Flanagan, Richard: ‘Our politics is a dreadful black comedy’ – press club speech in full

Richard Flanagan

‘”Our politics is a dreadful black comedy” – press club speech in full’, Guardian Australia, 19 April 2018

Man Booker Prize winner considers the possibilities for authoritarian politics around the world, before moving on to look at whether modern Australia can re-ground itself in its Indigenous history.

Along the way he is critical of the expenditure on the new Monash Centre in France, the proposed extension of the Australian War Memorial, and Australian commemorative expenditure in general. This is particularly when compared with the lack of attention to commemorating Indigenous sacrifice.

The language of the speech is extraordinary. Some extracts:

Our society grows increasingly more unequal, more disenfranchised, angrier, more fearful. Even in my home town of Hobart, as snow settles on the mountain, there is the deeply shameful spectacle of a tent village of the homeless, the number of which increase daily. We sense the rightful discontent of the growing numbers locked out from a future. From hope.

Instead of public debate, scapegoats are offered up – the boatperson, the queue jumper, the Muslim – a xenophobia both parties have been guilty of playing on for electoral benefit for two decades. Instead of new ideas and new visions we are made wallow in threadbare absurdities and convenient fictions: Australia Day, the world’s most liveable cities, secure borders.

The growing state-funded cult of Anzac will see $1.1bn spent by the Australian government on war memorials between 2014 and 2028. Those who lost their lives deserve honour – I know from my father’s experience how meaningful that can be. But when veterans struggle for recognition and support for war-related suffering, you begin to wonder what justifies this expense, this growing militarisation of national memory or, to be more precise, a forgetting of anything other than an official version of war as the official version of our country’s history, establishing dying in other people’s wars as our foundation story.

The prime minister who will, no doubt, speak sincerely and movingly of the torn bodies and broken lives of the Australians who fell in France, is also the same prime minister who wants to see the Australian arms industry become one of the world’s top 10 defence exporters, seeking to boost exports to several countries, including what was described as “the rapidly growing markets in Asia and the Middle East”, in particular the United Arab Emirates, a country accused of war crimes in Yemen.

[T]he prosperity of contemporary Australia was built on the destruction of countless Indigenous lives up to the present day, and with them dreamings, songlines, languages, alternative ways of comprehending not only our extraordinary country but the very cosmos.

And yet if we were to have the courage and largeness to acknowledge as a nation both truths about our past, we would discover a third truth, an extraordinary and liberating truth for our future, about who we are and where we might go.

At a moment when democracy around the world is imperilled we are being offered, with the Uluru statement, the chance to complete our democracy, to make it stronger, more inclusive, and more robust.

And we would be foolish to turn that offer down.

Video of the speech. On commemoration and related matters go to mark 55.00 and question from Nic Stuart.

In response, Flanagan talks of the risk of Anzac Day ‘being taken over by bigots’ who see it as ‘a death cult’. There is a risk in turn that this becomes our national story. It is important to speak up and question this view.

It is disturbing that so much public money is being put into commemoration in its present form. This is the militarisation of memory.

There are choices about what a nation honours and celebrates and we are making the wrong choices. The story of young men being slaughtered for the British Empire is the wrong story. It serves political ends but could damage us greatly as a society.


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