Australian Politics 2020-12-30 08:23:00


Australian culture denied by obsession with cancel culture

Tony Abbott

With public spending on an unprecedented scale and previously unimaginable restrictions on our daily lives, 2020 hasn’t been a great year for “small government conservatives”.

But with “pandemic pragmatism” tempering the instinct for lower spending and greater freedom, there’s now scope to focus on the other main element in the conservative creed: namely love of country and appreciation of our history.

And there’s more need for that too, as the Australia that emerges from the pandemic will not only have more debt and bigger government. As things stand, it’s likely to be less self-confident about what holds us together as a nation.

The pandemic has coincided with a renewed assault on our history as fundamentally racist, and requiring atonement, even though Australia had become a magnet to migrants, eventually from all over the world, even while it was still a penal colony.

It can’t have been lost on anyone concerned about political correctness and the cancel culture that police in Victoria failed to make a single arrest when 10,000 people marched for Black Lives Matter, but made 400 arrests at a much smaller protest against ongoing health restrictions.

Yet almost nothing was made of this double standard – partly because the leaders who would normally notice it were preoccupied with the pandemic and trying to make a national cabinet work.

As well as habituating people to accept restrictions on freedom and massive government spending “for our own good”, the pandemic seems to have accelerated the elevation of opinion over fact and how we feel about things over what actually happened.

We know that Aboriginal people had inhabited Australia for tens of thousands of years prior to British settlement. Post 1788, their society was disrupted and their population devastated, mostly by disease, occasionally by violence.

They weren’t always given a vote, didn’t usually get the same wage and didn’t often get the same justice.

But we also know that Captain James Cook appreciated the qualities of the Aboriginal people he found; that the British government enjoined Governor Arthur Phillip to “live in amity” with the native people; that Phillip refrained from vindictiveness or punitive measures as a matter of policy, even after he had himself been speared at Manly; and that white men were hanged for the murder of blacks as early as the 1830s after the Myall Creek massacre.

We also know that massive efforts have been made to give Aboriginal people a better life, first by missionaries and later by government.

It’s true that Aboriginal people are hugely over-represented in our gaols, even now. But that’s because they’re heavily over-represented in our courts and crime statistics; as are all people, regardless of background, who don’t finish school, don’t have jobs and live in dysfunctional households.

At least as much as some belated measure of recognition in the Constitution, Aboriginal people need to go to school and to take jobs at the same rate as other Australians, for reconciliation to be complete.

In the end, cancel culture is not about correcting a particular injustice or righting a particular historical wrong. It denies moral legitimacy to the whole Australian project, just as it also does in the United States and Britain.

You can argue that things could have been done better and that more must be done now; but it’s hard to maintain that British settlement should not have happened; or that, on balance, it wasn’t a golden moment in human history.

On balance, it was a blessing that the British settled Australia. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary Portuguese, Spanish or French governor declaring, as Phillip did, that there could be “no slavery in a free land”.

Even in those days, it was the Royal Navy that was doing its best to extirpate the West African slave trade to the Americas.

There are now calls for a pandemic-triggered “great reset” from the globalist establishment. This won’t just mean entrenching bigger government and higher spending.

Inevitably, it will also involve a new push to fundamentally rethink institutions that have stood the test of time.

In Australia, this always translates into agitation to change our flag and to remove the crown from our constitution.

Yet it’s dead wrong to see only the flag of another country (albeit our founder) within our own, rather than the crosses of St Patrick, St Andrew and St George representing our Christian heritage; or to neglect the symbolism of the Southern Cross with its significance to indigenous people.

It’s wrong to focus on a “foreign monarch” when that crown – and the ideals of duty and service that we have assimilated – has been with us every step of our journey as a nation.

Besides, it’s vandalism to demolish anything when there’s nothing better to replace it; and it’s arrogance in any one generation to think that its collective wisdom wholly surpasses that of every predecessor.

Our response to the Black Lives Matter protests was too apologetic.

Instead of looking the other way while their statues were graffitied, we should have resolved to end the neglect of people like Cook and Phillip because, without them, there would have been no Australia.

Cook was a scientist and a humanist, as well as one of the greatest explorers in all history.

Phillip didn’t so much found a penal colony as begin a nation; whose freedom, fairness and prosperity quickly became the envy of the Earth.

Instead of empathising with the would-be statue toppers, there should be a renewed emphasis on the wondrous legacy of the English-speaking version of Western Civilisation: including the world’s common language, the industrial revolution, the mother of parliaments, and the emancipation of minorities.

That perspective is at least as worthy of permeating the national curriculum as the currently-ordained indigenous, sustainability, and Asian ones.

And if there are too many statues to by-gone imperial potentates, let’s add a few more to those who should be Australian icons. To Sir John Monash, for instance, the Jewish citizen-soldier, hailed as “the most resourceful general in the British Army”, who broke the stalemate on the Western Front and helped to deliver victory in the Great War.

And to Lord Florey, the inventor of penicillin, that’s saved literally hundreds of millions of lives.

And if there’s too many “dead white males”, let’s enlarge our history, not rewrite it and be less blinkered about those who have made a difference.

People like Neville Bonner, for instance, the first Indigenous member of the Australian parliament; and Dame Enid Lyons, our first female cabinet minister. Neither of whom, as yet, seem to have statues in their honour.

The pandemic will pass. What should never pass is respect for the people and the institutions that have made modern Australia.

The economy will never be unimportant; because there can be no community without an economy to sustain it.

But post-pandemic, conservatives are likely to be patriots first and economic reformers second.

The coming campaign admonition might as well be “society, stupid”; because one thing the pandemic has helped to clarify is the new fault line in politics: not between those who want bigger and those who want smaller government, but between those who are proud of their country and those who can’t help wanting to remake it.

Of course, those with a preference for freedom and a concern for lasting prosperity still have to “fight the good fight” but also to focus even more on the one main element of conservatism that’s not in temporary eclipse.

Namely love of country, with all that involves: respect for our institutions, pride in our history and faith in our future.

Australia's Joint Strike Fighters declared ready for deployment after passing trials

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has declared its multi-billion-dollar fleet of Joint Strike Fighters is ready for deployment, two years after the first F-35As were delivered from the United States.

Since 2018, the controversial stealth fighters have been "rigorously tested" by the Defence Department which has now determined they have reached "initial operating capability" (IOC).

So far, Australia has accepted 30 of the Lockheed Martin designed aircraft but will eventually acquire 72 Joint Strike Fighters from the US at a cost of $17 billion.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has welcomed the IOC milestone, describing F-35A as critical to the Australian Defence Force.

"The fifth-generation F-35A, along with the F/A-18F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler, is key to our air combat capability and critical to achieving the objectives set out in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update to Shape, Deter and Respond," Ms Reynolds said.

"The Australian Defence Force now has an F-35A squadron ready to conduct technologically advanced strike and air combat roles, and another squadron dedicated to providing world-class training here in Australia."

Two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters in a hangar.
The total cost of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighters is $17 billion.(ABC Newcastle: Ben Millington)
Defence claims the F-35A boasts the world's most advanced air combat technology, allowing it to gather more information and share it with other aircraft, Navy ships and Army units quicker than ever before.

The RAAF now has more than 40 qualified F-35A pilots and 220 maintainers trained on the F-35A.

Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price said 50 Australian companies had so far shared in $2.7 billion in contracts to help build the JSF for various partner nations across the globe.

"Australia will continue to work with the United States F-35 Joint Program Office and our industry partners as more aircraft are delivered through to 2023, and a mature capability is achieved," Ms Price said.

Australia first signed up to the controversial JSF program in 2002, and successive federal governments have faced criticisms for delays and cost blowouts on the multi-billion-dollar project.

La Trobe University aims to improve reading teaching in education degrees

Learning to read isn't as easy as learning to talk, because it is not an innate ability — it has to be taught. At least, that's the battle cry of phonics advocates on one side of the 'reading wars'.

If you turn the debate book over, you'll find other literacy experts who disagree and believe that reading is a natural ability.

But with student literacy levels falling across all states last year, both sides concede that it is time for a rethink on how trainee teachers are being instructed to teach Australian children to read — because they are clearly struggling.

The La Trobe University's new Science of Language and Reading (SOLAR) Lab, co-founded by professor of cognitive psychology Pamela Snow, aims to fill what it sees as a crucial curriculum gap in tertiary education degrees.

The lab aims to give teachers the knowledge needed to teach 'systematic synthetic phonics' more comprehensively in Australian primary schools.

Sometimes referred to simply as 'phonics' or 'structured literacy instruction', the method stems from The Simple View of Reading, a scientific theoretical framework from the 1980s developed by psychologists Philip Gough and William Tunmer.

"The simple view of reading tells us that in order to get meaning out of text, you've got to be able to crack the code," Professor Snow said. "So you've got to recognize that the squiggles on the page — they are print representations of speech sounds, so there is a code."

Professor Snow's first short course at the lab in September attracted more than 800 participants — mostly teachers from around the country who had heard about the method online or from fellow teachers.

"What we hear repeatedly from teachers when we talk about the simple view of reading is — 'I've never heard of this'," she said. "So that's a really good example of high-quality cognitive psychology research that I think is like the family china that belongs to teachers, but isn't being given to teachers."

The basic premise is that children are most likely to become successful readers when they are explicitly taught how to break words down into letter sounds and word parts, and use their understanding of those parts to comprehend the meaning and sound out unfamiliar words.

In the early years, the focus is on attaching individual letters to sounds. Later on, children learn about word parts and their meanings.

Professor Snow said there were many scientific and psychological studies supporting the efficacy of structured literacy instruction, especially with young children.

She said that on the other side of the so-called 'reading wars' was an approach called 'whole language'. "So, [the thinking is] we don't specifically teach children how to talk, so therefore we should not need to specifically teach them how to read, we'll just immerse them in lots of text and they'll somehow intuit the process of reading," Professor Snow said.

Professor Snow said more recently a method called 'balanced literacy' had come into favour, which aimed to strike a balanced between different methods including synthetic phonics and whole language.

Still a divisive issue

Melbourne-based Year 1 teacher Troy Wood said he was shocked by how divisive the issue was when he became an early-childhood educator several years ago. "I didn't know about this debate until a couple of years ago," Mr Wood said.

Professor Snow said she agreed systematic synthetic phonics shouldn't be the only method taught, but it should be more of a focus than it was now.

And despite its opponents, phonics is being adopted increasingly in government policy, albeit slowly and carefully.

Last year, the Federal Government launched a free voluntary phonics health check for Year 1 students, citing a report that found phonics "to be the most effective way of teaching children to read words accurately and fluently".
a woman in glasses at a press conference

The South Australian Government recently reported that it had experienced a lift in Year 1 literacy levels after introducing a phonics check in 2018.

And just last week, the NSW Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning Sarah Mitchell wrote an opinion piece declaring that phonics had "won the reading wars", and that from next year, phonics would be compulsory for every Year 1 class in the state.

"Study after study shows that if phonics is not taught properly, student outcomes suffer across the board," Ms Mitchell wrote.