THE HAPPY LAND: Part 13Was John Howard's Australia the place admirers like Tony Abbott promote? 'The Happy Land' is Graham Jackson's satirical alternative reality. This challenging work, illustrated by Gee, consists of thirteen Papers written by the major players in a dark period in Australia's short history. In this concluding paper, emeritus professor P. Costello describes the John Winston Coward legacy — such as it is.
The Life and Times of John Winston CowardThe Prime Minister who pushed Children Overboard in His Pursuit of Electoral Victory: A Reconstruction
1: ‘His Scottish Ancestors’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
2: ‘His Love of Cricket’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
3:‘My Mum and Dad’ – John Winston Coward
4: ‘The Happy Land’ – Extracts from an Interview with ‘Opening Batsman’
5: ‘The Coming of the Iraqis, Afghans and Fins’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
6: ‘The Martyrdom of Minister Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
7: ‘My Dream’ – a Transcript of ‘Sea Captain’s’ Evidence before a Select Committee
8: ‘An Address to the Australian People’ – John Winston Coward
9: ‘Ruddock Replaces Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
10: ‘His Favourite Sayings’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
11: ‘The Unveiling of the Scottish Thistle’ – John Winston Coward
12: ‘The Death of a Conservative Leader’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
13: ‘Postscript’ – ‘Wicketkeeper’
Paper 13: ‘Postscript’ – ‘Wicketkeeper’
What is the place of John Winston Coward, conservative Prime Minister? What is his legacy? Did he save his country from asylum-seekers? If he did, would it matter if he had not?
And what, more importantly, of Finley?
Ruddock’s first administrative order after assuming the leadership was to treble the depth of razor wire around the Riverina town. His second was to confer on his predecessor honours and distinctions, so that if things went wrong there would be someone to blame. The prospect of Fins stitching their mouths with wire could create the wrong impression. Similarly, footage of their children looking like zombies, staring over the rice paddies, didn’t look well on the evening news. Photographs in the Riverina Reporter were no better received. Fortunately images like these had only a short vogue and soon passed from view.
It has been said that the new Prime Minister was a man of repressed compassion and, to the extent that he always looked as if he’d just swallowed mouse shit, it might well have been true. Coward was a hard act to follow. But Ruddock did his best, presenting himself as a man who was stern but just –or at any rate bound to do his duty – and one who never tired of telling the country its future lay in the hands of conservative politicians.
He was safely following tradition. As Coward had been honoured in his lifetime with the erection of a Thistle, he was deified with the posthumous title of Saviour of Scottish Traditions — which was intended to create an impression of his country’s strong, independent stance, acting upon advice received from the American President. In fact, the title only created confusion amongst foreign delegates, who had to be endlessly briefed, and it was eventually dropped. Nowadays, Coward is more often remembered as the Mouth, possibly a corruption of Mouse, or else a reference to his ability to talk meaninglessly about his country’s destiny, linking it with the United States of America, bushman’s hats, the Queen, paddocks of ripening wheat and anything else that might strike a responsive chord with the People. Some simply remember him as an unpleasant dream, others as one who knew every side of the truth.
During his time in office, often with the connivance of the Opposition, Ruddock followed the conservative text book and preserved the status quo. The only issue that ever threatened his government was Finley in its later, Jack Blight years, when the young wanderer, who grew into a twenty year old rebel, took control of his town and threatened to lead the Fins out through the razor wire. Ruddock had to take action.
At the Prime Minister’s direction, photographs appeared on the front pages of the nation’s dailies depicting young children caught on the wire. The images were blurred, the consequence, it was said, of heavy mists over the Mulwala Canal, although the story was retracted when it became known that the canal had been dry for years. In fact, the Fins had been responsible for the drought, Ruddock explained in an important speech, with the use of open irrigation systems and other bad practices, never precisely identified, but alluded to with such fervour no one could help but draw the obvious conclusion.
What appeared to be blood soaking into the sandy loam at the foot of the razor wire was circled in the photographs. Jack Blight didn’t dispute the blood, but suggested it might be of animal origin spilt by the agents of a government so unscrupulous it would do anything to denigrate the Fins and represent them as barbarians prepared to string up their children like crows on a barbed wire fence, just as they once threatened to throw their children overboard if they weren’t allowed into the country. Whether there were children on the wire has never been agreed, despite a parliamentary debate at the time and journalistic speculation since. In any event, Finley’s children soon grew older and were no longer an issue. And the Fins saw no need to reproduce themselves in a land that would be happier without them.
Nor will we ever know if Jack Blight grew old and died with his fellows or simply faded away like a mist on the township’s pond, or lake. There had always been something ephemeral in his being. Before the last of them died, the Fins erected a statue in his honour outside the Tuppal Hotel. Although it wasn’t as magnificent as Coward’s Thistle, there was something melancholy about it –like the Dog on the Tuckerbox north of Gundagai – that was uniquely Australian. It represented him sitting by a roadside with his back to a bag of fertiliser waiting for his father, who never came home from Four Corners, or whichever end of the earth he set out from on that final journey. Perhaps he was claimed by Old Man Plain, as others had before him. Or perhaps he simply settled in for a session at the Ivanhoe Hotel. We shall never know.
In the continuing absence of rain and irrigation water, Finley became a ghost town and was no threat to anyone. The surrounding rice paddies were reclaimed by the Plain and northerly winds rippled the barren, sandy loam. The town deteriorated slowly over the years, until at the end of his period in office Ruddock determined Finley should be his own monument, since the entire region, once so prosperous, now looked like the bed of a dead inland sea. In this, Ruddock saw something historically apposite, as a warning of what might go wrong when people adopted opinions other than those of their Prime Minister and refused to believe what they were told in good conscience, on the best advice of tea ladies and the President of the United States of America. Moreover, since asylum-seekers traditionally came to Australia by sea – even the Fins – there was a lesson to be learned from their eventual death on a dry inland sea bed.
So, Finley was dusted off. Nothing was changed or improved. Following standards set in a more trustworthy hemisphere, the town was put on display just as it was, a warning to anyone seeking asylum. If no one ever visited, the country could be well-pleased this particular lesson of history had been learned. As the blood in the soil had long since blown away, there was no need for sensation-seekers to drop by and, as the bones of humans and rodents had been discreetly removed before the township re-opened for business, there was nothing to attract curious collectors either.
No one ever did visit. As the waterless plains were reclaimed by the desert, inland Australia was vacated. Tourists occasionally flew over, student groups fossicked around at a distance in four-wheel drive vehicles and voyages of discovery were sometimes announced in the coastal cities. But, by and large, people were content to leave it be, perhaps sensing that time had passed the region by, even as it eventually passed conservative leaders by — and Jack Blight, sitting forever against a bag of his father’s fertiliser.
Further south in the Wimmera, the land had also been taken over by sand. Where wheat once waved, great dunes now rose, indistinguishable from dunes elsewhere in the world, in Iraq and Afghanistan, even New Zealand — anywhere, in fact, where empty wastes occurred. Now, only the tip of Howard’s Thistle was visible sitting on the side of a dune, for all the world like an unlikely scrap of vegetation, or even a mouse.
There hadn’t been a live rodent, let alone a plague, in the Wimmera for years. The crops that once supported them were long gone, as were the impoverished farmers like the Cowards who planted the wheat. The land could no longer support humans either.
In time, it would support nothing. As, on one side, desert sands encroached on the thin green coast, rising seas inexorably crept up on the other. Each day, the Scottish chieftains of John Winston Coward’s imagination had to climb higher cliffs above twin destructive forces. Each day their warning cries sounded fainter against the crash of surf on rock and sand, until one day they would be heard no more. Then the ocean would swirl in to reclaim the continent and the ghosts of the Fins would find peace on their new sea bed while, somewhere above, the fragile boats of another wave of immigrants would toss on an unnamed sea, seeking asylum in a distant, happy land.
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