The political uncertainty of the election ‘result’ that Australians watched unfold last night will lead to concerned discussion about what a hung parliament will mean for our democracy. There will be many at the moment worrying, including myself, about the NBN plan and what will happen to the Digital Education Revolution, if Mr Abbott is anointed.
However, another interesting question is, obviously, how did a recently popular, first-term federal government manage to lose so many seats? The focus will be on the ‘knifing’ of Mr Rudd, ‘faceless’ power-brokers and the failure of the ALP to address ‘the greatest moral challenge of our age‘. Many will point out that social progressives – especially those who want quality public education, sustainability and compassion for asylum-seekers – are deserting the ALP in droves and now look to The Greens. A friend asked the question, in relation to the collapse of support for the ALP, about how many commentators now consider the analysis of the much maligned (but incredibly well-read) Bob Ellis, prescient, especially where teachers votes and Public Education is concerned? What do you think?
The Greens leader, Bob Brown, gave the most uplifting post-election interview and it was great to see him smile. The stunning image, of hope and renewal, of the first birth of a whale in the Derwent River, for almost 200 years, worked well as a clear opening message – that this is just the beginning for The Greens. Who could not agree with his statement, “we will measure everything in this parliament by…the dictum, if it is good for our grandchildren, it is good for us”?
This all makes for interesting political discussion but one wonders how much of the debate will focus on the larger human saga that has unfolded in the context of what literature, philosophy and history tell us about ‘the state’, ‘the family’ and the ‘natural order’ of things? How important to our civil society is it to understand the human drama, not just the events of the day?
The Greeks, Shakespeare, Chinese philosophers, poets and many other creators of our greatest works of literature, philosophy and history explore political issues concerning ‘right’ behaviour and action, or rather, what results when the proper order of things unravels.
Shakespeare, in King Lear, his most challenging play, shows what happens to ‘the state’ when foolish decisions are made with no sensible consultation and flattery, for expedient reasons, exceeds common sense and goodwill. The state is torn asunder, families and individuals detroyed, the world is turned upside down.
The ‘ALP family’ may well decide to add ‘Lear’, as a political primer, in their post-election analysis of what went wrong. Julius Caesar, I’m certain, is already on the list.
Many works of Chinese philosophy and literature explore what happens when relationships are not tended properly. If the parent, child or elders do not behave as they should, as in Lear, the natural order, the tao of things, is upset and our civil society disturbed.
Hubris and ambition are two of the character flaws often explored in the writings that are our human, or cultural legacy. Xerxes’ whipping of the Hellespont, reported by Herodotus or the mistreatment of Hector’s body by Achilles in Homer’s, The Iliad being two of our most vivid examples. Has our ‘two party state’ and the ‘cult of personality’ led to poor collaboration, respect and less democratic processes taking place in recent decades? The parliament side-stepped on important issues like committing our nation to war or even proper debate within cabinet before decisions being made?
- Achilles drags Hector’s body away to the ships while the two sides and Andromache on the walls looks on*
I could continue…but last night, I wondered what public writing, as reflection, would be shared about the larger human drama that these texts explore. There will be an excess of analysis and one could seriously jest that political commentators are the only winners from the events of last night.
Literature, philosophy and history are essential and this garden needs to be carefully tended along with our economy and public infrastructure.
David Williamson has retired but surely some of our playwrights, film-makers, novelists and poets are scribbling, typing and thinking how to represent the events on our national stage to coming generations of Australians, as well as us all who watched last night. One wonders what sources they will draw on to weave their webs. I suspect, to paraphrase William Blake, that few, although in a rage, will predict the ruin of the state but dream of a stronger, more enlightened, healthier democracy. I can imagine Bob Ellis writing intertextually well.
However, the above reflections, made last night, ended up reminding me of an anecdote about some of the attitudes towards our liberal arts tradition.
On my first day of university I walked into the toilets and saw some grafitti that echoed what the deputy principal had muttered about my decision to study a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English and History. There was an arrow pointing to the toilet paper holder which said:
BA – PLEASE TAKE ONE
I laughed but this image (wish I had a photo of this c. 1987) haunted me a little and various attitudes towards our education system seem to echo the sentiment.
I suspect that, as the century advances, our society will need to benefit from being cognisant of our shared histories, philosophy and cultural influences. We need to do better at ensuring our citizens are widely read and attitudes towards an ‘old-fashioned’ liberal education are positive and valued. The debate about the Australian Curriculum, what learning looks like in the 21st century and what it means to be a teacher or a what a school looks like, are of fundamental importance to our civil society.
I wonder if these people had a precedent, from literature, history or philosphy in mind when they threw away their voice?
Cable noose courtesy of Don Solo
*Painted by David Claudon based on Archaic geometric oinochoe designs. From Greek Art & Archeology by John Griffiths Pedley, p 118 and located here