Leadership is a quality regrettably lacking in much of our political, academic, business, social and even religious life. Much of Australia's leadership has been - and continues to be mediocre. However, we maintain high standards of excellence in law, fine arts, architecture, science - especially medical science, and sport. (I have some doubts about sports administration).
Our commitment to egalitarianism (admirable though it is) may have a negative side when it makes us suspicious of tall poppies - those who stand out against the crowd. The concept of the 'tall poppy', as Tom Harley has pointed out to me, is not new - it is first mentioned in Herodotus.
We are wary of elitism and sceptical about achievement, except of course in sport where from the highest levels we acclaim Gold Medal achievements. But this enthusiasm does not extend to all areas.
Recently, I appeared on Channel Nine's current series Simply the Greatest - in an episode devoted to invention. I was able to duck out of a second program on 'Heroes'. My fellow panellists were to be two entertainers and two sports writers while I was to represent the more serious elements of life. Among the 'Heroes' nominated were Slim Dusty, Johnny Farnham and Peter Allen. I have nothing against all three - but it beggars description that they can be described as 'Heroes', without deforming the word.
Have we lost our way? Are we less confident of national goals? Does it sound like obsessively narrow chauvinism to express concern that no locals were judged to be good enough to run BHP, the Museum of Victoria, the National Gallery, Coles-Myer? Are we accepting it as the norm? Of course we still require our political leaders to be nationals, except for the Head of State.
Sometimes there appears to be a yearning to recognise heroic status. I was particularly struck by the extent of public grief expressed in 1993 by the deaths - only separated by a few months - of Fred Hollows and Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop. Both were larger than life, showed toughness, compassion and resource. There was a similar expression of loss when H. C. 'Nugget' Coombs died in 1997.
Australia has made, and continues to make very important contributions to science, especially medical science - and this is particularly true of Melbourne, with seven medical institutes of the highest international standard. And yet, our great scientists are virtually unknown - Gus Nossal and Peter Doherty being heartening exceptions.
The Commonwealth Government has set up a 'Tall Poppies' Committee in an attempt to raise public awareness of our great achievers. But it isn't easy.
1998 was the centenary of Howard Florey, born in Adelaide on 24 September 1898. The developer of penicillin, Florey won the triple crown of Nobel Prize, OM and Copley Medal, then went on to become President of the Royal Society and a life peer.
However Sir Donald Bradman's 90th birthday had been celebrated in Adelaide on 27 August 1998, barely 30 days earlier, and there was a crowding out effect.
Australia - not just Adelaide - seemed to suffer from commemoration fatigue.
Howard and Beazley rightly extolled the Don, but Florey's centenary passed without public recognition in Australia - although there was a celebration in Westminster Abbey attended by the Queen and Tony Blair.
In 1999 came the Macfarlane Burnet centenary. Burnet, born in Traralgon, was educated, lived and worked in Melbourne, becoming the pre-eminent theoretician of virology and immunology, and the greatest medical scientist to work in this country. Burnet and Florey were the only Australians to win the triple crown. Burnet also became President of the Australian Academy of Science.
The Florey-Burnet commemorative tram, courtesy of the Kennett Government, came - and went - within a month. It was a brave effort - indeed a lovely thing - but totally unreported in the media. How many of you saw it? A wonderful Burnet Symposium was held at the Grand Hyatt, when six Nobel Laureates turned up to deliver papers in his honour. Not one word appeared in The Age or The Australian.
1999 was also the centenary of three other remarkable Victorians - Dame Jean MacNamara, who worked on polio and myxomytosis, Sir Ian Clunies-Ross, a charismatic leader of CSIRO and Sir Ian Wark, a metallurgist who worked with CSIRO.
In the year 2000 the Tall Poppies Committee hopes to celebrate the achievements of Australia's great social scientists - historians, philosophers, economists, anthropologists, archaeologists, geographers.
Politics is currently at a low point in public esteem.
The Hanson phenomenon has had a very debilitating effect on our political life, contributing to the quite unwarranted attacks on our parliamentary institutions and politicians generally. The Hansonite vote may fall well below the 900 000 votes it recently commanded nationally. Nevertheless while it cannot win a single seat in the House of Representatives, One Nation preferences will probably determine the outcome of elections - as it played an important role in the recent Referendum. Major parties - my own included, I regret to say - look for ways in which policies can be redefined in order to win One Nation preferences. This has very dangerous implications, if politics aims for populist and simplistic solutions to complex problems, rejecting evidence and expertise as 'elitist', aiming always at the lowest common denominator, confusing 'equality' and 'uniformity'. We took tolerance for granted - a serious mistake. We assumed overwhelming community support for the Westminster tradition - but this is not to be taken for granted.
The result of the Referendum on the Republic suggested a deep social and cultural divide that cut across conventional political loyalties - many strong Labor seats voted No, many blue-ribbon Liberal areas, such as the Prime Minister's seat of Bennelong, voted Yes. All National Party seats voted No, decisively. Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania reacted strongly against the proposed Referendum. There was a powerful repudiation of elites - or expertise generally. The 'Yes' case was seen as 'blokey', run by the big-end of town, especially from Sydney. Public opinion polls before the Referendum indicated that the sharpest areas of difference were in four areas - gender (women were far more likely to vote 'No'), income (higher incomes supported Yes, lower incomes No), age (older votes were 'No' supporters) and the rural-urban divide (the highest 'Yes' votes were in cities). In addition, there was a close correlation between levels of education and a 'Yes' vote.
Closing up that social and cultural divide will require leadership of the highest order.
In an era of sharp cost cutting, universities, especially in their Dawkinised conglomerate form, have their backs to the wall. In an age of superspecialisation, academics have their heads down and seem unwilling to engage in vigorous public debate. Many are desperately seeking outside funding and want to avoid giving offence to commercial interests. It does seem odd, now that public criticism of economic rationalism is surfacing and having a political impact, to reflect that in the 1980s Australian Economics faculties generally gave only one side of the rejection of Keynes and the adoption of Friedman and the Austrian school. There was nothing like a full blooded debate about the adoption of a new economic paradigm.
Thus - and I'm not sure whether this is cause or effect - at a time when we have more paid academics than ever before in our history, we witness the decline of the public intellectual. I have defined the public intellectual as someone who has worked his/her way through the university system, who publishes material inside or outside of the person's discipline, and who gets a run in the media when he/she does. I have not included people in politics or the creative arts in my list.
My list is:
Zelman Cowen, Mark Oliphant, Bemard Smith, Veronica Brady, John Passmore, Peter Singer, David Penington, Geoffrey Blainey, Henry Reynolds, Stuart Macintyre, Simon Leys, Inga Clendinnen, John Mulvaney, Marilyn Lake, Tim Flannery, Gus Nossal, Peter Doherty, Charles Birch, Paul Davies, Malcolm Mclntosh, Germaine Greer, Leonie Kramer , Robert Hughes, Davis McCaughey, Michael Kirby, Donald Home, Peter Karmel, Hugh Stretton, Eva Cox, Robert Manne, Gerard Henderson, Malcolm Mackerras, Pat O'Shane.
The list includes several columnists who naturally get a run, since they are paid to do it. I have had great difficulty in coming up with even 33 names.
Three on the list are expatriates: Germaine Greer, Peter Doherty, Robert Hughes. Thirteen are over 70, only four under 50. Only seven are women. Only five are currently working in our universities.
Some very eminent intellectuals, for example mathematician Bemhard Neumann, medical researcher Don Metcalf and medievalist Margaret Manion, are not on my list because they carefully avoid the limelight and public controversy. The late Dale Trendall, the world's leading authority on Greek pottery, was in the same category. Others, including some members of this audience, impose a self-denying ordinance on speaking outside their own discipline.
Items for the national agenda: we need to fix up some major issues.
1. Our Constitutional arrangements - coming out of the closet so that the written Constitution actually reflects the system as it operates in practice. We are a de facto Republic already, and have been for many years.
2. Restoring credibility to our political institutions.
3. Getting Aboriginal reconciliation, racial tolerance and multi-culturalism right.
4. Adopting a National Population Policy, with a rational debate about Australia's carrying capacity and the implications for resource use.
5. Adopting a National Information Policy, to clarify the boundary between commercial values and privacy, to guarantee access and equity, and define information as a public good.
6. Recognising that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment" (as Tim Wirth, former US Senator from Colorado, now running Ted Turner's $US 1 billion fund for the environment, argues), and not just what is left over after the economy has had its whack. The environment is the totality of all there is in our world - soil, air, water, biota and minerals.
7. Redefining the role of national governments in an era of globalisation.
8. Asserting that not all values have a dollar equivalent.
9. Redressing the widening gap between rich and poor.
10. Ensuring that Governments no longer treat CSIRO and the universities as trading corporations, with research categorised as an expense (to be cut where possible to assist the 'bottom line').
11. Using Government to change the culture. It is a tough call. It won't be easy - but it must be done and it will require leadership of the highest order. I hope we are up to it.
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Homelessness Australia Inc.
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