Is classlessness the great Australian myth?
If you haven’t heard the news, or the outrage, legendary British chat show host Sir Michael Parkinson yesterday became the first non-Australian to deliver the Australia Day address. Here’s his speech.
With due sheepishness, The Punch team admit we didn’t actually know there was such a thing as the Australia Day Address. But apparently it’s been a platform for interesting and prominent Australians for 14 years until clearly, there were no interesting or prominent Australians left. So we got Parky. Who, to be fair, is both an interesting and prominent Pom (oh, and he called himself a Pom in his speech, so don’t anyone complain about the choice of word.)
Parky didn’t exactly drop any bombshells. In post-speech interviews he did suggest we should sever ties with the monarchy when the queen hangs up her white gloves, but surely, the last thing anyone needs today is a debate on republic vs monarchy. There was, however, one interesting point he touched upon very briefly: our so-called classless society.
Parky is a great fan of Australia, and not just because of his well-documented love of cricket. Early in his life, as a conscripted teenage soldier at the Suez invasion, he was transfixed by an Australian journo who rang some bigwig English Lord for an interview - something Parky himself would never have dared try without following procedure, and more procedure.
“For someone brought up to conform to the strict boundaries of class and privilege in postwar Britain, to encounter someone to whom none of these things mattered at all was a joyous revelation,” he said.
He then turned to a moment we’re all familiar with - the famous Keating protocol gaffe, when the then PM put his arm around the Queen. That, said Parky, was the day he “truly fell in love with Australia”, given that Keating was “simply reaching out in a friendly gesture as one human being to another”.
We Australians have always been quick to celebrate our disdain for authority and protocol. That’s why our folk heroes are people like Ned Kelly and Breaker Morant.
But does our disdain for authority mean we are indeed a “classless” society, or simply that we habitually thumb our nose at a social order which is every bit as class-based as any other society? After all, what was the seed of Ned Kelly’s rebellion if not class warfare?
Economic commentators talk of the ever-growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in contemporary Australia. But even if they’re right, (and these guys are often wrong - GFC anyone?) I think economics paints only half the picture.
The reality is, the class divide in Australia operates on a deeper level than mere wealth.
What we used to call battlers we now call “bogans”. The privileged are “wankers”. Look no further than the “members are wankers” chant at a cricket ground for evidence.
In some ways, these terms are tinged, albeit very subtly, with affection. But if you ask me, I think they also point to a society which is only too aware of distinct social strata which are not easily broken down.
Classless Australia? I think not. Although undoubtedly, some of the drunken behaviour on our streets today will provide ample evidence of the alternative meaning of the word classless.
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