A time for reflection

Political values in the Age of Distraction

Paul Keating

Members of the Clark family - Sebastian, Rowland, Anna and Alison. Jan Fullerton, the Director-General of the National Library - this great Australian institution. Harriet Elvin from the Cultural Facilities Corporation. Penny Ramsay from Manning Clark House. Senator Kim Carr and Members of the Diplomatic Corps. And all of you, Ladies and Gentlemen, who have done me the great honour of coming out on a Sunday night to listen to a lecture.

Many of you have been attending the Weekend of Ideas, hosted over the past three days by Manning Clark House, of which this is the final session. I am delighted to be part of it. Because out here, on the edge of Asia, a long way from major markets and natural groupings, ideas are all Australia has to shield itself from the harsh winds of global change. Not military might, or a large population, or unique resources. Just ideas. Ideas are what must sustain our democracy, nurture our community and drive our economy into new areas so we can cope with the challenges I will be talking about tonight.

I first met Manning Clark in the early 1980s. I used to visit him in that little birdcage of a room on the roof of his house where he retired to think and write. That face of craggy desiccation looking out on Australia, a country which he did so much not just to interpret but, by his interpretation, to shape. I was always amused by the view put about by some conservatives that Manning was the house historian of the Keating government. Anyone who spent time in his presence knew that he was no economic rationalist. He would have regarded financial sector deregulation or tax reform with suspicion or indifference. And he was always much more mystical than Marxist. But I'll come back to Manning and his contribution later.

I want to talk first about his great theme - Australia, and how we, with all our human foibles, come to terms with our lives on this continent. After the election result was clear in 1996, I said that when the government changes, the country changes. I was making the unfashionable point that politics matter: that by their actions and words, our political leaders powerfully shape the sort of country Australia is. I was saying that whatever voters might have been entitled to draw from the bland me-tooism of Liberal policy pronouncements during that election campaign, Australia would be different afterwards. And, six years on, it is probably more different than even I imagined.

The reactionaries fight back

The last time I spoke here at the National Library was in August 1993 at its 25th anniversary dinner. I said then, partly by way of tribute to Sir John Gorton who had opened the Library, that I believed that change - some of which the Gorton government had set in motion - had "won a resounding victory" in Australia. I said: "We have seen the remarkable growth of tolerant, creative cultural pluralism and all the riches this has brought Australia ... the xenophobia has largely gone."

Well, over the past five or six years there is no doubt that the reactionaries have fought back. The tolerance looks frailer and the xenophobia more robust. From those first claims in the 1996 election that our national objective should be to become 'relaxed and comfortable' to the fear mongering about borders in the 2001 campaign, this government has co