The long tides of history and two small nations' leaders

Someone should tell Julia Gillard that the real links between our two countries are not killing and blood on “sacred ground”. Someone should get John Key a speechwriter and a coach in delivery.

Gillard’s otherwise uplifting speech misrepresented history with sentimentality about “young men in trenches”. The shared history actually started with men, women and children in ships pursuing hope in new colonies. And after the trenches of the first world war our two countries drew apart. In the second world war Australia deeply resented that New Zealand left most troops in Europe when the Japanese were in the neighbourhood. The two countries still have divergent perspectives on security and the region.

Our current togetherness dates from the 1980s. Ease of travel and economic meshing have re-melded our societies. The trenches were an imperial error and the “values” defended those of that British empire which the war mortally wounded (three others were destroyed).

“Young men in trenches”? Actually, modern young men and women in offices, mines, factories and pubs and clubs, mainly on Australia’s side.

But, her ahistorical Australian view of the connection aside, Gillard’s speech to Parliament matched the occasion in its poise and uplifting phrases. Her ending — “a time for optimism” … “I come here on this journey of hope” — momentarily lightened this country’s habitual pessimism.

Contrast Key: pavlova and sport jokes, barbecue platitudes free of imagination, no gravitas, dignity or sense of occasion.

Some events call for a leader to embody and give voice to the nation. Key did not do that last Wednesday. He is the most one-of-us Prime Ministers in decades, as his stratospheric polling attests. But a Prime Minister must also be more than one of us and show that when it counts.

The Gillard-Key contrast echoed the contrast four decades ago between Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s globally-informed, nuanced replies to press questions on a visit here and Sir Keith Holyoake’s provincial bluster and pomposity.

Trudeau came here not long after the 1968 student upheavals in the North America and parts of Europe. The left of the time read into those displays of youthful radicalism the dawning of a new socialist age, the recovery of idealism from the perversions of communism, a challenge to the established economic and political order.

But the established order persisted and the radicalism was relegated to song and individual life-choice.

Rewind 120 years to 1848: “revolutions” against authority in numerous centres across Europe, tipping out a king and an emperor; then restoration of the established order, with cosmetic changes of name and personnel.

Fast forward to 2011: street protests in Tunisia and Egypt and then Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Iran, Bahrain and Morocco (so far) and two dictators deposed (so far) — peaceful protests, influenced, on some accounts, by the writings of American Gene Sharp on non-violent political change.

We cannot know the eventual outcome. But 1848 and 1968 might be a guide: essentially cosmetic surface change initially but actually deep change underneath to which the outbursts bore witness. The established orders were fatally weakened.

Over the 75 years after 1848 democratic institutions developed as the middle classes, made prosperous as the industrial revolution spread, grew in numbers and confidence. The 1848 Communist Manifesto and other writings by Karl Marx laid some of the intellectual underpinnings of social democracy and the welfare state a century later.

Over the 20-30 years after 1968, as the youthful protesters advanced towards middle age they profoundly changed social mores and political responses. The idea of freedom changed, in part driven by the new globalisations of production, distribution and exchange and the writings of Milton Friedman, among others.

So what follows 2011 in the Arab, Turkish and Persian muslim world?

Initially, if 1848 and 1968 are a guide, not very much — apparently. There might well be repression for a time, perhaps even decades, as in Iran. But, if those earlier upheavals are a guide, the current outbursts are evidence of a deeper change in those societies and states which will eventually be manifested in profound change and a new order.

The fearsome problem for policymakers in the rest of the world — which needs the region’s oil and doesn’t need its exported terrorism — is how to deal with those countries in the decades of transition. As post-1848 showed, horrific war is one possibility. Dictators under pressure or delusions can make destructive decisions. (In that light, note China’s dictators’ paranoia in blanket censorship of the Arab protests.)

Gillard and Key lead small countries in a time of global change. They need insight, instinct, intelligence and integrity. Judged by their two speeches last week, Gillard has the stronger credentials.

So, someone get Key a speechwriter and a coach. Not for him. For the nation.