The Last Page

The Last Page

Notes from Down Under, after a month in Melbourne: The kangaroo isn’t as peculiar as the platypus or as funny-looking as the emu, but it is still a powerful argument against intelligent design. Of course, there is a counter-argument, according to which the kangaroo proves that the Designer isn’t only omnipotent and omniscient, but also whimsical and witty. Although a herd of kangaroos is called a “mob,” they really aren’t moblike; they are sociable creatures, bouncing along in what look like communities. Like other Australians, they are matey.

“Mate” is the only term of address that has succeeded in standing alongside Mr. and its feminine equivalents. “Comrade” and “citizen” failed to establish themselves, but “mate” is widely used in Australia and enthusiastically defended. A couple of months ago, a security guard at the Parliament House called a conservative MP “mate.” The MP indignantly protested against the informality and, as it appeared to him, the irreverence. The police issued a regulation requiring more formal address. Reports of the MP’s protest brought a great popular uproar; there was much mockery of the compliant police officials on radio and television; and the new regulation was quickly rescinded. When people talk about “Australian values,” mateyness is what they mostly mean. Hence the first response of Australians when radical Islamic preachers told their young listeners that Muslims must choose only Muslim friends: “That’s not matey.”

I think that’s a pretty good response, though I should note that the complaining MP is a member of the ruling Liberal Party (the local Tories), which is busily enacting a neoliberal program whose inegalitarian effects are also, definitely, not matey. The Liberals have won the last four federal elections and have been pretty successful in weakening the union movement and expanding the income gap.

The opposition Labor Party is as weak and divided as America’s Democrats are, but the divisions are more sectarian. Newspaper reporters and columnists regularly talk about the party’s right and left factions and report that the left faction is divided into the “soft left” and the “hard left.” Primaries and caucuses are bitterly contested on factional lines. There isn’t much mateyness in evidence; though, strangely, a month’s newspaper reading brought little enlightenment about what local issues divided the hard and soft left. America, Iraq, and Palestine seem to account for the differences. The party’s opposition to privatization is frighteningly ineffective. Still, the Liberals, in power for more than a decade now, are still running a national health system that would lead Republicans in the United States to call them radical leftists.

The chief means of public transportation in Melbourne is the tram, which also sets the pace of life in the city, moving slowly through streets that it shares with thousands of cars an...

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