The rock'n'roll of wiser politics

It seemed hardly surprising that Mick Jagger's 70th birthday made front-page news yesterday: for a fair slice of my generation, the moment was both confronting and celebratory.

It seemed hardly surprising that Mick Jagger's 70th birthday made front-page news yesterday: for a fair slice of my generation, the moment was both confronting and celebratory.

We remembered The Rolling Stones bursting onto our transistor radios in the early 1960s and the arguments for the rest of that decade about whether The Stones or The Beatles were the greatest band in the world ... and then came the sobering counting on fingers. Good lord, it was half a century ago!

Jagger and his ageing mates, of course, are still rolling. They took to the stage at the world's biggest outdoor music festival, Glastonbury in the UK, only last month, winning gushing reviews about their energy and ability to pump a crowd with old songs as if time had stopped.

Sometimes, time indeed appears to have halted, a phenomenon that encompasses matters that have nothing to do with the latest cooking of the Stones' 1965 anthem "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction".

John Howard celebrated his 74th birthday on the same day Jagger entered his eighth decade.

A month short of 12 years ago Howard, then prime minister and so tone deaf he once said he listened to Bob Dylan for the music rather than the words, stomped through the press gallery at Parliament House declaring to anyone who would listen that "not one of these people will ever set foot on Australian soil".

He was, of course, ranting about the 369 men, 26 women and 43 children who had been rescued from their stranded boat by the MV Tampa and taken to Christmas Island. And so was born the Pacific Solution. About half of those rescued by the Tampa were accepted by New Zealand, but the majority of those unfortunate souls who were placed in detention on Nauru eventually settled in Australia, making Howard's declaration the nonsense it always was.

Now Kevin Rudd's Labor Government is promising, in a huge advertising campaign, that no asylum seeker who arrives in Australia henceforth will end up on Australian soil: "If you come here by boat without a visa YOU WON'T BE SETTLED IN AUSTRALIA", the full-page advertisements shout in numerous languages.

Tony Abbott and his colleagues, meanwhile, promise pretty much the same thing with the twist that the nation's military with a three-star general at the helm will turn asylum-seeker boats around.

They might as well be re-running the meaningless argument about whether the Stones or the Beatles were the greatest band, without the music and without the innocent youthful enthusiasm.

Despite protestations that they want to stop people drowning, and despite their professed Christian beliefs and Rudd's admonition in his 2006 essay on Faith in Politics to heed the parable of the Good Samaritan and the "biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst", neither Rudd nor Abbott is trying to appeal to better angels.

They have moved from peace and love and rock'n'roll to a rallying call to the modern knuckleheads who drive around with bumper stickers blaring "F--- Off, We're Full".

Time has stopped. It is 2013 and we are having the federal election of 2001 with an even harder edge. Once the shouting and the election are over, it is perfectly possible and even likely that either or both these "solutions" will fall apart.

A High Court challenge or an awakening on behalf of those in Papua New Guinea prepared to look beyond fistfuls of dollars and see that Australia is promoting their country to the world as a dreadful hellhole and a dumping ground for Australia's difficulties could very easily put a hole in the PNG Solution.

Abbott's Operation Sovereign Borders would appear to rely on Australia's military ignoring the basic customs and tenets of the open sea. If so, it is doomed. Sailors, particularly those in uniform, tend to take a dim view of treating the vulnerable in unsafe boats as the enemy.

Age and the passing of time is supposed to lead towards wisdom. Plato and Socrates, who came up with the idea that the love of wisdom (philo-sophia) is god-like and the goal of the righteous might be rolling in their graves.

My own mother, a woman of compassion and the wisdom that comes from having lived through near a century of change - she is 92 - phoned her older sister the other day and offered a different solution. Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott, she postulated, could do with a trip by boat to a distant island and dumped there, for they needed to know personally the effect of their propositions.

If age indeed delivers wisdom, there may be cause for hope of better answers, for Australia is growing progressively older. In 1970-71, when the Beatles were breaking up and the Rolling Stones were moving to new and greater success, only 8 per cent of Australians were aged 65 and more. Now, around 14 per cent of Australians are in the over-65 bracket.

Here reside those who have not simply grown up with rock'n'roll. They have experienced a world war or were born just after it, watched their nation build itself, heavily reliant on those taken in as displaced persons and refugees, turned their backs on the White Australia Policy, watched as political masters have sent young men and women to largely unwinnable wars that have produced new tides of refugees and for many years now have witnessed those same political masters produce successive on-the-run policies that have devolved into a race to the bottom of the moral basket around election times in quest of votes from those infuriated that the dispossessed should take to the sea, seeking refuge.

It is not at all clear, of course, whether a collective wisdom can be gleaned from such knowledge. It is said we become more conservative with age, and a society must rely upon its youth for idealistic enthusiasm.

Yet it is possible to win a small chink of light from even a 70-year-old rock'n'roller who has seen it all and done most of it.

Mick Jagger, not a noted philosopher, but someone who once explained it was feasible to be a conservative in matters fiscal while remaining tolerant on moral issues, gave us a little useful advice years ago when he sang the lyrics of a song, Ruby Tuesday, written by his fellow Stone, Keith Richards, now 69.

"Lose your dreams/And you will lose your mind."

For those of us grappling with the idea that time has passed too fast, the line seems worth storing through the years.

For those who thought refuge lay in a country like Australia and who will now be sent to indefinite detention in a place few will ever visit, it has a different meaning altogether.

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