A Conversation for Community Leadership


Peter Kell




The social and political climate which has developed during the first year the Howard government has spent in office has been typified by sense of dismay, bewilderment and helplessness by many people, who are not, despite injunctions to the contrary, feeling the least relaxed and comfortable.

Many people, indeed, are shell shocked by the rapid turn of events and the collapse of the consensus which has typified the way in which Australian society has functioned since the late 1960s. The bipartisan era of tolerance, reconciliation and national building seems to have drawn to a rapid close. The social fabric seems to many to be unravelling in this new political culture: a culture which seems to mean nothing more than ensuring 'a fair go' for all to 'have a go' at somebody else. The new era seems to have a mean spiritedness and intolerance that many people are finding enormously distressing because, looking around them they can find no ostensible rallying points in which to gather for a fightback.

For those traditional rallying points of oppositional opinion in a democracy, the opposition parties in parliament, seem paralysed, and indeed they are part of the problem itself. The Labor party appears spooked and mesmerised by the impression that Howard's new wedge politics of division and accusation are what the mainstream battlers, traditionally Labor voters, really want. They are trapped by the history of thirteen years of their own espousal of economic rationalism; their own racist history; and the inability of Kim Beazley to demonstrate a position of leadership which promises something more than just more of the same. There is no green or environmental leadership either since they have now joined the forces of victimisation, attributing much of environmental decline to immigration. Many in the community, in fact, feel deserted by traditional groupings: adrift in a sea of hostility and blame.

Indeed, it was this search for a rallying point just as much as the need too define a path for the future in this time of uncertainty which prompted Mary Kalantzis to form the Australian Watershed group in the first place. The Watershed group she envisaged as a way to open new conversations on Australia's past, Australia's diversity and Australia's future; a means of changing national directions. In short, a watershed or a turning point in Australian history. In their preliminary meeting the group agreed that this is a moment when our nation is on the brink of potentially liberating social change if the Australian people, and more specifically their representatives, are ready to allow this. Australians can either bury themselves in a glorious past with its necessarily elusive 'golden age', or take a new direction and build a new future. The Watershed group has recognised from its inception that the concept of a new direction would be in itself an act of cultural and political imagination.

On the 23rd February 1997, the Australian Watershed Conversation was held at Blackfriars Campus at the University of Technology. The day long event, promoted and organised by The Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at James Cook University of North Queensland and the Centre For Workplace Communication and Culture, and hosted by Shopfront was well attended with some 180 people braving an oppressively steamy and humid Sydney Sunday to voice their concerns. If attendance is any indicator then, there are clearly large numbers of people who are not relaxed and comfortable.

Watershed comprises a grouping of leading Australians from all walks of life and spanning the political spectrum from a university Vice Chancellor to a Catholic nun; from representatives of the Ethnic Community Council and the NSW Anti-Discrimination Council to academics, writers and media personalities. Indeed, the Watershed group's bipartisan composition reflects much of the disenchantment with the existing political rhetoric from both sides of the political spectrum. There now appears to be a readiness to seek new directions, by people alarmed at the hell-bent direction of the current political culture.

In separate personal statements the main speakers described the historical moment as they saw it. Mary Kalantzis said that 'many people feel silenced by the resurgence of racism and intolerance' and Chris Puplick believed this was a problem which all Australians needed to address because 'when one person is attacked we are all potentially attacked'.

Donald Horne accused Prime Minister Howard of employing divisive tactics to keep the nation divided and therefore weakened. He was concerned about the way in which he heard people talking about what it was to be 'a real Aussie'. In reality, he claimed, 'you don't have to be a dinkum Aussie, which is scarcely anybody any longer'. The Australian identity, he argued, was not really a question of the 'bush' and its illusion of difference but about an acceptance of a basic civic decency by which we as Australians will continue to survive. Donald Horne called instead for 'a recognition that we are all members of a state which is guided by liberal democratic principles which is fair, just and tolerant and where we are all equal before the law'. In other words, these speakers maintained, the future should not be shrouded in meaningless imagery which confuses and distorts, but lit by a certainty that preserves and sustains the common good.

Veronica Brady bemoaned the fact that 'many Australian tend to think money is the supreme value' and warned that 'we seem to have a government that thinks that if you don't have money then you are somehow morally reprehensible'. Eva Cox described the need to 'create a structure that will take us into the 21st Century which is not just about scapegoating each other and leaving a lot of people left out' Justice Elizabeth Evatt said that 'for tolerance to be restored every Australian must be given a true sense that they are sharing in their society and that they can contribute to their society and that they can share fairly its benefits'.

Following these brief personal statements the conversation took the form of series of workshops on issues of concern: Australia's diversity; the Constitutional future of Australia; the crisis facing the arts and media; as well as the problems of a single-minded economic theory. Here the audience and speakers contributed in a forum style format which culminated in a final session in which the conversation was able to end on a positive note by voicing the participants ambitions for a positive Australian future and for the future of individual Australians. Despite their anxieties, these people possessed a vision and a goal, which is more than can be said for the major political parties who are currently deciding the shape of Australia's future.

Perhaps the most optimistic sign of the day was the participation of young people from Granville High School who spoke of the possibilities that a multicultural Australia offered them to be Australians whilst maintain their various cultural heritages. For Australia has a unique chance for the future if its leadership can grasp the challenges held out to it.

Of course, this was not simply a one day event. It is the beginning of a process of change which requires all those who are concerned about the future to participate in its challenges.

Peter Kell, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, James Cook University of North Queensland.

Public Conversation, 23 February 1997
  The Nature and Purpose of the Watershed Group
  The Australian Watershed
  The Main Speakers

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