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On the cusp

On June 16, 1858 Abraham Lincoln spoke these prophetic words to his peers assembled at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield: “a house divided against itself, cannot stand”.

Lincoln won the presidency of the United States and a civil war provoked by slavery, an abomination known by the recent ancestors of many Aboriginal Australians.

Lincoln’s seven words launched countless political science theses, and to this day his observation remains a moral actuality among those who aspire to the highest of offices.

I do not know if the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten pondered Lincoln’s words when he began his Budget Reply speech in the Australian Parliament on April 4 2019.

But across the despatch box neither Shorten nor the nation, could ignore the self-evident truth of a government utterly divided against itself.

Shorten’s first five words “women and men of Australia” is a deliberate riff on Gough Whitlam’s famous aphorism, “men and women of Australia.” Whitlam’s memorable saying marked the beginning of Australia’s transformation from colonial backwater to one of the most intriguing societies ever to occupy an entire continent.

And yet on the cusp of the most important elections of the century, ABC journalist Leigh Sales concluded her interview by asking; “what would you say to the Australian voter who thinks, “jeez, I just don’t like that Bill Shorten bloke very much. I don’t know if I can vote for him?”

While the full transcript includes Shorten’s response, Sales’ observation poses a raft of questions about how we view ourselves.

No matter who we elect I doubt Australians will ever be fully content with who we are as a people, and the nation will likely continue as “a house divided against itself, [and thus] cannot stand”.


Shorten alluded to the answer during his speech. In the words of the American author Ken Kesey, it is a great notion whose time is yet to come.

But the idea is given short shrift by media, and the majority of the women and men of Australia know virtually nothing about Makarrata.

I have not read one media report on the Budget Reply Speech which reported Shorten’s reference to a Makarrata.

I find this odd given the Uluru Statement is a modern Australian rhetorical masterwork.

Consider this. “How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?

“With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

“Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.”

When asked about Makarrata the former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said; “the constitution cannot be changed by Parliament. Only the Australian people can do that. No political deal, no cross-party compromise, no leader’s handshake, can deliver constitutional change … To do that, a constitutionally conservative nation must be persuaded that the proposed amendments respect the fundamental values of the constitution, and will deliver precise changes, clearly understood, that benefit all Australians.”

Herein is the difference between a conservative right-wing party bereft of ideas and a centre-left party within a whisker of government and led by a man characterised by a senior ABC journalist whose “personal popularity is a bit lacklustre”.

On the contrary.

A politician who opines ‘we owe the Uluru delegates an open mind on the big questions. On the form recognition takes, on treaties, on changes required in the constitution,’ seems to me to have absorbed the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln who said; “I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.

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  1. New England Cocky

    The Makarrata link was informative (paragraph 12). It is time to think/dream about what can be done rather than why nothing should be done.

  2. Kaye Lee

    “Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

    We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

    In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

    Inspirational and generous in spirit.

  3. andy56

    yep, Bill certainly spoke with an open aspirational tone. I have long thought that the ” messiah” longing that our elections were demanding was on the nose. Bill just gets on with the job. The other mob are in trouble and no sneering grin is going to work this time round. For the first time in many years, i just couldn’t bare to watch the budget night “logies” presentation. Josh’s grin was just too smart-arsie. It was so so obvious an election budget rather than doing their job. (now that was an inspired comedy skit, just doing my effing job, lol). I am so underwhelmed by their lack of ideas and foresight, their willingness to throw anything under the bus, anything they didn’t think of, anything for their ” base”

  4. andy56

  5. king1394

    The media want leaders who are all bells and whistles, who can be put forward with great fanfare, criticised and pulled down again. It sells. Give me a leader who expresses the views of the people he/she leads, who can synthesise different views, find common ground and make a difficult decision and defend it. Shorten seems lacklustre because he works quietly to develop ideas that stem from consultation and negotiation within his party, and he takes little interest in rhetorical sparring and sniping at his opponents.

  6. Kaye Lee


    I agree. Bill is also better unscripted because he is well-informed and arguing for things he believes in rather than things the marketing and image people recommend in response to what is said on 2GB and Sky After Dark. Coalition politicians, by their own admission, don’t even know what they are voting on. The backflip on giving the energy one-off payment to Newstart recipients is a prime example of how the Coalition thinks and operates.

    Bill campaigned well last election. He is a member of a competent team. They have better policies. As he said, they offer hope. I truly hope they don’t disappoint us.

  7. Jon Chesterson

    Well said Henry, and it is rare these days we hear such wisdom in the Australian Parliament. There have been a few profound declarations in the last few days but not one has come from the Liberals, Nationals or any of the bogan right, just more excuses to support hate speech, division, coercion and privilege, mostly half illiterate, unsupported, indefensible and utterly irrational, that is after the disingenuous games, overtures and sermons of Morrison, post Christchurch and the authenticity of Jacinda Arden leadership.

    “A house divided against itself, cannot stand”, Abraham Lincoln, Springfield 1858.

    Consider this aphorism and consider two questions:

    1) What does this mean for the Liberals, their politic, electoral ambitions and whose interests they serve?

    2) What does this mean for the Nation, our first nations people and multicultural Australia, for all of us?

    And when you are done with that, is there any doubt in your mind who you should vote for, or at the very least who you should NOT be voting for?

    Populism, media acridity, mediocrity, self interest and popularity stakes will not cut it, not for wise and fair governance of a nation, and not for our planet and everything that lives and breathes upon it.

    AB 2019

  8. henry johnston

    Jon Chesterton. If the ALP win the election then the Liberal apparatus must face the questions you pose. And more broadly, so must we the people. A sizable portion of the population, Bogans included, despise anything Murdoch and his minions deem “left”. As the Liberal Party has changed the national identity in the last six years, so too must the ALP seize the moment. Shorten appears to have a strength of character underestimated by opponents and media alike. We need big pictures painted our national canvas. Makaratta is a start. Then a Republic perhaps even a Bill of Rights. Not so much for the here and now, but for 100 year’s hence.

  9. Paul Davis

    ‘The media want leaders who are all bells and whistles, who can be put forward with great fanfare, criticised and pulled down again. It sells.’

    I was in the Young Liberals (shame and embarrassment) when Gough Whitlam replaced Arthur Caldwell. Some people expressed fear that this young popular ‘messianic ‘ leader would give the great unwashed some real hope at the next election. However we were addressed by a wise ‘elder statesman’ of the branch who said that Sir Frank and our other friendly newspaper proprietors would crush this pretender ensuring our stable sensiblly run world would continue….

    It reminded me at the time of A World Of Our Own, a song by The Seekers.
    This could be the IPA anthem….. here is the chorus

    We’ll build a world of our own that no one else can share
    All our sorrows we’ll leave far behind us there
    And I know you will find there’ll be peace of mind
    When we live in a world of our own

    I have been critical of Bill Shorten but am really warming to the party’s way of promoting the policy not the leader …. Australians aren’t used to this having adopted the worship of the demigod style of politics in the last couple of generations.

  10. Lambert Simnel

    What Turnbull said was typical conservative blockage, attacking inclusiveness, social participation and enjoyment transcending the repressive politics of power and control.

    I can’t get past the sort of mean-spiritedness that operates on that level. Only the differences, only divide and conquer.

    Some people ask “why not” but Dickensian people like Turnbull dismiss something better with an unyielding “no”.

    What a desolate, misanthropic place must be the inside of their heads be.

  11. Noel

    I think you will find Abraham Lincoln borrowed the “house divided” quote from the Bible.
    Regarding Bill Shorten. I was talking with a lady a few days ago. She is a Long time Labor voter but said, “You know, I never really could take to Bill Shorten. Then I went to one of his town hall meetings and he is very impressive.” I think we should vote according to policies and not personalities. However, unlike a lot of my friends, I like Bill Shorten. My only real beef with him is that he keeps saying “0vver when he means”other”. People’s poor perception problem probably stems from the fact the the Murdoch media and its conservative affiliates always portray him negatively. Case in point, thecWest Australian cartoonist, Alston, has now taken to portraying him with a Nixon like five o clock shadow. It is subtle and sub liminal, but it builds up a picture that Alston wants to portray; shifty and unreliable. It is not true of course, but each day, in every way the conservative media pains that negative portrait of the man. We all need to go to more Bill Shorten town hall meetings.

  12. Patagonian

    ‘Divide and conquer’ is the Liberal way.

  13. ChristopherJ

    Does Bill jog? He should. All the best PMs jog

    Thank you for the reminder about the Uluru meet and makarrata. Think only one side is ready, sadly

  14. Bert

    Christopher J, he most certainly jogs. I think he goes for a run every day.

  15. ChristopherJ

    thank you, Bert. S’what I didn’t like about Scotty or Mal. A good leader jogs. Jonny jogged, but he only did it for the cameras, so that doesn’t count. Tony is just a nutter so he doesn’t count either.

    No, Bill’s the man

    Un lose able.

  16. Alpo

    Shorten will be remembered way after names like John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison will mean nothing to the vast majority of Australians….

    … and the Liberals know it, that’s why they fear and hate Shorten so much.

  17. Stephengb

    Five and half years ago I admit that I did not thonk Bill Shorten could achieve the PM role.

    I was soooo wrong.

    Bill Shorten has proved by quite persistence that he has all the necessary to become a great Labor Prime Minister. He is without doubt the very very “Quiet Achiever”.

    With Bill you get decency.

    Let’s hope he gets his time

    Vote Labor

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