Address to the Order of Australia Assn

Address to the Annual Luncheon of the Order of Australia Association by the Honourable Justice Pierre Slicer on 20 November 2005

I salute your varying accomplishments which have led to the honour bestowed by your community and invite you to accompany me in examining a number of themes which might give meaning, in the year 2005, to who you are and the identity and purport of the award given you. I hope that the themes will come together and, even if some of us differ on particular analyses, we will, at least, agree on the debate.

We are living in a stage of transition; technological, social, economic and political. In some countries the impact of religious faith and ideological tenets and their respective values are in decline whilst in others, it is shaping, in different ways, the form and future of those societies and their ethos.

We derived our identity through family, neighbourhood, region, state and ultimately our country, the nation state. Nations states have adopted different models and are subject to differing pressures at the commencement of a new century.

Europe, because of its long history of war between nation states and, in particular, its experience of death during two world wars had, in the 1950s, consciously introduced a model, now called the European Community, intended, in part, to weaken the nation state and to inhibit its capacity to create war. In 2005, there has developed a consciousness of European citizenship which is now being reflected in common and concurrent legislation. There have been differences in the pace of change and the original decision (which was the formation of a European Coal and Steel Board) had a consequence, probably anticipated, but which has created tensions within Europe and slowed the process of full economic union. That tension is one of identity and is reflected in the recent referenda held in France and Holland and led to the decision in the United Kingdom not to conduct a similar process. The issue of identity in France, Spain, Germany is one of historic alignments. People regard themselves as Basque of Brettons ahead of Spanish or French. A similar but slight different process has occurred in the United Kingdom with devolution in Wales and Scotland and the continuing tensions in Northern Ireland. New, and perhaps more intense, tensions have been created by the settlement of members of former colonies of Holland, France and Britain and the introduction of migrant workers into Germany. In the main, those tensions are racial, colour based and increasingly a product of religious faith.

The dissolution of the model in Eastern Europe is illustrated by the continuation of historic hatred and strife in the Balkans, the separation of Czechoslovakia into Slav and Czech nations, the independence of the Ukraine are further examples of race and culture dividing or weakening the nation state.

A different model is that of the United States. There an opposite process is at work. There is a strengthening of the identity of the nation state and a commonality of interests as against the outside world. But within that nation state, there are probably three nations, primarily, but not wholly, based on ethnicity. Maps on the election screens show consistent blue and red states and a deep divide between Americans. There are greater economic divisions and increasingly identity is white, Hispanic or Afro-American. Religion, and in particular, the fears of the religious right, are further causes of division with the unified model. In 2004, for the first time, the majority of the population of California were not Anglo-Saxon. Canada differs a little from that model in that the identity division is more apparent and confined to the issue of Quebec.

The nation state of China is one based on an entirely different model, yet lets a similar process. There has been greater economic and cultural freedom. The political elite are, understandably, fearful of the Russian experience of fragmentation and determined to retain a model of a central political power, at least in the short term.

Africa, which is still afflicted with the debris of colonialism, has responded to the black/white divide with the miracle that is Mandela and the monster that is Mugabe. Perhaps of greater significance is the more widespread divide of tribalism where the nation state is a reflection of colonial map drawing and borders ignore tribal commonality. Rwanda, once part of the Belgian Congo, is the most horrific recent example.

The Middle-East differs further. Nation states, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, are not strong, central entities. Self identity in most of those countries, is defined by religion or faith, rather than through the nation state. The geographic area spreading from Afghanistan through to Chechnya and down into Ethiopia and into Sudan have, as a central identity, that of being a Muslim surrounded by others. However, within that identity are the religious differences, fought out in Europe during the Reformation and the 100 Years War, that of Sunni, Shiite, Hessonite, Waracqui, Senussi (African adaptation) and shown through the zealotry of the Taliban. Fundamental to those tensions is the idea of a civil state as against one based on religious belief. Israel is determined to retain a Jewish state. There can be no accommodation of the Palestinian people which impinges on that. Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are examples of the nation state being the mirror image of the religious tenets.

Distilled from the above can be detected three models: (a) the nations state which is submerged into a wider community with limited autonomy subgroups as in Europe; (b) a nation state determined to strengthen its identity and centrality of control and intended to sort out its internal issues at some later time, as in the United States and Russia; (c) a nation state dependent on a wider power or ideology, primarily, but not confined to, religious identity.

Central to all of those models is the question of identification and difficulty in accommodating difference.

The second theme concerns Australia. Because of low population and the fortune of a continuous border, Australia has not been subject to the pressures identified above. But pressures there are. In the period following the second world war, if Australia can be said to have had an ideology, it was one of social engineering. Society, through Government, planned for better health, education, infrastructure and regulation of commerce. Change was the result of traditional historic processes, demonstrations, political parties of left and right, and the obtaining of gains through political struggle. However the model began to change. The old conceptual self definition of Crown and subject moved towards that of citizen and state. The citizen had rights and obligations, whereas the subject was dependent on political processes to achieve protection or change. More and more protection and enforcement of those rights were determined within the legal, that is, court or tribunal based structures, rather than politics. The Order of Australia itself reflects that process. The changes made to the Order and the abolition of previous British honours in 1986, were fundamental. The awards were community based, not ones derived from status. They were awarded for service in many areas of our community, not a reflection of rank. Interestingly the granting of the Order of Australia was more generous, vis a vis non-citizens than in all other western countries. That change resonates today in the debate about the republic.

Central to those changes of the development into a relationship of citizen and state were one’s agenda, women a citizens, and the accommodation of new cultures, initially Italian, Greek and Yugoslav extending to Turkish and Lebanese. There were tensions, hiccups, discrimination and the like but they were usually generational in extent. The arrival of the first mixed grandchild normally settled the issue.

Nevertheless there were three fault lines. The first is that we never have and still have not got a handle on our relationship with the original inhabitants of our land. That must remain a separate issue, for the purpose of this paper. The second was the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people which really involved a nation state paying its debt to those who were perceived by themselves or others, as having been “on our side” during war. Asians had entered the arena in large numbers for the second time. The third fault line concerned race and cultural diversity. Debates such as the rate of immigration, the black arm band of history, the limits of that terrible word “multiculturalism”, were, and remain, divisive. The new races settling in Australia were Chinese and of Middle-Eastern origin.

Until 1996, I believed, wrongly as it turned out, that we were travelling reasonably well, apart from our relationship with the Aboriginal people. Debate, articulated by people such as Blainey, contained important issues. The rise of “Hansonism”, even if it reached 18% of the population, was a product of many fears based on class, economics, job security and fear of difference. While it is true that many of those fears were about race, colour and difference, the issues were, or so it seemed to me, to be capable of settlement within our existing boundaries of public discourse. The arrival of the good ship Tampa changed all of that. It occurred during an electoral cycle and the intensity of the public debate was heightened by complicating factors. Tampa, and its successors, carried the worst possible passenger, namely ones from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Imagery fuelled xenophobia. An inevitable process of dehumanisation of those persons evidenced by public discourse about the morality of throwing children overboard, cue jumpers and the ungratefulness of those persons prepared or able to wait, demonised the debate. The third factor was that of fate. Arrivals during an electoral cycle, during that cycle on 11 September, aircraft slammed into the buildings of New York and Washington. I watched those powerful images but rarely, possibly only three times until a French documentary some 12 months later. I did so because the imagery was overpowering, lessened capacity to make sense of it. My immediate thought was that of “great theatre, lousy politics”, a view I retain although in more subtle terms. But that event created fear, awareness of terrorism, increased the process of dehumanisation and identified the boat people with international terror. People were offending one our basic tenets that people did not bring their quarrels here.

Those mixtures of fear, xenophobia, uncertainty, race and culture entered into, and was used by, persons and parties within mainstream political institutions. Some of those currents and responses were bipartisan. These have been exacerbated by events in Bali, Iraq and Thailand, just to name a few. It is my prediction that they will be embedded within our body politic for some considerable time to come and that the responses of security legislation and police powers will remain, and trust in institutions, both our own and external, will decrease. Central to this process are questions of race and quarrels elsewhere, which, in turn, impact on, at least, my identity as an Australian. Self identity as to what and who it is to be an Australian and thus, collectively, the identity of our nation state has been altered in a negative way to our detriment. Improvement in self identity requires positive import.

The third theme intertwines with the two previous. The Order of Australia is a recognition of the services which you have each provided. The award is based, not on status, but for contribution and value to the community for a diversity of reasons, the arts, health, sport, welfare of others, to name but a few. Because of that public recognition made by the nation state on behalf of its constituents, you have standing and respect because of what you have done, not because of the positions you hold or have held. In once respect, you are our equivalent to the Aboriginal elders.

Improvements relating to the treatment of refugees, their children, the status of stateless persons, the humanisation of people fleeing regimes and the conditions existing in detention and the deportation of citizens or detention of those mentally impaired have come about through community concern, activity, discourse and action outside of the traditional political organisation. They have been community based and led. That is a course for hope and the debate by those concerned and the wider debate of “fairness” which includes economic relations, family, religious faith, gender and toleration of difference, matters which shape the character of Australia as a nation. Continued regard to those values and issues does not mean that the community ignores security or the obligation of the nation state to address that issue. But it does mean that we do not lose those other enduring values at the behest of unthinking clamour for security.

You do not lose your Order of Australia when the gong is pinned on your chest. Neither do you lose the respect paid to you by the making of the award. You are a reflection of our identity of what is an Australian, both as members of a nation state and individuals.

But there is one more concept which should be added to the question of identity and that is that we are or ought to be a citizen of the world.

Let me attempt to tie the themes together with one small, but poignant story. The award has been extended to non-citizens and its extension is the widest in the world. A comparable country, Canada has awarded but 11 and Australia has awarded far more. One of them, now a Companion of your Order, is the French keeper of the graves of young Australians who died on French soil. They were young men who came from a Dominion in order to fight for King and Country against an Empire and died on the soil of a Republic. They died during a war in Europe, a place in which first occurred the theme of a desire to weaken the nation state so as to prevent war.

In conclusion I salute you for what you have done and I have trust in what you will continue to do. But remember that we do not know who we are until we have learnt where we have been. Nor do we begin to think of who we want to be until we understand who we are. Recognition suggests that you at least understand who you are. Now you must help our society, call it nation state if you will, work out who we want to become.