It is almost 50 years since Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, was first heard. His values are sorely needed in Australia today as our political leaders chase the redneck vote and pander to fear.
On July 11, 1960, Harper Lee's novel of race and prejudice in 1930s Alabama was published and it has not been out of print since. Two years after its publication, Gregory Peck brilliantly brought Atticus Finch, a widowed lawyer with two young children who acts for an African-American man wrongfully accused of raping a white girl, to life in one of the most watched movies of all time.
The power of Finch's personality lies in the fact that he stands unswerving for the values that make for a harmonious and fair society. His refusal to tolerate prejudice, his capacity to see that each of us is entitled to be treated with dignity, and his courage to take a stand against ignorance, are themes that leap off the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.
It makes one wonder what Finch would make of today's Australia, in some ways markedly different from the repressive, race and class-ridden small-town Alabama of the 1930s, but in some ways not so different.
He would surely be horrified at the desire of both Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to play the race card and appeal to xenophobia over asylum seekers. He would surely be horrified at Liberal Party advertisements showing crude red arrows pointing to Australia and telling a blatant lie about this country somehow being swamped.
The treatment of asylum seekers by the Rudd government, which thinks nothing of shipping traumatised men, women and children to the desert so they can be dumped out of sight in old mining camps and abandoned defence force bases, would be anathema to Finch's sense that every person should be treated with dignity and with respect.
Rudd and Abbott and all those who are unthinkingly fearful of asylum seekers might like to remember the sage advice Finch gave to his daughter Scout: ''You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.''
And when Finch sits on the steps of the local jail on a steamy southern night and stares down the white mob that wants to lynch his client, he is reminding us that if we regard due process and fairness in our legal system as sacred, we must resolutely oppose the attempts of the modern-day lynch mobs in the media and among right-wing politicians to pressure our legislators and judges to increase sentences simply to satiate a primitive desire for bloodlust.
Wouldn't Finch be alarmed at the distasteful displays of white Anglo-European racially motivated supremacism that are so prevalent in this society today? What of the attacks on Indian students and the dissembling by politicians and police who want us to believe that there is no racial motive involved? And what of the jingoism of Australia Day and Anzac Day? Displays that crush diversity and the concept of difference in the name of some mawkish patriotism that excludes indigenous Australia and newcomers to our shores?
Unlike so many of our current-day political leaders, Finch did not pander to the underbelly of humanity. His speech to the jury is an unashamed appeal to a group of white men to put aside their fears, prejudice and lifelong habits, to do the right thing and acquit the accused.
What do we have today? Carefully calibrated and spun lines in speeches and media conferences from politicians, designed to play to greed, economic self-interest, racial prejudice, fear and vengeance. It is fair to say that too few Australian political leaders have asked us to cast aside those dark temptations that divide the world into ''them and us'' (with notable exceptions such as Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull).
There is no reason it has to be this way. The values this southern lawyer stood for are positive and optimistic. They were based on a genuine belief in a moral compass guiding our community.
Perhaps we should celebrate the half-century of Atticus Finch's fictional life by sending a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird to our political leaders for their bedtime reading.
Greg Barns is a lawyer who was disendorsed as a Liberal candidate in 2002 for opposing the Howard government's asylum seeker policies.