On Monday morning, I joined some of the unsung heroes of our society – the English teachers of my local secondary school – to talk to 100 year 9 students about George Orwell’s great allegorical novel . Leaving the classroom, I flipped on my newsfeed to read that Peter Dutton was denouncing the Voice referendum by using the book’s famous quote: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Talk about a teachable moment!
Those of you who were forced at school to read the novel – probably Orwell’s best, and in my humble opinion the closest anyone will likely ever get to writing the perfect story – will recognise the quote. Having succeeded in taking over Manor Farm from the cruel farmer Jones, the animals, led by the charismatic pig Snowball, write the seven commandments of their new society, Animal Farm, on the wall of the barn – the last of which is: “All animals are equal.” But after the passing of many years, during which the pigs establish a reign of terror over the horses, donkeys, goats, chickens and others, they find the slogan has been altered to the one Peter Dutton has used.
Dutton’s inference is obvious: should the referendum pass, Indigenous Australians will go from having equal rights with other Australians to having greater rights than them. From being the underdogs, they will be transformed into the over-dogs, pushing the rest of us around and telling us what to do. Dictators. The pigs of the Australian farmyard. Orwell, Dutton is trying to tell us, would have opposed the Voice.
In the long and lamentable competition for interpreting George Orwell’s sayings to mean the opposite of what he intended, Dutton is awarded Animal Hero First Class.
It helps to understand what Orwell’s animal tale was really about, which can partly be summed up in the word: “equality”.
In 1936, Orwell and his wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy went to Spain to fight for the republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Arriving in Barcelona, they were transfixed at seeing a society in the middle of a revolution. The workers and peasants were in the saddle, finally enjoying the beginnings of political, social and economic equality after centuries of oppression. Orwell later wrote that while he didn’t quite understand all of what was going on, he could see immediately that this was a cause worth fighting for.
But just seven months later, he and Eileen were forced to flee after the Spanish communists, under the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, hunted them down as supposed Trotskyists. They were lucky to escape with their lives. Orwell devoted the rest of his life to finding a way to tell this tragic story of betrayal.
Licking their wounds, the Orwells opened a store in a small Hertfordshire village, where they were surrounded by animals. For milk, they kept goats, which they named Muriel and Kate; they kept chickens for eggs, including a cockerel named Henry Ford; their dog they named Marx. Opposite their shop was a barn carrying the sign “Manor Farm”, which ran pigs, sheep and the usual farm animals. One day, Orwell said, he saw a 10-year-old boy whipping a giant carthorse, and it occurred to him that if only the horse could understand its potential power, it could easily overthrow its human oppressor. The book then pretty much wrote itself.
One of the takeaways from the resulting story is that revolutions sometimes go bad. But to compare the Voice referendum with a revolution that’s going to place Indigenous Australians – who comprise just below 4 per cent of Australians according to the census – as our new overlords is patently ridiculous. How a body like the Voice, that is designed to offer advice on social reform to our elected parliament, will become a dictatorship is beyond fanciful.
In fact, there’s reason to believe that were Orwell alive today, the Voice is just the sort of thing he would support. Before becoming a writer, Orwell was actually a policeman, enforcing British rule in Myanmar, then named Burma. The job gave him a lifelong loathing of colonialism, which he thought morally repellent, and until he died he was a strong supporter of the ending of the British Empire. Just as in Burma, he would have recognised the terrible injustices colonialism has inflicted on Australia’s First Peoples. All colonial subjects, he believed, had the right to self-rule, which in extremely moderate and democratic form, the Voice represents.
What happened in Spain, and in , didn’t stop Orwell from believing in equality – rather, it taught him that one should never stop fighting for it.
I guess there is a way in which Dutton is right when referring to the referendum as “Orwellian”. The term, which has come to mean using political language to convey its opposite meaning, describes perfectly what Dutton is doing in his attempt to undermine the coming vote. In claiming to be fighting for equality, he’s trying to perpetuate its opposite in a desperate bid to hang on to power. Just the sort of thing the pigs might have done.
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