The fantasy land of sport, anthems and nationalism

Scott Morrison says the world is out to get us, but his claims have a hollow sound.

Big ideas were the order of the day when Gough Whitlam took charge of Australia in 1972. What better time could there be to ditch the national dirge about a remote, if gracious, queen and replace it with something about ourselves?

And so the prime minister ordered a survey of Australians to find a new national anthem. We already had a much-loved national song, Waltzing Matilda, but Whitlam thought a song about a sheep stealer could never be a national anthem, so he put up other choices.

The rest is history. Malcolm Fraser’s 1977 plebiscite gave the nod to Advance Australia Fair, and it became our national anthem under Bob Hawke. Personally I think that’s a crying shame; I find tune and lyrics alike plodding, bog-standard and eminently forgettable. But I’ll live with it.

Whitlam should have given more credence to the national song, which Australians had been singing with gusto for generations. He might have asked his poet-friend Judith Wright to pen new lyrics, though I have no problem with a national anthem that thumbs its nose at the propertied classes.

Four years before the Whitlam era, an Australian placegetter in a sprint race at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Peter Norman, stood on the podium beside two black athletes, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, as they raised their fists in solidarity with black America during the playing of the US national anthem.

It was a hugely controversial gesture. Norman was condemned for supporting the two others during the ceremony by prominently displaying the badge of the unofficial Olympic Project for Human Rights. His stand for that cause was belatedly recognised by Australia’s parliament in 2012.

How we present ourselves abroad is complicated because national identity, too, is complicated. Across the broad sweep of our history we’ve vacillated between embracing all people as Peter Norman did and rejecting people who look different, as we did through the White Australia policy.

Being open to the world and wanting all people everywhere to get a fair go is reflected in in our chosen anthem’s second verse, in the “boundless plains” we want to share. It was not a sentiment felt by John Howard in 2001 when he refused to welcome refugees rescued at sea by the Tampa.

So my ears pricked up when I heard our present prime minister, Scott Morrison (who I’m sure loves the national anthem, though perhaps not so much the second verse) declare at Sydney’s Lowy Institute early this month that international officials should butt out of our nation’s affairs.

There’s some background to this. A few very busy days across the Pacific early this month as guest of honour of Donald Trump made a big impression on the PM. I wrote earlier about his UN speech in which he strongly defended Australia’s minimalist approach to climate action.

In his set-piece Lowy speech a week later he spoke of Australia’s time-honoured “practical resilience, optimism and resolve” giving way to an “anxiety-inducing moral panic and sense of crisis” – clearly referring to home-grown critics of his government’s climate policies.

But the Lowy speech went much further than just climate. In looking at foreign influence on Australian affairs, he opened a revealing window on how his world view is taking shape.

Today, he said, “pragmatic international engagement, based on the cooperation of sovereign nation states, is being challenged by a new variant of globalism that seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies.”

He went on to talk of “elite opinion and attitudes… disconnected from the mainstream of their societies”, “a sense of resentment and disappointment”, and “an era of insiders and outsiders, threatening social cohesion, provoking discontent and distrust”.

Questions come to mind. What, exactly, is the “new variant of globalism” threatening national authority? If he means the United Nations, made up of nation-state representatives with budget and powers entirely at the whim of those countries, including Australia, well, how weak is that?

“Elite” once meant the top of the class; to the PM they’re smart alecks who want to take away your rights and money. The PM has already named a home-grown elite, his “Canberra bubble” (from which he makes a point of excluding himself); now he’s finding others all round the world.

It’s anyone’s guess how long Scott Morrison will persist with his populist line about local and global elites intent on destroying us. His ministers are firmly behind him, as they made plain in their response to his Lowy Institute address, but the applause has a hollow sound.

Peter Norman understood that Olympics and national anthems, while offering us moments in which we can indulge simple nationalistic fantasies, are no substitute for the real world. Banging the national drum may win the odd election, but it’s never an answer to the important questions.

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