Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: why isn’t he setting a better example? Photo: Rick Rycroft/AP Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Illustration: Dionne Gain
How moving it was to watch Malcolm Turnbull presenting the n of the Year awards last week. What impressive people they were. Made me proud to be an Aussie.
I can’t help liking Turnbull. At a show like that he’s all we could hope for in a Prime Minister. He looked the part and spoke it well. He was completely at ease, someone we can be proud to have represent us to the world.
In his introduction he said all the right things. The “extraordinary finalists” for the various awards – Young n, Senior n, Local Hero and n of the Year – “light the way for us – shining examples of our best selves”.
“Generous and compassionate, selfless, never daunted by seemingly impossible odds, brilliant, curious, entrepreneurial, innovative, building bridges to reinforce the mutual respect which secures our harmony and diversity.
“They include First ns and those who have dedicated their lives to working with them” – such as the wonderful Sister Anne Gardiner, who’s spent her life serving the Tiwi people on Bathurst Island.
“They include migrants and refugees who have fled horrors barely imaginable …
“Yet, however much we celebrate the remarkable, peaceful and diverse nation that we have built together, we always strive to be better. Our ns of the Year have always shown us how …
“Respect for women, respect for each other, in all our magnificent diversity, is the foundation on which our harmonious society depends, is the platform which enables every n to realise their full potential.”
And yet I confess that in the days since that proud night I’ve suffered a bad hangover. It seems our One Day of the Year has moved from April 25 to January 26.
We celebrate these “shining examples of our best selves” for one night and day before we revert to being far from our best selves for the rest of the year. We hunt up a handful of people who remain “selfless” so we don’t feel so bad about the self-seeking lives the rest of us lead?
Far from retaining a strong sense of community, of helping each other and working for the greater good, we live in an era of every person for themselves, where the material almost always gets priority over the social, where our ambitions centre on personal advancement rather than making the world a better place.
If our politicians – of both stripes – are so keen for us to be “generous and compassionate” as well as “respectful” and part of a “harmonious society” why aren’t they setting a better example?
What’s generous and compassionate about sending social security recipients bills for “debts” owed to Centrelink that you haven’t checked properly, then making them prove they don’t owe that much with payslips and other documents from past years that you hadn’t warned them to retain?
What’s “respectful” about treating invalids, the aged, and young workers down on their luck in such a way? What’s n about denying point blank there’s any problem with what you’re doing?
Why when you’ve gone out of your way to honour the place of First ns do you, the very next day, curtly brush aside their request that the white majority run to the huge inconvenience and expense of changing the date of Day? Respect, eh?
Do we honour the work of the Sister Annes because they salve our consciences? Thank God they’re willing to put themselves out, because the rest of us ain’t.
Some of us – including many in Turnbull’s own electorate – are the children or grandchildren of “refugees who have fled horrors barely imaginable”.
Much worse, apparently, than the way we’ve been treating refugees on Nauru and Manus Island.
Turnbull is right to say we’ve built a highly successful multicultural society.
Lately it’s been fraying at the edges, however, with intolerance of people with unfamiliar religious practices – women’s head coverings; halal – fears that all Muslims are terrorists, fears we’re being overrun by Asians, and downward envy of government help for disadvantaged Indigenous people.
But it’s not just that our political leaders fail to set an example, it’s that too often they seek partisan advantage from our moral weaknesses. Rather than seeking to calm our fear of foreigners they compete to pander to them. Let’s protect ourselves from the resurgent One Nation by aping their rhetoric, even their policies.
As for respect being “the platform which enables every n to realise their full potential” it’s sentimental claptrap – especially coming from a government that seems to have set its face against funding the nation’s schools on the basis of student need rather than established privilege.
It’s schools and pre-schools that should be “the platform which enables every n to realise their full potential”.
The most worrying message we got from the latest bad news on NAPLAN and PISA testing of students is the wide gap between our best and worst students and the large minority of kids the system is failing.
As Peter Goss, of the Grattan Institute, has demonstrated, we can go most of the way to needs-based funding quickly and without extra spending, provided we’re prepared to shift funding from the less-needy to the more-needy.
But that would require Turnbull to exhibit the undaunted, entrepreneurial and bridge-building character traits he so admires in others.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.