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Politicians and their words


All politicians work with words, but some of these representatives of the people are more quotable than others. Benjamin Disraeli, twice Conservative Prime Minister of Britain during the 19th century, and the only PM to have been born Jewish, was a noted wit. Dizzy was a gas, said an American friend, and how right he was. Said Dizzy was perhaps most famous for his deathbed refusal to let Queen Victoria visit him: his excuse was that ‘she only wants me to give a message to Albert’. But he was also the author of the oft-quoted line ‘Never complain and never explain’. As well, he had the politician’s ability to wriggle out of trouble while still making a point: ‘Mr Speaker, I withdraw my statement that half the cabinet are asses; half the cabinet are not asses.’ Wikipedia lists 547 quotations for Dizzy.

William Gladstone, also Prime Minister of Britain with a total of 12 years in the position, and Disraeli’s arch-rival, has only 70 quotations listed, but they all seem very sensible. They have also lasted. Gladstone was such a believer in equality in an age of inequality that he was known as The People’s William.

Moving closer to our own time and in Australia, we can remember Malcolm Fraser’s Life wasn’t meant to be easy. ‘The man is clearly a heretic,’ harrumphed an Anglican clergyman of my acquaintance, quoting Biblical verses about the fullness of joy. Political rivals Fraser and Gough Whitlam were both raised by Presbyterian parents and their expressed ideas reflected this background. One of Whitlam’s quotable quotes is also a crisp comment on life in general: The punters know that the horse named Morality rarely gets past the post, whereas the nag named Self-Interest always runs a good race.

As usual, and as I write, I am ten thousand miles away from my native land; I am also feeling bewildered, as I often do even after so long in Greece. But this time I am bewildered by recent events in Australia. Melburnian friends are in town, having cast their Voice referendum votes before they set off for Greece. They voted YES, but really wondered what all the fuss was about. So did I, disenfranchised as I am. And I still wonder. 

My friends and I are much of an age, and like me, they thought the inclusion of a First Nations people’s voice in the constitution should have been automatic long ago. We can all remember the 1967 referendum, when the question about the Aborigines’ inclusion in the census passed very easily in all six states, with about 90 per cent of voters in favour.

What has changed since then? A great deal, I suppose, when one thinks of the nation as a whole, but some things have remained the same: the struggle that so many First Nations people have, for example. As is well known, their life expectancy is eight years lower than that of non-indigenous Australians, their suicide rate is twice the national average, and in the areas of health, education and infant mortality First Nations people lag significantly behind. It is an appalling state of affairs, and one that perhaps a Voice in Parliament might have been able to do something to change.


'I’m always urging people to read more history, to take more heed of wise voices from the past. Gladstone’s was one. Justice delayed is justice denied. And take heed, Australia: National injustice is the surest road to national downfall.'


But no. And it was NO that triumphed, although triumph is a far from appropriate word. I hear stories of untruths, misinformation, manipulation by the media, strategies taken from the Trump playbook, reports of a nation divided, and of a people deprived. 65000 years on the island  continent, the oldest culture on earth: why do First Nations people have to bear so many burdens? The voices of Fraser and Whitlam echo down the years: these First Nations lives are far from easy, and the horse named Morality has certainly not passed the post in this race. Rather it is the nag named Self-Interest, ridden by politicians and media moguls of a certain stripe, that has run a successful race. Although it is far from being a good one, at least not in my view.

I’m always urging people to read more history, to take more heed of wise voices from the past. Gladstone’s was one. Justice delayed is justice denied. And take heed, Australia: National injustice is the surest road to national downfall. Disraeli’s was another. In politics there is no honour.  Well, perhaps there are exceptions to Dizzy’s rule, but not often.

Let Gough Whitlam have the last word. Australia’s treatment of her Aboriginal people will be the thing on which the world will judge Australia and Australians. Not just now, but in the greater perspective of history.

We have not treated the first Australians well. Not at all.




Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, politician, verbose, Voice, referendum



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Existing comments

There is nothing I feel I can add to this essay apart from d'accord! Sometimes distance allows the observer to see the more clearly - distance in years as well as of location.

Jim KABLE | 26 October 2023  

Well said, as usual, Gillian. Among historical figures, Winston Churchill could deliver a wonderful joke, whatever one thought of his politics.
The referendum, as you said, should not, in this day and age, have been even remotely necessary. The proposed alterations to the Constitution should not have been made into a matter of political one-upmanship.
We can but hope that Parliament can come up with a durable substitute.

Juliet | 26 October 2023  

Well written Gillian, as a YES voter I am totally confused as to why 60+% of Australian voters were confused about the referendum question! It seemed so straight forward to me until the naysayers got started. The most glaring lie I heard was that indigenous people are not disadvantaged by colonialism because they now have running water and electricity. I don’t know what planet this woman has been living on.

Robyn Jewell | 26 October 2023  

Thanks Gillian, I fully agree with your perspective. 40% of the country is in mourning, none as much as First Peoples. Another quote: There is no peace without justice.

Frank S | 26 October 2023  

People should "read more history." However, studies show most people reject facts that clash with their worldview, meaning they probably learn little.
The NO campaign opposed the Whitlam government's 50-year-old separatist policies. Former ALP minister Gary Johns called separatism, "a profoundly foolish path which is still causing harm." After 50 years, a huge bureaucracy, and massive funding, little changed for the most disadvantaged. YES, would permanently entrench that bureaucracy.
Malcolm Fraser is infamous for The Dismissal, championing Robert Mugabe to lead Zimbabwe, and for his failed Lebanon Concession immigration policy. The latter was ditched within 12 months after a 1976 report expressed concerns about "the possibility that the conflicts, tensions, and divisions within Lebanon will be transferred to Australia."
Policies "from the Trump playbook" were reversed by Joe Biden. He ditched The Wall, opening the borders to 6 million aliens to benefit soulless corporations paying low wages. 169 people on the FBI terror watch were encountered in the last 12 months. Another 1.2 million "got-aways" are at large in the USA.
Biden ditched Trump's policies that had Iran on its knees. The week after Biden was elected, the Spectator magazine predicted: "The Middle East will plunge back into darkness."

Ross Howard | 26 October 2023  

Speaking of political insight and eloquence, I think few of our modern Australian politicians possess either. If you look at the Voice campaign in terms of advertising, the campaign failed ingloriously. In my opinion, there were too many people getting on their individual soapboxes haranguing rather than talking to people. Tom Calma, in my opinion, is one of the wisest heads in the Aboriginal community. He was basically shoved aside and ignored by other, less wise people. Neither the Prime Minister, nor the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Linda Burney, was particularly eloquent, to put it mildly. This referendum released a lot of pent-up anger and frustration, which was not handled well. This is still simmering. This issue, to me, is just as much about psychology as it is about politics. I think the vote was a fair indication of where most Australians stood. They may well have sympathized with Indigenous Australians but felt that the exact constitutional ramifications of the Voice had not been fully examined and that could lead to unintended consequences which would benefit no one.

Edward Fido | 27 October 2023  

I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments, Gillian, and also feel much consternation at the attitude of the nay-sayers, which strikes me as SELF-righteous (rather than righteous and just), SELF-serving, and lacking in any respect for the basic human rights agreed on by the international community, the first Article of which states: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a
spirit of brotherhood. But respect for others and their basic human dignity is negated by the beliefs and behaviours of those who would seek to preserve an inequitable status quo by voting "No" to any attempt to advance the fundamental rights of a people disadvantaged in their own country by those who arrived 60,000 years or so later. Why? And when it comes to how posterity will judge contemporary Australia's record of custodianship and social conscience, dare we hope that those who can offer only their negativity and negation of attempts to redress the imbalance will give a hoot? I fear not.

Jena Woodhouse | 29 October 2023  

Gillian – a case of bewilderment is understandable when struck by an unwanted rejection of a political cause dear to the heart. Laying blame is fair game – but what I find baffling is an inclination among Yes supporters to avoid acknowledging any positive arguments which informed the No vote, much less acknowledging that some principles were drawn from the Christian tradition of seeking justice and seeking its realisation in the here and now.

In lieu of such an expose and in your spirit of pondering famous speeches, may I draw your attention to one which combined oratorical genius with an unyielding commitment to justice for an oppressed people: I refer to Martin Luther King's August, 1963 address, known by one of its peroration refrains 'I have a dream...'

In a early section of the speech, Dr King said, 'Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.'

In Australia, the 1967 Referendum gave life to Dr Kings words: for that outcome accorded Australian indigenous peoples the status they sought – unqualified, unfettered, equal citizenship.

Saying No to the proposal of an instrumentality known as a Voice is not saying no to recognising and responding to specific needs within indigenous communities; Saying No was not a rejection of recognising Indigenous history in the Australian Constitution – that option was precluded this time, by the design of the proposition. Saying No was saying no to the Voice proposal as it was put forward by its supporters. When some of the heat leaves the kitchen, there may come a time when reasoned exchanges may replace blame game gambits – possibly giving way to shared values, insights and strategies for future action. Until then.

Bill Burke | 01 November 2023  

As the saga of the failed Voice referendum continues to be dissected ad nauseam, I think the failed Yes supporters need to remember the poem about Tweedledee and Tweedledum in 'Alice in Wonderland'. Some of them remind me of Tweedledum complaining that Tweedledee had spoilt his nice new rattle. It is only a big black crow flying overhead which scares them back to a sense of normalcy. We need to come back to normalcy in Australia. There is dreadful stuff happening in the Northern Territory and other parts of Australia to Indigenous people which need to be urgently addressed.

Edward Fido | 01 November 2023  

The result of the recent Referendum came as no surprise to many people. That Australians are racist is a simple truism. B ut what nation is not racist? Recently the B BC showed a shocking film called Australian Wars which detailed the warfare against indigenous people from 1788 -- and ongoing.

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 09 November 2023  

The referendum was lost in the multicultural outer suburbs, so, if you use the unwarranted 'racist' tag, these are the people you are labelling. These people have had to cope with racism for years. I wonder what state Australia would be in if it were never colonized. Would it be like parts of the Andaman Islands? Many Australians of Anglo-Saxon and Irish descent seem to be denigrating their own pioneering ancestors, who might well be innocent of participating in any atrocities.

Edward Fido | 21 November 2023  

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