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On remembering the forgotten

  • 08 June 2022
  In his initial speech as leader of the Liberal Party Peter Dutton committed himself to care for the forgotten voters. These are small business owners and voters in outer suburbs. They were contrasted with Big Business. The reference to the forgotten suggested a change from the priorities of the previous government in which Dutton had been a leader. It was also an act of remembering. It echoed a foundation document of the Liberal Party: Robert Menzies’ speech after an electoral defeat in 1942. The political shift from Menzies to Dutton and the deep cultural resonances of forgetting and remembering associated with it merit reflection.   

Remembering and the fear of being forgotten touch deep places in the human psyche. Never Forgotten, Always Remembered and similar phrases appear frequently on gravestones. Monuments to the Unknown Soldier both bring out the pathos attaching to names that are lost and enact a vicarious remembering. In the Middle Eastern Biblical books and the Greek literature central to Western culture the desire to leave a lasting name and the fear of being forgotten are prominent themes. The climactic scene in Luke’s Gospel presents the plea of a bandit crucified with Jesus to ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom’ and Jesus’ response: ‘This day you will be with me in Paradise.’  The scene was politically subversive. For the Romans the beating, scourging and nailing to a plank of wood of naked human beings was designed precisely to destroy their memory as persons and its influence. It was an act of forced forgetting. Jesus promised a remembering that defied Roman power and human fear. It represented the resurrection of the forgotten.

One of the most engaging BBC crime series in recent years has been Unforgotten, in which the discovery of human remains led police to investigate murders that had occurred many years ago. Their investigations were an unforgetting, and so a reverencing, of persons who had disappeared from memory. The pathos of the investigations lay in their effects on people connected with the murders who had suppressed the memory of their actions and who were now forced to deal with its effects on their lives. Remembering does not simply restore but also recasts relationships. It looks backwards and forwards.

I doubt that Peter Dutton had any of these subtleties in mind when he appealed to forgotten Australian voters. But he was certainly looking back. Robert Menzies also spoke of