Between the lies
Tony Abbott has always had a perverse relationship with the truth. Lying is in his nature. It is reaped from his belief in forgiveness.
This is the man who once said, “Misleading the ABC is not quite the same as misleading the parliament.”
It is the same man who said this week, “What happened on January 26, 1788, was, on balance, for everyone, Aboriginal people included, a good thing, because it brought Western civilisation to this country, it brought Australia into the modern world.”
This is the greatest lie ever told by a modern prime minister. It is a lie based on 230 years of deceit. It is a lie about everything, a lie told against thousands and thousands of deaths, against land theft and genocide, against the very foundation of contemporary Australia.
Discourse in our politics is such that this lie goes unpunished by Abbott’s leader. “I’m disappointed by those who want to change the date of Australia Day,” Malcolm Turnbull says, “seeking to take a day that unites Australia and Australians and turn it into one that would divide us.”
Bill Shorten refuses to support change. He says, “I support Australia Day staying on January 26.”
The politics of this is vindictiveness. There is no harm in changing the date, only the embarrassment of admitting that our national day celebrates a dispossession.
Those who cling to January 26 cling to lies. They worry that telling the truth about white settlement will unravel the countless other lies on which structural privilege depends. For them, the world is terrifying.
Those who refuse to change the date hold the fear of Enoch Powell’s whip hand, the belief that engaging with First Australians will see white Australia lose its power. They punish Indigenous Australians with this fear, erasing them from this country’s history.
“All of the things that we know and love about modern Australia,” Abbott says, “are the lineal descendants of the attitudes that came ashore with the First Fleet on that day back in 1788.”
And Turnbull: “A free country debates its history – it does not deny it. It builds new monuments as it preserves old ones, writes new books, not burn old ones.”
This last line is an appalling lie. It does what it purports to condemn, papers over the history it pretends to defend. It is proof of the speciousness of this debate, the complete absence of good faith.
In defending January 26, Tony Abbott quotes Monty Python. His rhetoric is a schoolboy’s. He pictures John Cleese in Life of Brian, asking what the Romans have done for us, apart from bring sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, fresh water, public health. “It’s worth asking the same question of the British settlement of Australia,” he says, “at the same time as we acknowledge the dispossession of the original inhabitants.”
Abbott claims, “There are 364 other days of the year when we can wear a black armband”. And that, “For his time, Governor Phillip was a remarkably humane and enlightened man”.
Abbott redefines what it is to celebrate on January 26. He co-opts it into a kind of national pledge. He says he will “gladly join millions of my fellow Australians to declare my faith in what, to us, is surely the best country on earth”.
This is the classic strategy of a culture war. Conservatives choose a hill and then prepare to die on it. They claim it means something it doesn’t. They know they will lose, so their only real goal is damage. Their fighting never graduates from stalemate and trenches.
This is not about January 26. It is about honesty and a system that depends on its suppression, a system of insincere power and ill-gotten privilege. Changing that system – being honest and changing the date – is the only way this country will start a candid exchange with the future.
Tony Abbott’s bombast will not survive that future, but the rest of us will. We shouldn’t wait.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Between the lies". Subscribe here.