Australia and Canada are the products of extraordinary imagination

DAVID MALOUF March 22 2004


Australia and Canada are the products of extraordinary imagination

DAVID MALOUF March 22 2004



Australia and Canada are the products of extraordinary imagination


WHEN WE LOOK at our two nations, intriguing questions arise. How did they become what they are? Surely the stability and wealth of opportunity they represent in an unstable world suggest some extraordinary quality of imagination went into their making, an inspired inventiveness.

Of course, the particular conditions out of which they grew were different. Canada began as a scatter of isolated settlements and trading posts that became, over time and by agreement, a tripartite nation, British, French, Native. Australia began nearly 300 years later as a product of the English and Scottish Enlightenment. Despite these differences, we are, at this point, remarkably alike.

Last week, eminent Australian writer David Malouf delivered the fifth annual LaFontaineBaldwin lecture, a joint venture of His Excellency John Ralston Saul and the Dominion Institute. Named after two pre-Confederation leaders, the lecture and accompanying symposium are designed to promote a better understanding of the roots of Canadian democracy. In advance of his lecture, Malouf prepared this version for Maclean’s;

Federations devoted to the public good, we have two of the oldest systems of government in the world and legal systems so close that decisions in your courts are frequently cited as precedents in ours. We also have similar views about where we stand in the world: our responsibility as middlesized but rich nations towards those “out there” who might need our aid or protection. Most of these, in Australia’s case, are close neighbours.

So what sort of nations or countries—since nation and country are not quite the same— and how were they formed?

Places, first, whose great work is to comprehend (which means imagine) the land we occupy. To take it in. First, as a land mass, much of which, desert in our case, ice in yours, is very nearly blank, though not in the minds of Native people; then to hold it in our consciousness as a place so fully occupied and inhabited that all the events and accidents of our experience in it persist as lived life to layer and enrich the present.

This is our kind of history. One not of great men or heroes but of work done, houses and cities built, many small lives that have left their own small mark. A country imagined, but also held in the memory, remembered, and carried forward as a present reality to be dealt with and drawn on. Australians took a long time to recognize this as the real task of settlement. Until our country in 1942 was in imminent danger of being taken from us. We saw then what it might be that we had taken custody of, and had to ask ourselves what we had made of it that was worth preserving; whether in fact it was truly ours. It was the moment when we began to understand at last how Native people possessed it, and what we might have to learn from their example: to possess the place inwardly, as so much part of our lifeblood that even if the land was stolen from us we could not be dispossessed.

We know when Australia began, Jan. 26th, 1788, when the male convicts of the First Fleet and their guards were unloaded at Sydney Cove. To say precisely at what point Canada began is like deciding where all the sources and all the little tributary streams of a river come together in a single course. One such moment was when the two men who give their names to this lecture series, LaFontaine and Baldwin, bringing with them their people, their language groups and the experience they represented, made common cause to win responsible government. Another was the reaction of their administration to the burning of Parliament in 1849.

The previous year, 1848, offers a dozen examples across Europe of how such violence might have been met. Your authorities chose to go against conventional practice and lay down a new law: in this place violence will not be met with violence because authority here is to be founded on something other than force. What was being established was the temper of a new world, one different not only from Europe, but also, as would soon be demonstrated, from the United States.

WE PAY taxes so the poor, the sick, the old, the unemployed, can live in a way that will not, as neighbours, shame us

As a child of Empire, my vision of Canada —“Our Lady of the Snows,” as Kipling called it in one of his imperial odes—derived from tales of the rugged outdoors I read in Boy’s Own Annuals and from an advertisement on Australian radio. Out of a roaring blizzard came a voice intoning: for coughs and colds, do as the Mounties do in the frozen wastes of the Canadian north. Take Buckley’s Canadiol Mixture.

But myths and stereotypes apart, our experience of space has profoundly affected, and in ways which are essentially unEuropean, our view of nature as a place that does, not, in the end, need us, and over which we have only limited control. Nature in Australia, as here, does not offer that comfortable reassurance of human centrality and power that in Europe comes, quite literally, with the territory.

And our experience of space shaped us another way. Space existed in the mind of even the most confined city dweller as the one commodity in a poor country that was always in large supply. Space as room— room to breathe, room to move, and as a feeling that we could afford to be generous in making room for others.

We are such rich places now that it takes a small exercise of retrieval to recall that for most of our history it was struggle and heartbreak that created what we have of a national character and our notions of what a good and just society might be. The idea of the battler dies hard in Australia. There is no shame for us in needing a helping hand. We have always believed that if we are to live decently, it is the business of government to readjust, as far as possible, the inequalities that come from bad luck, lack of opportunity, or the many other circumstances that might bring a man down. We give governments money so that the poor, the sick, the old, the disabled, the unemployed, can live in a way that will not, as neighbours, shame us.

The one word that sums this up is fairness, a good plain word that grounds itself in the contingencies of daily living. It’s as far as most Australians would want to go in the enunciation of a principle: we have no equivalent of your Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There is some agitation for a Bill of Rights, largely as a way of ensuring rights for indigenous peoples, but it shows small sign of being implemented. We cling hard to experience rather than written codes as our guides to choice.

Societies are improvisatory affairs, made from moment to moment and by many hands. They are, by their very nature, open and unfinished. The question is whether nations can also be open in the same way.

It takes a particular temper in a people to make a successful federation; a willingness to forgo the centering of authority in a single place for a recognition that there may, without the whole enterprise flying apart, be room for several centres, in dialogue with one another but also in argument. Federation demands a certain habit of mind, and more importantly, encourages it. We discover the virtues of diversity and seek it out, find interest in difference, relish the curiosity it arouses in us, the surprise it brings, the originality it tempts us to.

Australia is not much held together by national sentiment. Except in sport or war, we still think of ourselves as Queenslanders, South Australians, Sydneysiders. We seldom fly the flag or sing the anthem. It’s the kind of nation, loosely bonded, that Australians feel comfortable in. We get our clearest glimpse of it, not on official occasions like Australia Day, but when we find ourselves in situations where we look around, see who is present, and say, “Ah, so that’s who we are.” Polling days are such occasions. Given that voting is compulsory and always takes place on a Saturday, the whole population is out and in a mood of national holiday.

WE HAVE legal systems so close that decisions in your courts are frequently cited as precedents in ours

If I have had little to say of the nuts and bolts of politics, or of economics either, it is not because these things do not matter. They do. But what gives them their life as practice, and makes that practice assume one form rather than another, are complex choices that work deep below the level of practice itself.

Which takes me back to the LaFontaineBaldwin administration and that moment in 1849. The refusal then to meet violence with violence was an attempt to seize the future. To create, in the heat of the present, what might constitute in time a cool and usable past. To act in a way that the people would recognize as both practical and a reflection of their own temper. It is this temper, more than any form of government, that in the end determines the kind of society we create, how far it conforms to the common good, and how, from century to century, it can be referred back to and kept true to its own best self.

Award-winning author David Malouf has written poetry, fiction and librettos. He lives in Sydney.