Why Aussie politicians should learn to party

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Flickr image by Army.milThe inauguration of Barack Obama as US President transfixed Australians. Some even travelled to Washington to be part of the occasion. A much larger number got up in the middle of the night to watch the ceremonies on television.

The four days included official constitutional ceremonies, like the swearing in, public speeches, street parties and more formal celebrations like the ten presidential balls.

The serious purpose of pomp and ceremony and partying like this is often underrated. The occasion connects government more closely to the people in a public and often emotional way.

Yet if Obama had been sworn in, Australian-style, the ceremonies would have been very different, the occasion held in private and the audience much smaller. The Prime Minister and the members of the new government would have been sworn in by the Governor-General at her official residence in Yarralumla before a small group of family and friends. A smallish morning tea party would follow.

The next day a formal photograph to commemorate the occasion would appear in the media.

Much earlier than that, soon after the election, the new PM would have flown to Canberra and started to work. A small crowd, mostly of officials, supplemented by some keen onlookers, would have greeted the new prime minister at Fairbairn Airport.

Later, at the first sitting of the new parliament, the Governor-General would declare parliament open and read the official speech on behalf of her government. All of this is done inside the building, before an audience mainly made up of relatives, friends, staffers and parliamentary officials.

The common Australian response is that public ceremonies like the inauguration are uniquely American. Yet that is not true.

Last February there was a great display of public joy and affection when Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations. Older Australians remember royal tours as providing a similar sort of public display. ANZAC Day ceremonies and this week's Australia Day celebrations still provide it.

Australians are not that different from Americans. They are just given fewer occasions and opportunities to display their joy. The decline of the monarchy in Australia has removed one set of opportunities, because too few people believe in it any more.

Any explanation that relies on cultural differences between the USA and Australia is unconvincing. The more relevant difference between the USA and Australia is institutional. Obama is Head of State and Head of Government all wrapped into one office and one person. Australians have a parliamentary democracy represented by three official personages: the Queen, the Governor-General and the Prime Minister.

Furthermore, not only is the Governor-General not elected, but the appointment is made by the Queen on the Prime Minister's recommendation. This process is hardly transparent. Similarly, the Prime Minister is not personally elected to the top job, but is chosen by the caucus of the winning party. Even Kevin07 can't be expected to generate the same level of personal support as a US President.

These factors pose genuine difficulties for Australian-style ceremonies. Nevertheless there are possibilities.

Let's put the Queen aside because she's too far removed to be useful. But she does provide ceremonial opportunities for the British in Britain. If Australia becomes a republic with one of its own as President, the pomp and ceremony could be replicated in Australia in our own way.

In the case of both the Prime Minister and the Governor-General there is more that could be done.

Official functions that at present are held indoors and in semi-private, either in Yarralumla or in Parliament House, should be expanded to allow greater public involvement. They should be transferred to a more public venue, or opened up to include a public aspect attached to the official requrements.

Additionally, greater effort should be made to recognise public needs in constructing occasions for governments to connect with people, such as a keys to the city ceremony for an incoming government. And why not have an official public welcome for both new Governors-General and new Prime Ministers?

Allowing and encouraging greater public engagement with such occasions would enable Australians en masse to connect with the office and to celebrate Australian democracy and national identity.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an adjunct professor of political science at the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with The Canberra Times.

Topic tags: john warhurst, barack obama, kevin rudd, kevin07, pomp and ceremony, governor-general, yarralumla

 

 

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Existing comments

Notwithstanding the efforts of recent generations of political “strong men”, Australia is not governed under a presidential system; that is, we do not periodically select a ‘main man’, ‘hero’, ‘champion’, or ‘big brother’ to us all.

We expend our accumulations of unrestrained public adulation on our sporting notables. The value of sporting achievements is that they are inspirational and morale-boosting, no more and no less than symbolic.

The 24 January 2009 issue of New Scientist includes a report that, of all prison inmates, those with psychopathic tendencies “tend to be unusually adept at manipulating others, and even the legal system, to their advantage ... They were also much more likely to then violate their parole than non-psychopaths.”

The ability to manipulate others is advantageous to those striving for high office in any organisation.
Prime ministers and other elected representatives perform important jobs, and we, the electors, are their assessors. Only if we are powerless to choose among the candidates should we allow ourselves the luxury of uncritical celebration; we are otherwise obliged to ourselves to keep the bastards honest.
David Arthur | 30 January 2009


Further Americanisation of our political culture is not to be encouraged.
Sylvester | 30 January 2009


'Australians are not that different from Americans. They are just given fewer occasions to display their joy.'
Really? Has John lived in America?
He lists the apology to the stolen generations, royal tours, ANZAC Day ceremonies and Australia Day celebrations as displays 'of public joy and affection'.

To these, in Melbourne anyway, we can add the grand final parade, grand final barbecues, the boxing day test, one day cricket, the Melbourne Cup, Olympic motorcades, Moomba, Palm Sunday peace rallies, carols by candlelight, new year’s eve fireworks, walks for reconciliation, fun runs, big days out and state funerals. (Few of the thousand or so at Frank Crean’s farewell last month at St Paul’s were friends or colleagues.)

We have far more public parties here.
The difference between these and the American celebrations for which John yearns is that political leaders are not the focus of ours. (Although smart pollies will be there.)

This is highly desirable. Where our attitude to politicians differs from Americans’ – more sceptical, less idolatrous – ours is better.
Many Americans admit ruefully that it was loyalty to the Commander-in-Chief of soldiers who were just sent to war that obliged them to vote for Bush in 2004.

Alan Austin | 30 January 2009


The problem with Australian celebrations is that they are always organised by a committee who can’t see past fireworks. Not the “light a double banger, put a rocket in a milk bottle and pin the Catherine Wheel to this piece of wood” fireworks which some of us remember from our youth, but the “sit on the banks of the Yarra and watch the professionals” fireworks.
Yet if you look for Australian experts on the art of celebration, you’ll find some still alive.

My husband grew up in Kingston Rd, Surrey Hills, near the railway line, where there were kids in every house and a game of street cricket ran all summer, with rubbish bins for wickets and responsible big kids, who put a small kid under one arm and a bin under the other and cleared the road when a car came along.

Tunnels were dug under the fence of the army reserve depot, and a number of tree houses were built there. When the Queen visited Melbourne, she rode to Healesville Sanctuary on a platform behind a train. The tree houses were decorated with red, white and blue to mark the occasion.

That summer everyone under 20 who lived in the street travelled to Camberwell, through the drains. A concrete lid was prised up, a ladder was climbed down, and everyone wore gumboots. The big kids piggybacked the little kids when the water grew too deep. Mothers remained in blissful ignorance. There was no flash flood. Nobody drowned. That day remains in my husband’s memory as the best day of his Australian summers.

I recommend that we reconvene the Kingsford Rd kids, and put them in charge of all Australian celebrations.
Gwynith Young | 30 January 2009


“Australians are not that different from Americans. They are just given fewer occasions to display their joy.”

Really? John lists the apology to the stolen generations, royal tours, ANZAC Day ceremonies and Australia Day celebrations as displays “of public joy and affection”.

To these, in Melbourne anyway, we can add the grand final parade, grand final barbecues, the boxing day test, one day cricket, the Melbourne Cup, Olympic motorcades, Moomba, Palm Sunday peace rallies, carols by candlelight, new year’s eve fireworks, walks for reconciliation, fun runs, big days out and state funerals. (Few of the thousand or so at Frank Crean’s farewell last month at St Paul’s were friends or colleagues.)

We have far more public parties here.
The difference between these and the American celebrations for which John yearns is that political leaders are not the focus of ours. (Although smart pollies will be there.)

This is highly desirable. Where our attitude to politicians differs from Americans’ – more sceptical, less idolatrous – ours is better.

Many Americans admit ruefully that it was loyalty to the Commander-in-Chief of soldiers just sent to war that obliged them to vote for Bush in 2004.
Alan Austin | 30 January 2009


Well ... I'm not convinced that Australians really are a "partying" lot! The enormous masses of people listening to Barack, in the past year, just don't happen here. Australians are not really that type of people. Obama would probably get quite a lot of Australians in a square to listen to him because he treats his audiences as if they were intelligent people ... which our politicians don't do. He is an excellent orator, Obama. But otherwise, no. The biggest crowds I ever saw in Australian streets was the Vietnam Moratorium.

Australia Day in Canberra was a small crowd, very, very quiet, a bush band in the background, people talking, children playing, some reading and that was it.

When the Republic comes, we will have lots of people out there looking at each other to find out whether they look any different (puzzled!), others will celebrate or be bemused.

Actually, it should be interesting to see Australians' reaction when we become a Republic. Let it come, I say, the sooner the better!
Nathalie Shepherd | 30 January 2009


We are not America.

We are not that fat.
terrarocks | 31 January 2009


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