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Girt by sea or girt by beach?

Race Race Discrimination
Tuesday 8 November, 2016

Speech given by David Morrison AO at the 2nd Annual Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture

27 October 2016

I begin by acknowledging the first people of this great continent and join with Uncle Charles (Chicka) Madden in extending my deep appreciation for their custodianship, over 50 thousand years, and the essential stories that are the foundation to 50 millennia. These are their gifts to us, contemporary Australians – migrants and refugees all – who have come to this island in search of a better life, for us and especially for our children.

How we define our future is our gift to those who follow.

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters continue to offer us their stories – in spite of their treatment at our hands – and it is a mark of both their love of country and why we most certainly need to fashion an Australia of today that folds those stories into our national narrative more completely than we have achieved to date.

We can do that, and in so doing we pay true respect to their elders past, present and future.

I also want to acknowledge another group of people tonight, as I do every time I give a public address. I have done so for the last four years and, while I would like to believe that such an acknowledgment can be confined to our past, in this regard I am not so optimistic.

I offer my respects to the victims and survivors of domestic violence in the Country. There are so many great social causes but surely how we fashion a world safer for our sons, and especially our daughters, should stand in the very first tier of our life’s purpose.

After all, don’t we define our lives most by the legacy we leave to others?

Now, I am wary of any speech that is given the title “Address”. It can so easily connote anything from a lecture, to a monologue, or to a harangue, and to exacerbate an already dire situation, the inaugural address was given last year by the Chief Justice of the High Court. I am a failed law student from the 1970s, so that particular bar has been significantly lowered in 2016!

I can assure my audience that this speech, or address, will be based considerably less on a legal discourse and far more on my personal views about this great country and why the themes of culture, inclusion and a human right to be free from discrimination are so important today.

Truth be told it is really all about me and my journey to greater knowledge about where the true benefits of diversity are found.

Hardly fair you might think, what with the precedent set by Chief Justice French, so here is something of a salve. I will be as honest as I can possibly be, and while I certainly will speak about my realisation that I have gone through much of my life not seeing issues for what they actually are, I will start with a broader, national perspective.

This is not just to give context to my personal reflections but because they underscore the foundation issue that I will speak to today and that is about culture – its strengths and its potential weaknesses. So I can promise it will not all be about me!

My personal connection with Kep Enderby was fleeting but memorable for us both. He was the first parliamentary candidate I ever voted for, in 1975. It was momentous for him because he lost and moved on to a post political career leaving a significant legacy, the Racial Discrimination Act being a major part of that.

Now, I find it best when starting an address to get the caveats out of the way quickly. This is for two reasons. First, I have never claimed except in perhaps the most cloistered of military environments, to be a qualified specialist in anything. I can admit now in retirement, that attaining the rank of general was a great relief because it gave me even more of an excuse to approaching any topic of my choosing in, well, a generalist way.

And that allows for a host of sins on the speaker’s part. I can declaim, as I fully intend to, about a range of issues and few are likely to stand and storm from the audience if I have laid my “generalist cards” on the table from the outset.

It allows me to speak with some pretence to authority about cultural and societal matters without having gone anywhere near textbooks on anthropology or sociology. And so I will.

I can describe certain possible futures at a cultural level and cheerfully admit that while I have read, listened and discussed these matters widely, I am unpublished and I most certainly have not been held to account by appropriate peer review.

The second reason is simply rhetorical. I produce my caveats openly and without guile at the outset, you accept them because you have made the effort to be here, and by the time I finish there is a chance that you have cut me enough slack to have at least considered my point of view.

So here I am. Honest to a fault.

What I am going to speak about is done only claiming the mantle of someone who has wrestled quite publicly with those most thorny of issues, culture and human nature.

So let’s start at a national level.

I think that Australia has, for much of its history since European settlement, struggled to come to terms with its own geography and its place in Asia and the world, but that it has exercised a pragmatic and relatively consistent approach, over two centuries, to securing its future prosperity by considering itself girt by sea, our entry point to the wider world.

I think that this strategic practice is once again under pressure due, in part, to the very significant changes that are taking place in our contemporary world and, in part, to a sometimes distorted and overly nationalistic view of who we are as a people, and which offer a siren like call to look inwards, safe in the supposed sanctuary of our geography that has us girt by beach.

Such a course would be exceptionally detrimental in my view and we really must consider ourselves a nation whose future lies in an expansive and inclusive approach to our challenged world.

We live on the planet’s largest island, bordered by some of the world’s great oceans yet despite the innately maritime character of our geography, the western civilisation that has grown here since European settlement has not, in my view, developed a deep intrinsic link to that character.

I am indebted to my good friend Professor Michael Evans, who I believe to be one of the most innovative and influential strategic thinkers currently working in Australia. He has described Australia as a maritime nation with a continental culture. His hypothesis was carefully arrived at through delving into the national psyche and soul. He analysed the narrative of the Australian settlement, and the degree to which we define ourselves as a sunburnt country.

Scrutiny of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, show a people pitted against a harsh, implacable and ultimately forbidding continental environment.

As long as the gap between myth and reality in our national identity remains so great, we will struggle to achieve our potential as a democratic country fully immersed in the global trading system.

Sand between the toes is a fine thing, but it is our remorseless gaze to the horizon formed between sea and sky that underpins our true destiny.

More needs to be done in my view to ensure that we continue pursuing all means to look out beyond our shores to engage with our contemporary world and here I want to tackle more intangible matters, most particularly cultural ones.

It is a reasonable assertion, I fee, that within our national character there runs a discernible strain of what I will prosaically call the “it’s us against them” factor.

This is evident most dramatically in immigration policies from our past that fought to retain the identity of a white Australia while at the same time denying citizenship to the first Australians despite many aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders fighting and dying in the nation’s name during the two world wars and Korea.

I offer this observation, made by surely one of the most astute observers of Australia, its past, present and future, George Megalogenis. It is taken from his recent book “Australia’s Second Chance”.

He said “Our periods of strong migration have been our most successful; our busts are distinguished by the closing of our doors, through policies of racial selection and import protection. This is not to say that the new arrival is somehow superior to the local, but rather than Australia’s least productive and most divisive eras have been those when migration was at its lowest ebb – in the early decades of convict settlement and in the half-century long stagnation of White Australia, from the 1890s until the end of the Second World War.”

It is evident, too, in many of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. The larrikin digger, the stoic pioneer, the daring sportsman are all imbued with the notion of the man from “down under” triumphant, on the strength of his character, in the face of adversity be that the “implacable bush”, the “yellow hordes” or the “British swell”.

There are some in my audience who may have noticed my exclusive use of the male pronoun. In using it I am, of course, making a point and before I go further I do want to acknowledge the enormous contribution that women have made to the development of our nation, in all fields be they economic, social, military, or artistic.

It’s just that I think their storylines are more likely to be girt by beach, not by sea. Their stories are folded into our national narrative while our male character is proudly displayed overtly; sun-bronzed, square-jawed, proud of his Anglo-Saxon heritage for all the world to see. The same can be said for many men and women whose ethnic and cultural heritage is not Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic.

I have no doubt that there are some of you who are now thinking – hey, hold on here; do you expect me to follow the jump to arrive at a credible and logical conclusion that broader engagement with the world is somehow imperilled because we give greater emphasis to men’s accomplishments than those of women, or men and women of a particular heritage; that we have some aspects of our national character that will hold us back – on the beach, questionable safe behind our shores?

Well I don’t expect it, but it is exactly my point.

I think as a nation we can be justifiably proud of how we have, for the most part, assimilated different cultures into our Australian society. We have, again for the most part, a solid social foundation of tolerance. But I caution strongly against complacency.

I think it is exceptionally pertinent, at this stage of our history to raise credible and logical questions about whether we are making the best use of talent available within an aging Australian population.

My conclusion is that we are not.

A complete appreciation of diversity and a planned and conscious effort to build inclusive workforces is missing and, because it is, we, as a nation, are sitting on the beach watching talent sail away.

There is one other aspect of our culture that I now want to address. I think the above situation is the long term result of allowing a comfortable male dominated middle class to determine who is in and who is out. However, much of that determination is the result of either the status quo induced hubris or, questionably unconscious bias.

The rise of nationalist groups in those country, whose mandate is exclusion from society based on race, religion or any other questionable criteria is of great concern.

Again, you could challenge at least the contention that these groups are on the rise given the unfortunately long history of such fringe elements in our society. But I think they are on the rise and in that we are similar to many European countries, and the United States were nationalist, anti-immigration groups are increasing. This is because human nature, especially in the face of the unknown, is reacting with age old resistance.

The common feature of such groups is an exhortation to look in and protect what is ours from those who are underserving of the benefits “we” have created. Europe, under great social and economic strain is seeing the emergence of such organisations from Greece through to Scandinavia.

I am too much a student of history to ignore what happened in Europe in the 1930s and while I certainly concede that there are many differences, as the analyst Max Boot observed, “the past is a poor tool to use in predicting the future but it is the only one we have”.

Let me be absolutely clear. I am not, for one moment, arguing that we should curtail or limit freedom of speech in this vibrant, multicultural nation. Let me share with you a very personal story that goes to the heart of my deep and abiding love of a truly democratic Australia.

My dad “Alby” Morrison, joined the Army in 1945. He saw service as a young officer in Korea and he became a Battalion Commander in 1968. I was thirteen and found myself standing proudly by the saluting dais in the main street of Adelaide., in 1969, watching my father march with his soldiers, the men of the 9th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, at the end of a brutal year in South Vietnam where 35 of their mates had been killed and 150 wounded from that one unit alone.

Many of my audience will not be old enough to remember clearly, if at all, what Australia was like in that year when amongst so much else, humankind first put foot on the moon. As a thirteen-year-old of that year I am not able to give any informed insight other than to observe, with now sixty years or accumulated bruises of life, that it was to some degree like any other in recorded history – full of hopes, and fears, aspirations and disappointments that characterise our communal and individual lives.

But the war, in that year of 1969, was divisive at a societal level and I watched and heard sections of the crowd boo and jeer my father and his men as they marched past. I was furious, albeit with rather impotent adolescent rage at the insult to this wonderful group of soldiers and I sought my father out at the end of the march and told him how upset I was.

And this wonderful man, who was completely a man of his times, said “Son, people must be allowed to express their views, within the law. That is what we have fought for. Democracy is never tidy, never soulless, but it is how we choose to live and that is to be defended above all else and cherished.”

This country’s greatest asset is its people. Dad’s views about our democracy are mine. We are rambunctious, and we do argue issues with passion and conviction. We are often less about paying superficial respect to each other and much more about adding our voice to the debates of our day and I feel that this is essentially health, but… there is a but. Let me digress for a moment.

I loved the study of literature that I was given at the Australian National University during my undergraduate years in the 1970s, but I did baulk somewhat at the metaphysical poets of the 17th Century. I found John Donne less to my undergraduate tastes that I should have, I think, although I have subsequently found an observation that places me in some impressive company, especially for a publicly avowed Republican.

Kind James the First commented that “Donne’s verses are like the peace and mercy of God. Like His peace they pass all understanding and like His mercy they seem to endure forever”.

But it was Donne who said that “no man is an island”. Nor women either – we are social animals, continually reaching to others, for company certainly, for compassion and understanding at times, and reaching out to debate, with reason and logic, not because winning the point is all, but because this is how we learn, about ourselves, other and our world.

What concerns me most today, is that in the face of some truly epic challenges that we as a species now confront, be they societal, environmental or ethical, we hear too loudly the voices of unreasoned invective and scorn, channelled through many mediums. Legislation like the Racial Discrimination Act is essential if we are to exercise our democratic rights in a manner that adds to our national strength, not tears at its core.

I agree with Ronald Reagan, who you probably didn’t expect to hear form today, who said that there are many simple solutions to complex problems, and every single one of them is wrong.

In my view, the journey to complex solutions will only be arrived at by the coming together of communities and nations. Given human nature, that will likely only happen if one of two outcomes eventuates.

The first and by far the best, is it leaders can put aside purely factional, small town political concerns and look beyond the borders and shores of their electorates, states and indeed nations. The second, which I fear will come too late, is if our planet and our species are threatened in a truly existential sense.

My experiences have shown me the enormous value of true diversity of thought, founded on education and respect for the views of others. That is why I champion diversity and building inclusive workplaces.

When someone is denied the opportunity to contribute as a result of deeply questionable criteria based on racial heritage, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation or because they are judged disabled in some ways, it limits us all.

I am not aspiring to some utopian world. There will always be those, like me, who are fortunate from birth. It is just that I can now see that, and realise that the hurdles in my life that I was required to jump are lower than those others have been asked to leap.

Life is not a level playing field. It can be tough and demanding and it takes hard work to achieve anything of lasting value. It’s very competitive, in all fields of endeavour. We just need to ensure that the competition, in life, is as fair as we can devise so everyone gets the opportunity to reach their potential.

For all of this, I am no Cassandra foretelling woe. My point is that given our national history, and some traits within our national character, we should recognise that “project Australia” functions best when it is looking out and engaging with the world. We need to protect our interests, not just secure our borders. And all sectors of our society need to play their part.

I am an admirer of a book titled “Engagement. Australia faces the Asia Pacific” written by former Prime Minister Paul Keating. I would like to quote the concluding paragraph of that work:

“The twenty-first century – the second century of Australia’s nationhood, the third of European settlement, perhaps the 60th millennium of continuous human occupation of this continent – offers this great opportunity to Australia: to redefine ourselves and our place in the world. Each generation finds its own challenges. The challenge of engagement is ours.”

Irrespective of your political views, there is to my mind no doubt that continues and deeper engagement between countries and the world’s peoples is an absolute requirement for all of our futures. The requirement to understand each other’s cultures, and to work cooperatively to meet our shared problems, is essential. That will only be strengthened for us as Australian when we look out across the seas that surround us, not sit cloistered and sun-tanned on our beautiful but lonely beaches.

And that requires leadership and it is to that theme I will now turn in conclusion. Again, in the absence of any particular expertise that I clearly do not possess, I will tell you a personal story to try and make my point.

Just after I became your Chief of Army in 2011, I was asked the perfectly reasonable questions “what’s it like to be the Chief”? I was disconcerted, to say the least, that I had no ready answer. After all, I had been a serving officer at that stage for over 30 years and if anyone should have known it should have bene me.

I reflected on this, and the next time I was asked, I answered in this way.

“As your Chief”, I said, “I live permanently in three time zones. I always live in the past because I am, for my tenure in this appointment, the custodian of all that has shaped our wonderful national institution for over a century – its history founded on the deeds and the courage of millions who have put service before self, whose sacrifice forms such an intrinsic part of our national story. I live every day with our heritage and our ethos.

“I live, too, in the present, as we all do – making decisions amongst the hurly burly, sometimes the detritus of daily life that is the never ending cycle of time between one sunrise and another.

“But most of all, I have decided, I live in the future. In a time when I will not hold the appointment of Chief but when my legacy will be realised, for good or for ill, by those who follow me. When decisions I make, about force structure, or capabilities, or most especially about our Army culture will have real resonance, despite the fact that my personal contributions will scarce be remembered, it at all.”

Now that was my answer of the time but I have since decided it is the real legacy that leaders should aspire to and it has had a profound effect on me, as a serving, now retired, general and as a fellow citizen.

When you adopt this perspective the exercise of your leadership is no longer defined by next quarter’s profit and loss report, nor by the outcomes of the next election. Rather it is defined in temporal terms that can, potentially, mould lives yet to be lived.

I believe that how we define ourselves as individuals, which we continually do as part of the human condition, needs to be done in the context of the communities and societies in which we live.

Personal views and accounts are all very well, but they need a foundation and a basis on which they are developed. We are social beings and how we interpret our societies, how we tell each other the stories about us, are the essential ingredients of contemporary culture.

To reiterate, I spoke up for engagement and inclusivity because I was a senior officer from our Defence Force who cares deeply about Australia’s future. I am a realist who sees the absolute need for these attributes if we are to prosper as a society and as a nation.

What drives me is only partly altruism. I fully embrace the idea of giving everyone a fair go and enabling them to reach their potential, but its more about the difficulties that we as a society will fail to address if we don’t make the most of all people’s talent.

And that is why the Racial Discrimination Act is so important to Australia, and that is right and fitting that is remembered through these annual addresses. It is rooted in the principles of human dignity and essential fairness which can be couched in the Australian vernacular of a “fair go” for all.

It was a watershed moment, in 1975, for a nation leaving the many years of What Australia behind and it remains a foundation of our contemporary society because we are and continue to be a nation of immigrants.

But it is more than that. It provides support to all Australians who have come to this country to reach their potential.

There are arguments pertaining to freedom of speech centred on particular clauses in the Act and I do not feel qualified to add specific legal or legislative input, other than to say this: the role of leaders is to live most of all in the future, and as a consequence, to ensure that all get their democratic right, within the law, to add their voices, without discrimination, to what that future will be.

I led a large, complex institution in a time of considerable operational stress and organisation change. There were some, both within and outside the Army, who offered their view that given these pressures, it was unsettling and ultimately irresponsible to attempt to tackle cultural matters.

I disagreed strongly at the time and still do. Indeed, on the only matter I am qualified to speak, holding a Masters of Arts in Strategic Studies, I can say with conviction that “culture eats strategy for breakfast!”. My view, honed by over three and a half decades of service is that unless you are able to create an inclusive environment you will never actually achieve the creative and competitive thinking needed to thrive.

Culture is all about the stories we tell each other about ourselves. It works at an institutional as well as national level. We need many stories, spoken with different intonation, based on diverse life experiences, sometimes at variance to what others might think, in order to enrich the contemporary narrative of Australia.

It is in the future that legacy is realised. When you think upon how this wonderful country has changed, for the better since 1975, surely it is a legacy of which Kep Enderby and Australia can be very proud.