When Australian voters dumped the Liberal Party in November 2007, citizens of all political persuasions danced in the streets. The world's most boring prime minister, John Howard, was swept from Parliament, rejected by his own electorate and extinguished from public life, nary a soul shedding a tear. After the hangover wore off, Australians discovered a prime minister they hardly knew, Kevin Rudd, an enthusiastic Christian, a workaholic bureaucrat and a fluent speaker of Mandarin. During his first days in office, thunder and lightning flashed from Parliament. Rudd ratified the Kyoto agreement, ended his predecessor's attempt to diminish the historic role of unions in the workforce and promised a withdrawal of Australian troops in Iraq. On February 13, 2008, the new Prime Minister delivered a speech that shook the nation's soul.
"I move that today we honor the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing culture in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment. We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on our fellow Australians. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry ..."
Thousands of Australians had travelled to the nation's capital to witness this overdue admission. I watched the televised speech at home with tears in my eyes. "To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry." The hordes on the lawns could be heard cheering and weeping and clapping. "We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation..."
Rudd's "sorry" speech will bolster the prime minister's credit long after his government starts fraying at the seams. Those initial thunderbolts transformed the country's psycho-political landscape. Suddenly, the vast political machine of John Howard's government seemed antiquated and monstrous, like the torture device in Kafka's tale, In the Penal Colony, which carved the crimes of prisoners on their skin until they bled to death. In the former penal colony of Australia, the Howard government imprisoned those who arrived "unauthorized" on our shores – including children and families fleeing tyranny and wars – and then deported them back to their homelands, sometimes to certain death. As successive UN Commissioners of Human Rights made clear year after year, this was in "flagrant violation" of our of international human rights obligations. While the former immigration minister has since expressed "regret" for the jailing of children, the former prime minister still refuses to apologize for anything: not for insinuating that Australian Muslims were soft on terrorism, not for dispatching troops to Iraq without a public discussion or Parliamentary debate, nor for thumbing his nose at the science of climate change.
The success of Sorry Day was extra sweet because it flew in the face of Howard's prolonged opposition to an apology and his refusal to admit the links between British colonization, land theft and aboriginal despair. Drugs, alcohol, petrol sniffing, poverty, wife beating, child abuse – Howard finally took action to protect children in the only way he knew how – through an "intervention." Led by a former army officer, it shunned consultation with local communities. The tone was bellicose and laced with threats, including "compulsory examinations of children's genitals."
But why go on? Howard has gone, the tone has mellowed, consultation has improved and the threats have been withdrawn. A kind of accommodation seems to have been reached between black and white. The age of embarrassment is over. The mention of Howard today evokes titters and derision. Over one million Iraqis dead! If John Howard ever makes headlines again, it better be when he's prosecuted for war crimes.
So, is Kevin Rudd the best man available to guide his citizens through the shoals of the 21st century? Maybe. Maybe not. In April 2008, he hosted the 2020 Summit, a much ballyhooed convention of a thousand luminaries, who set out to probe ten critical areas expected to shape Australia's destiny. Areas such as innovation, sustainability, the digital economy and our steel plated alliance with Uncle Sam. The summit was a fine notion, even if the delegate mix was dominated by politicians, academics, journalists and Cate Blanchett, who chaired the sessions on Creative Australia. For many participants it seemed like a cross between reality TV and a weekend detention. The official resolutions ignored key ideas widely supported – and promoted – numerous policies that had not been discussed. Perhaps the outcome was set in advance. Still, Rudd's ratings in the polls soared above 70 percent, a record high for any prime minister, and Cate's presence added pizzazz and photo-ops.
After Summit Rudd, came Beijing Rudd, a whistle-stop global tour marked by a White House meeting with George Bush and a series of consultations with the presidential hopefuls, followed by afternoon tea with Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace and climaxing in a meeting with Hu Jintao, president of the People's Republic of China, where he surprised his hosts with an address to the students at the University of Beijing. "It is clear that human rights abuses are being committed in Tibet," he told them in faultless Mandarin, shocking yet thrilling his audience and later eliciting a stern rebuke from the Communist Party Central Committee. But he got away with it. The People's Republic used the occasion to pretend it was tolerant.
In those first hundred days, Rudd must have felt like King of the World. He deserved it, too. This brainy son of a dairy farmer from small town Queensland who was kicked off the farm at the age of 11 – soon after the death of his dad – and was "forced to hop between relatives" with his mother (according to the official story) and to rely on the "bleak charity of the time, occaisonally bedding down in the family car." Nonetheless, he kept his head in his text books, topped his classes, cleaned houses for cash, graduated with honors and worked his way up the ladder at the Department of Foreign Affairs. Seven years later, he inched into the political arena, eventually becoming Queensland's most powerful bereaucrat. From there, it was a hop, step and a jump into the federal scene, where in 1988 he captured a seat for the Labor Party and entered Parliament. Nine years later, on the thrust of a national "Ruddslide" he became prime minister of Australia. Even those who'd been longtime supporters of John Howard seemed content with the outcome.
Rudd's cabinet is enhanced by three brilliant women and a rock star – Midnight Oil frontman/Minister of Environment, Heritage and the Arts Peter Garrett. The mood of the Aboriginal community has brightened. As the West melts down, aboriginal artists are taking a leap – dancing, painting, acting, writing songs, making movies, speaking out. Indigenous design is flourishing – jewellry, architecture, landscaping – and a new talent arrives on the scene almost every day. A blind singer from Northeast Arnhem Land, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, has just collected the Best New Music ARIA Award for his album Gurrumul, which is sung mostly in indigenous languages. His talent has been called a "gift from the gods."
But no honeymoon lasts forever. It turns out that Rudd is opposed to same-sex marriage. He supports military adventures, however, and Australian troops were not withdrawn from Iraq but merely re-assigned a non-combat role. More troops were sent to Afghanistan.
Then came the portrait of a naked 12-year-old girl that highlighted the new prime minister's conservative side. An upmarket Sydney gallery displayed the full frontal image of the pubescent young girl for the cover of its invitation to an exhibition by art photographer Bill Henson. Sydney police swooped on the gallery and confiscated images of pubescent children. The tabloid press applauded the censorship and described Henson's work as "child porn." The gallery owners received death threats.
Henson's work has been exhibited worldwide. He presents "adolescents in their states of despair, intoxication and immature ribaldry" notes one critic. His images are not to everyone's taste, and some of them seem a bit creepy. The police action sparked a feisty, if familiar, debate around themes of pedophilia, art, exploitation and free speech. Kevin Rudd, a father of three, dismissed Henson's work as "absolutely revolting … without artistic merit."
Enter Cate Blanchett, fresh from her starring role at the 2020 Summit, who penned an open letter to the prime minister, objecting to his lead-footed intrusion: "The potential prosecution of one of our most respected artists is no way to build a Creative Australia," she wrote "and does untold damage to our cultural reputation." Rudd was unrepentant and affirmed his "deep view" on the subject: "For God's sake, kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected."
Of course they do, Kevin. But why pick on art, when trainer bras and sexy lingerie for 6-years-olds are hot items, when 5-years-olds go to beauty parlors and have makeovers to celebrate their birthdays, when the advertising industry's use of pre-teen "models" is morally questionable at so many levels, when ads for jeans are shot like pornography, when ads for lipstick are shot like pornography, when ads for cars are shot like pornography, and when much of the Internet is drenched in sperm. Why pick on Bill Henson, an artist studied in high schools, when all media is shot through with exploitative and violent sexuality?
Such questions fall on deaf ears. Politicians from the major parties echoed the prime minsiter's views, with an unexpected exception. While Kevin Rudd seemed to morph into former foe John Howard, an electric new voice boomed into the arena. "I don't believe we should have Australian police invading art galleries," said Malcolm Turnbull, lawyer, merchant banker, art collector and rising star of the vanquished Liberal party. "We have a culture of great artistic freedom in this country. We've got to be very careful." Right on. Turnbull was still shadow Minister of the Environment when he said this and today is the leader of the Liberal Party. And tomorrow? A likely prime minister of Australia. Turnbull's meteoric rise has spooked the Rudd government and shifted the psycho political landscape yet again.
Turnbull's style, wit and sophistication makes Rudd look dowdy and square. While not a supporter of either man's party, I believe this outcome will raise IQs on both sides of the House and enrich the level of debates. Both leaders are smart, driven and ruthless. Australians always wanted their country to be clever, and now there's a fighting chance. Turnbull is already adapting his views to further his aim of running the country – and the sooner the better. As I write, the Bill Henson controversy is erupting again, and this time Turnbull is playing it safe.
Neither Rudd nor Turnbull are truly surfing the zeitgeist. That honor goes to Greens leader Bob Brown, a longtime champion of sustainability and carbon neutrality, as well as a scathing critic of Australia's unblinking support for US invasions. The Greens are leap years ahead of the rest in keeping the nation informed about climate change and remain a force in Parliament.
To be clever is one thing but to be wise is miraculous. The tragedy of a modern democracy is that it tethers the imagination of a leader to the drabness of the herd. Play to the herd and the votes roll in. Play to the truth, such as levelling with the electorate on the urgency of reducing consumption and re-imagining lifestyles, then you're banished to the fringe. But that's okay. The fringe is where the future is re-invented. And ever more Australians are drawn to the task.
Richard Neville co-launched the satirical Australian magazine, OZ. He later took the magazine to London, where it became the voice of the counterculture. He lives in Sydney, where he combines his role as a social commentator (www.richardneville.com) with the business of being a futurist (www.richardnevillefuturist.com). Neville's memoir of the underground years, Hippie, Hippie, Shake, has been turned into a motion picture, slated for release in 2009.