.

        Perhaps the surprising thing is that it ever was, even for the briefest of times. And it is the reason the arts community held that event in Sydney that February, because they recognised how rare and precious a time in our history it was. And that it probably could not last.

        The Keating government released the one and only cultural policy the country has even seen in 1994. Called, rather boringly, Creative Nation it set out, said the prime minister, not ‘to impose a cultural landscape on Australia but to respond to one that is already in bloom’. No government decision, he said, was without a cultural consequence. The policy had not been easy to deliver.

        Cabinet had derided it as payback to the cultural elites who had put on a party for the prime minister during the last campaign, a view that was pretty much shared by the media.

        No such criticisms were possible in 2010. The government’s arts policy was released without a launch or any other form of fanfare. Interestingly, the policy promises a National Cultural Policy but no details have been forthcoming and the former minister, Peter Garrett, did not even mention it at a forum on the arts held at the University of Melbourne last July.

        However, perhaps we should not write off the Gillard government’s approach to culture and the arts. In a move that received absolutely no publicity, responsibility for arts and culture was transferred to the Prime Minister’s department after the recent federal election. This certainly gives it a political and bureaucratic status that it has lacked since 1996. We should watch carefully to see how this translates into policy.

        In the meantime, we Australians who cherish the creativity of our nation and wish to nurture it should take comfort from the fact that the essence of Australianness is resilience, adaptation, cleverness and other qualities that should see us through.  
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