November 5

Clive James, the constitution and the commentariat.

Clive James, the successful London based Australian writer and broadcaster, has just published another book,“ North Face of Soho,” (Pan Macmillan Australia, $33). He does not share the views of our commentariat. He was interviewed in London by Peter Wilson for The Weekend Australian Review, 28-29 October, 2006. (This is an excellent interview; I do not think this is on the web)

His time pondering national cultural disintegration in cases such as that in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933 has led him to an even higher estimation of his homeland. "I decided gradually but firmly not to buy the idea of the Lucky Country that Donald Horne had propagated back in the ’60s. The two components of his thesis were that Australia had been extremely lucky in being given an isolated slot protected from history and all these natural resources, and somehow with an irredeemably second-rate lot of politicians and intellectuals it had managed to survive and flourish.”

"I didn’t buy the idea that Australian politicians had been second-rate at all. It seemed to me clear that Australia had been a political construction that was the work of very, very clever people with an eye to the past and the future, and was a very advanced social democracy, and had every right to be proud of that and, of course, with all the obligations that came with it, and that’s where your criticisms should come from, whether these obligations were being met".

Australia’s talented leaders date back to Deakin, he says, "but the turning point for me, the crux of the matter, is Menzies. It was not only fashionable to mock Menzies when I was an undergraduate, it was compulsory…But there was a missing element in this idea of Menzies embodying everything that was cringing about Australia towards the monarchy, everything that was would-be Tory and contemptuous of the working class.


"The missing component was that it was the Menzies government that introduced the Commonwealth scholarship scheme. The intelligentsia that mocked Menzies and all the subsequent governments had been educated by Menzies. And I thought it was unfair of them to leave that out because it had showed imagination on Menzies’ part." Those education reforms spurred a generation of talented Australian expats, says James, who shared a flat in London with Bruce Beresford and a house with Brett Whiteley. "A new breed was being educated because the one flaw in Australian democracy before that, the one flaw in its egalitarianism, was that it did cost money to go to university”.  


Menzies also deserves praise, he says, for maintaining Arthur Calwell’s immigration program. "If Menzies had been a genuine little­Australia man, a Little Englander, a man who wanted Australia to be the southernmost version of the Home Counties, he would have put Calwell’s immigration scheme into reverse. The re-estimation of Menzies I think has been a turning point in recent political thinking. That doesn’t mean I worship the guy” 


"I think this idea of dismissing the Australian politicians – you get the same thing with Howard, as if Howard was some kind of brainless homunculus – I think it is counterproductive. I’m from the old working class. My father and mother were proletarians, they worked on the production lines when they were lucky in the ’30s and I was brought up to believe in the fair go. The rights of the workers must be protected, that’s where I start from in politics. The question of whether the current ALP is actually equipped to do that is a very, very salient one."



Labor is not electable at the moment, he says, "because they can’t find a leader and the Liberal Party has taken their ground. To have power in Australia monopolised by people who believe the free market has a mind is very dangerous, so I would like to see the ALP come back. Whether it can is another question. This is as far as I want to go with all this, because there is a danger in being offshore. There is a ‘who does he think he is?’ reaction. That’s why I don’t let my mouth run by itself and I try and listen to the vote. I listened to the vote on the [republic] referendum, I listened to the vote in the general election, and there is a danger in Australia constantly of the consensus of the commentariat separating too far from the opinion of the people, to the point where the commentariat becomes contemptuous of the people. The minute you start thinking that the people aren’t up to the business of electing a government, you are getting into very dangerous territory."






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