Gone are our Frontier Values

‘The objection to pooftahs was indeed characteristic of Australians, even clever ones’

Bob Hawke was the prime minister of Australia from 1983 to 1991. He was, as Australians say, a bloody legend. Wiry and craggy with thick, wavy grey hair, he spoke with a broad Australian accent, he wept in public (twice), admitted being unfaithful to his first wife, and drank. Indeed, while a Rhodes Scholar at University College, Oxford, he had achieved the world record by downing a yard glass of beer in 11 seconds.

Bob Hawke was a little distillation of everything appealing about Australians: open, energetic, optimistic and capable of working on weighty matters without being pompous or pious.

While Mr Hawke was in office, I was being taught philosophy by Australians at Auckland University. They approached the subject with the same robust spirit, captured perfectly in Monty Python‘s 1970 Bruce’s philosophy sketch.

For those readers unfamiliar with the sketch, it concerns a staff meeting at the philosophy department of the University of Woolloomooloo. The purpose of the meeting is to welcome a new lecturer, Michael Baldwin from Pommyland (who, to avoid confusion, agrees to be called Bruce, that being the name of all the other lecturers).

After cracking open some “tubes” (cans of beer), new Bruce is read the departmental rules: “Rule 1: No pooftahs; Rule 2: No member of the faculty is to maltreat the Aboes in any way whatsoever, if there is anyone watching; Rule 3: No pooftahs; Rule 4: I don’t want to catch anyone not drinking in their room after lights out; Rule 5: No pooftahs; Rule 6: There is no rule 6; Rule 7: No pooftahs.”

This objection to pooftahs was indeed characteristic of Australians, even clever ones, such as my philosophy lecturers. It was not an objection to homosexuals but to people who were soft, pretentious or otherwise precious. (Growing up in New Zealand, I cheerfully called people poofs for about ten years before realising that it had been derogatory slang for homosexuals.)

When it came to ideas – philosophical or political – the “no pooftahs” attitude meant a dislike of bullshitters, of those who shrouded the banality or absurdity of their ideas in obscure and pretentious language: the likes of French philosopher Jacques Derrida and, had they encountered him, Tony Blair.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the rugged “settler culture” of Australia lived on, even if the settler way of life did not. Just as there was no place for pooftahs on a cattle station, there was no place for them in a philosophy department, a government, a business, a cricket team or anywhere else. The rules of the philosophy department at the University of Woolloomooloo could have been the rules of Australia.

I moved to Sydney a little over a year ago and I have been surprised to discover how thoroughly the rules have changed. I lack the space to drag you through the full blousiness of modern Australia, so let us just consider the boss man. In November 2007, Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister in a landslide victory for the Labour Party. Mr Rudd is immensely popular. He is also prissy, sanctimonious and fond of empty gestures.

Shortly after being elected prime minister, he did what John Howard had famously refused to do and apologised to “the stolen generations” of Aboriginal Australians. This faux apology (you can be sorry about something you did not do but you cannot really apologise for it) was accompanied by teary street celebrations of national redemption.

Such an orgy of moral self-congratulation would be disgraceful unless you intended to help Aborigines, many of whom lead lives of physical and moral degradation. So, in his apology speech, Mr Rudd “laid claim to a future”, where “the gap that lies between [white and black Australians] in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity” is closed. Never mind that he has no proposals that make this even a remote possibility. The pledge sufficed for enjoying the moment.

Two months earlier, Mr Rudd had done something else that Mr Howard had refused to do. He had signed the Kyoto treaty on climate change, despite the fact that Australia was already on track to meet its Kyoto emissions target for 2012 and despite evidence that signing Kyoto does not help to reduce a country’s emissions growth. The Bruces would have smelled such bullshit from any distance. Contemporary Australians lapped it up.

I suppose I should not be surprised. As America became wealthy and urban, it lost touch with its no-nonsense frontier values. The same was sure to happen in Australia. If you want to see just how far things have progressed, watch the recently released Australia, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman. It will teach you little about the Australia of the 1940s, which it purports to depict, but much about the nation’s contemporary taste for kitsch sentimentality.

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