The Australian of the Year award is probably best known for the profound lack of interest it arouses in the population. Only because of the relatively recent, but very determined, efforts of a small group of fanatical flag wavers has it – along with Australia Day itself – managed to register on the collective radar. But the award does tell us something about the changing nature of Australian society over the years, even if no one much is listening.
When, for instance, people were still innocently swaying along to melodious folk in 1967, the Seekers were honoured with the title. In 1978, it was the business dealings of Alan Bond that were considered the pinnacle of national achievement. During the golden age of Australian cricket, both Alan Border and Mark Taylor took it home, and in the less than golden age of Australian entertainment, John Farnham and Paul Hogan.
The awarding of the title this year to feminist army general David Morrison likewise holds something of a mirror to the social values of today.
In doing so, it exposes the strange dissociative disorder that seems to be gripping the West, the main symptom of which involves peace prizes being handed out to those most responsible for killing people, while a bunch of pro-imperialist sociopaths clap along. It occurred in 2009, when Barack Obama, the head of the world’s largest and most aggressive military, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Now a former head of the organised killing machine that is the Australian Defence Force is being celebrated for his efforts to end violence against women (at least those with the good sense not to have been born in Iraq or Afghanistan).
But there is method in the madness. The pro-diversity feminism of figures like David Morrison is now firmly part of the ideology that justifies modern capitalism, and which regularly rallies public support for wars and nationalism. The traditional appeal to protect “our” docile and subservient women and children against some foreign threat has been adeptly updated now to be about protecting our superior values of supposed respect for women and inclusiveness, against the threat of the unenlightened.
This is a far cry from the official consensus of just a few decades ago, which insisted women were best confined to the home providing healthy children and social stability. Today, there is genuine commitment from figures like Morrison, to women and other marginalised groups being full participants in society, as per the needs of the modern economy. As he told the ABC: “More diverse or more inclusive workplaces encourage diversity of thinking, improve the bottom line and make organisations, like an army or a bank or a public service or a media outlet, more capable”.
Issues that have historically been seen as the domain of the left, such as opposing sexism and racial inequality and demanding respect for LGBTI people, are now equally embraced by sections of the establishment, albeit with a different emphasis.
What was during the Howard years maligned as the concern only of the inner-city “elite” while the honest “battlers” got on with the no-nonsense job of living and working has now been taken up by the actual elite. The halls of power these days are as likely to be populated by members of Male Champions for Change or White Ribbon ambassadors as they are members of the Melbourne Club or the polo set.
This new “anti-sexist” brigade faints at the thought of women journalists being insulted and will stop at nothing to stamp out brutishness amongst the masses, starting of course with the “thugs” who populate the union movement.
The left should not fall into step behind this, nor merely point out the inevitable hypocrisy of it all. Rather, we have to show that to win a society that is genuinely equal and inclusive, we have to be prepared to challenge the powerful – the army generals, police chiefs, politicians and CEOs – and all their efforts to defend the status quo.