History can turn on such small things, like a snippet from a speech. Words that seem entirely fitting in the moment can turn out to be a millstone.
In Canberra on a fateful day in November 1975 a recently-sacked prime minister, Gough Whitlam, stood on the steps of old Parliament House and urged a crowd to “maintain the rage” against the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, the man who had sent him packing a few hours earlier.
Quite a few Australians did maintain their rage, but it didn’t do Whitlam any good. Many more rejected his call to arms and voted his party out of office.
In a recent interview for Sky News, former PM John Howard encouraged No voters in the Indigenous Voice referendum to “maintain the rage, if I can draw on a phrase that’s well-known in Australian politics”.
It’s a curious choice of words. At the heart of the No campaign is the argument that its opponents are dividing Australians. Coalition leader Peter Dutton tells us that his side of the debate is right behind Indigenous recognition and reconciliation.
Yet here we have John Howard calling for people to be angry and to stay that way, while his former deputy John Anderson delivers righteous YouTube sermons warning darkly that a Yes win poses a catastrophic threat to established order.
Rage has also been counter-productive in another big policy arena. Our rapidly destabilising climate calls for fundamental changes to the way we live, and that cannot be achieved without a broad public consensus around well sourced, objectively analysed information. On that score we’ve failed miserably.
Twelve years ago I thought a big hurdle had been surmounted with passage of progressive climate and energy laws including a tax on big carbon polluters. But the reforms of the Gillard government fell apart when challenged by partisan opponents in the form of Tony Abbott’s new government.
Persistent roadblocks to sensible climate policy reform, including a steady stream of disinformation downplaying the climate threat while offering false solutions in the form of greenwashing, have pushed concerned citizens into desperate protest action, like inviting arrest by blocking roads and footpaths. Such an arrest happened in Launceston just last week.
In the 1980s these sorts of actions were getting young people in the UK into trouble protesting against nuclear arms. A group of them wrote a song, “You’re the Voice”, to inspire people to speak up, “make a noise”. John Farnham recorded it for a new album in the hope that it would help revive a flagging career.
Which it certainly did, and now with Farnham’s approval it is now in the service of the “Yes” Indigenous Voice campaign, inviting people to take a chance “to turn the pages over”, to “make ends meet, before we get much older”.
The connection to the Indigenous Voice is obvious, but the song’s message is universal, for any place and any time, in any cause whose time has come. In a world being torn apart by factional strife, with societies everywhere riven with partisanship and division, it calls for us to start afresh, join loose ends, come together.
There was surely no better time for such a call – not to arms, but to stand up and be counted. The voice in Farnham’s song is everyone’s, not just Indigenous but all of us – you, me, citizens, voters, aspiring voters. Every last person.
We’re at a crossroads. The first thing to do is defend democracy along with the foundation principles of the rule of law and an informed citizenry. That means opposing despotism and anti-democratic behaviour in any form. The loudest voices on the right of politics globally are of people who despise democracy – a clear signal that winning at the ballot box doesn’t ensure a trouble-free future.
As citizens of democracies, one of our obligations is that we confront our past history of domination of one people by another and do everything possible to heal the resulting wounds. Another is that we strive to understand our planet’s natural systems and ensure that our own activities do not damage those systems.
Our collective failure to rein in fossil fuel emissions has allowed the climate change genie out of the bottle to wreak havoc. The UN “Global Stocktake” climate report released at the weekend was yet another call for collective, cohesive action.
Just as the Voice referendum is not going to guarantee perfect harmony, whichever way we vote, so will global climate remain dangerously unstable long after I’m dead – reason enough to “make a noise, and make it clear”. But if the noise doesn’t bring us together, we’re cooked.