Following Rupert Hamer’s death last Tuesday, warm tributes to the long-time Victorian premier have flowed from both sides of the political divide. During his lifetime key cultural institutions honoured him by the award of scholarships, the inauguration of a lecture series and the creation of a sculpted bust.
This is fitting because he valued public life and understood that the institutions of cultural life are integral to the political community. What is memorialised, transcending the personal, is the importance of public life.
Hamer’s commitment to civic duty embodied this. Politics, for Hamer, was more than just a career, although that career was long – he served as an MP from 1958 for 23 years and as a distinguished Premier from 1972 to 1981. Above all else, he wanted to serve the public good.
There seems something anachronistic or antiquarian about this in our era of intense political spectacle and celebrity. But it is now more than ever that such ideals need to be remembered.
The UN is busy endorsing the democratising of national polities globally but this requires more than the establishment of political institutions that formalise the rule of law. If democracy is to work, people have to become citizens. They have to be members of a political community that places value on public life. Citizens are made, not born. They need to be knowledgeable about public affairs and prepared to act on public issues. Civics and civic engagement need to matter.
Yet this is at odds with the economic gospel of the globalised economy that extols unfettered competition between individuals pursuing their own profit. What is at risk, even in mature democracies, is the very fabric of political community; citizenship is in danger of being devalued. Recognising this, former Czech president Vaclav Havel argued for "a citizen’s Europe" rather than a "businessman’s Europe". Similarly, in Australia, after two decades of economic deregulation, there is a need to appeal for a citizen’s Australia.
Along with Malcolm Fraser, Hamer belongs to the lineage of the Deakinite liberal that counters competitive individualism by a commitment to, and a valuing of, public life.
Hamer and Alfred Deakin were educated and scholarly, and valued cultural life. They were refined and gentlemanly (Hamer offered a sharp contrast to the crudities of his predecessor, Henry Bolte, as well as the flamboyance of South Australian Premier Don Dunstan.)
Both embraced the tradition of the citizen-soldier: Deakin backed commonwealth initiatives for defence training and Hamer served for the duration of World War II, taking part in some of its fiercest campaigns.
Although both were intensely keen on economic development, they sustained a vision of cultural development, tolerance and civic involvement.
When democracy was being invented in practical form, in the Australia colonies, and later, with the foundation of the commonwealth, at federation, it was understood that civics, an education in the value and practices of citizenship in everyday life, was vital for maintaining a vibrant polity.
Hamer was exposed to a pedagogy that developed aesthetic appreciation as a means of awakening the moral sensibility that lies at the heart of good citizenship. It aimed to develop "the best self" that would respect and revere all living things.
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