Steering SS Australia through the doldrums is serious work


Malcolm Turnbull steers the SS Australia through turbulent waters

There are periods in public life where the ship of state wallows becalmed. In the Sargasso sea of myth, sails flap, prodigies are seen and ships do not move, crews are frightened and rumours spread.

A distant cloud is claimed to be the Marie Celeste, reefs and rocks are made of air, albatrosses die on the deck, and Musulman sailors are unmasked as Jonahs. In response captains speak of discipline, strengthen ship's regulations, gather the crew to salute the flag and put the purported Jonahs in irons (perhaps for their own protection).

The challenge facing the serious person on the ship, usually the ship's doctor, is to avoid responding to each rumour and each proclamation — to respond would just invest nonsense with credibility — and to keep focused on what matters. What is needed is to sustain the spirits of the crew and to plan the continuation of the journey when the wind again fills the sails.

In Australian public life we are becalmed in a sea where the trade winds of political will, imagination, ability to agree, trust in politicians and firm direction do not blow. We search for portents in the United States skies and hope for wind from the budget.

In the meantime we see discord among the officers, unrest among the crew, windy statements of maritime values designed to name and shame the various Jonahs blamed for threatening the ship and its traditions, and a rewriting of the ship's regulations to impose fraternity.

So how to respond? The temptation — for serious members of the crew and nation alike — is to engage with the rumours, the revision of regulations and the proclamation of values. They should be recognised for what they are: a frustrated response to being becalmed, and an attempt to scapegoat vulnerable and innocent members of the crew or nation.

Having dismissed these diversions, we may then ask what matters in the issues underlying them and what might be lost if they were acted on. In the case of the rewriting of the 457 visa regulations this is simple. Regulations should ensure that we welcome people into Australia to work when it is to our mutual advantage, that they are fairly paid, and that local workers are not disadvantaged by their presence.

These interlocking conditions demand effective public scrutiny of the treatment of immigrant workers. The previous scheme became contentious because of the evidence that the exploitation of many immigrant workers was not being policed. Nor do the revised regulations address that issue adequately.


"Citizenship is not created by the government's whim. It formalises a relationship built over time and a mutual commitment. That relationship needs to be respected in the granting and the withdrawal of visas."


The government's insistence on values in its citizenship tests is evidently mischief-making directed against Muslim immigrants. The incongruity of politicians speaking of values in such an enterprise needs no demonstration. What matters in regulating the conditions of citizenship is that they should express a welcome to new citizens, strengthen the bonds between Australians of different descent, and recognise the mutual obligation of government and people who have spent much of their lives in Australia. Citizenship is not created by the government's whim. It formalises a relationship built over time and a mutual commitment. That relationship needs to be respected in the granting and the withdrawal of visas.

After cutting through the nonsense, how should the ship's doctor spend his time in the doldrums? He surely should study his environment and note the ways in which anxiety, helplessness and self-interest shape human action and all its unanticipated effects. He might then be able to counsel masterly inactivity in the face of the urge to do something, anything, decisive.

Positively he should focus on the things that need to be done when the ship, no longer stranded by still winds and calm seas, resumes its journey. It will be important to build harmony among the crew by a fair distribution of rations and hardship, to plot and follow a direct course, to take prudent care of sails, tackle and provisions and to anticipate the benefits and threats posed by other ships encountered on the high seas.

In Australia the threat to national harmony comes from increasing gross inequality and the unwillingness of politicians to address the economic settings that foster it. It leads to alienation from politics, the scapegoating of minorities and self-preoccupation. The appropriate response, falling especially on opposition parties, is to research and develop a better economic order and to commend it to the nation.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Illustration by Chris Johnston

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From Kevin Brophy's "Mediterranean Sea": Some might hear the faint hiss of your heart cooling and/ toughening/ In me. In my deep oblivion you will find all the silence you need./All stories find their way to me. All stories are of crossing the sea.
Pam | 08 May 2017

". We search for portents in the US skies ... " This is probably our biggest problem. There are many religions in America. But only one God - the American Dollar. Worshipping Mammon is the main message coming from the American skies, and seems to have been taken to heart by the Government. What we need most, for a Start is a Vision of the IDEAL. Where there is no vision, the people perish. The vision adopted and practiced by the first Christians, though not formally verbalised by them, was 'From everyone according to their ability; to everyone according to their need'. Unfortunately this Ideal got a bad name when Communism tried to implement it by force. It must come from the heart. N.B. It says Need, not 'Want', or 'Would like'.
Robert Liddy | 09 May 2017

A brilliant description of our national state of affairs! But can we realistically look to any of our political parties to put forward candidates at the next election who realise the situation and can take the helm, get the crew under control, and put us back on a steady course?
Rob Brennan | 09 May 2017

Thanks for your wisdom. Your advice saves me abandoning ship although mutiny may still be an option.
Mary Stack | 09 May 2017

A brilliant allegory. The reason the ship of state is foundering is not the fault of the crew. Their working conditions , the ships cargo and the ships course are in the lap of it’s capitalist owners. Once the state owned a fleet of ships that served the needs of the people they were privatised and now serve the profiteers.
Reg Wilding | 09 May 2017

The doctor would do well to have an historian and a scientist by his side. The historian to temper any Teilhardian, Utopian image of fulfillment from the allurements of the islands and the attractions beyond the circle of the horizon; the scientist to remind that entropy is materially relentless, with its human expression in muddle. With 7 billion plus humans on the planet the equiprobability of self-interest, however much due to ignorance, invincible or otherwise, is a sign we have to sail on through ever-present, even worsening weather. But now and then there will be triggers to hope a little, as with Andrew's essay here.
Noel McMaster | 09 May 2017

Great metaphor, Andrew. In the doldrums, a good Captain will have the patience and self control to recognize the reason for the crew's anxiety, and find ways to keep them busy and the ship in good order. As a major Patrick O'Brian fan, I say Jack Aubrey for PM. He'll keep us busy holystoning the decks and repairing the sails, give us a fair allotment of food and drink, and let us dance on deck by moonlight as often as possible. Everyone, including our 'Jonah' shipmates. Then again, maybe Mal is up to it?
Joan Seymour | 09 May 2017

I really appreciate, Andrew, your ongoing ability to name gross inequality as the greatest threat to national harmony in Australia. I wish there were more religious, business and political leaders like yourself able and willing to acknowledge this ever increasing dark shadow which hovers over our nation.
robert van zetten | 09 May 2017

Swimmingly good, Andrew. But you have the ship wrong. It’s actually called the Titanic, captained now by erstwhile Junior Officer Turnbull, who deposed former Captain Abbott on the grounds of insanity, and set him and his supporters adrift in a lifeboat bound for Java. Captain Turnbull keeps steering for icebergs on the horizon, but changes course every time he spies a new iceberg. As a result Titanic has been effectively sailing around in circles. Captain Turnbull and crew make regular announcements that the ship’s predicament is all the fault of an alternative crew also on board led by a Captain Shorten. Shorten’s aim according to Turnbull is to sink the ship at first opportunity. “He has tried it before and can’t help trying it every time. It is a congenital condition.” Regular announcements are made to passengers announcing that the ship is about to sink because “enemies” are boarding surreptitiously. This particularly excites the ginger ship’s cat. Crew regularly fire off distress flares to remind the passengers of every danger. Meanwhile, ex-Captain Abbott keeps returning to the ship and setting fires in awkward places. Tonight First Officer Morrison is going to attempt some creative deck chair re-arranging. Bon voyage, all!
PaulM | 09 May 2017

I think this is all too pessimistic! Australia has been doing extra-ordinarily well. We do not have gross inequality, and indeed we have the most progressive tax system in the world. That is not to say that we could not do better, and the entrenched budget deficit is a national scandal. That is due to big Howard give-aways to the middle third of the population when we were wallowing in cash 10-15 years ago not being wound back when the wind changed. It has been hoped that taxation fiscal drag would do the job without stirring-up the political horse, but with wages stagnant it has not worked. What has made the rich end even richer, but no one really poorer, has been low interest rates and resulting surges in property values. This means we need to tax this wealth, but no one wants to give anything up, and it will take a brave pollie to do so. We also need to follow the Canadians in experimenting with a decent guaranteed income at the bottom 10% end and lots more asocial housing. It ought to be easy, but entrenched middle-class entitlement and opposition pollies constantly starring this up against common sense, makes decent governing just too hard.
Eugene | 09 May 2017

A brilliant read, thanks Fr Andrew. I wish (among others), developers and political lobby groups would read it and attend to its message. My concern for future generations is that this ship is heading for the Bermuda Triangle!
Mary Tehan | 10 May 2017


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