I was out for a few convivial drinks on Friday night at a local bar when I received a text message from an acquaintance. He was inviting me to a function on Sunday, all tickets paid for. After I got home later I ruminated on the invitation before messaging him back that I would attend. It interfered with other plans, but I agreed to go as a gesture of goodwill.

It was not that I was uninterested in the function. It was being held by the Friends of the ABC, of which I would consider myself a (non-ticket holding) member of. Furthermore Kerrie O’Brien was speaking, and a tribute to John Clarke was promised. I had my writing to do, household chores and cooking, plus the footy was on, but on this occasion it seemed fair enough.

The last couple of days have been classic Melbourne winter days. They start out near freezing and slowly warm, though never to the point that you can go out without a jacket. The day is clear though, the sky blue. From a purely aesthetic point of view they’re pretty days.

I did my cooking in the morning then put my jacket on and took the train to the city. The train was full of people heading to the footy, most of them in red and black, the colours of my team. On this day I wasn’t joining them. Instead I was met by my friend under the clocks of Flinders Street station and off we went to the event.

I’m sympathetic to the ABC. I think it is a grand institution, and an absolutely essential institution. We need a national broadcaster that caters for all and reaches to every corner of the continent. The ABC has a rich history of quality programming in general, but particularly in the area of current affairs. These days the ABC is under frequent attack, mostly on political and ideological grounds. Though the ABC affects impartiality it is accused (erroneously) of a left bias (an interesting sociological question actually – most of the audience would be of liberal disposition). As a result over the last 20 years the ABC has suffered attacks by conservative politics and had its budget much reduced and services foolishly constrained.

The Friends of the ABC are there to defend the ABC and uphold the tradition. In effect they resist the political tide looking to politicise, diminish, emasculate or eliminate altogether the reach of the ABC.

The function was held in an auditorium of the Fed Square complex overlooking the Yarra River. Probably 90% of the crowd would have been over 60. Most were – as the ABC critics would have it – well spoken, educated types from smart suburbs. Some had driven in from the country for the day. All were passionate about the future of the ABC, both TV and Radio National, which is such a lifeline for so many people.

Kerrie O’Brien is a bit of a legend. He comes from a long line of distinguished ABC journalists, intelligent, erudite, probing, thoughtful. He retired a few years back, which was big news at the time. Yesterday he spoke about leadership, and in particular the example of three recent leaders.

The first was Nelson Mandela, who he described as the greatest leader he had ever met. The next was Paul Keating, which was no great surprise. Keating is revered by many (including me), and O’Brien had a long professional relationship with him, culminating recently in a biography he wrote of Keating. It’s clear he admires him greatly, and in his speech he focused on the challenge of getting Mabo into law. The final example was at first blush surprising: John Howard. I’m no fan of John Howard, and I suspect O’Brien isn’t really either, but the point was well made. Much as I might disavow much of Howard’s government it took real courage to push through the gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur Massacre.

The counterpoint to all of this was the abject lack of leadership in recent times, and as an exemplar of that O’Brien spoke of the botched history of climate change policy and the doomed variety of policy initiatives to combat it. It’s a sad story of political intransigence and cowardice. No-one has been willing to take a true leadership position on the matter. In speaking of Mabo O’Brien had made the point that there were no votes in the fight for Keating, in fact, probably the opposite. He did it because it was right, and by strength of will and conviction he wrangled it into law.

No-one has shown anything like the same leadership when it comes to climate change. Every prime minister has failed. No-one has had the strength of character to make the unpopular call. Every one of them has looked to the polls, or to their political colleagues. No-one has – like Keating did, and Howard as well – stood up and said this is the right thing, and this is what we’re going to do come what may.

It’s depressing, but familiar. It’s not news to anyone, but to hear it from the lips of such a distinguished commentator made it seem official: there has been a deficit of leadership in Australia (and around the world, as he similarly made the point).

It was a strangely uplifting afternoon. It’s always refreshing to be among passionate, intelligent people. It was easy to believe that we were on the side of right, and reassuring to sense the resistance to those who would diminish our way of life. Near the end there was a moving tribute to John Clarke. Everyone there loved and admired what he stood for, as they did Kerrie O’Brien (who is revered by these cultured people).

I left for home glad to have gone, refreshed in a way and encouraged. Just as well I didn’t know the footy score.

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