COMMENT: by Tony AbbottNews Weekly
Australians - better people than we know
, November 16, 2002
Federal Minister for Employment, Tony Abbott, recently delivered the 2002 Playford Memorial Lecture in Adelaide. This is the text of his address in which he reflected on Australians' response to the Bali bombings.It is an honour to give the 2002 Playford Memorial Lecture. Sir Thomas Playford was one of the giants of 20th century Liberalism. His 27 years as Premier of South Australia, like Don Bradman's test batting average, is a record that will almost certainly never be broken.
Memorial lectures serve two purposes: they celebrate the dead and thereby persuade the living that their deeds likewise might not be forgotten; and they allow new generations to draw insight and strength from the great heroes of the past.
Playford was the grandson of a South Australian Premier (and Federation-era Senator). Despite this family prominence, he left school at 13 to run his father's modest orchard. He served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front where he was severely wounded. X-rayed just before his death, he still had thirty slivers of shrapnel in his body.Accidental career
He became Premier in 1938, almost by accident, when his predecessor resigned to contest a federal seat and when more fancied and experienced contenders had too many unnecessary enemies. When he assumed office, South Australia's population was barely half a million and its economy was almost exclusively agricultural. By the time he retired, the population had more than doubled and Adelaide rivalled Melbourne, as the great manufacturing city of Australia.
Playford was no theorist nor abstract philosopher. He was single-minded, indefatigible and utterly pragmatic in the pursuit of development. The leader of the opposition once described him as the best Labor Premier South Australia ever had. Remembering, no doubt, the nationalisation of the Adelaide power company and Playford's lifelong refusal to join the Adelaide Club, Sir Charles Court even described him as a "right-wing democratic socialist".
Playford built his home with his own hands, had great ability as a water diviner, and could construct sophisticated farm machinery out of scrounged odds and ends. As premier, he once stopped to feed his chooks on his way to meet the Queen to the great disarray of his formal attire. His stock of homely truths often found their way into speeches, interviews and other people's aphorisms.
Work, thrift, sobriety and helping others were the great themes of his life. His leadership suited the 1940s and 50s, an era which took duty and service seriously, not so much the swinging 60s, even in the city of churches.
He had a good sense of humour but his persona radiated struggle: to make a living; to survive the war; to get ahead. His were the flinty, stoic, sterner virtues Australians these days tend to underrate but may need again in the months and years to come.
October 12 has been described as Australia's Pearl Harbor or September 11. The world may not have changed on October 12, but we did. Australians finally learnt in the hardest possible way that terrorism is not something that happens to other people in other places.
Even so, the lasting features of October 12 may not be jagged wreckage, broken bodies, grieving families and the almost incomprehensible evil that brought it on. While hundreds fled from the fires in shock and pain, dozens went the other way to find their friends. This was a very diverse group of Australians, largely dedicated until that moment to having a good time.
It says something about our solidarity instinct that so many transformed themselves into impromptu rescue teams, almost on autopilot. In the days afterwards, despite the palpable sense of shock and grief, Australians handled crisis management with grit and resolution from the Prime Minister down.
In the worst of times this was the best of things: a reminder of what we can do when pressed. The remarkable feature of Australia's reaction was the almost complete absence of panic, hysteria, scapegoating, lashing out and leaping to conclusions.
We met irrationality with common sense, hatred with caring for casualties and chaos with steadiness under pressure, characteristics which will turn out to be our most important weapons in the fight against terror.
In the ten days after Bali, the stories steadily emerged of ordinary people doing extraordinary things: surviving members of the Kingsley football team forming a human chain to get others over a wall to safety; holidaying doctors and nurses spending five days and nights in makeshift casualty wards; a 16-year-old student thinking "why not" when asked to help in the morgue; the hotel guests who turned their front yard into a field hospital; the Engadine surfers lifting people over roofs; and the footballer, Jason McCartney, critically ill after helping others, telling doctors, "I'm all right mate, look after the guy next to me".
As Tony Wright observed in The Bulletin
, "In the first minutes of the terror in Bali, many Australians knew instinctively how to react. They scrabbled around in the flames for friends and partners. They ran across the street for water to throw on mates burning. They held the hands of strangers suffering. They tore up T-shirts to stem the wounds of people they had never met in their lives. They sat with the dying so death would not be lonely".
Wright detected echoes of Gallipoli and the Burma railway. "It comes to this" he said: "a spirit that embraces and celebrates life can survive the most hateful terror".
"I don't want to hear why it can't be done", Playford used to tell his public servants when dealing with a problem. "Tell me how I can do it".
In this spirit, dozens of agencies abandoned routine as the scale of the crisis became apparent. Within 48 hours, four RAAF aircraft with emergency medical teams had evacuated the critically wounded and Qantas had run three additional flights out of Bali.
A week after the bombing, more than 130 police and defence personnel were in Bali along with nearly 50 diplomatic staff. A further 400 diplomatic staff manned 24 hour crisis lines at home.
At hundreds of ceremonies and thousands of civic occasions, Australians paused to remember the dead and to give to comfort their families. Tens of thousands gave blood. Hundreds of thousands made donations.
October 12 is now Australia's "day that lives in infamy". But mixed with inconsolable sorrow is the sense that good can triumph over evil. Through some alchemy of the Australian character, the worst in others has brought out the best in us.
Amidst the grief and loss, Australians can take pride in our initial reaction; but the risk in the months ahead will be to draw the wrong lessons from this outrage or to relapse into business as usual. The historical parallels are Gallipoli, which steeled our resolve to play a part in the struggles of the wider world; and Singapore, which confirmed our inclination to focus on the near north.
The clear lesson of the past year or so is that terrorism has global reach and that any effective war on terrorism has to be international. Australia will need to continue its engagement in the region as well as its involvement in the worldwide campaign against terror. At home, we will need to continue to acknowledge our differences while appreciating our unity at least as much as our diversity.
Some comforting illusions about the world and our place in it will have to be jettisoned. The usual explanations for crime just won't do. Poverty and inequality might breed hatred but these bombers seem to be rejecting material affluence rather than craving to share it. Contemporary culture can't cope with those who would rather kill than compromise and shrinks from the awful possibility that we might be confronting implacable malice.
Recent suicide bombings against French and German targets demonstrate that these terrorists' real grievance is not what we have done but what we are.
As Clive James said last week, it's not our vices but our virtues which terrorists find so provoking. Because the terrorists' real target is civilisation itself there's no way to avoid being in their line of fire.
This kind of terrorism can strike anyone, anywhere, anytime and it has no grievance that can readily be addressed. This makes it both harder and easier to fight than older, more familiar forms of political terrorism: harder, because there is nothing to negotiate and it can't be appeased or conciliated short of surrender; easier, because there should be no ambivalence about the absolutist, totalitarian nature of the new threat.
Australians' mental as well as physical toughness will be put to the test in a drawn out fight against terrorism. As the initial response to Bali demonstrated, Australians have great capacity to organise in a good cause. Simultaneously pursuing a range of different objectives for months and perhaps years will test our polity's capacity for fine distinctions, sustained attention to detail and ability to put the national interest first.
As Tom Playford liked to remind his colleagues, "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar". The worst possible reaction to Bali would be to blame Islam.
Since October 12, the views of Jemaah Islamiah leader, Abu Bakir Bashir, have received understandable prominence, particularly his observation that "the people who died in Palestine will go to heaven but the people who died in Bali will go to hell - they are infidels".
It's important to remember the more influential Muslim leaders who have condemned terrorism, such as the Speaker of the Indonesian Parliament, Amien Rais, who has just affirmed the "universal value of tolerance and the rule of law". As the father of an Australian Muslim killed in the blast said: "It was evil people who can do this, not religion".
The perpetrators of September 11 and Bali want to polarise the world into Muslims versus the rest. Every anti-Muslim generalisation acts as an al Qa'ida recruiting poster. To the extent that Muslims suffer post-Bali harassment, terrorism has succeeded. The ostracism of Australian Muslims is precisely what this terrorism hopes to provoke.
There can be no "Australian-ness" test for Muslims any more than for Christians and, in any event, Australian Muslims have fully shared the grief, anger and loss of the community at large. Just 40 (according to the press) post-Bali instances of spitting, abuse, smashed windows or graffiti, deplorable though any such incident is, suggest that few have so forgotten Australia's traditions as to make minority groups feel unwelcome in their adopted country.
Although Australians were the principal victims of the attack in Bali, the Indonesian Government immediately understood that this was an attack on them too.
Post-Bali, President Megawati and her ministers swiftly grasped our common interest in fighting terrorism. Giving Australia an official role in an Indonesian criminal investigation is a sign of trust and a practical refutation of the notion that the war on terror is a proxy for Huntingdon's "clash of civilisations".Questions
Once the shock of Bali wears off, it will be as important as ever to foster the bonds of friendship and shared experience between the Australian and Indonesian people. Australians were entitled to question the deferential approach of the Keating years and to protest over human rights issues in East Timor.
There may be stumbling blocks in the relationship in the months ahead. But different emphases are quite consistent with respect for the Indonesian people and support for Indonesian nation-building.
After September 11, the Government sought to give ASIO the right to detain people for questioning for up to 48 hours if they are reasonably believed to have information about terrorists or terrorist groups. After Bali, it should be self-evident that we will have to put up with some of the restrictions and inconveniences which countries like Britain have endured stoically enough for years.
The dread and loss on a massive scale which Playford's generation endured provides some insights into how Australians might still cope with the shocks of war. Playford's battalion had an embarkation strength of 900 in 1915 and, with reinforcements, lost more than 1000 killed by 1918.
How could such an intelligent man, asks Playford's biographer Stewart Cockburn, "preserve such cold-blooded self-control" in the face of such carnage?
For the rest of his life, friends remembered, if some late evening reminiscence of France or Gallipoli "touched him on the raw, he would get up and disappear into the darkness. Perhaps it was to conceal the tears that might spring. Only when he had regained firm control of himself would he return".
It's not so surprising that Australia is starting to register in terrorist hate mail because everything about us conspires against fanaticism.
Terrorists will never understand a country which mythologises a bushranger and a sheep thief, and which suspends work for a horse race.
Since 1788, the Australian way of life has turned out to be a solvent for all manner of ingrained hatreds and right now, our reaction to Bali is a practical lesson in how to blunt the impact of terror.
From the moment of the blast, Australians have failed to follow the terrorist script. We did not blame the Indonesians. We did not stigmatise Australian Muslims. We have not reconsidered our participation in the alliance against terror.
And then there were the volunteers, the understated heroes, the doctors, nurses and paramedics who went to Bali and the hundreds of tourists who became ad hoc casualty ward aids and counsellors, unselfconsciously living the injunction to overcome evil with good.
When the terrorists set out to kill Westerners, they didn't know that the dead could include Muslim Australians and Indonesian Australians.
The victims were a rollcall of modern, pluralist Australia and the measured, steady, bi-partisan response was a demonstration of the Australian tendency to draw closer together to face a challenge.
A terrible evil has become a providential reminder that we are a better people than we know. Sustaining that openness, generosity, and understanding will be the measure of our victory over terrorism.