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Real Australian heroes

Betty BirskysThankyou Betty for this reminder of the deep values. 'A Fair Go' may not be the Australian way any more, but it remains a core value of Webdiary. Betty's last piece on Webdiary was Solomon Islands quandary. [Editor's note: Betty's piece mentioned in this article, 'How did we get here?', appears to have been lost in one of the site moves. Fortunately it survives on Betty's website.]

by Betty Birskys


I write now about Australian heroes - not the military heroes, the men whom John Howard uses, at every opportunity, as an excuse to wrap himself in ‘the flag’.

No, I write about the people from whom those heroes sprang: the ordinary peoples of Australia, symbolised at their very best by the people of Beaconsfield: by the Knight family quietly coping with their loss, delaying their son’s funeral while they awaited the release of his workmates; by Brant Webb and Todd Russell, trapped in their narrow dark cage enduring mental and physical agonies we can barely imagine; by their heroic rescuers, crouching in a claustrophobic tunnel, chiselling away, at dire risk themselves; by the whole Beaconsfield community, and by the Union, in the tradition of Lawson’s time, in the person of Bill Shorten, caring to exhaustion for its own.

Howard wants to entrench ‘Australian values’, to make them mandatory for new arrivals, and the question arises: what are those values? Surely, now, we need look no further than Beaconsfield. What has happened there is symbolic, if anything is, of what are still, deep down, the real values of this country, hidden though they may be under recent ugly overlays of greed, and mass consumption, and fear, and division between rich and poor, between ‘real’ Australians and ethnics...

(It is ironic indeed that two of our more conventional military heroes were actually in groups now often maligned, as multiculture and ‘illegal’ refugees are attacked. Private Kovco is surely, as his name indicates, of Croatian (‘ethnic’) descent, and Simpson of Gallipoli, cited by Brendan Nelson as one of our greatest wartime heroes, was an ‘illegal’ Pommy immigrant who jumped ship in Melbourne and was always a strong Union man...)

For Remembrance Day last year, Hamish wrote a wonderful piece, relevant to this theme of real Australian values and the real Australian hero. Hamish declared that he is an ‘Australian... of mongrel stock...forged from Irish and sundry stock in the crucible of a harsh country...; a culture our rulers have liked... only when it fought in wars for them, built railroad tracks through impassable wilderness, took the mighty cedars from the scrub, dug mine-shafts by hand in between long months of unemployment... but have hated for its basis of ‘fair go’, mate.’

In his poem ‘A Square Deal’, CJ Dennis had the crippled WW1 war veteran Digger Smith muse of his "Visions on the hill":

"Beauty," sez Digger, sudden-like,
  "An' love, an' kindliness;
The chance to live a clean, straight life,
A dinkum deal for kids an' wife:
  A man needs nothin' less...
Maybe they'll get it when I go
To push up daisies. I dunno."

After World War Two, thousands of non-British immigrants, many of them refugees, came to Australia, to do much of the hard physical work previously done by Hamish’s ‘mongrel stock’. My own husband Anton was one of these newcomers, assigned for two years to cut sugar cane in north Queensland, to work in a railway gang. In the process they, and then their children, absorbed many of the values of the original ‘mongrels’, and thus grew our wonderful multiculture. No wonder, then, that ‘our illustrious rulers’ (political, commercial, academic) hate multiculture as much as they do the original ‘mongrels’.

Some time ago, Webdiary published my article ‘How did we get here?’ It was a cry from the broken heart of an 80-year-old ‘war veteran’ (of VAD and AAMWS} supposedly one of John Howard’s demographic supporters, lamenting the loss of post- war ideals.

I wrote of the privatisation of government services in aged care, education, health care, child care, and the conversion of ‘citizens’ into ‘clients’ or ‘customers’ of the resultant ‘industries’; of housing affordability at its lowest since 1990, with rents rising astronomically, and growing numbers of homeless; of the reckless sale of the nation’s assets (the Snowy River, Telstra, Medibank Private, etc - many, ironically, to foreign governments); of two million Australians living in poverty, including the working poor, with casual work at 28%, one of the highest rates in the developed world; of attacks on the most vulnerable among us, single parents and the disabled, with horrendous poverty traps remaining between welfare and work...

And rage is what I feel, for what Howard has done to this country in his decade of rule. He is the enemy of our real culture, of mine, at least. He has made us fearful and mean-spirited - but after the events at Beaconsfield I am hopeful. That was the ‘real Australia’ showing itself, encompassing values of courage, and mateship, for all the world to see, literally - a community, with a history and culture, not merely a conglomerate of individuals competing in an economy.

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I admire the statements of Betty and Michael - I admire the courage of ACT's Jon Stanhope in standing up to Howard's dictates and giving his people a Bill of Rights plus honouring his pledge to the Gay community. I admire Kim Beazley's courage by facing up to continual Corporate/media abuse and stating a policy which, I believe, will be well received by the long-suffering middle to low income workers. In Parliament Question time I admire the Liberal man and the Woman alongside him in the second row behind Howard's Ministry of giggling wooses because they do not demonstrate a willingness to toady to Howard's flea circus and flailing arms. 

However, I do NOT admire the Conservatives who have stated that Howard's re-instatement of the ludicrous (his word) Refugee Off-shore "jailing" should NOT PROCEED and then provide him with five alternatives TO proceed - which he has probably dictated himself. 


The Real Thing

Dr Rowan Gillies, International President Medecins sans Frontierers. A courageous and brave young Australian. Our planet needs many many more just like him.

Not Our Smarts.

Yes, of course, the clever ones are our heroes. I, too, nominate Fred Hollows as Kiwi hero of the year. Let us not forget our favourite Austrian(alian) hero Gus Nossal and Victor Chang would be a great Aussie hero, if he wasn't so bloody Chinese.

As a non-Aussie-born person (there goes my credibility!), my list is probably a bit short on sport and war heroes. Nevertheless, here are my Heroes who happen to be Aussies.

  • Peter Weir
  • Barry Humphries
  • Nick Cave
  • Brett Whiteley
  • and Adela Pankhurst (English born)

More than any gun-toting, ball-kicking, money-making pillock, the above are, to me, quintessentially Australian. Passion and intellect; what can be more Australian than that?

plenty of Aussie heroes

Fred Hollows is certainly high up on my list. On my office wall  I keep a photo a journalist friend of mine took of him in deep conversation with Andrew Ollie as two people I admired and as a reminder of how life can be cut short so quickly. There are heaps of sportsmen and women I admire but none I would call heroes. Real heroes I regard amongst dozens include Jack Mundey and the Aboriginal leaders Charlie Perkins and Lowitja O'Donoghue. There are plenty of politicians from all sides also.

Some of my real Australian Heroes

Some of my real Australian Heroes

Fred Hollows: When he wanted something done, he mostly went and did it, and anyone who got in his way discovered what a powerhouse he was. In his own words: 'having a care and concern for others is the highest of the human qualities. It distinguishes us from the animals and deserves to be paid more attention and to be more'… There is no doubt that he gave credence to the words I have just quoted him as uttering. It was this care and concern for his fellow man that drove him all his life, as a result of which many thousands of people are now able to see and many more thousands are given a chance to see. I could not imagine a greater reward than taking someone who was blind and restoring his sight, and to have done it for many thousands is pretty unusual. (Parliamentary tribute to Fred Hollows, 4 May 199 See here.

Weary Dunlop: One of his men wrote: 'When despair and death reached for us Weary stood fast, his only thought for our wellbeing... he was a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering'. See here.

Fiona Stanley: Professor Fiona Stanley is passionate about the health of Australian children. She has dedicated her life to researching the causes of major childhood illnesses and birth defects so they can be prevented. Fiona strongly believes that we must get things right for children and families now, so we can look towards a positive and healthy future for Australia in the next 15 to 20 years. See here.

Toni Hoffman: Toni Hoffman has shown true dedication to her profession as a nurse and to her personal values. Toni spent two years raising her concerns about patient safety in the Bundaberg hospital. Her ethics and values would not allow her to walk away from the problems she identified and she placed her concern for patients and their families above her own well being. There are many who understand and appreciate her compassion for patients and her strength in standing up for what she believed in. See here.

Slim Dusty: Slim was always helping others. Whether it be to make a special trip to visit the sick, play at a concert for those less fortunate or work with the Australian Heart Foundation, he has not just responded to requests for help, but has sought out opportunities to touch the lives of others throughout his career. When some may choose to sit back and reflect, Slim Dusty continued to share his life and enthusiasm with Australia. Slim Dusty was an outstanding Australian who relates to all generations. See here.

Hamish: Thanks John. Does anyone want to add to the list?

The 'm' word again

When the PM used the ‘m’ word in his speech the other night after the miners were rescued, I heard my son call out from another room: ‘Not bloody mateship again!!’ Frankly, I agree with him – my son that is.

I really wonder to what extent people realise how much this word is being degraded through overuse – particularly for my son’s generation. Also, despite the zealotry of the anti-PC media campaign of the last 10-15 years, the nation’s mouthpieces forget that the emerging generation grew up in an era that still rightly questions the masculinisation of the culture embodied in the word ‘mateship’. As my son said in a later discussion – ‘I have friends, not mates.’

If people are in trouble you help them. If people are in danger, you try to make them safe. Helping people is not a ‘value’. And it’s not 'mateship'. It’s just something you do. It has no culture and it has no nationality.

More Australian heroes

On the same day that Webb and Russell came out, the three Murray Islanders in the small boat who were blown hundreds of kilometers off course in Torres Strait by Cyclone Monica three weeks ago completed a self-rescue just as amazing. They had no food or water except one raw squid they caught and what water they could collect, and had only improvised paddles that they carved on the spot. They did have a mobile phone, which they turned off and kept dry till the last day, when they finally got within phone range of their home island.

Just like the Tassie case, this one involved experienced people who were completely at home in their environment and knew exactly what to do when things went arse up.

The main difference from Tasmania: no media circus or pollies.

good onya Betty

You have articulated it so well. The whole Beaconsfield episode was inspirational despite the very sad loss of Larry Knight and the untimely death of Richard Carleton - at least doing what he really loved, reporting from the field.

I can see knocks coming already for Bill Shorten's role but he was there performing well in his role of trade union official and gave me great hope that the Labor Party will seize upon this man's capacities to articulate and lead.

Let's hope this drama leads to many questions and discussion about our legendary Australian "mateship" which has been usurped by the present government for political gain. It's time for us to find our soul again as a country. The greed is good mantra that has insipidly permeated everything we do over the past years, kicked of by Labor but refined under the Coalition, has to cease.

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