A charter of hope

It is tempting to believe Australia will emerge from this crisis a kinder and fairer country, that something will come from the common experience of isolation, that our obvious frailty will make us gentler and more compassionate.

It is tempting but by no means given. From these odd, unnumbered days will emerge a country changed but not necessarily better. It will be the work of the next few weeks that decides if Australia is remade or shoddily put back together. The difference is immense.

If we are to be a hopeful country, we must find a way to express that hope. This is a job for writers, to say who we are and what we believe – to listen to the country’s better nature and set it in prose.

This should be done on paper. We are a country without a bill of rights or a history of orators to define us. Our values are too often vague or imagined. Our politics is built on the likely and half-remembered.

The document need not be long, but it needs to be written and shared. It needs to say what is important to this country and implore our leaders to treat those values as a blueprint for the reality that follows the one we are now in.

Twenty-one years ago, John Howard attempted to draft a national preamble. Les Murray was called to assist but no poetry survived the process. An early version diminished Indigenous Australians and chided “fashion or ideology”. The final copy began: “With hope in God, the Commonwealth of Australia is constituted as a democracy with a federal system of government to serve the common good.”

Howard’s preamble failed because it was written for a country that didn’t exist. It failed to imagine Australia as it was or as it would be. In the end the words were so cautious and reluctant that they read as if they were showing through from another page.

The document we need now must conceive of Australia as one whole with many parts. It must be founded on a broad understanding of dignity. It must remove the caveats used to describe inequality as fairness. It must recognise injustices and seek to heal them.

Scott Morrison has begun the vague work of patriotism. Confronting the coronavirus, he said: “This is a Team Australia moment.” In his address to the nation, he said: “We’ll get through this together, Australia … I know we’ll all do our bit.”

These words are a start but they mean too little to be an answer. This may be deliberate. It cannot be left uncorrected.

In this time of common separation we need to find words of agreement. We need a language of shared purpose. It is unlikely our leaders will ask for it and so we must write it ourselves.

It won’t be the work of one writer but many, bound together by urgency and optimism, inventing a future for the country, a charter of hope.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2020 as "A charter of hope".

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