Don Watson occasional address

This great and unexpected honour is the more gratifying for coming from the university of which I was a foundation student several hundred years ago.

I’ve not had a lot of luck with these sorts of things. When I graduated from La Trobe, hordes of student Maoists were gathered in the undergrowth outside the windows of the hall, pressing their noses against the glass and shouting things like ‘Marxism! Leninism! Mao Tse-tung thought!’ and ‘Archibald Glenn war criminal!’ Sir Archibald Glenn was the Chancellor of the University and we were in the dining room of the college named after him. Some of those students had been friends of mine. Just a couple of years earlier they had been law abiding students at a liberal university all but purpose-built for them, the sons and daughters of conscientious rural and working class Victorians.

We had all demonstrated against the Vietnam War, but now they were fanatics, devoted to a man and an ideology that a decade earlier had cost the lives of 40 million people and to a revolution bent on destroying not just every trace of western civilization in China, but Chinese civilization as well. It rather spoiled the afternoon, especially for the parents some of whom had travelled from the Mallee to see their offspring graduate.

A few years later on the same day that I was awarded my doctorate, Monash University bestowed a LL.D on the wonderful poet, Judith Wright. To meet her was one of the great privileges of my life, and I imagined her Occasional Address would soar and delve like her poetry. But instead of telling us about the human heart or the flight of birds, she talked about photocopiers. She spoke of the injustice done to authors who received nothing when their works were copied on these new-fangled machines. We could tell she had a point, but a graduation ceremony did not feel like the right time to make it.

I will try to do better.

Some of you will have read Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox – or perhaps you saw Wes Anderson’s film version. If you have, you will remember the moment – pivotal in a million melodramas – when the hero is cornered and must find some means of escape. Mr Fox is cornered by his wife. He’s been stealing chickens again, and as consequence of this indulgence, this folly, his family is now facing annihilation. You promised to give it up, she says.

I know, he says. And he knows it means curtains for the marriage and, what’s worse, for the love and respect of the vixen he adores.

Why, she asks? Why?

He comes up with a doozy.

Because I’m a wild animal, he says.

It’s pathetic really. After all, she’s a wild animal too. She sighs in despair at the outrageous gall of it, and even though she knows that what he’s really done is forgive himself, she forgives him too.

I might come back to this.

I have a friend who says I am too interested in politics. He says I waste my time on it.

He’s quite a distinguished friend. A writer. He’s had an audience with the Queen, so I have to take him seriously.
I was once within touching distance of the Queen – but I knew better.

My friend says he’s more interested in literature and philosophy and art than politics. I say to him I’m interested in literature and philosophy and art too – and in science and horse racing for that matter, but so what? There’s room for all those interests in a life well-lived.

But, he says, you would have more time for the really important things if you spent less time thinking about politics, and sounding off about them to anyone who’ll listen. Get off your soapbox.

I ignore the slur. I say the reason you pretend to be uninterested in politics is that democracy does not suit your worldview. Lobbed in your unconscious is a childish yearning for a feudal arrangement in which you – by virtue of your interest in literature, art and philosophy – are a lord, if not a prince.

He accuses me of an ad hominem attack, typical of politics.

I say he’s wrong – my point goes to motive as much as character.

You see how we’ve run headlong into quicksand. I know I’m right, but I also know I’ll never persuade him to see the truth about himself. That to do so would oblige him to see that either he lacks self-knowledge, or that he’s a humbug. I value his friendship too much to go that far.

I know he values our friendship as much as I do. That’s why he says, let’s talk about cricket. He knows nothing about cricket, but I’m not going to tell him that either.

The thing is, I do hate politics. I hate the grip it has on my mind and on my moods.

If I were honest I would have to concede this to him. If I had ignored politics these last fifty years I would not now be in danger of dying without having read hundreds of books I want to read; without having arrived at a coherent position on the meaning of existence; without having understood black holes, or how a bird flies or a spider spins its web. A million other things I will never know. I might have learned to play a guitar and to speak Russian if I had given up politics for just a couple of those fifty years. It is because of politics that I will die as ignorant as a sheep or an insect about the reasons why I lived.

Remember this – these are the things you will regret at the end. Not the things you did, but the time you wasted.
And all for what, my friend says. Has anything you have ever thought or done in politics changed the world at all?
Not a skerrick, I have to say.

It’s true. Even when I was close to political power, and could join in the euphoria of public policy making and public life, all we did was overturned or compromised, and all the fine justifications we gave for doing what we did were traduced or mocked to oblivion.

My friend has me cornered. Yet I have also cornered myself. Like Fantastic Mr Fox I am desperate.

I say - I cannot give up politics because I’m a political animal.

We all are.

If the first instinct of all living things is to survive, the second one is to organize it. And that concerns power: who will wield it and how, and in whose interests? On this depends my survival. And my family’s survival. Not only my survival, but my dignity, the circumstances in which I live, my life chances. Decency depends on the political choices we make.
One way or another, everything depends on politics. Why would I not be interested? How could I not be interested?

My friend says: if as you say politics is part of our natures, that only means it is something to overcome. It is in our natures to eat one another. The bones of our prehistoric forebears have our tooth-marks in them.

The raison d’etre of civilization, I can hear him saying, the actual reason for it, is to defend us against nature. Freud said it, and in Nature he surely included our natures.

He thinks he’s won. I’m to believe that it’s a mark of the civilized individual to be above politics.

But he hasn’t won. I’ll tell you why.

About ten years ago my friend had a heart attack, and not only was his life saved, but it didn’t cost him a penny. Why? Because forty years ago a political party – faction-ridden, hidebound and full of flaws - came up with Medicare, and defended it against all attacks for a decade until at last the enemy gave up. It was down to politics.

So is the scheme by which authors are now paid each year for works that have been photocopied. Judith Wright had something to do with this. She also had a great deal to do with the saving the Great Barrier Reef from the Queensland government’s plans to issue leases for oil exploration.

And so is this place a product of political imagination and effort – it was a conservative government that allowed liberal enlightened minds to conceive it and bring it into being.

So please – don’t recoil from politics. Read everything you can – twice or three times if it’s good; be curious; turn off your screens

for two hours every day and learn to play the guitar, or to sing, or to study the habits of birds or mushrooms. Become accountants, lawyers or consultants, or whatever is congenial to you and earns a living, but stay interested, and when you think you’re wise enough, tough enough and you believe enough, consider getting involved. Your survival – the world’s survival - depends on it.

Congratulations and good luck.