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Return from Exile?

On the 18th of May, 2006, I left Australia to head for Europe with the intention of staying away indefinitely. There were a number of reasons for my departure. I had studied at the University of Cambridge and, later, Rome, between September 1999 and September 2003, during which time I became very accustomed to and very fond of living in Europe. I missed the somewhat greater intensity of life as a foreigner and longed for the cities, galleries, museums, landscapes and languages of Europe. I missed the whole European project. Australia was an insignificant sideshow in Asia, but in Europe great forces were at work; the expansion of the Union, the last throes of the unravelling of communism, the denouement of the post-war period. I also desperately missed ruins.
Yet, perhaps the greatest thing about living in Europe was that for four whole years I did not have to live under the stomach-turning regime of John Howard and his cronies. I was devastated when they came to power in 1996. Prior to that, since I’d been politically aware, I’d lived under a government whose ethics and principles I broadly agreed with. In 1995, Paul Keating had said in parliament, “what possible use could Australia have… for a man who described himself as the most conservative leader the Liberal’s have ever had?” I couldn’t believe that anyone in their right mind could vote for Howard, but sure enough, it happened. They did so in droves, and I can still feel the stab in my back. It was the first time I truly began to doubt my admittedly rather naïve belief that Australia was on an inexorable path towards becoming a multicultural republic and reconciling itself to the indigenous population.
When I left in 1999, things were not exactly going the way I wanted them to, yet Labor’s loss was relatively recent – the ink from the stamp of conservatism was still wet and might perhaps be washed away. I retained my belief that Australia could get back on the course it had been on under Keating, and this feeling, coupled with homesickness, cast my memories of and attitude towards Australia in a positive light. I thought of it as an open-minded, forward-looking nation of people who, through the benefits of good education and commonsense secular egalitarianism, were on the whole, decent, aware and concerned, not merely about themselves, but also sympathetic to global issues and the plight of others less fortunate than themselves. In the eighties Australia had been a radical leader on environmental policy and gay rights; it had shifted its traditional focus from Europe to Asia; it seemed that a future of tolerance, conservation, pragmatism and innovation was still an intrinsic goal of society.
I did not remain oblivious to what was taking place in Australia, yet I certainly lost touch with many developments in the political spectrum. None of the news was good; the heartless treatment of refugees, the recalcitrance of the government in its attitude to reconciliation, the gutting of the universities, the sale of public assets, the post 9/11 anti-terrorist rhetoric and commitment to the illegal war in Iraq, the complete disregard for the environment and the failure to ratify Kyoto. The final insult came when Philip “Davros” Ruddock, the champion of the so-called “detention centres” (very little different to prison camps, in which legitimate refugees and asylum seekers were kept for such long periods of time and in such bleak conditions that many of them developed significant psychological problems, were driven to hunger strikes, sewing their lips together and attempting suicide in despair and protest, to the condemnation of the United Nations) was made attorney general.
Upon returning to Australia, I grew very rapidly alarmed at just how awful things in the country had become and even more alarmed at how utterly indifferent most people seemed to be about the state of affairs. It was immediately evident that the country had gone a very long way down the path of conservatism, materialism, anti-intellectualism, and, most obviously, rampant, and aggressively asserted nationalism. This, coupled with an almost complete disregard for environmental issues at all levels – clear in governmental policy and rhetoric (including denial of global warming, a crime which ought to be met with the same reprisals as Holocaust denial in Germany) and public practice, ie. boundless consumption, the utter neglect of the Australian indigenous community, and a record that singled out Australia as the only country in the OECD to have reduced university funding in the last ten years, made it quite clear that Australia had veered off in the entirely wrong direction, far further than I had imagined.
Parochialism and casual racism were rife; selfishness in the form of disregard and aggressive individualism, competition and one-upmanship, without concern for those effected or displaced by the shameless pursuit of personal wealth, had reached an unbelievable level. The only thing that seemed to concern those living in Sydney was the ownership of property and, having a good time. At a basic level, there is little wrong with either of these pursuits, yet when they are pursued without any concern about the environmental or economic consequences, and done so in a vacuum of philosophical and ethical questioning of the appropriateness of these pursuits as goals, the consequences are dire. Australia had become a vapid nation, with a few noble exceptions. The arts were either derided or underfunded, any display of humanistic feeling was rapidly quashed by knee-jerk nationalism; religious righteousness was creeping increasingly into government rhetoric. It was a nation of people both quick to arms and quick to armchairs; a nation of people who drove unnecessarily large and inefficient vehicles, who aspired to live in oversized houses, and who ate considerably more than was necessary both for their own health and the health of the environment.
Australia had become, to twist, with intentional irony, the Marxist term, “a dictatorship of the plebs.” The great irony of Australian political history is that the micro and macro economic streamlining of the centre-left Hawke and Keating governments had created such a benevolent social environment that the working classes in Australia had become bourgeois. It was now the selfish concerns of these most parochial, intrinsically anti-intellectual “plebs”, which dictated government policy, and, so wealthy had they become that they switched to voting conservative: “Howard’s battlers”, as they became known in 1996.
The process by which the working class was lured away from their traditional voting habits was particularly insidious and laid, to a great degree, the foundations upon which Howard was to govern. The process was predicated upon the idea that the Labor government had concerned itself too greatly with minorities and the promotion of multi-culturalism to the neglect of “traditional Australia”. “Australian culture”, it was claimed, was under threat from, most prominently, immigration and the Aboriginal land rights movement. The assertion that the conservative Liberal/National coalition was somehow more intrinsically “Australian” than the Labor party has remained at the heart of government rhetoric since they first came to power on that dark day in 1996. It was this device that Pauline Hanson used, wrapping herself in the flag and warning that the nation was about to be “swamped by Asians.” She pushed the political debate sufficiently far right to allow the government, in the wake of its weak condemnation of her, to shift itself into the space she had opened up and led increasingly to the aggressive public championing of the lowest common denominator. The argument was arrogantly put from the right that the promotion of other communities within Australia and the attempts to redress the unjust conditions of the Aboriginal community were in some way eroding “Australian values”. It seemed that really the government was looking for a licence to enshrine casual racism, discrimination and xenophobia as “Australian values.”
Things have hardly improved since then either, and in 2004 Howard won control of the Senate. The inevitable next step was WorkChoices, and with that it was farewell to many years of hard-won protections in the workplace, removal of unfair dismissal laws, the right to bargain collectively… Since then women’s wages have been reduced from 90 per cent to 81 per cent those of male employees. If the country had been on the slide when I returned, things really accelerated after 2004.
So, before I risk going off into an emotionally charged and opinionated history of Australian politics over the last ten years, I shall get to the point. The point is, in a nutshell, that I was extremely pissed off with the state of affairs back in Australia. It was awful to feel such antipathetic distrust of my fellow citizens, and to suffer such an intense and seemingly irremediable loss of faith in Australia as a whole. The left was shot to bits and bickering amongst themselves. The Labor party was seeking electoral salvation by swinging right with the rest of the nation, and had already jettisoned half their principles. With Latham’s defeat and the return of Beazley, they were more pathetic and toothless than ever. The only political movement worth voting for were the Greens, derided by most of the population as a bunch of quasi-communist loonies. With the typical absence of foresight that has characterised all coalition policy, the people of Australia had been encouraged to mortgage themselves up to their eyeballs; political debate was held hostage by interest rates. The country and its nationals were now a major terrorist target and an international embarrassment. There was nowhere to turn, no one to support with any realistic hope of bringing about change, and this was largely because, it seemed, short of a significant economic downturn, no one saw any need for change, let alone finding the time to give a shit about anything serious at all. They were simply too wealthy to care.
It was in this light that I decided to clear out and head back to Europe. Whilst hardly a bed of roses, at least in Europe the intelligentsia were not written off as wankers and some degree of common sense had prevailed on environmental issues, cross media ownership, same-sex marriages…

Shortly before my departure the Australian band, The Whitlams, named after former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam (12/12/72 to 11/11/75) released their fifth studio album, “Little Cloud”. The song “White Horses” contained a lyric which summed up exactly my experience since returning to Australia.

“I don’t feel good in a big crowd since the rodent got back in.
They used to move amongst us and now we move amongst them.”

Having decided to leave, I packed up my flat, moved home and saved every available penny. It was then that I sent out the following, rather bombastic and sour e-mails by way of farewell to colleagues and friends. They were conceived as much in a spirit of fun as anything else, but reading over them again, the bile and bitterness is what strikes me as paramount. I have included the first one in full for the sake of colour…

This to my friends:

Dear friends,

How are you? Good, I hope. I’m writing to notify you all of a change of address and my impending departure. To begin with, I have relocated from Glebe back to the Workers’ Socialist Democratic Republic Paradise of 6 Furber Road, Centennial Park, also known as Fortress Furber (or Festung Furber) for the die-hards.
Many of you I have not seen for some time; having been rather head down, tail up of late. This comes as a consequence of committing myself to a crazy campaign, the objective of which is to leave Australia indefinitely sometime in the middle of May.
The reasons for departure are manifold – as many positives as negatives, but essentially I’ve had enough of John Howard’s Australia and the deeply distressing complacency accompanying Australia’s slide into ethical barbarism, and the surprisingly rapid and unprotesting death of its soul. When I found myself visiting http://www.extremistorganisationsaustralia.com.au, trying to discover who advocated political assassinations, I realised it was time to go.
Tant pis, c’est la vie! so I’m ducking out like a true coward and applying for cultural asylum in Britain (primarily for the newspapers). Essentially I’m moving back to Cambridge in May where I shall be looking for work sweeping the dust out of museums and serving drinks to the privileged to keep body and soul together whilst shopping my novels and poems to agents in London. When my rent-free accommodation in Cambridge runs out (end of June) I plan either to move to London or stay in Cambridge, taking frequent jaunts via Stansted Airport to the continent and, eventually, making my way to the Aegean for a long stay. There I hope to spend at least two months on the island of Lesbos (go on, snigger, I still do…) at the house of a friend of my father’s where I will do a lot of hiking (nice, rugged landscape) and bunker down to devote my attentions full time to a gradually accumulating second volume of poetry. I also intend to take a plethora of photographs, potentially whilst wearing a plethora of cardigans™, considering it will likely be winter by the time I get there.
After this I shall crawl back across the Mediterranean to London where I shall subsist in a garret on crusts dipped in stale red wine and do what George Costanza thought epitomised the ideal of rustic bachelordom – bite into a big hunk of cheese. If I can’t find anyone willing to marry me and bless me with a British passport (fortunately Australian passports are in demand in the UK), then upon the expiry of my ancestry visa on the 30th of April, 2007, I shall escape to New York and live as an illegal immigrant washing up, peeling potatoes, shelling peas and smoking butts in a deprived neighbourhood in Queens – you can see I’m really banking on that passport option coming good.
Basically I’m not planning to return until Julia Gillard is prime minister and until Australia is mature enough to behave responsibly, which could be a bit of a wait I fear. I’m a tad sick and tired of feeling like vomiting every time I read the newspaper or see -smug liberal-voting scumbags in their four wheel drives. When other countries screw up completely and turn out to be largely inhabited by a bunch of useless mongrels, it’s much less personal!
So, I hope to catch up with most of you before I go, though that may prove difficult. There will be a farewell event of some magnitude (provided anyone shows up) to which you will all be invited; more on that later.

And this excerpt, from an e-mail to my colleagues at ACP:

“So, I’m off to Europe indefinitely…
The reason? – to seek cultural asylum. Basically I’m putting myself into voluntary exile from the destructive, racist, quasi-religious, and utterly heartless philistinism of the Howard regime which has abused this once fair land for the last ten years and completely destroyed its soul, along with wrecking the future of all workers and students. Why doesn’t it surprise me that that this guy – who must have the worst case of tennis elbow in history from waving the flag so much – is also the vilest traitor in Australian history? Betraying the entire workforce – almost eight and a half million people, must surely rank as the greatest act of betrayal on the record. Personally I’d prefer to live in a society, not an economy, but hey, that’s just me.”

And so, in five days’ time, dare I say it, Howard’s dreadful, ideologically regressive, irresponsible, divisive, lying, cheating, morally and ethically bankrupt, brain-dead, war-mongering, nationalist government looks likely to come to an end. I can barely contain my excitement at the prospect of his government’s demise. I cannot say that I am particularly optimistic about Kevin Rudd and the Labor party, though perhaps the left will step forward once it is safe to do so. With any luck the strong polling for the Greens will be mirrored on election day and they shall claim sufficient seats in the Senate to hold the balance of power. This would certainly place increased pressure on the government to implement much needed environmental initiatives.
So, perhaps it is not too late for Australia after all. Perhaps the now firmly imprinted stamp of conservatism can be erased through time and effort. Perhaps a change of rhetoric at the top level will bring the nation back from the brink of its nationalistic chauvinism; perhaps we might see a less materialistic message from the government; a message that there is something beyond the housing market, sport, and the generation of wealth. I won’t hold my breath, but at least I can return from exile if I so desire. Julia Gillard may not be leader of the opposition and, hence, not potentially the incoming prime minister, yet she is shadow Deputy Prime Minister, and if she gets up there with Kevin on Saturday, that will do just fine.
So, bring on Saturday, November 24, and may the darkest and most shameful period in Australian history come to a close!

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