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Patrick White's Legacy

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA, Chancellor of The Australian National University, of Cynthia vanden Driesen and Bill Ashcroft (eds), Patrick White Centenary: The Legacy of a Prodigal Son (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), ANU, Canberra, 2 October 2014

Patrick White’s fiction will live as long as books are read.  Its themes will be meticulously explored; its language will be deconstructed and reconstructed; its extraordinary ability to marry mystery and metaphysics with acute observation of the gritty ordinariness of the everyday lives of ordinary people will continue to be remarked upon; and stimulating conferences of specialists will continue to produce fascinating collections of commentary and analysis like the one we launching today.  But above all the books will be read and enjoyed, by readers all over the world, for the compelling stories they tell.

There are many infinitely more qualified than me to talk more about Patrick White’s literary legacy, both his books and his plays, and many infinitely more knowledgeable than me about all his personal qualities of heart and mind and emotion that made it possible.  But what I canperhaps say a little more about, not least because so much of it resonated with me in my own public life, is that other dimension of Patrick White’s legacy – the purveyor of wisdom on, the public agitator for, great progressive social and political causes: Patrick White in the role of public intellectual, or – perhaps a little more exactly, because he so often insisted on distinguishing his own contribution from that of the intellectual – White in the role of sage. 

His public outspokenness was pretty much confined to the last two decades of his life – the 1970s and 1980s. Peter Craven has made the point to me that White would have resisted the idea that his fiction embodied any kind of progressive politics. And as with his fiction, so with his earlier life: David Marr’s biography makes clear that before he saw the light he voted for Menzies. Marr also describes him as having taken on, when he returned to Australia with Manoly Lascaris, the indomitable look of an Australian pastoralist. But as the career of Malcolm Fraser shows, Australian pastoralists sure can move across the political spectrum.

It would be fair to acknowledge that Patrick White’s legacy as progressive sage is a little less certain than his literary legacy.  On all the issues on which he did come to speak out, there are certainly many who were at the time, and have been since, inclined to dismiss him in the terms in which he occasionally described himself: cantankerous; ratty; a bitter old man; a nutty old amateur.

But it is clear that White – because of the way he captured, often with brutal clarity and frankness – the essence of the issues with which he was concerned, did have an impact, certainly at the time, and also in ways that have seeped into our collective consciousness since. And some at least of this is captured in the contributions of Fred Chaney and others that make up the last part of this book.

There were four great socio-political issues on which Patrick White made his mark.

The first was the urban environment, where – driven initially by his outrage at the potential destruction of Centennial Park, and his Martin Road home along with it – he became an outspoken champion of union Green Bans, and a fierce (though unsuccessful at the time) opponent of the “Monsterail” snaking its way through central Sydney, “devised by Fuhrer Wran and Gauleiter Brereton in conjunction with Askin’s knight and Wran’s accomplice Sir Peter Abeles”.  The 1970s were early days for the environmental movement, but it has not looked back since.

Second, there was his outrage at the constitutional havoc caused by the dismissal of the Whitlam Government and the installation of Malcolm Fraser by Governor-General Sir John Kerr. Who can ever forget his description, in Flaws in the
of the “farting Falstaff” with his consort’s “eyelids streaked with green shadow” like an “elderly lizard”.  And it was an outrage not just driven by his admiration for Gough Whitlam – as immense as that was – but at the tearing apart of the institutional fabric of Australian democracy. All this made him a passionate supporter of an Australian republic – even if, as David Marr describes, in the list of “loves” and “hates” he gave to Brett Whitely while his portrait was being painted, “The thought of an Australian republic” did only appear a long way down his “loves” list, after “Whiskey”, “sex” and “Pugs”. 

He would have been desperately disappointed at the failure of the referendum to achieve this in 1999, essentially because republican supporters were divided between popular election and parliamentary appointment models for the head of state.  It is hard to envisage White being on any side than the populist one in this debate, and – although I didn’t think so at the time, believing a fully empowered popularly-elected  head of state too big a risk to live with – it is pretty clear now that this is the only kind of republican model  ever likely to succeed. Stephen Alomes has a very interesting essay on all this in the present collection, and is probably right in suggesting that it is only at the initiative of a Liberal Party leader that another republic referendum will ever be feasible. Yet another reason to hope that Malcolm Turnbull eventually comes into his inheritance…

Patrick White’s third great cause was nuclear disarmament, on which his passion simply sizzles off the page, nowhere more so than his magnificent speech, Australians in a Nuclear War, to international scientists gathered in 1983 at the Australian National University, and subsequently very widely published. I think above all of his evocation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – with the photographic record showing “the rags of human flesh, the suppurating sores, the despair of families blown apart, the disturbed minds, the bleak black gritty plains where the homes of people like you and me stood”

I have shared that passion ever since I made my own first visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a young student in 1964, and it has been one of the deepest frustrations of my own public life – as it must have been for White – that all my efforts, like his, over many years, and in my case continuing to this day, have borne so little fruit. That the world has managed to survive nearly 70 years without a nuclear holocaust – deliberately or accidently initiated – is not a matter of the inherent stability of nuclear deterrence, or the wisdom of statesmen and the systems they oversee, but rather sheer, dumb luck.  If only we could re-inject some of Patrick White’s intensity and rhetorical effectiveness back into today’s global debate: capturing the imagination of publics about the reality of the risks involved in the retention by anyone of nuclear weapons is not a sufficient condition for securing their elimination, but it is a necessary one.

The remaining great socio-political issue on which Patrick White’s voice was important, and on which it deserves to continue to be heard, is of course on the position of Indigenous Australians, the first occupants of this land of ours, whose dispossession and maltreatment has been so long been a matter of national shame.  This is a theme which a number of contributors to this volume pick up, and rightly so.

Not all of their finding are immediately helpful to the White legacy as I am portraying it. ANU’s own Jeanine Lane, one of the three Indigenous authors of this volume, , looking at A Fringe of Leaves through an Aboriginal cultural lens, argues in fact that White did no more in this novel than reinforce familiar civilized v. savage binary stereotypes. It was perhaps only relatively late in life that White came to a fully sensitive appreciation of all the issues involved, but in this respect Fred Chaney makes the point well in writing that “I see in White’s recorded life a similar trajectory to that of Australia itself – a move from ignorance and indifference, to consciousness and concern, through to a determination to support recognition and change.” 

And as Kieran Dolin points out in his chapter, drawing in this respect on the work of the editor Cynthia vanden Driesen, White made very clear in Voss in 1957, long before the issue of native title had even begun to have any traction, that he understood exactly that Aboriginal Ausralians could rightfully claim prior ownership of this continent, and that recognition of that ownership was of immeasurable psychological importance.  Certainly when it came to celebrating Australia’s bicentenary in 1988, there was no stronger or more resonant voice than White’s in insisting that there was a complete hollowness at the heart of our national story if we did recognize the centrality to that story of our Indigenous people.

In my own parliamentary career there was nothing that gave me more pride and pleasure than, three years after Patrick White’s death, steering through the Senate – after nearly 50 hours of non-stop committee stage debate  - the Native Title Act, which gave practical effect to the pathbreaking Mabo decision of the High Court. True it is that finally acknowledging prior ownership, and all the pride and dignity and respect that goes with that, has not been a sufficient condition for getting our relationship with Indigenous Australians right – there is a heartbreaking amount still to be done – but it has unquestionably been a necessary one.  And no one saw this or articulated it more clearly than Patrick White.

In a speech in 1980, White hit the nail squarely on the head, in words that certainly resonate for me, and I hope will for all of us, when he said “so many Australians are made uneasy if one feels intensely – whether in writing, life, politics”.  In the contemporary world there is too much cynicism, too much caution, and too little passion. We need those who are as scathing as he was about what he called “the heavy plop-plop of Australian bullshit”.  We need those who have real stature and standing in the community as a result of their wider professional and cultural achievements, to speak out on the great issues of the day and remind us of our common humanity, and the better angels of our nature. We need our sages, as ratty and as cantankerous as some of them could be, and as Patrick White certainly on occasion was.

We need to be reminded of just how important a legacy Patrick White has left for us in all these respects, not just in his fiction, but in his passionate commitment to great public causes. 

This well-conceived and well-edited book does just that. I congratulate the co-editors, Cynthia vanden Driesen and Bill Ashcroft, the contributors, the publishers and everyone else associated with the appearance of this volume, and declare it duly launched.