Monday, 14 May 2007

An Australian Experience-political and colonial traditions

Growing out of a humble origin of convicts and refugees, political parties and figures i Australia have demonstrated their casual and unassuming manners and styles. The old Parliament House stands at one side of the lake in the federal capital Canberra, a white house of fair size, but nothing fancy or grand. Its mission was to be the second temporary parliamentary gathering place, after the Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building, while a permanent parliament house was on the drawing board. This mission, however, lasted for sixty one years, and Australian politicians had to make do of their designated work at this humble site, projecting to the world a typical Australian style of modesty.
The new Parliament House was finally completed in 1988, at a cost of over one billion Australian dollars. In a full display of colonial and Commonwealth heritage, the Queen Elizabeth II of the UK opened the House at a grand official ceremony. Similar opening ceremonies were performed by her father in 1927 for the old temporary house and by her grandfather in 1901 for the Legislature in Melbourne. What an incredibly tight, unbroken linkage! These places unavoidably showcase British legacy and royal blessing, presenting a contrast to the appreciative, deferential, and modest Australian attitude.
The new Parliament House is not a tall building of classical shape, Gothic or Greek. It is basically a flat, round building taking up large grounds. The interiors are impressive, bright, spacious and well arranged, but not overbearing and imposing. It is essentially a place to house politicians and their staff, so having adequate space in the chambers and offices will do nicely. On this note, Members of the Parliament and Senators are surely delighted immeasurably by new seating and working conditions in the new House. The conditions for British MPs, on the other hand, are appalling. Every time I watch the scene on TV of the Commons in full house packed with these MPs elbow to elbow, I harbour a fear that an unpleasant odor would make a number of them faint, or a scream of "fire" would seriously hurt people and physically damage the chamber by causing a massive stampede. So working conditions at the Canberra site are far more humane and pleasant.
The Parliament in session is open to the public, but there are usually very few people attending, perhaps an indication of routine while boring Australian politics. I could only recall one incident during which an eager person, or a protester, at the upper deck fell to the chamber floor and startled seating members, including the then Prime Minister Paul Keating. It was reported that when this colourful person was in during debate time, people lined up around the corner to get a ticket to the audience seats. Even serious occasions like parliament need some sparkles and spicy scenes.
The relaxed and unassuming nature of national politics is evident in this and other government buildings. One sunny day in 1987, I encountered a busload of tourists from Taiwan near the big Lake Griffin of central Canberra. The tour coach driver, a Caucasian Australian, joined in our conversation and confessed on something he experienced. Those tourists from the US did not appreciate that much what they saw in Australia and tended to say that they had seen this or that and always had something grandeur or better back home. For the Parliament House, they apparently had Capitol Hill in mind. To this driver, hearing all these dismissive tones during the trips could hardly make him feel cheerful. On the contrary, visitors of Asian backgrounds would indeed appreciate and enjoy time there, as well as learning something Australian. This made the driver happy throughout the touring days.
The ABC TV programme at noon was a major source of information for me for those years and provided life dramas of politics. Frequent and rapid exchanges of wit and arrogance, even verbal abuse and outburst, made it more interesting and entertaining to watch. The most entertaining person showing during question time was undoubtedly Paul Keating. At his peak, his clever use of language and occasional lambaste of abuse of his opponents were legendary unmatched. Opposition Liberal Party leaders from Andrew Peacock, John Howard, John Hewson, Alexander Downer, back to John Howard again more or less suffered in his hands embarrassment and uncomfortable moments, not to mention their shadow ministers. His departure after losing the 1996 election returned the centre stage of the Parliament to Coalition frontbenchers, and a more dismal and duller performance on both sides of the chamber is thereafter evident.
The British masters of Australia brought over their Westminster setting of modern parliamentary politics to this continent and still play ceremonial roles in this young country. Although the system sounds old and tedious sometimes, considering its roots in the complicated and over prodeduralised British traditions, it somehow has sustained itself and served the purpose well of maintaining certain crucial political balances. The Commonwealth of Australia at the time of Federation willingly gave up some sovereign rights to their colonial master. This was willingly accepted by early Australian settlers and politicians, as their origin of British subjects obliged them to do. The connection with the royal crown was so strong and intertwined that an early Prime Minister Sir George Houstoun Reid even served as a member of the British parliament away from Australia in his retirement days.
Long after the Federation, Australians saw Britain as their only place to belong to and rely on. Australian troops served under British command in both world wars. One vital even in 1915 sealed the fate of Australia with Britain in more ways than one, the Gallipoli landing. Mr. Winston Churchill was obsessed with penetrating Dardanelles Strait and attacking Turkey from behind, so that Australian troops were ordered to charge forward against slaughtering machine gun fires from the Turks. The whole battle plan conceived by Mr. Churchill failed to prevail. Australians suffered large number of casualties as a result. Heavy losses of human lives did not dampen the enthusiasm towards and recognition Australians hold with their colonial masters, as shown in the national Anzac Day for the remembrance of this event.
Legacies go a long way before being questions and swept to the peripheries. On top of the elected head of government, there exists a position of Governor General as the official representative of the British crown. As if this is not odd enough for a sovereign country, there are also Governors in each of the six states of Australia. The photo attached here is with the background of Stonington Massion, a grand residence for the Victorian Governer for about 30 years. These vice regal seats are ceremonial ones, now filled by Australians nominated by the political party in office. Despite best intentions and most lenient treatments from the British monarch, these ambiguous and misplaced relations bound to cause conflicts with the reality of Australia being a civilised sovereign nation.
The dramatic event of "the Whitlam dismissal" made this issue come to a head. The Labour government of Whitlam was blocked in the parliament by the opposition to pass bills, so that the then Governor General Sir John Kerr intervened resolutely by announcing the dismissal of that parliament and calling for a fresh election. Despite the ceremonial role of his position after seventy five years of Australian federation, he invoked a rarely used power at his disposal to force the course of action. This dramatic turn and ensuing constitutional crisis laid it bare for all Australians to see that they remain under a British rule in some uncanny ways and that those colonial positions did matter to their lives, political or otherwise.
Another event is the hanging of one Ronald Ryan in Melbourne in 1967, when there was an emerging movement to make Australia a more humane society by abolishing death penalty. Campaigners made appeals to the British Privy Council for commuting his execution to jail terms, but they were turned down. This legal challenges illustrates the very point that Australians did need to make final appeals to courts of another country in Europe. Hong Kong lawyers used to make similar appeals to London courts and the Privy Council back in the days of colonial rule, but they now turn to the final court of appeal in Hong Kong, and to the People's Congress in Beijing on constitutional matters regarding national concerns. The fact where is the palace you make your final appeals to indicates the status of sovereignty. In the case of Australia, this unequivocal distinction is still lacking. It seems that remaining colonial heritage is to be gradually phased out in this new century before Australia is truly a sovereign nation and fitting for a genuine oasis of the world.

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