Who do they think we are?

Politicians imagine the nation

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Each Australian has both sexes, and if a child happens to be born with only one, they kill it as a monster… They average about eight feet in height… In some areas they are found with an extra pair of arms coming out their hips, thinner but just as long as the other pair; these they can extend at will and thereby grip more tightly than the others.

Gabriel de Foigny, The Southern Land, Known (1676)


MALCOLM TURNBULL SPOKE first of marriage and family; Abbott of Sydney’s early Christians; Gillard of women’s representation; Rudd of power and the state; Howard of Bennelong (the seat, not the man); Keating of struggle street. When an Australian parliamentarian stands to deliver what is now called their ‘first speech’ – the term ‘maiden speech’ having lost its charm, although Senator Derryn Hinch makes a chronic joke that his ‘speech was made in Melbourne’ – the Speaker asks the chamber ‘to extend to her (or him) the usual courtesies’.

The novice, ‘n00b’, scrub politician is then away: free to address what (our current Attorney-General) Christian Porter calls ‘the existential questions of politics: Who is the member? Why are they here? What do they believe?’ And Porter, like many politicians, takes up the task by way of a family story or an image from Australian life. His is the scene of his father, Chilla, leaping for high jump gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics:

After over six hours of competition, the entire crowd remained at the MCG, well into the deep cusp of twilight. They watched breathless as Chilla Porter, on his third and final attempt at six foot 11½ inches, clipped the bar ever so gently. It wobbled for what seemed like an age and eventually dislodged and fell in silence with him to the sandpit. In the result, he was beaten by the great African-American athlete Charles Dumas…

If you look at the YouTube footage, Chilla does more than clip the bar; he ploughs into it. His final jump is a terrible one: there is no filmic wobble of the woodwork, just the bar crashing and Chilla following it into the pit. There is little of the glamour that the son reserves for his own telling of the father’s story; likewise, there is little of the glamour that is often part of the white memory of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

But I am being rude, for the usual courtesies of the first speech dictate that there shall be no argument, no criticism and no interjections. (‘Black Jack’ McEwan was reprimanded by the Speaker for butting in on Whitlam’s in 1953.) For this is the debutant’s moment: a free kick where the parliamentarian gets an uninterrupted twenty minutes for the first, and perhaps last, time.

But freedom, of course, can be a terrible gift. And even when off the chain, most of our future leaders seem guided by conventions of form and of content. Shadow Minister for Agriculture Joel Fitzgibbon notes: ‘It is traditional for a new member to make some reference to the history and geography of his electorate, its main industries and areas of employment and, of course, its main attributes.’ Fitzgibbon and many others then do just that: they describe their electorates – they describe Australia back to itself – often in honeyed tones, often drawing from a repertoire of sentimental images. For Turnbull, ‘Wentworth’s green hills and golden beaches are strung like jewels between the harbour and the sea.’ Its ‘geography is as varied and engaging as its people… Contrary to popular myth, our community is egalitarian, democratic and far from homogenous.’ He then gives us this thumbnail:

Most mornings my father and I went for a swim at North Bondi Surf Club. The surf club showers were no respecters of rank or privilege. Our companions included judges and garbos, teachers and policemen and businessmen of all types – from shmattas in Surry Hills to high finance in Martin Place... Wentworth was multicultural before the term was invented.

Turnbull’s beach is not the Anglo-Australian beach of Max Dupain’s cooked ‘Sunbaker’ or the authoritarian camp of his ‘Narrabeen Surf Life Saving March Past’. Turnbull’s beach is a scene of diversity: a boast many of our politicians make of their communities. Nigel Scullion goes so far as to enjoin the claim that ‘Darwin has to be the true cosmopolitan capital of the world’. Only Pauline Hanson (who I will come to) hesitates to celebrate this diversity and instead attacks it as a threat to, rather than a boon for, Australian life.

The Turnbull of 2004 has a literary sheen to his language, and at least half of the house seemed to genuinely listen as he introduces himself. But there are not many actual literary references among the sixty or so first speeches I read, and only a few quote Australian writers. But when the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, first came to Canberra he reached for the top shelf:

‘I love a sunburnt country/A land of sweeping plains/Of rugged mountain ranges/Of droughts and flooding rains.’ Dorothea Mackellar’s famous lines best describe our wonderful and unique Australia. Her words could also specifically apply to the Riverina region of southern New South Wales, the area I now proudly represent in this parliament. It is a region like no other in this wide, brown land for it stretches from the magnificent Snowy Mountains across to the red, dusty plains around Hillston and beyond.

McCormack seems to choose Mackellar and her ‘wide, brown land’ just to shock us with the old. Beyond cliché there is hyperbole: McCormack’s electors – his irrigators, his farmers, his environmentalists even – ‘are the best in the world’. So, it turns out, is everything in the Riverina; and, by the way, those farmers deserve more money. Before too long, we all know where McCormack’s heart lies.

Elsewhere, Scott Morrison (now Treasurer) sees his electorate of Cook (around Cronulla) as a metaphor for the nation’s virtues at large:

The shire community is a strong one. It is free of pretension and deeply proud of our nation’s heritage. Like most Australians, we are a community knit together by our shared commitment to family, hard work and generosity. We share a deep passion for our local natural environment and embrace what Teddy Roosevelt called the vigorous life, especially in sports. It is also a place where the indomitable entrepreneurial spirit of small business has flourished, particularly in recent years.

The pride is ‘deep’; the passions are ‘deep’ too; the life is ‘vigorous’; the spirit, like the adjectives, are ‘indomitable’. Such totalising language obscures rather than illuminates.

Scott Morrison is also one of only a handful who give a shout out to the Almighty; Matt Canavan is also noisily pious, but Shayne Neumann, the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, fights him for the right to stand by God’s side:

I am a Christian. To paraphrase the Prime Minister: my faith is the compass which grounds my life. I have been deeply affected by leaders whose concerns were not just for the spiritual wellbeing but for the material improvement of humankind. I reject utterly the notion that God is a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party.

Some of Jesus’s best work is done on election day.

Others are dry. Julie Bishop’s debut speech of 1998 is as dry as a wide, brown land – particularly the wide, brown patch of it that separates WA from the rest of the country. She, almost alone, eschews personal details (there is no mention of family, partners or boyfriends). Instead, hers, like some others, is part pol-sci primer and part stump-speech. The centenary of Federation was then imminent, and Bishop calls for federalism to be celebrated anew. Globalisation, apparently, is a good argument for federalism. Western Australia too – and computers also – mean federalism is best. By the way, have I mentioned federalism? Her fellow far-westie Michaelia Cash follows suit. In these moments, Bishop and Cash speak not just for the west, but back to the west.


STATEMENTS OF IDEOLOGICAL allegiance cleave in expected ways. The Coalition members profess a commitment to the individual, to free markets and to low taxes. Steve Ciobo (now Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment) avows that ‘the pillar of [his] purpose is the individual and a belief in the supremacy of the market’. Matthew Canavan (Minister for Northern Australia) addresses matters of size: ‘For each small Australian to be big they must be free from big government, big banks, big unions and big corporations.’ Greg Hunt (Minister for the Health) reaches for the leather-bound volumes:

Both parties do share two fundamental values. Both believe in freedom and equality, or, as liberals prefer, fairness… Liberals choose freedom first; Social Democrats choose equality. Yet the history – whether it is Locke or de Tocqueville or Thomas Friedman [sic] – tells us the same thing: liberalism leads to greater fairness but enforced equality never liberates. Never.

Hunt may have been better off with Milton Friedman than his near namesake, the more lightweight Thomas, but in truth only a few politicians locate their ideas in an intellectual tradition. Josh Frydenberg lays money on a big name trifecta: ‘In the writings of John Stuart Mill, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith I have found what I consider the best elements of both liberal and conservative traditions.’ That these ideas often struggle to fit together is not mentioned.

The ALP politicians also cleave: in their case around fairness, opportunity and protecting the weak. But the intellectual roots of these totemic ideas are less clearly articulated: you’d be a bold novice to drag Karl Marx, Beatrice Webb or even John Maynard Keynes into the chamber. Bill Shorten instead rehearses and honours the union history that now causes him so much daily strife, and then locates fairness in an Australian tradition starting with the Harvester Judgement:

Justice Higgins’s 1907 decision…gave Australian workers the right to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work... A hundred years since the Harvester Judgement, Maribyrnong [his electorate] is home to a community of hardworking Australians from all over the world, for whom a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work is as important today as it was then.

As in the case of Bill Shorten, many of the speakers profess to derive what they believe from their own experiences and from those – and from what – they see about them. This is not a new idea: it shares something with Michel de Montaigne’s sixteenth-century arguments for the usefulness of ordinary observation as a source of contingent knowledge. Whatever the source of such an epistemology, many politicians take it up to introduce themselves and their beliefs (and their ideas for the nation) through ordinary stories and observations rather than political tracts. They can, though, lay it on thick, such as when Greg Hunt disavows the scenery for human stories:

Flinders is not the story of geography, beautiful as it is; it is the story of people, great people, many of whom have touched my life and have taught me the true meaning of community spirit – people whom I call friends.

So it is the story of Sarah Meredith, an eighteen-year-old woman from Blind Bight, who has overcome a hearing disability not only to have achieved academic success but to have made such a contribution as to be named the City of Casey’s Junior Citizen of the Year.

It is the story of Steve Brockwell, a fisherman from San Remo, who battles not just to provide a livelihood for himself and his family but also to represent the future of all those who work the sea with him.

Hunt goes on like this for quite a while, but this kind of approach to political belief, one grounded in story and experience, raises the question of what kind of Australians make it to parliament and who our leaders meet and know. As the April 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission Leading for Change report makes evident, our political leadership is much whiter than the rest of the country. While the dual citizenship controversy of 2017 established that politicians can be hazy about where exactly they come from, it is clear that Asian-Australians and Indigenous Australians are numerically under-represented in parliament. This matters if we accept the popular idea that different groups in society have markedly different lives, and those distinctive lives and experiences should (or invariably will) drive the logic of decision-making.


WE ARE, LARGELY, a migrant nation, and migrant stories abound. Josh Frydenberg tells of his family’s expulsion from the ‘Budapest ghetto by the Hungarian fascists’ only briefly and with an ordinary dignity. Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells tells her story of Italian migrancy with all the pride of a primary school speech night:

My family’s journey began on 14 February 1953, when a young man of twenty-four years of age arrived alone on the docks at Sydney. He had travelled from Italy. He had left everything he knew and loved, including his fiancée. He spoke no English. His old suitcase carried the dreams and aspirations that had motivated his migration to so far away a land. That man was my dad. He first lived in single quarters near the old steelworks at Port Kembla. Later he travelled to North Queensland to cut sugar cane. He saved enough money for a deposit on a home. He returned to Port Kembla and bought a small cottage. My mother joined him in 1959. They had been engaged for thirteen years. They married. I was born a year later and my brother five years later. Pops, could you ever have imagined when you arrived that one day you would be sitting here watching your daughter in the Australian Senate?

In 2002, Penny Wong, follows the formula of using her own family’s experiences to guide her to a principle of compassion:

My thoughts this morning were of my late paternal grandmother or Poh Poh, as I called her in her language. She was a diminutive woman with an indomitable spirit. A Chinese woman of the Hakka – or ‘guest’ – people, she was my grandfather’s second wife. When the war came to Malaysia, she and the rest of the family were in Sandakan, a name that many who fought in Australia’s defence will be familiar with. Most of the family died during the war and she was left alone to care for my father and his siblings in unspeakable circumstances, which she did through extraordinary determination and a will to survive. She was barely literate; she was humble and compassionate but the strongest person I have ever known… Perhaps this family history is why I place such an emphasis on the need for compassion. What lies at the heart of any truly civilised society? Surely it must be compassion.

‘Indomitable spirits’ aside, Wong uses her particular experience as a migrant to school John Howard:

I remember returning from Malaysia after visiting my family there during this time. When the aeroplane wheels hit the tarmac, I recall feeling like this [Australia] really was my country – not just in my heart, but that I was included and that our national identity was for me as well…

How different Australia is today. Never forget that it was this current Prime Minister [John Howard] who called for a reduction in Asian immigration in 1988. He said that the pace of Asian immigration was a cause for concern... The Prime Minister premised his arguments on the grounds of social cohesion. You have to ask what effect his own comments had on social cohesion. I know how it felt for me and my family and many like us during this time.

Then there was Pauline Hanson, who said we were in danger of being overrun by Asians. And what did the Prime Minister do? Did he, as the Prime Minister, show that moral leadership which was called for? When asked to comment on whether Aboriginal and Asian-Australians should be protected from people like Pauline Hanson, the Prime Minister said: ‘Well, are you saying that somebody shouldn’t be allowed to say what she said? I would say in a country such as Australia people should be allowed to say that.’ What sort of message does this send to our community?

If the experiences of Asian-Australians are not yet mainstream in our parliament or among our leaders (although many follow Keating in seeing our economic future in Asia), the presence of Indigenous Australia in these speeches is yet more complex. In 1998, a youthful Tanya Plibersek apologises in her first breath for the stealing of land and the stealing of children:

[…] the character of Sydney is more than skin deep. Sydney is a living city which holds within it the history of all which has passed on the shores of Port Jackson. Like the rest of this country, Sydney is built on stolen land. I take the opportunity today of saying to the Eora people ‘I am sorry’, and to the stolen generation [sic] ‘I am sorry’.

Plibersek is quick out of the blocks, but the convention of acknowledging Indigenous Australians as traditional owners or custodians of the land only really catches on among debutants in the past decade – perhaps because parliament should be the last place to hang a question mark over sovereignty. And indeed, Plibersek doesn’t seem to be advancing a policy position that proceeds from her belief in stolen land; like most of the rest of us she never suggests returning it. She is really signalling her membership, and now leadership, of a particular political constituency who take the circumstances of Indigenous people seriously. Any accompanying catchphrases around land and sovereignty I guess aren’t literal commitments.

Some speakers repeat the gesture of acknowledging country but then pursue unexpected enthusiasms. In 2008, Richard Marles (now Shadow Minister for Defence) acknowledges country and the traditional owners of his seat of Corio, and then continues:

We are lucky that Aboriginal Australians are our first Australians. The power of their identity serves to illustrate how important identity is for all peoples. It is the source of all collective action. It is the source of all public policy. Politics at its grandest is all about identity: searching for it, clarifying it, giving expression to it.

Marles then pursues the questions of identity at surprising length, invoking mateship, particularly during wartime:

In contemplating national identity, inevitably my thoughts turn to Australia’s own identity. When we allow our finer spirits to soar, Australia has a national ideal which is the very envy of the world. It is described by words like ‘egalitarianism’, ‘fairness’ and the spirit of ‘a fair go’. And all of this is grounded in the idea of mateship…

Mateship is at the heart of our great military image, which is not Nelson standing on the deck of the Victory peering out at the French fleet as he was about to impose upon them a terrible defeat. Nor is it a group of American marines raising the flag on the heights of Iwo Jima in an emphatic symbol of victory. No, our great military image is of a medic leading a donkey, on the back of which is an injured digger – one Australian helping another, a mate helping a mate.

Marles’s disquisition on mateship is too long to quote in its full majesty, but it isn’t just Simpson’s donkey that gets a run, but Stubbie shorts, work boots, your wife being your best mate, immigrants as mates, ‘Aborigines’ as mates, and the rich and poor – who could be mates but for industrial laws getting in the way. This is hoary stuff, and it seeks to recruit the largest catchment of supporters with the most benign and shopworn of Australian ideas.


MANY OTHERS ALSO address Indigenous affairs or provide thumbnail sketches of Indigenous people. To counterpose two in particular is to show how these speeches can function in a variety of ways. In 1996, Pauline Hanson’s debut instantly identified and recruited a new political constituency who had felt unrepresented, while in 2016 Linda Burney left the nation with a set of new images, stories and ideas that will probably only be taken up and used in time.

Pauline Hanson’s maiden maiden speech to the House in 1996 (she gave a second maiden speech to the Senate in 2016) is of course among the most famous of all Australian speeches. John Pasquarelli claims he wrote it for Hanson, and for sure the 1955 quotes from Paul Hasluck don’t sound like her – but its bigotry certainly does. Many of the politicians in setting out on their parliamentary careers are guilty of sentimentality, idealisation, kitsch, aggrandisement, or crimes against language, but only Hanson comes to town to blame others. Hers alone is a voice of pure complaint, where only someone else is to blame. The speech is best remembered for Hanson’s claim that Australia was in danger of being ‘swamped by Asians’, but the sections on Aboriginal Australia are also extensive. As a sampler:

I am fed up to the back teeth with the inequalities that are being promoted by the government and paid for by the taxpayer under the assumption that Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged people in Australia...

I have done research on benefits available only to Aboriginals and challenge anyone to tell me how Aboriginals are disadvantaged when they can obtain 3 and 5 per cent housing loans denied to non-Aboriginals…

This nation is being divided into black and white, and the present system encourages this. I am fed up with being told, ‘This is our land.’ Well, where the hell do I go? I was born here, and so were my parents and children. I will work beside anyone and they will be my equal but I draw the line when told I must pay and continue paying for something that happened over two hundred years ago. Like most Australians, I worked for my land; no one gave it to me.

The impact of the speech proved that to speak for a community (or to recruit a previously unvoiced community to your flank) you don’t need to draw a decorous portrait of its members – their lives, histories and faces. Unlike Turnbull or Hunt or Wong, there are not really any stories of Australians in Hanson’s speech: no names and no images. The Aboriginal people and Asian people who are of intense interest to Hanson are faceless. Yet interestingly, the people of Oxley, who she claims to represent, are faceless too. There is no meat to any of her Australians – no humanness, no real consideration. Indeed, the effectiveness of Hanson’s speech seems to derive from its lack of thought and its lack of complexity.

Her 2016 speech upon joining the Senate – which lays out her case against Muslim Australia – is less cold than her first effort, but it too is built around a culture of complaint, of crisis, of injury. Together, Hanson’s speeches appear to come from an angry unthinking part of her, where other people are not real and, in a sense, she herself seems incoherent and unintegrated. But it is exactly this permission to not think about others in a rounded way – to avoid thinking about them as people with faces, names, stories and reasons to be – that seems to be so successful in recruiting many Australians to her position. Obviously, many of us were or are waiting for permission to be so blindly and so self-pityingly angry.


IF PAULINE HANSON’s 1996 speech is a triumph for her and her supporters despite – or because of – its meagre vision of Australia, Linda Burney’s 2016 speech, as the first Indigenous woman in the House of Representatives, is distinctive in its images, stories and language (some of it is in Wiradjuri). She gives the chamber her experience of watching the 2008 Rudd apology, thereby reminding us of the possibilities of parliamentary speech:

Our nation had been holding its breath for a long time, waiting for three words: ‘We are sorry.’ There was the stubborn refusal of the previous prime minister to apologise for policies which had ripped many thousands of Aboriginal children from their family, culture and country – the devastating effects still felt today. But around the perimeter of this chamber sat some of those children, now old people, still wearing the scars of forced removal on their faces… Finally, as the words rang out across this chamber, across this land and around the world, ‘For this we are sorry’, the country cried and began to breathe again.

While the well-worn material of McCormack or Marles, of even Fierravanti-Wells, makes ordinary sense to me – my own childhood was similar enough for me to know exactly what they meant – Burney, in a very long speech (only Derryn Hinch went on for longer), is able introduce newer stories into the parliamentary and national imagination:

Let me tell you a little of the Wiradjuri story. In Wiradjuri lore Biami is the creation spirit. He is the source of both our physical and moral landscape. The story of invasion and conquest for the Wiradjuri is a brutal one. The deadly art of poisoning waterholes and flour began in Wiradjuri country. Massacre sites are dotted all over my lands. The scars are evident for all of us to see. In 1823 martial law was declared in Bathurst after Windradyne and his warriors waged a fierce war of resistance. Four months later, over one thousand Wiradjuri were dead by sanctioned murder. In 1842, during the second Wiradjuri wars, one horror saw all but one young boy slaughtered when settlers opened fire on a group taking shelter on an island amongst the reeds in the creek of the Murrumbidgee River. That creek is now known as Poisoned Waterhole Creek, and their sheltering place is called Murdering Island. On Saturday I drove over that bridge and that creek. I stopped the car, I got out and my blood ran cold. You see, Mr Speaker, I am of the Murrumbidya Wiradjuri.

Before European arrival, all images of Australia were Indigenous ones. And when Gabriel De Foigny began to imagine Australians in the 1670s – the first European do so at length – the four-armed, eight-foot hermaphrodites of his utopia, La Terre Australe Connue, were frankly off the mark. Linda Burney’s is not the definitive vision of Australia, but hers demonstrates the value of representative democracy being more representative. She is able to add what she has seen and has heard to the repertoire of images we can call on to comprehend (or miscomprehend) this place.

She also shows the value to parliament of storytelling as a supplement to its daily diet of polemic. Her stories prompt me to think about what I share with her and how she and I differ. The discordance of her voice with those who have come before asks us to consider how we choose between images and ideas in order to settle our understanding of the nation.

Pauline Hanson provides a scratched image of those she blames, and only a bare few details with which to make sense of her as a person. It is easy to buy instantly in or out of Hanson’s vision of Australia. Burney, too, is angry and sorrowful but, in a contrast with Hanson, she fills her account with enough detail that we can make sense of her experiences, or enough detail that we might do so in time. Burney gives us images that linger; we can tell that Burney hasn’t come just to blame. The stories of our own lives are the beginning of thinking; the stories of the lives of others can be that too.


Note: The online version of this piece has been amended following its publication in the print version of Griffith Review 61 to correct an error that originally attributed the quote from Shadow Minister for Immigration Shayne Neumann to Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, and to correct an error in Hansard that quotes Linda Burney as stating over one hundred Wiradjuri were the victims of sanctioned murder, when her original speech stated the number as over one thousand.

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