home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Reflections of an (almost) Incorrigible Optimist

Address to Maitland City Library 'Look Who's Talking' Program, Maitland, 21 February 2019

Enormous thanks to the Maitland City Library for reconnecting me to Maitland and the Hunter Valley: it’s been a while, but it’s a delight to be back. When, back in the mid-1980s, I was Minister for Resources and Energy – or ‘Minister for Pipes and Holes’, as I used to describe myself – I was quite a regular visitor to the region: not spending as much time as I would have liked to in the wineries, but often touring the coal mines and trying to hose down some of those larger than life characters in the Mineworkers Union who were determined, then as later in the CFMEU, to make Labor Government ministers’ lives almost as miserable as those of their mortal enemies in the bosses’ suites. They weren’t always easy encounters, but there is an underlying comradeliness about this region and its people for which I’ve always felt more than a little nostalgic.

Optimism as Naivete? Since I published my political memoir fifteen months ago, the question I have most often been asked is the one you might expect: ‘Given the current state of the world, and the quality of Australian politics in recent years, how can you possibly have been dopey or naïve enough to give your book that title, Incorrigible Optimist?’

I have to admit that my optimism is a bit more corrigible than when my book went to press. Certainly there’s an alarming fragility about global geopolitics at the moment, with seriously escalating tensions between China and the US; North Korea still brandishing its nuclear weapons capability; the Middle East in chaos; and a manifest deterioration in the quality of global political leadership, with Donald Trump in the US, and the whole of Britain’s governing class on both sides of politics, being Exhibits 1 and 2.

And at home, there has been an equally obvious decline in the quality of politics and policymaking over the whole of the last decade, with prime ministers changing with pantomime frequency, the major parties losing ground to fringe dwellers, decision-making on important social and economic issues paralysed, and the standard of public debate more obviously shallow and superficial than it has ever been. Slogans have repeatedly trumped substance, with last week’s totally-fake, reignited ‘Stop the Boats’ hysteria over the Nauru and Manus island medevac bill being just the latest case in point. (That said, I have to admit there are some three-word slogans of recent times that demand immortality, for example, the bumper sticker which I hope will get another run in the next election in Warringah: Abbott’s Australia: Meaner, Dumber, Hotter.)

While it is the case, given the state of the world and our country, that always looking on the bright side does rather lend itself to parody, as Monty Python fans will hardly need reminding, I haven’t by any means completely abandoned my optimism. I have two kinds of explanations to offer you for my evident naivete, one of them objectively factual, the other more psychological.

The first explanation for my book title is that, however bad things may seem to be, they are not nearly as bad when looked at from a longer historical perspective. In the wider world, that’s true of conflict generally, mass atrocity crimes, civil violence, major human rights violations, and certainly of poverty, with 700 million people being lifted out of economic misery in China alone over the last two decades. However intractable particular problems may seem, there is usually at least some objective ground for thinking there are ways of solving them, or at least containing them. In the case of North Korea, for example, even if next week’s second summit, in Hanoi, falls apart – as there is every chance it might, given the character and competence of Donald Trump and most of those advising him – will Kim Jong-un ever really be the first to attack anyone when he knows that to be homicidal is to be suicidal?

It is important to keep things in perspective. Pendulums do swing, and wheels do turn. In the United States, which can by itself do more for the world, for good or ill, than most of the rest of the international community put together, recent political developments have been genuinely alarming. But the presidency of George W. Bush was, after all, followed by that of Barack Obama, and it may be that, like other bad cases of the DTs, this one too will pass. The US opinion polls suggest that while around one-third of voters will stay rusted on to Mr Trump, whatever enormities he continues to perpetrate, when it comes to the next election – if he survives impeachment that long – Americans are going to prove much less tolerant than he might have hoped of this narcissistic buffoon of a President, whom I’m afraid I have also been indelicate enough to describe on the public record as having the intellectual capacity of a termite, and ethics and judgment to match.

Whether there are similar grounds for optimism about the longer-term health of Australian politics – whether it is possible to get back to something resembling the quality of governance that people associate with the Hawke-Keating era (I think rightly, but I would say that wouldn't I) – is a question I want to come back to later in more detail.

The second explanation for my book title is a more basic one. I have found throughout my public life that as a practical matter, optimism is not self-fulfilling, but it is certainly self-reinforcing, just as pessimism is self-defeating. If you believe an enterprise is bound to fail, you won’t even begin trying to push the envelope: you won’t get out of bed in the morning. Achieving anything of lasting value in public life is difficult enough, but it is almost impossible without believing that what seems out of reach really is achievable. The bottom line is simply that I would prefer to live life an optimist and periodically be proved wrong than live as a pessimist and always be right.

Why My Policy Obsessions? Of course having that view about the possibility of changing one’s country or the wider world for the better doesn't in itself explain why I – or anyone else, for that matter – would actually devote effectively the whole of my adult life to trying to do just that. There are, after all, plenty more obviously enjoyable and much less frustrating things to do with your finite years on this planet than trying to rid the world of deadly conflict, or genocide and other mass atrocity crimes, or nuclear weapons.

And there are certainly more obviously enjoyable things to do with your life than going into domestic politics. Public life of any kind involves inevitable stress, and almost certain pain. Those primarily motivated by idealism are nearly always disappointed in what they are able to achieve. And those for whom exercising power, or being close to the action, is its own reward eventually find out that just about every political career does indeed end in embarrassment, humiliation or outright failure.

I’ll come back a little later to the harder question of why I spent so much of my own life – 21 years – in the crazy hothouse of Australian politics. The easier question to answer is why I became so preoccupied – some would say obsessed – with some of the big international questions in which I was immersed not only during my time as Foreign Minister, but in which I have remained immersed in the two decades since I left Australian politics, including heading the International Crisis Group for ten years, chairing other international NGOs, participating in various high-level panels and still spending far too much time on planes speaking around the world. The preoccupation, when I trace it back, is associated in nearly every case with some incredibly formative experience I had in my younger years, usually while travelling overseas as a student back-packer.

War. In the case, for example, of my preoccupation with peace and war – ending deadly conflict – it goes back to 1968 when I was taking six months to wend my way through most of Asia, and some of Africa, the Middle East and Europe as well, to take up a scholarship at Oxford. Rather crazily, since the war was then at its height and most of my contemporaries were trying to keep as far away from the place as possible, I decided to detour through Vietnam: civilian flights to Saigon were still running, seats were not exactly in high demand, and I wanted to see for myself what was going on.

Saigon airport when I arrived was chaotic, full of military personnel and departing Vietnamese, and not exactly geared up for backpacking tourists. It took me forever to hitch a ride into town and find somewhere affordable to stay. But just as the airport wasn’t geared up for travellers, I rapidly discovered that city hotels cheap enough for me to afford weren’t geared up for those who wanted their beds to actually sleep in. The place I ended up in was horribly squalid, with yellowing sheets, cigarette butts on the floor, and bathroom stains to match. As I was wondering what I had got myself into, I heard a commotion on the landing outside. Opening the door I confronted the sight of a huge, drunken GI beating a young, half-naked Vietnamese girl with a broom as she fled screaming downstairs.

The whole sickening cameo – the wretchedness of the place, combined with the brutality of the conduct – seemed to summarise in an instant, in a way that I had never fully grasped in my previous years of campus demonstrating, everything that was horrible not only about that war, but any war: the sheer scale of the human suffering and misery it always involves.

Atrocities. In the case of my preoccupation with genocide and mass atrocity crimes, it is also linked – though more indirectly – with that 1968 student travel, when just before my visit to Vietnam I went to Cambodia, a country still then at peace. I spent nearly a week there drinking beer and eating noodles in student hangouts around Phnom Penh, and careering up and down the dusty road to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat in cheap share-taxis, scattering chickens, pigs and children along the way. Happy experiences, mirrored that year all around Asia, in and around campuses, in hard-class cross-country trains and ramshackle rural buses, meeting scores of the liveliest and brightest youngsters of their generation. Usually fleeting encounters, but some of them resulting in friendships which have endured to this day. In the years that followed I have relived those experiences with innumerable Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thai, Burmese, Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese and Afghans who were there at the time.

But of all the countries in Asia I visited then, there was just one from which I never again, in later years, saw any of those students whom I had met and befriended – or anyone just like them. That was Cambodia. And I know all too well why. I know, as you will, what happened to those vivacious and engaging young men and women with whom I hung out that week, and those of their student generation. It is sadly certain that just about every last one of them died, a few years later, in Pol Pot’s genocide – with some two million Cambodians being either murdered outright in the killing fields as middle-class intellectual enemies of the state, or starving or sickening to death following forced displacement to labour in the countryside.

My memory of those young people does something to explain why it is that I grasped the opportunity, when I became Australia’s Foreign Minister twenty years later, to play a role in developing the United Nations peace plan for Cambodia which broke the cycle of genocidal violence and civil war in which it had been trapped since the mid-1970s. But above all it was the memory of Cambodia that led me to take on later, after I left Australian politics, the rather heroically ambitious role – only very imperfectly and incompletely realised – of trying to change the way the world thinks and acts in response to genocide and other major crimes against humanity.

Nukes. In the case of my continuing preoccupation with trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons, which is proving to be an even more quixotic enterprise, I can again readily trace my intense emotional engagement back to a single formative experience. In this case it was four years earlier, in 1964, on my first-ever overseas trip, when I was twenty years old – to Japan in the bowels of a steamship, as part of a student group – when I visited Hiroshima. Throughout my early years I had been vaguely conscious, like everyone else, of the shadow of nuclear war hanging over us all. But nothing had quite prepared me for the experience of standing, in the real world, at the epicentre of that first nuclear bomb strike, and being overwhelmed by the almost indescribable horror of what had occurred here just two decades earlier.

There is one particular exhibit in the Hiroshima peace park museum that I have never been able to get out of my memory: a granite block, part of the front steps of a bank building, against which someone had been sitting in the sun when the bomb exploded early in that August meeting. Starkly visible on the stone was the shadow of that man or woman, indelibly etched there by the crystallisation of the granite around his or her body as it was, in an instant, incinerated by that terrible blast. It seemed to me then that I had to do whatever I could, using whatever opportunity my subsequent professional career allowed me, to try to rid the world of these horrifying weapons, the most destructive and indiscriminately inhumane ever devised.

Racism. If there is any other dominant theme which has run through my entire public life – before, during and after politics – it has been a visceral opposition to racism in any shape or form. It motivated me in campaigning against apartheid and the White Australia policy as a student, in working as a young lawyer with Lionel Murphy to write the Racial Discrimination Act, and in working over the years on a multitude of Indigenous issues from legal services to land rights and constitutional recognition and reconciliation.

I can’t trace that visceral emotion to any particular epiphany: it was more just a growing, gradual recognition of our common humanity, and the sheer moral indefensibility of treating people differently not for what they do but what they are and cannot change. My family background I think had a lot to do with it, but not in the way you might expect, because it was not, on the face of it, ideal nurturing ground for a civil libertarian. I grew up in the 1950s in a working class home where all the routine prejudices of the day – and, in the mouth of my father in particular, the vocabulary that went with them – were alive and well. Long before TV’s Alf Garnett turned this kind of language into comfortably distant caricature, I heard about wogs, wops, Balts, Chinks, boongs and nig-nogs, and interracial marriage being like cats mating with dogs – the whole horror show.

But what was intriguing about my father, and I suspect a great many of his contemporaries – and I think in fact for a good many Australians still today, as the tapestry of our population makeup becomes ever more colourful – was that his fundamental decency kept on getting in the way of his prejudices. He was a tram driver whose job required him to train, over the years, scores of new immigrant arrivals. I remember him coming home one day early on saying to my mother: ‘I had this fella Angelo today, bloody eye-tie, practically just off the ship – but y’know, he’s a really nice little bloke’. And then it was Spyrou the Greek, and Bobby who had a lot of blackfella in him, and Freddie the Sri Lankan burgher, and a dozen or so others. All, as individuals, bloody good blokes. My father died a long time ago, back in the mid-1960s, without ever really getting over his prejudices in the abstract. But when you’ve never met a wop or a wog or a boong or a Balt you didn’t actually like, you go a long way towards instilling in your kids a sense of difference between stereotype and individual reality.

Why Politics? People in public life write memoirs for many different reasons: often, it has to be acknowledged, to try to rewrite the historical record in their own favour, or settle old personal scores. I don't think I would get away with the first sin, even if I tried, having succumbed so visibly on so many occasions during the course of my career to that common affliction, HPtFtU (the Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up).

As to the second sin, I have genuinely tried to be gracious to the legion of those with whom I have crossed swords at one time or another over the decades. But – as Billy Hughes replied when asked in the 1940s toward the end of his nearly 50-year political career why, having been in out of six other parties, he had never joined the Country Party – ‘you have to draw the line somewhere’. So I am afraid I have made an exception for Bronwyn Bishop, who won’t like very much any of the things I have said about her – about the gentlest of which is that if I knew what it was she used to keep that famous beehive in place, I certainly wouldn't be using it on my hair.

I think my major motivation in writing my memoir, was to do two things: first, to draw together, for whatever interest posterity might have in them, the lessons I have learned on a whole variety of public policy issues over the last five decades, including the imperative to stay optimistic; and second to try to answer, at least for myself, those many people who ask me and my colleagues, why we, who choose public careers, do what we do. I’ve given some indication in what I’ve said so far about what led me to be so passionate about causes like conflict prevention and nuclear disarmament, but I haven’t yet explained why I actually went into politics.

And that does need explanation, because politics is a bloody and dangerous trade, and – however talented or lucky one might be – setbacks, hurts and humiliations are inevitable. No one basks in unalloyed success and affection for the entire duration of his or her career. Even those whose careers are, on balance, successful, hardly ever leave at the top of their game – and I was no exception in that respect – and at a time absolutely of their own choosing.

There are two basic motivations for going into politics that tug for attention in every politician I have ever known: idealism and megalomania. Idealism, in the sense that everybody believes in at least a handful of public policy goals they would like to achieve while they are there. And megalomania, in the sense that practically no one is completely immune to the drama and show-business of politics (even if, as the old line goes, politics is show business for ugly people) – there’s the buzz of being there, of being part of the action, of making decisions and exercising executive power, or at least being close to those who are. In my case, while I don’t pretend for a moment to have been completely immune from the temptations of political theatre or the satisfaction of directing some of the play, the joy of playing the game just for the sake of it has always eluded me.

Kim Beazley has said to me – and I suspect to quite a few others – on more than one occasion over the years, ‘You know, mate, I really don’t mind all that much whether I’m in government or opposition. I just love the whole business. I just love politics.’ As I have replied to him each time, I find that simply incomprehensible. I have never derived any particular buzz – occasional big highs aside, like the Mabo debate in the Senate, where so much good policy was at stake – from the theatre of Australian parliamentary politics, particularly the low-grade vaudeville that so often characterises the House of Representatives, or from the political game as such.

The gulf between being in government and opposition is to me as wide as the Great Australian Bight. The overwhelming motivation for me getting elected to the Australian parliament, and staying around as long as I did was to achieve policy changes that I believed in. And that was only possible, for an Australian parliamentarian, if one sat on the government benches. That’s what I found enjoyable and satisfying. Everything else was always just a means to that end.

Of course one of the unhappy realities of political life is that many are called but few are chosen. And of those who are chosen, not everyone gets a chance to make a difference. I was one of the lucky ones, and the greatest luck of all that I had was to be around at a time when my Party was superbly led for the whole of my twenty-one years in Parliament. The Hawke-Keating governments in whose Cabinets I served for thirteen years became the Australian gold standard, as is generally now acknowledged: as good or better than any since Federation.

Those Cabinets were, throughout, very much teams of rivals, highly strung collectives of very capable, very forceful personalities. That we managed to work together as we did, and achieve as much as we did, owes an enormous amount to the quality of the leadership we had throughout. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were in many ways chalk and cheese in their leadership styles, although they each had in spades that indispensable requirement for any successful political leader, namely a degree of self-belief that defies normal human inhibition. But each was incredibly effective in his own way, and in combination they were lethally formidable.

The success of the Hawke-Keating governments had more to it, though, than just high quality leadership. There was the clarity of the underlying philosophical narrative; the communication skills with which that was sustained; the broad and deep consultation on which policy development was ordinarily based; and the quality of the process with which it was delivered (with us having fully learned the lessons of the dysfunctionality of the Whitlam government). But above all what I think really mattered was that the government ran on the basis of argument, not authority, and of genuinely collegiate, collective decision making.

There was a lot of competence not just at the top but right through the Cabinet and outer ministry, and that was accompanied by strong mutual respect between all the key players. Nobody was cowed by anyone else, everything was contestable, and a great many policy issues were intensely contested. The debates around the Cabinet table were often incredibly robust, and with language to match, as I have recorded at some length in the Cabinet Diary I published a few years ago: I remember Hawke saying to me once about one of my initiatives as Attorney-General which he didn't like (and there quite a few of those), ‘That’s not just your usual wank – that’s a two-hand job!’ But the senior ministers all gave as good as they got, and the idea of any of us laying down and accepting the kind of ‘captain’s picks’ that Tony Abbott tried to get away with, or the kind of highly personalised leadership (to put it as gently as I can) in which Kevin Rudd engaged in his first term, is simply inconceivable: the rest of us would have made very clear, very early that that was simply unacceptable.

Restoring Quality Politics? What chance is there now of restoring some of the quality to Australian politics that so many people, not just on my side of politics, associate with the Hawke-Keating years? Here as elsewhere, I am an incorrigible – or almost incorrigible – optimist. While I have already said that in my view, and that of a great many others, the standard of public debate has rarely been more shallow and superficial than over the last few years, I don't think we should be lulled into thinking that social and technological change – social media, the 24/7 media cycle and all that – in Australia as elsewhere, has made this situation irreversible.

It is a matter, again, of keeping the task of improvement in perspective. There was never a golden age of bipartisanship: the biggest policy changes have always been fiercely contested. And nor was there ever a golden age when the public at large was intensely and intimately engaged in the complex detail of public policymaking, and receptive to far more sophisticated argument from policymakers than that they feel able to offer today. That is not the way modern representative democracies have ever worked, or were ever intended to work: the role of the mass electorate is, of course, not to govern in detail but to confer legitimacy upon those who do.

The crucial challenge for the major centre-left and centre-right parties is to regain that legitimacy, by winning back the traditional levels of support for them that have been so conspicuously eroding in recent times, in Australia as in most other Western democracies – that erosion driven by often interrelated economic, security and cultural anxieties. In doing so, it is not a matter of resorting to crude populist appeals. Nor is it a matter of blaming the new media environment for making serious discussion of serious policy issues impossible: harder yes, but not impossible. It has always been the case that most people, most of the time, prefer light to heavy.

What is needed from the major parties is not complaint about the impossibility of it all, but rather, new willingness to really listen to the electorate’s concerns, which are very real, to think hard about new ways of addressing them, and to act in ways that will win genuine respect. It has long been received wisdom on my side of politics that ‘the mob will always work you out’. And they do.

Voters have shown over and over again, here as elsewhere, that they will respond positively to an attractive story-teller telling an attractive story. Whether we have in place now, as leaders of the two major Australian parties, story-tellers with all the right skill-sets is something on which views will differ. What Labor currently has in its favour is that, in my judgement (which I don't think is blinded by partisan bias, but you will have to make your own call on that), its current talent bank in the Shadow Ministry, and among those waiting behind them, is extraordinarily rich and deep – much more so than on the current government side – and actually, although people are always surprised to hear me say this, I think certainly as strong as and maybe even stronger than the talent we had in the Hawke-Keating governments.

What our story-tellers of course have to be able to deliver is an attractive story-line. And I do think that is deliverable with some determined new listening and thinking, On the evidence of the past, and recent developments in Europe, I suspect that the storyline most likely to be found attractive – and that will, if embraced, restore some real quality in policymaking – is some contemporary variation on the ‘third way’ approach that the Hawke-Keating governments made their own (viz. tough-minded dry, competition and productivity focused, economic policy; warm, moist and highly compensatory social policy, and liberal internationalist foreign policy). But then, yet again, I guess I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Let me conclude with this last thought. If we are going to be optimistic, as I am, about our political future, we are going to have to rely on the younger generations, not the greybeards of mine – the ‘CLOOFs’ as former British PM Jim Callaghan once memorably described us (‘Clapped Out Old Farts’). Mobilising those younger generations is going to be a challenge. It has been all too depressingly easy in the Australian political climate of the last few years, as elsewhere in the world, to be consumed by cynicism, scepticism and pessimism about the political process. For Generation Next, there is a perfectly understandable disposition to regard those few of their cohort who are actively engaged in politics as either apparatchiks, losers or tragics. As a young one-time assistant of mine at the ANU put it to me: ‘The trouble is that the bullshit detectors of my generation are currently on overdrive. The ultimate challenge is to convince them that they can overcome that bullshit by engaging in major party politics themselves.’

I think they can be persuaded, as I was, that participation in politics – and the chance that comes with it to be influential in the government of the country – is attractive because offers the possibility of being part of something much bigger than oneself. While one can do an enormous amount of good in one’s professional and personal life at the micro level, it is only that the macro level, through politics, that one can shape and influence the whole future course of our nation, and the wider world. That may make it an attractive profession for those who are consumed with the exercise of power for power’s sake. But it also makes it a hugely attractive profession for idealists – as most of the younger generation instinctively are. Active engagement in politics, at all levels from grassroots policy and campaigning activism to standing for parliament, should not be seen as just something for the cynics and tragics: it should be seen, and can be seen by the younger generation as honourable, decent and exciting.

There are many great battles that remain to be fought and won to make our country and the world a better place. I have made clear my view of how important it is that we approach those battles in a spirit of optimism. But, as I said earlier, while optimism may be self-reinforcing, it is not self-fulfilling. When things that matter get depressing and difficult, there is no alternative but to try actively to remedy them, in every way one realistically can.

Throughout my public life, there is one little mantra, beloved in the labour and student protest circles of my youth, that has always buoyed me in these situations. Some of the grey-hairs among you will be familiar with Joe Hill from the Pete Seeger song and film a few decades ago: this ‘Wobbly’ (International Workers of the World) union agitator and songwriter, convicted on a probably trumped-up murder charge, famously wrote to his colleagues in 1915, on the eve of execution by firing squad in a Utah prison: ‘Don’t waste time mourning, organize!’

That mantra resonated with coal miners I knew up here in the Hunter Valley all those years ago; it resonates with me still; and I hope it resonates with at least some of you who have been kind enough to come and listen to me this evening.