There's a lot of rhetoric being bandied about in the press about the opportunity for Australia to redefine itself with a new Government in power. We took a collective risk in voting in Rudd and co., though the overwhelming sentiment was that the time for change had come... or, at least, for Howard to step aside.
Glen Milne wrote in today's Sunday Telegraph:
"Mr Howard, former Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile and former treasurer Peter Costello all represented the epitome of what was once seen as the traditional middle class Australian family... In the case of John Howard, his championing of the family unit in both a policy and symbolic sense was legendary. The former Prime Minister saw the family as the glue that kept society together."
Hugh Mackay wrote in the Sun-Herald:
"We found ourselves thinking more about the state of society than the state of the economy... Even the concept of a sustainable future was being seen more as a moral issue than an economic question. Kyoto, Iraq, AWB, WorkChoices, Aboriginal reconciliation, refugees... They symbolised the idea that, this time, we were more interested in national pride than fatter wallets."
What will Australia look like under the leadership of Rudd? By outing a government that represented economic stability, conservatism and family values, we have left the door wide open for those now in leadership (and what a mixed lolly bag they are) to create the Australia of their imaginations. Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and withdrawing troops from Iraq are but the first symbolic steps in Labor's plan. But while Little Johnny's values were plain and clear for all to see, what does Rudd really stand for? We know he is a conservative, perhaps more so than new Liberal leader Brendan Nelson, but what of the man behind the suit?
Back in 1995, Rudd, then Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, was interviewed on ABC TV's Compass. According to the transcript, Rudd grew up in country Queensland in a religious family who did it tough. His father died in a car accident when he was 11. The family relied on charity and relatives to survive. His mother was "very much in that old style Queensland rural Catholic CWA (Country Women's Association) tradition", being one of service to others:
"When you see people in strife, I cannot be indifferent to that because that's the way I've been brought up. And I've given that as an adult form of political expression called the Australian Labor Party, which is, by the way, as flawed and as failed as I am. But we try."
While the family values espoused by Howard are all well and good, they still essentially turn our focus inward (Backyard Blitz wasn't popular during his term for no reason) – it's an insular, but admirable and traditional, way to look at the world; to look out for one's own family first. What if we were to, say, embrace the concept of 'loving thy neighbour', thereby looking out to the wider community and asking 'How can I help?' or 'How can I best service my country?' or 'How can I give back?'. To whom much is given, much is expected.
There are, of course, many people in this country already doing that – and the evidence is everywhere right now ('tis the season!), from The Choir of Hard Knocks to the people collecting money for the homeless on the streets to Good Weekend, which featured a brilliant story on Saturday titled 'The Kindness of Strangers' (if you missed it, try to get your hand on a copy). It's one of the most inspirational stories I've read in a while, and demonstrates how ultimately fulfilling a life lived in service of others can be. Each of the prominent charity figures profiled, from Elaine Henry (CEO of The Smith Family), to Robert Tickner (Secretary General, The Australian Red Cross) and Toby Hall (CEO of Mission Australia) had something profound to say about what drove them to a life less ordinary (and financially secure).
For Henry, a childhood memory of a disadvantaged girl bullied at school still resonates deeply with her: "She was different from the rest of us and – well, we were not kind... I hope to God that she made it, that there was someone who was kinder to her than we schoolgirls were."
Hall was once a successful banker whose focus was on making life better for him and his wife: "I was about 24 or 25 when I started feeling there was an emptiness to it all," he said. After studying for an MBA he worked in community development, where he came across 'social outcasts': "Society writes people off. It says you're done for – you don't get a second chance... It struck me that this was the kind of world we live in... The joy of seeing someone's life change is immense. I've never met anyone who has given, who has turned around and said, 'I regretted doing that."
Tickner describes how a near-fatal car accident when he was 18 – he almost killed a good friend – had a huge impact on his thinking about what really counts in life. The "footprint" you leave behind being more important than anything. He says: "We sometimes don't give enough of ourselves to others, in the sense of telling people that they're appreciated or supported. We don't say thanks enough. We don't praise enough. To me, those are also acts of giving."
How right he is. Not all of us are in a position where we can take over the leadership of a major charitable organisation, but our lives can be defined by the same values – compassion, kindness, goodness, peace and the will to serve others. Whether that means dressing up in a Santa suit, shipping off to a third-world country, serving Christmas pudding to the elderly, donating a portion of our income charity, writing positive stories to encourage others, or just living with the kind of purpose and passion that inspires other people to make the most out of their lives is, of course, up to you.
There's a check-out chick at my local Woolworths store who constantly amazes me with her positive attitude – she's worked there for years, being promoted to a senior managerial role, while also studying for her degree in nursing, volunteering at the local hospital and making mortgage repayments with her boyfriend. She always smiles, always asks how I am and is only too happy to meet the demands of customers. She's made the choice to live by a set of values that makes the world a more pleasant place. She gives of herself and expects nothing back (like a tax cut) in return.
I only hope that in his four-year term Rudd can inspire a nation to do the same – I'd like to have some pride with my pudding this Christmas.
Girl With a Satchel