Political Dynamite in Australia
by John Bond and Mike Brown
John Bond works with Initiatives of Change. His principal concern is healing the harm done to Aboriginal Australians by cruel and misguided past policies, and he is the secretary of the national movement 'Australians for Healing, Truth and Justice' which is devoted to this task.
Mike Brown, a member of the International Council of Initiatives of Change, is a writer/trainer from Australia, currently living in India. His book, No Longer Down Under - Australians creating change, features chapters on Kim Beazley and the movement for justice for the Australian Aboriginal people. For twenty years Mike has been active in the Australian reconciliation movement and in 2000 he received the Non-Indigenous Person of the Year award in his State.
EVERYONE wants their politicians to be honest, but many doubt that this is possible. Kim E Beazley, who served for 32 years in the Australian Parliament, made honesty his policy. His Cabinet colleague Bill Hayden, later Governor-General of Australia, wrote: “I don’t believe that absolute honesty is possible, but Kim came closer to it than anyone I knew.”
Beazley grew up in poverty in Western Australia, but thrived at his local school. “We didn’t have shoes,” he remembers, “but we could quote Wordsworth.” He became active in the Labor Party, and entered Parliament in 1945 at the age of 28. Prime Minister Ben Chifley said he would “go a long way”. Beazley agreed, and soon his arrogant lecturing in the House gained him the epithet, ‘The Student Prince’.
However, when Beazley retired, he had been elected to his party’s second highest office and, as Minister for Education, initiated far-reaching reforms to education. The Melbourne Herald wrote that he had been “beyond any dispute, one of the best Members of Parliament Australia has ever had”.
The turning point came in 1953, when he reached a profound turning point in his personal life and public career. “I have made a decision,” he said, “to concern myself daily with the challenge of how to live out God’s will: to turn the searchlight of absolute honesty on to my motives; to try to see the world with the clarity of absolute purity; to take as radar through the fog of international affairs absolute love.”
Hardly usual language for a politician. And in Australia, the ramifications were soon being felt. “No one with even a slight working knowledge of politics could fail to delight in the confusion that could result from even one of our politicians resolving to be absolutely honest,” wrote one political columnist, commenting on the “political dynamite that might be set off by Mr Beazley’s practical sincerity and absolute honesty”.
Others were not so delighted. “Facing the prospect of political destruction at this moment is young Kim Beazley,” reported Alan Reid, doyen of Australia’s political journalists at that time. “Powerful, office-hungry individuals fear that his idealism and his current determination to pursue the truth, whatever the price, could cost the Labor Party the next election. The story they are assiduously and effectively peddling is, “Beazley has lost his balance.” So the word has gone out, “Destroy him”.”
But they did not destroy him. Beazley was ultimately elected by his party to its second highest office, was Minister for Education in two of the three terms which Labor has had in government since then, and on retirement was described by the Melbourne Herald as a man “who has been, beyond any dispute, one of the best Members of Parliament Australia has ever had”. More important, the ‘system’ – that nebulous blend of structures, laws and attitudes – shifted under the sustained impact of Beazley’s effort and conviction, particularly with regard to education and to Australia’s humiliated and often persecuted minority, the Aborigines.
Power is dangerous
“He has always had intellectual force and clarity,” wrote the political correspondent of The Australian. “He is undoubtedly Labor’s – and probably Parliament’s – best orator.” But Beazley himself feels intellect in politics can be suspect. His experience is that “power is dangerous when intellect kills the conscience in the exercise of authority, and safe when conscience governs the intellect”.
Through a process of struggle in his own spirit and mind, one basic conviction has emerged: “The most practical point in politics is that there is an intellect, God’s intellect, beyond the perception and self-interest of man.” This was not theory, but experience. It had started with that decision to “concern myself with the challenge of how to live out God’s will”.
Beazley had been chosen as one of ten MPs to represent the Australian Parliament at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. Intrigued by the ideas of Moral Re-Armament, he stopped at the conference centre in Caux, Switzerland for a week on his way home. Two weeks... three weeks went by, and he was still there. “What I saw at Caux was far more significant for the peace and sanity of the world than anything being done at that time in Australian politics,” he says.
It was a process rooted in personal change. As Beazley says, “Moral Re-Armament is the ultimate in realism, for it suggests a simple experiment that anybody can try – the experiment of searching for God’s leading, of testing any thoughts that come against absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, and carrying those which meet these standards into practical action.”
Beazley himself was brought face-to face with the “ultimate realism” of that experiment during those days in Switzerland. A friend had suggested that he should seek God’s guidance, having “nothing to prove, nothing to justify and nothing to gain for yourself. Then your mind will be free.”
“What a shockingly subversive thing to say to someone in politics,” Beazley says. “I had been proving how right I was at every election, justifying everything we had ever done, and gaining political power for myself was the minimum I must do.”
But Beazley could not escape the challenge. He began to recognize over the following days that “the life of a morally re-armed man is no cheap subscribing to principles, but costly restitution, the apology which is costly to our pride, and definite decisions”. The process was started by sitting down and writing a letter to his wife.
Betty Beazley was a successful sprinter, holding an Australian women’s record for ten years in her event. “Some things in that letter I knew already,” she says. “Some I had guessed, but some I did not know. I felt a wonderful sense of relief and trust after reading it.”
While disentangling the web of deceit in his family life, Beazley found he was tackling the same web in his political life. “I thought of my father. He had the problem of drink, and I had not given him my heart. I realised I had treated some people in my party with that same problem in the same way. I had not helped them with my superiority and contempt.”
Then came a tough thought for a politician: “You have formed the habit of not being absolutely accurate in political statements.” As he put it to the conference in Switzerland, “I have always congratulated myself that my campaign speeches were objective. I objectively analyzed the government’s mistakes, but never their virtues. I have come to realize that this is one of the most mischievous forms of lying in politics.”
During those days God had seemed to be challenging basic motives: political ambition, self-will and pride. He had seen that his university education had made him aloof from the working class, though his father had been a trade union member and Beazley himself had been raised in poverty. He remembers attending school with no shoes to wear. As a Labor MP representing the port of Fremantle, he would often visit the waterside workers for political purposes. Yet he never wanted to know them socially or to have them in his home.
But it was not merely an exercise in self-examination. Gradually Beazley had begun to see what God might require of him in the future. One thought had stuck in his mind: “If you live absolute purity you will be used towards the rehabilitation of the Australian Aboriginal race. Purity is the alternative to living for self-gratification, which kills intelligent care for others.”
In terms of definite action, he had the thought, “If Aborigines are not acknowledged as owning land, they will negotiate from a position of weakness. If the dignity of land ownership is acknowledged, they will negotiate from a position of strength.”
At that point, in 1953, Aborigines had no civil rights and no voting rights in Australia; they lived in appalling conditions in complete subjection. They did not own one acre of land – and few white Australians cared.
Within months of returning from Caux, Beazley got Aboriginal land ownership on to the Labor Party platform. In government, 20 years later, Labor initiated legislation for land rights. Although their battle is far from over, Aborigines now have freehold title to approximately 188,000 square miles in two states in Australia, and are negotiating for more.
The Beazleys began to invite Aborigines to their home in Perth. “Over numerous meals, they enlightened us a great deal about Aboriginal thinking.” For almost two decades on the opposition benches of Parliament, Beazley continually sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit on how to restore the dignity and rights of the Aboriginal people. In 1961 he toured the far north of Australia as part of a Select Committee on Aboriginal Voting Rights, whose work laid the foundation for full voting rights for Aborigines in 1968.
Labor was elected to government in December 1972, and Kim Beazley became Minister for Education. On the first morning in office, he wrote down in his time of meditation: “To deny a people an education in their own language is to treat them as a conquered people, and we have always treated the Aborigines as a conquered people.” Then came ideas for action: “Arrange for Aborigines to choose the language of Aboriginal schools, with English a second language.”
He discussed the thought with his wife. Then at 3pm that day he told the new Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, of his thought. On the 5pm national news, Whitlam announced as government policy a bilingual programme of education for Aborigines. Until that day, in some States teachers could be penalized under law for teaching in an Aboriginal language, or any language other than English. When Beazley left the Ministry, education was being given in 22 Aboriginal languages.
For Beazley it was but one further step in a conviction formed 20 years before, by no means the only step. Appalled by reports of widespread malnutrition an disease among the Aborigines, with other Federal and State ministers he he set in motion a government programme to tackle the disasters of leprosy, yaw hookworm, trachoma, alcoholism and malnutrition. Aboriginal adult education had become another focus.
Soon after the end of his time in office, the Australian National University awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Laws, citing particularly his contribution in the areas of Aboriginal affairs and education. “It has become popular over the last years,” reads the citation, “to recognize the contribution of the Aboriginal people to this nation... and the injustices that have been done to them. But over the last half-century this was far from popular. In that time few people have done as much, and none have done more than Kim Beazley, to bring about that change in attitude.”
Healing an ulcer
In education, the citation highlight the impact of his Ministry, during which tertiary education was made free, Federal grants to schools increased sixfold, a wide-ranging scholarship scheme according to need was established for handicapped and isolated children, and existing study grants for Aboriginal children were extended. “However,” the citation continues, “Mr Beazley’s greatest contribution was not the expenditure of money, but the healing of an ulcer that has festered in our society for close to 200 years. Sectarian bitterness, which h focused on schools and their funding was dealt a death blow by needs-based funding which Mr Beazley introduced.
These reforms, including the giving State aid to church-run schools, was indeed a sensitive political and social issue, and their introduction came only after a long and sometimes bitter public and political debate.
Though that legislation has become the mainstay of education funding policy since, Beazley feels that the credit was not his. His policy had been shaped the inspiration gained during his “quiet times”, a spiritual discipline he practised every morning, whether in the heat of government or during long years in opposition.
This practice also gave him a sense of inner direction about the concerns of his wife and three children, whom he saw only briefly at weekends. Stress is an occupational hazard for any politician, and often families suffer. Beazley’s family was on the other side of the continent from Canberra, and the arduous 2,000-mile journey back to his electorate and home added to the strain.
“Those early years were so turbulent,” remembers Betty Beazley. “I had care of the three children most of the time and when things went wrong, Kim would be met with a spiel of anger from me immediately on his return home.” She was given the thought to tell him the good things on his return, then, when he had rested, tell him the things that had gone wrong and work out with him what to do about them.
When her husband became Minister for Education, she felt that having given 25 years to bringing up the children, the next 25 years she should be by his side. It meant renting a second home in Canberra, where they could entertain and care for his colleagues and his Aboriginal friends.
Every child’s needs must be met
Each morning, she and her husband would exchange the ideas given them in “that first quiet hour of the day” when they sought God’s guidance. Betty remembers Kim telling her of one thought which became the basic motivation of his education policy: “Every child’s needs must be met.”
In the hurly-burly of politicking, it is the conventional wisdom that those who stick to scruples will be taken for a ride. Beazley disagrees, and survived 32 years in Parliament to prove it. “If you are devoted to God’s guidance,” he says, “you are not out to destroy people; your political environment is not strewn with corpses. The fact that you are not lethal but gracious in your relationships makes a big difference.”
That difference had been noted in Beazley’s case. Before his experience in Caux, one correspondent wrote of his “lecturing Parliament in a hectoring, sneering tone which earned him almost universal dislike”. Upon his retirement he could hardly have been more respected on both sides of the House. The Speaker of the Parliament, Sir Billy Snedden, a member of the opposing party, paid tribute to him as “a fine parliamentarian and a great Australian”.
But it was not a matter of being popular. Beazley saw there was a choice involved. “If you do not accept the importance of conscience, you accept only the importance of power,” he says. “This question of motive is the key to social advance. I have spent 28 years in opposition, and I have come to believe that the true function of an opposition is to out-think the government at the point of its successes. Only then can alternative competitive policies be framed and social advance take place.”
A senior public servant in the Prime Minister’s department said of him, “What a poor reward it would have been for the nation if Kim had pursued the cause of personal power during those years in opposition, because it was as much in opposition as in government that he brought progress and healing. Great issues, such as the welfare of the Aboriginal people and the preparation of Papua New Guinea for independence, were brought into focus from the opposition side of Parliament.”
In the years since, there have been important steps towards justice for Aboriginal Australians. Even though the Government in which he served was defeated by a conservative Government, the new Government implemented the programme developed by Beazley and his colleagues. As a result, today Aboriginal people own 15% of the land area of Australia. The art of Aboriginal Australia has flourished, and now brings in millions of dollars annually to Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal people are slowly taking their place in the professions, as doctors, lawyers, politicians.
Throughout the 1990s, a nation-wide programme of study circles created the opportunity for tens of thousands of non-Aboriginal Australians to talk deeply with Aboriginal people. This brought a whole new level of understanding and empathy. Perhaps this was seen most clearly when, in 1997, a national inquiry reported on the effect of the policies under which tens of thousands of Aboriginal children were removed from their families, and placed in institutions and with families in an attempt to assimilate them into Western culture. These policies, which were implemented until the 1970s, had tragic consequences, and the report, Bringing Them Home, exposed the tragedy.
Sorry Day and a Journey of Healing
The Government tried to ignore the report, and refused to apologise for the harm done. Many Australians were offended by this refusal, and took it upon themselves to apologise. A million people took part in a Sorry Day held a year after the Bringing Them Home report was issued. In response, Aboriginal people launched a Journey of Healing, offering all Australians the chance to help the healing process. This has spawned hundreds of community events every year since then, bringing together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in initiatives aimed at healing the effects of these cruel and misguided policies.
However, Australia still lags far behind comparable countries such as Canada in redressing the wrongs of the past. Racism towards Aboriginal people is still rife, and Aboriginal people find it far harder than others to find employment, and to receive services which other Australians take for granted. Aboriginal people still die 20 years younger than the rest of the community. Other countries have shown that tragic health conditions among their Indigenous community can be overcome, and the reluctance of successive Australian Governments to invest adequate resources in improving Aboriginal health is an indictment on all Australians. Also, there has been a stop-start approach to developing a representative national Aboriginal organisation, which means that the Aboriginal community has a wholly inadequate voice in national affairs.
So there is much work yet to be done. But a new spirit is abroad. Many Australians of all races have realised that they don’t have to wait for Governments, that they can work for healing and justice for Aboriginal people. Therein lies the hope that the Aboriginal community will become healthy, educated and prosperous, and so be enabled to make its full, unique contribution to Australia’s national life. And Beazley made a significant contribution to the growth of this spirit.
Kim Beazley's son followed his father into Federal politics and held senior Cabinet posts in Labour governments under Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating, and for some years was the Leader of the Opposition. He reflected his father's passionate concern for Aboriginal Australia.
Beazley died in 2007. Three former Prime Ministers attended his funeral. Obituaries appeared in all Australian newspapers, and many overseas. They referred to him as a pioneer of Aboriginal land rights, and his legacy of educational reforms. But above all they focused on his faith and his integrity. The London Times described him as “one of Australia’s most respected politicians.” The Sydney Morning Herald headlined its obituary “Integrity and principle beyond political success”. “His faith came before politics,” wrote the West Australian.
It was a faith intimately involved in the affairs of the nation. As the Melbourne Age”s obituary concluded, quoting Beazley: “There is sanity from the Holy Spirit beyond human ideas of justice. The thoughts of God, given primacy in the life of man, bring to the innermost motives the virtue of mercy, and with it a cure for hatred that can turn the tide of history. This is the essence of intelligent statesmanship.”