Marriage Legalised | One Commonwealth | Now to reclaim the word tradition

The Commonwealth Parliament was finally legalised same-sex marriage, or perhaps more precisely, ‘marriage between two people’.  The Royal Assent has been given.  What seems to have been a long, long march for LGBTIQA Australians might have reached a destination.  But, I wonder.

The black-letter wording of the postal survey and the legislative reforms have been about marriage, but the sub-text, the real meaning of it all, has been the question of whether LGBTIQA people are truly equal citizens with other Australians, whether we too are part of the histories, the present and the futures of our commonwealth.  That two-thirds of Australians said yes, that parliament has finally said yes, that the Crown has assented – I’m still not sure whether I believe this, or will suddenly wake-up and find it was all a dream.  I still fear pinching myself.

The prime minister has made jubilant claims to ‘his’ reform, parliamentarians have suddenly embraced and appropriated the outcome en-masse.  But really, these are the very people who spent years and years prevaricating and obfuscating and throwing obstacles at every turn.  This is a victory for the citizenry who voted and accepted us, for our common weal, not a trophy for the political class.  I don’t believe any party will gain any advantage from the outcome, and neither should they.  I have yet to meet a single person who thanks the prime minister, despite his ebullient claims to paternity.  Success, as always, is claimed by many parents and I nominate Australians everywhere.

The survey form, by which the people instructed the parliament to act

I do make an honourable exception for the small group of LGBTIQA parliamentarians, and especially Senator for Western Australia, Dean Smith.  Amongst all his hard work in achieving this historic outcome, Senator Smith still found time to arrange for royal and vice-regal greetings to be sent to my parents when they recently marked their 60th wedding anniversary.  That is the mark of a man who truly respects and values tradition (and I mean an actual real man, not the fake men who even on the last day still tried to damn us all as AIDS-infested paedophiles[1]).  Respect, Senator Dean Smith, Respect.

Senator Dean Smith, Western Australia

But, I remain wary, uncertain.  The Murdoch press overflows with lengthy opinion pieces that read like a call to arms, a crusade under the banner of ‘religious freedom’[2].  It is difficult to read and be blind to an insidious theme running through these pieces: same-sex marriage, and by implication every LGBTIQA person, inherently represses, simply by their existence, every person of faith and every religious institution.  This terrible oppression can only be relieved by somehow containing and controlling LGBTIQA people.  On the other hand, the Fairfax press rather blithely editorialise “The gay and lesbian community … have survived [the survey] unscathed … In six months, once the euphoria dies down, few outside the gay and lesbian communities will notice anything has changed”.[3]  More wish than analysis, I suspect.  So much opposition has been uttered in the name of religion, views that have truly surprised, worried, shocked and indeed ‘scathed’ many people.  However, I think two contending positions are now evident among religious Australians.

One the one hand, there have been many, many good people of faith who openly supported LGBTIQA people, who continue to do so, and realise that now is a moment to be heard.  The Anglican Archdeacon of Albury and The Hume, in the Diocese of Wangaratta, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, says:

“It would [now] be right for the people of Australia to anticipate an apology for faith based discrimination, and a migration away from churches that continue to discriminate and towards institutions and communities that support traditional values of respect, compassion and equality.”[4]

The Diocese of Wangaratta is roughly contiguous with the rural seat of Indi, which voted 63.1% Yes[5].  Similarly, the ex-Anglican and gay minister of Paddington Uniting Church in Sydney has argued:

“The church has been appalling to LGBTIQ people telling them there’s no place for them … that they are sinful … I am certainly hoping the inclusion of LGBTIQ couples into the institution of marriage with God’s blessing will occur.”[6]

Paddington is in the wealthy inner-Sydney seat of Wentworth, which recorded an 80.8% Yes vote.  These are arguments from within the churches, and they suggest there is a more expansive common ground between us all that was somehow hidden during the survey debates.

One the other hand, some No campaigners derive strength from their claimed repression.  I had held some hope that perhaps I might marry my partner of 19 years in the same church my parents and grand-parents were married, in which several generations have been baptised (including me) and buried.  But, alas, such traditions are of No value to the Anglican Bishop of North West Australia who, having campaigned for a No vote, has been very quick to pronounce:

…he would not deviate from God’s word … it would seem a terrible imposition to have that freedom taken away from us when it’s our property … gay people, like adulterers, should be encouraged to repent.[7]

The Bishop “…has firmly declared he will not allow same-sex couples to marry inside his churches”.[8]

His stance was well-known before the survey, when he threatened, in the case of a Yes result,

“… we might just withdraw all [marriage] approvals for everyone”, and polemically demanded “…[if] a same-sex couple came in saying ‘We want to use your building’ and we said ‘no’, will be have a right to say no to a use of our building?”[9]

The Lord Bishop sounds overly-conscious of ‘his’ ecclesiastical estate, which is already well-known for its ‘buildings’, which women are forbidden to ‘use’ for preaching.  The huge electorate roughly contiguous with the Diocese of North West Australia, the mining and pastoral seat of Durack, recorded a 59.2% Yes, 13th highest in WA, 98th highest nationally, higher than the State of New South Wales.  Clearly, the Anglicans of North West Australia did not succumb to threats.

1937

1957

2017

I fear the religious freedom crusade will take some unfortunate twists and turns, and LGBTIQA people will once again find ourselves targets.  The Ruddock religious freedoms committee appointed by the prime minister already sounds McCarthyist.

One place to find some common ground between LGBTIQA and good religious people is to

reclaim the word tradition.  The No reactionaries have tried to hijack and steal this word, to make it their own.  Well, it isn’t theirs.  It does not belong to them.  It never did and never will.  We should all work now to reclaim this word and what it represents.

The Lord Bishop’s denials in North West Australia are not tradition, they’re anti-tradition.  They’re just plain nasty.  We don’t have to take that anymore.  But exclusion always benefits someone, and so will always have its defenders.  The law is already clear that the Lord Bishop can arbitrarily ban and exclude us from ‘his buildings’ (a.k.a. traditional parish churches and church halls) at will.  He can erect a ‘rainbow bar’ with complete impunity at any time.  He can deny deep, traditional, personal links between any LGBTIQA person and any church within his vast domains upon a whim.  He can drape his ‘buildings’ with all manner of signs that demean unrepentant LGBTIQA people whenever he wants.  It’s his private (tax-free) property, after all.  Too bad for us, we just have to accept that.  But we don’t have to accept, for a moment, people like the Lord Bishop traducing the word tradition or arrogating it to their campaign for a ‘new segregation’ under the banner of religious freedom.

Priorities of the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney: ironfistvelvetglove

Priorities of other Anglicans: Bendigo Advertiser 28 August 2017

Ruddock’s religious freedom committee looms in 2018.  LGBTIQA people have a long, long history of being on the receiving end of such ‘freedoms’.  It is hard to ignore the history of the No case’s principal mouthpiece, the ACL, which grew out of an organisation based in Toowoomba (in the electorate of Groom, 50.8% No vote) dedicated to re-criminalising homosexuality and restoring the death penalty[10].  Vigilance is a tradition we must continue to maintain.

Reclaiming the word tradition is an act every person can do.  At least it might begin to assuage the uneasiness I can’t quite shake, the nagging doubt in the back of my mind, despite the euphoria of the moment.


[1] Jacqueline Maley, ‘Same sex marriage legalised: now let’s hunt crocs’, Sydney Morning Herald News Review, 9 December 2017: 33; for an example of international coverage see ‘Gay people ‘Have only existed for 60 years’ MP claims’, The Metro, 8 December 2017

[2] Paul Kelly, ‘Amid jubilation and history lie deep divisions’: 15; Cameron Stewart, ‘Love, Constitutionally’: 19; letters under ‘Parliament rejoiced imposing a new belief system’: 21; Weekend Australian, 9 December 2017

[3] editorial, ‘Turn of fortune? Gold at the end of rainbow week’, Sydney Morning Herald News Review, 9 December 2017: 30

[4] ‘Unchanged marriage bill relief’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 2017: 19

[5] All survey figures are from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey Results

[6] ‘Paddington Uniting Church in Sydney bombarded with same-sex wedding bookings – but there’s a catch’, ABC News online, 8 December 2017

[7] ‘Bishop ‘no’ to church weddings’, West Australian, 16 November 2017: 14

[8] ‘Dean seeks OK over gay rites’, West Australian, 25 November 2017: 20

[9] ‘Anglican bishop threatens over Australian same-sex marriages’, La Croix International: The world’s premier independent Catholic daily, 12 October 2017

[10] Logos Foundation (Australia), Wikipedia, accessed 10 December 2017

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Vote Yes, because it’s our commonwealth too

‘Yes’ banners flying in Custom House Square at Circular Quay, Sydney | photo mrbbaskerville 30 August 2017

Today I voted Yes in the same-sex marriage referendum plebiscite postal survey.  So did my partner of nineteen years.  The day before we attended our daughter and son-in-law’s baby shower.  They are married.  A grand-daughter is on the way.

The words in the survey, just as in the poll above, asks if the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry.  But is that what the question really asks?  Or is it asking whether we are citizens or foreigners?  If the survey says No, who next will be subject to a ‘survey’ like this?  Your families, your friends, your neighbours, your colleagues.  What rights of a citizen will be given or taken away like this?  Australians All, it’s now in your hands.  Make your choice, Yes or No.  Are we citizens or are we foreigners?  Is it our commonwealth too?

‘Yes’ banners, corner of Alfred Street and Phillip Street, Circular Quay, Sydney | photo mrbbaskerville 30 August 2017

 

Sirius | Brutalist and shining ever-more brightly

[click on images to enlarge for better viewing]

Concrete mould for URO (Unidentified Running Object), public art for Sirius building, 1979. Photograph Tao Gofers

A recent decision by the New South Wales Land & Environment Court has declared ‘invalid and of no effect’ the refusal by the Heritage Minister to list the Sirius apartment building on the State Heritage Register.

The dreams of some: the Sirius site in Cumberland Street, The Rocks before construction, c1977. Photograph Tao Gofers

The decision has some important implications for heritage in New South Wales and Australia, especially places that are of historical significance.

Other dreams: providing quality social housing in the heart of Old Sydney for the local Rockites and Pointers in their home quarter. Source: Sirius, Housing Commission of NSW, c1980, page 10

One very significant implication is that the heritage significance of a place must be properly considered when deciding the future of such a place.  It is not just one factor among many, but the prime factor that needs to be decided first, and which will provide the subsequent framework for all other decision making about the place.

Aged community balcony area, 1980, with characteristic use of rich colour, and view to the Harbour Control Tower on Millers Point (demolished in 2016).  Photograph Tao Gofers

A speaker at the recent Australian Historical Association conference in Newcastle said “constraint is enabling”.  In other words, any field of endeavour needs to be bounded in order to keep it achievable, and the ‘constraints’ of a heritage listing can have the effect of focussing attention on carefully crafting and designing new works that support and even enhance heritage and historical values.

Sirius under construction, tower stepping down to south wing, east facade, overlooking Atherden Street, The Rocks.  Photograph Tao Gofers

Sirius is a creative design response to the environmental constraints of its site.  Its multiple levels and forms mimic the natural topography of the sandstone cliffs and ledges of The Rocks, emphasised by its exaggerated scale.  ABC TV’s second series of the dystopian Indigenous sci-fi drama Cleverman, filmed around Sirius, reveals the complexity of the building’s geometry and shows to full advantage its relationships with its setting.  It is remarkable that, along with the old State Archives building also in The Rocks, Sirius can still convey a visual sense of an imagined modernist future nearly 40 years after it was built.

Sirius under construction: stepping downwards along the north wing, with Bunkers Hill rock face in foreground and Harbour Bridge approach in background. Photograph Tao Gofers

This has been a signal victory for the Millers Point Community Association Inc., all the other people and groups that have continued to campaign and fight for keeping the Sirius building in The Rocks, and the Environmental Defender’s Office who successfully argued the case in Court.

The Royal Australian Historical Society has posted a more detailed summary of the Court’s decision on its website, which also contains a number of links to other useful sites concerning the Sirius battles.  Click here to read the summary and access the links.

Sirius under construction: east facade of tower, stepping down to the north, with westerly views to Pyrmont.  Photograph Tao Gofers

The Minister for Heritage has been ordered by the Court to properly consider whether Sirius has heritage significance, and while it is entirely possible that may still lead to a curmudgeonly decision of ‘no significance’, the possibility that heritage conservation might finally be turning a corner after the past few Stygian years gives some cause for hope.

Pausing to take a cool drink – public art in Sirius, a URO fibreglass model, 1979. Photograph Tao Gofers

Ahistorical history on the run: Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution

Recently there has been a lot of media hyperventilating about federal parliamentarians needing to check their citizenship status and declare they are purely Australian, without any taint of dual-citizenship.[i]  As usual, little of the pitchfork commentary is informed by history.

When the Australian constitution was drafted in the 1890s, allegiance was given to the Crown, not to a territory.  We all shared the status of British subjects, and a person born in Australia could be elected to parliament in Britain, New Zealand, Canada and other places, and vice-versa.  There was no need for renunciations or denunciations of allegiance.  Canadian-born Labor MP King O’Malley, for example, Minister for Home Affairs, a founder of the Commonwealth Bank and of Canberra among other things, could be a member of the federal parliament because he was a British subject, and therefore not the liege of a ‘foreign power’ in breach of Section 44.  There are numerous examples.

A lost world, bigger but now foreignised and forgotten.

Our world was so much bigger then.  Once upon a time, a person born in Australia could work, travel, study and live anywhere the Queen reigned.  Now we are confined to the continental high water mark.  The post-World War Two nationalist victories that are celebrated in orthodox Australian history books now seem like one big own-goal, and we clearly are not living happily ever after.

Certificate of Naturalisation, as used 1955-1970

Post-war nationalism began with the dominions adopting citizenship acts – Canada in 1946, Australia in 1948 and so on.  However, dominion citizens also remained British subjects.  But, that dual-world soon began to shrink.  Australia’s Department of External Affairs changed to Foreign Affairs in 1970.  Britain abandoned the Commonwealth for Europe in 1973.  Australia removed Australian citizens’ British Subject status in 1984.  The High Court ruled in 1999 that Britain (and all other countries) had become ‘foreign powers’ so a dual citizen became, under Section 44, subject to a foreign power.  For this ‘judicial-nationalism’, Section 44 was in interesting divertissement for years.[ii]  Indignant talk of vestigial, archaic, unjust, obscure and antiquated law buttressed the arguments of political nationalists and continued to underpin our shrinking horizons into the early 21st century.

The external becomes weirdly foreign: Canberra Times, 7 November 1970: 1.  Mr McMahon was born in Australia, and so never had to deal with being cast as a ‘foreigner’.  He later became 20th prime minister, following six former PMs born elsewhere in the Empire or Commonwealth and one in a ‘foreign’ country.

Media commentators have blithely advised “just amend s44 by referendum” so that dual-citizens are eligible to be federal parliamentarians.[iii]  It would just be an easy tidying-up.  They appear unaware that we’ve been living through an extended period of foreignising anyone and anything ‘not like us’ (whatever that is).

The chronology continues.  Through the 1990s republican nationalists cast the Queen as an indulgent foreign overlord, in the 2000s Little Australia nationalists cast boat people as invading foreigners, and in the 2010s the list has just gotten fatter and longer.  Foreigners are everywhere, infesting the homeland and now we have a Home Office to root them out and expel them from our pure heart land.  This week the bourgeois nationalists at Fairfax have resurrected the 1990s Queen-as-foreigner motif[iv], while the boofhead nationalists indulged in ugly schadenfreude at the number of federal MPs having to check their nationality.[v]  Today, King O’Malley would either be barred at the gates, locked-up on an (ironically) foreign island or chucked out.

(left to right) The Governor General Lord Denman, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, Her Excellency Lady Denman and Minister for Home Affairs King O’Malley, at the formal naming and foundation of Canberra. All were born overseas, but none were considered ‘foreigners’. Image, still from NFSA 9382

The only people who seem to have much historical awareness are some letter writers and online commenters, who make the same point as I have in my second paragraph.  Some of them have questioned how New Zealand, Canada or Britain can really be ‘foreign’ cultures to us, ideas that likely smack of subversion for today’s authoritarian nationalists.  Their arguments echo those of CANZUK for creating new ties between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.[vi]  Technology now triumphs geography.  But should they be careful?  The new Home Office may already have spots reserved for them in Nauru and Manus.

The Crossroads, Kingston, Norfolk Island with former remote detention facilities in the background. Photo mrbbaskerville 7 June 2009

I think we are at a crossroads.  The old post-1945 nationalism of the Anglophone world is dead, or at least dying, along with its younger Neoliberal sibling.[vii]  It is a time to think differently as the Indo-Pacific returns to centre-stage.  A century ago, the whole British world had to re-invent itself amongst the residues of the Great War, and today, amidst more recent post-war residues spaces for another re-invention are opening.  New histories are needed for new futures.

To continue on as if nothing has changed invites a referendum to change Section 44 (just imagine, for a moment, the No case against ‘foreigners’ sitting in parliament), and more lofty legal interpretations of Section 44 that, effectively, maintain a stalemated nationalism.  Perhaps, instead of assuming Section 44 is the problem, we need to ask ourselves whether we have been so traduced by nationalist-induced fear of the ‘foreign’ that we are forgetting our own histories and foreignising our own past?  How else to explain a centralising, militaristic, authoritarian Home Office?

An old tradition of antipathy to militarised over-reach in British and British-descended cultures – now reduced to a forgotten/foreignised/museumised history in Australia? ‘The Common wealth ruleing with a standing Army‘, Frontispiece to Thomas May’s “Arbitrary Government Display’d, in the tyrannick usurpation of the Rump Parliament”, 1683, British Museum collections

Parliament could define the phrase ‘foreign power’, for Section 44 purposes, to exclude Commonwealth countries.  As well as honouring the original intent, it will also recognise our long, complex and continuing history of multi-generational migration between Commonwealth countries. Most of the reported ‘problems’ of dual-citizenship are intra-Commonwealth, suggesting a foreclosing amnesia about the larger world we once inhabited.[viii]

Perhaps that small change might even lead to reducing vitriol directed at people and things ‘not like us’, now fashionably tarred in high offices and the media as pejoratively ‘foreign’?  If not, I fear the day when all but those with a one hundred percent First Fleet ancestry will be denounced as foreign – and even they will be suspect.

Who, if any, are the ‘foreigners’?  Queen Elizabeth II with the Commonwealth’s women prime ministers: from Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina (left), from Australia, Julia Gillard (second right) and from Trinidad & Tobago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, during the opening of 2011 CHOGM in Perth, 28 October 2011. Photo credit: John Stillwell/PA Wire

[i] Rosie Lewis, ‘MPs rush to confirm true-blue credentials’, The Australian, 19 July 2017; Tom Minear, ‘Greens Party loses another politician … Greens Senator Ludlum exposed as a Kiwi’, Daily Telegraph, 19 July 2017; Lorraine Finlay, ‘Greens resignations show a need to change dual citizenship requirements’, The Conversation, 19 July 2017; Alle McMahon, ‘Australian politicians born overseas jump to clarify citizenship’, ABC News online, 19 July 2017

[ii] John Kalokerinos, Who May Sit?: An examination of the parliamentary disqualification provisions of the Commonwealth Constitution, Faculty of Law, ANU 2000, https://www.aph.gov.au/binaries/senate/pubs/pops/pop36/kalokerinos.pdf , accessed 20 July 2017

[iii] Prof George Williams, quoted in Amy Remeikis, ‘MPs scramble to confirm citizenship’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 2017: 6; William Bowe, ‘Section 44 is a sticky wicket in need of reform’, Crikey, 19 July 2017; for a somewhat more nuanced article see Adam Gartrell, ‘Allegiance rule is a relic but we’re stuck with it’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July 2017: 5;

[iv] Cathy Wilcox, untitled cartoon, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 2017: 17

[v] Derryn Hinch, ‘I am not in allegiance to a foreign power and I have proof’, Crikey, 19 July 2017

[vi] CANZUK International, http://www.canzukinternational.com , accessed 20 July 2017

[vii] there are many examples to cite, just two recent being Ross Gittins, ‘History’s pendulum is changing course’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July 2017: 18-19, which quotes The Economist magazine “the neo-liberal consensus has collapsed”; Bernard Keane, ‘The surprisingly quick death of neoliberalism in Australia is underway’, Crikey, 21 June 2017

[viii] Of the 222 federal parliamentarians in March 2017, 18 (8%) were born in a Commonwealth country and 6 (0.4%) were born in a ‘foreign’ country: http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Parliamentary_Handbook/mpsbyplc , accessed 21 July 2017

In Memoriam | Heritage at the Old Kings School, Parramatta 2002-2016

I hesitated to make this post one year ago, but now on the first anniversary it seems an apposite moment.  There are many good people working within the heritage system in New South Wales, often against overwhelming and depressing odds.  This story is part of our patrimony, to be remembered.

The days of ‘Yes Minister’ as an ironic statement from the enduring mandarin Sir Humphrey are long vanished.  In its stead is ‘Yes Minister’ as a statement of deference from a disposable short-term contractor.  The responsibility for the white-anting of public heritage management,  the dissipation of the NSW Crown estate, and the devaluing of heritage conservation as a proper role of the State and governments, has to be shared between those we have elected to high office, and we who elected them.  As one of the elect is reported to have said

The state government houses hundreds of back-office bureaucrats in prime … real estate with stunning views … historic, iconic and centrally located buildings are accessible only to government bureaucrats, with their heritage locked away from the public who own them … inefficient use of real estate … big government is a broken relic of a bygone era … we are to sell land in sites such as Parramatta.

Unwatched, the garden bough shall sway

This memorial notice is but another reflection on the continuing despoliation.

Unwatched, the garden bough shall sway,
The tender blossom flutter down,
Unloved, that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away.[1]

[1] ‘In Memoriam AHH’, Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1849


Friday 22 April 2016 marked the final demise of the New South Wales’ state heritage agency’s life in the Old Kings School in Parramatta.  After just 14 years, and in recent years an alphabet soup of name changes, the once-great NSW Heritage Office has finally been interred in an anonymous office block beyond the railway line, its beautiful historic offices and their parkland setting cast aside as a mere extravagance.

Once was a library …

Once was a Heritage Council chamber …

I joined the NSW Heritage Office in 1997, moving with it to the Old Kings School in Parramatta on 17 December 2002.  The new Office was officially opened on 12 March 2003.  Three days later, Ben Chifley’s House in Bathurst was listed on the State Heritage Register.  I had worked on that listing, and it seemed an auspicious beginning.

It was a time of high hopes in the tardis-like Old Kings School, with its 1832 southern facades and 1906 northern facades encapsulating a fantastic early 21st century interior.  For the first time, there was a dedicated Heritage Library open to heritage professionals and the public, with a professional librarian on staff.  For the first time there was atmospheric Heritage Council Meeting Room from where the Council exercised its stewardship of a growing heritage estate in Australia’s oldest jurisdiction.

Time slows to standing-still on the 1832 facade …

… and the cloister falls silent on the 1906 facade

There were decent work spaces for a dedicated and professional staff of (mainly) young and enthusiastic public heritage officers.  Professional development, heritage education and community outreach were the order of the day.  Heritage had come of age, in that fantastically adapted heritage building that was itself a model and showcase of possible futures.  It was never empty, near quiet, always hosting public and community events, nourishing a living heritage as a part of a whole community.

The date stamp fades into cobwebbed archaeology …

Now, all is abandoned.

The Heritage Library, once an unparalleled collection of unique conservation studies and a source of expert research, now just an empty shell of vacant shelving.  The grand Heritage Council Meeting Room, once resounding with passionate debate, now fallen silent, only the sound of the wind to disturb the funereal gloom, or was that the walls whispering their memories while there was still someone to hear them?

Wandering the grounds of the Old Kings School, gardens bedraggled and overgrown, lawns rank and patchy, piles of pigeon droppings on the sandstone paving, autumn leaves swirling in unkempt nooks and crannies, it’s hard to believe that delegations from interstate and overseas once beat a path to this very place to see and learn the ways of an innovative and dynamic heritage system.

while the State of Things reveals a truth …

The garden wall where the emblem and the name of the NSW Heritage Office once proudly welcomed all, prised from the wall in 2007, just faint scars remaining.  Five short years, a golden age.  After that, nothing was the same.  I resigned in August 2008, my diary till then an endless round of staff farewells.  I thought my work was finished on my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the nomination of the Australian Convict Sites for inscription on the World Heritage List.  Luck and a remote Pacific island exile would prove otherwise.

Back in Parramatta, the beauty of ruins, their capacity to provoke the imagination, their embodiment in crumbling decay of the poetry of lives lived and yet to be dreamt.  But the melancholy and pain in the ruin of a great institution, so much so carelessly wasted. The windows of that lovely edifice stare blindly out, hooded as if ashamed of once visioning the shared patrimony of community, history, tradition, continuity, future.

The tender blossom flutter down …

Just 14 years, just 5 years.  The chill winds of the neoliberal revolution blow through the grounds of the Old Kings School.  As I stood in those dusty rooms and neglected grounds on that end-day on 22 April 2016, there are tears in my eyes, stung neither by mote nor impermanence but the tragic irony of mammon’s hand.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.[1]

[1] ‘Ozymandias’, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818


And today, one year later on 22 April 2017, the Old Kings School remains empty and forlorn, a wrecked monument to a monumental wreck.

… and a future marches onwards … Look on my works, Ye mighty, and despair

All photos by mrbbaskerville, 22 April 2016

The Battle for the Commons, Episode No 4353

The never-ending battle for the commons goes on.  It must be one of history’s great continuities.

The beautiful common lake, St Albans Common, NSW. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

The beautiful common lake, St Albans Common, New South Wales. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

After failing in November 2016 to persuade the NSW Parliament to abolish the commons, the NSW Government is preparing to again try and convince Parliament to do what it so conspicuously refused to do just three months ago.

Black swans on the common lake, St Albans Common. photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Black swans on the common lake, St Albans Common. photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Submissions closed on 21 February 2017 for public responses to the latest proposals for ‘reform’ of commons from the NSW Department of Industry’s Crown lands agency.  The Government’s ideas of Crown lands as a just a resource to be monetised is illustrated by this administrative arrangement, and it is difficult not to be cynical about any reasons given for wanting to remove the commons from their commoners.

A mob of cattle being mustered, coming over a crest in Wollombi Road and heading for the bottom yards. photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

A mob of cattle being mustered, coming over a crest in Wollombi Road on St Albans Common and heading for the bottom yards. photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

A commoners’ campaign, lead by the commoners of St Albans Common in the Macdonald Valley, north of Sydney, developed a set of basic principles for the future care and control of commons in New South Wales.  These include:

  • Commons belong to their commoners – they are not Crown land, and their arbitrary confiscation must not be allowed
  • Commons must remain under the care and control of representatives elected by the commoners – not ‘managers’ appointed by the minister
  • Commons legislation must remain as stand-alone legislation – it should not be repealed or otherwise replaced by Crown lands or other legislation
  • The responsibilities of commoners, and their rights of commonage, are of great traditional and historical significance – this should be respected and supported by the State
  • Commoners who have managed their commons sustainably, especially over many generations, should not be arbitrarily penalised because some others haven’t.
The mob going through the gates into the bottom yards, St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

The mob meanders through the gates into the bottom yards, St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Commoners watch the mob as it moves into the bottom yards. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

Commoners and drovers making sure the mob is in the bottom yards, St Albans Common. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

I made a submission on the Department’s proposals, from the perspective of a historian of commons rather than that of a commoner.  My submission is essentially consistent with the commoners’ principles.  It also calls for the Department to abandon its attempts to abolish the commons, and instead adopt a ‘common-centred’ approach to revitalising the commons, and increasing local community engagement with their commons, especially commons that are claimed to have been neglected, or for which commoners now seem to be unaware of their traditional rights and responsibilities.

Cattle being inspected in the race at the bottom yards, St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Commoners inspecting cattle in the race at the bottom yards, St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

My submission can be dowloaded here and the St Albans Common site contains links to the commoner’s submission, and to several other useful resources in the ongoing battle to save the commons of New South Wales from mammon.

The Settlers Arms, in the nearby village of St Albans. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

The Settlers Arms, in the nearby village of St Albans. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

A Scotch Thistle in flower - one of the more exotic inhabitants of St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

A Scotch Thistle in flower – one of the more exotic inhabitants of St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Sullivans Bight, one of the many little vales that edge the flats of St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Sullivans Bight, with post and rail fence of the old weaner’s yard, one of the many little vales that edge the flats of St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Old quarry along Wollombi Road, in St Albans Common. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

Old quarry along Wollombi Road, a landscape record of one of the multiple historic and contemporary uses of St Albans Common. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

Koalas, kangaroos and wombats - a sign of some of the natural inhabitants along Wollombi Road in St Albans Common. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

Koalas, kangaroos and wombats – a sign of some of the natural inhabitants whose environment is conserved along Wollombi Road in St Albans Common. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

St Albans Commons, cared for by its commoners since 1824, granted to its commoners in 1853, a place of historical, traditional and cultural significance that must, and will, survive and thrive long into the future. Photo mrbbaskerville, 20 January 2017

St Albans Commons, cared for by its commoners since 1824, granted to its commoners in 1853, a place of historical, traditional and contemporary cultural significance.  The common and its commoners will continue to survive and thrive long into the future, while transitory governments come and go. Photo mrbbaskerville, 20 January 2017

Historic Reserve Trusts & Boards Abolished, Commons Almost Go Same Way

The NSW Government’s new Crown Land Management Act 2016 came into force on 14 November.  This new Act repealed the Crown Lands Act 1989 and a number of other Acts such as the Trustees of Schools of Arts Enabling Act 1902, the Western Lands Act 1901, the Hay Irrigation Act 1902 and the Orange Show Ground Act 1897, as well as the regulations and by-laws made under these Acts.  The mainstream media failed to cover any of these fundamental changes.

One Act slated for repeal was the Commons Management Act 1989, legislation with roots going right back to the first commons established by Governor King on 11 August 1804 and the historic Epitome of the Existing Laws respecting Commons drawn-up by Judge Advocate Richard Atkins in Sydney in January 1805.  This was the first ‘charter’ of common rights created in Australia, linking the new commons here with the customs and practices of their ancient predecessors and with a future in which local people – commoners – would share and manage resources for their mutual benefit as communities.  Wherever they came from, however they arrived, their shared interests as local commoners were what mattered.  About half the first trustees appointed in 1805 were ex-convicts.

Following determined representations by the community in St Albans and the commoners of St Alban’s Common to all State MPs in all parties, all references to commons and the Commons Act were removed from the Bill by parliament.

One effect of the new Crown Lands legislation is to abolish or otherwise fundamentally change existing community bodies managing various Crown reserves.  This includes many boards and trustees.  In their place, the Minister may appoint a ‘land manager’, which could be a local council, a ministerial corporation, the head of a government agency or the existing reserve trust or board, among others, at the Minister’s discretion.  The Minister may sell, lease, exchange, transfer or otherwise dispose of such Crown land.

Another effect of the new Act is that many old and historic local community-based institutions have been abolished or transformed.  About 700 local reserves are (or were) controlled by local trusts.  For example, the 119-year old Orange Showground Trust will be replaced by Orange City Council as Orange Showground Land Manager. On the other hand, five reserve trusts are designated ‘special reserve trusts’ and appear to be exempt from the new Act, such as the 150-year old succession of trustees for Wagga Wagga Racecourse Reserve, and the 133-year old succession of trustees for the Hawkesbury Racecourse Trust, as well as all Crown cemetery trusts.  Apart from these few, the whole concept of local community trusteeship has been discarded in favour of management processes subject to the Minister.

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

Folk rhyme, 18th century

The quick action of the St Albans Commoners means that all commoners still retain control of their commons.  St Albans Common is one of the ‘old commons’, established in 1824, under the control of the trustees chosen by the commoners.  It is the oldest common still continually managed by its commoners as trustees, formalised in an 1853 Deed.  At 163-years old, the commoner’s Trust is older than any other form of self-governance in NSW and Australia, older than the parliament (160 years) which almost abolished it without a second thought, older than any local council, and equal in age to the Supreme Court of NSW.  Only the Governor and the Crown itself predate the St Albans Commoners as continuing historic institutions in New South Wales.  Commons and their trustees are just as significant to our shared heritage.

A politician realizes the significance of a common. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 26 January 1917, page 8

A politician realizes the significance of a common. ‘St Albans Common’, Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 26 January 1917, page 8

However, the late change in the Bill does not mean commons are safe.  They will be considered again in 2017 when further amendments to the Act will be made.  The abolition of Commons Trusts has only been ‘deferred’ (Second Reading speech, Hon Niall Blair MLC, 8 November, and Kevin Andrews MLA for Tamworth, 9 November), so all commoners, whatever their common, need to remain alert.  In the debate, Clayton Barr MLA for Cessnock noted that the ‘deferral’ only occurred because commoners

“…came bearing arms against the changes … they were repulsed … they took up arms – their pens and keyboards – they were successful and should be congratulated for dragging the Government to agree to an amendment … at the eleventh hour

(Legislative Assembly, Second Reading Debate, 9 November).

It is clear from reading the debates that the Commoners of St Albans played a key role in saving the commons (see, for example, speech by David Shoebridge MLC, 8 November).  The commoners continued a very long tradition of upholding their rights, and their actions today recall those of the commoners of the Field of Mars Common and Ham Common in the 1860s and 70s and many other commoners over the years who fought valiantly, but often unsuccessfully, against enclosure and privatisation of their commons.  Eternal vigilance is the real price of commonage.

Commoners have a long history of fighting to defend their commons. 'Field of Mars Common', Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 1862, page 5

Commoners have a long history of fighting to defend their commons. ‘Field of Mars Common’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 1862, page 5

Are you a trustee or member of a reserve trust?  Are you aware of the impacts of the new Crown lands legislation on you, the Crown reserve that you steward, or your local community?  Has your reserve, its trust or its board been in existence for many years?  Do you know its history?  Is it embedded in the traditions of your community?  Do you know where its records and archives are (the new Crown land managers are specifically not ‘government agencies’, and so will not be subject to the State Records Act 1998)?  Do you know if it is being abolished?  Is your reserve listed on your local council’s LEP or the State Heritage Register as a heritage item?  Are you a commoner worried about the future of your common and commonage rights?  Do you know if you are a commoner of your local common?  Do you know where your common is (or perhaps, used to be)?

Commons are a part of our shared histories as communities, and they are also part of our present and future.  Commons were the first places where people had to work out how to live together in a new place, how to share resources so that all could benefit, and how to care for and look after a sustainable local environment that could support them all now and into succeeding generations.  Some succeeded, some didn’t, but that is part of our ‘common history’ from which we can learn so much about communal endeavour and ways for people to live and work together.  Conservation of historic institutions such as commoners and their trustees goes hand-in-hand with the conservation of environments and natural resources.  The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is never inevitable.

Commoners were not always successful in keeping their commons out of the clutches of the enclosers and privatisers. 'Sydney Common Estate', Evening News (Sydney), 17 October 1881, page 3

Commoners were not always successful in keeping their commons out of the clutches of the enclosers and privatisers. ‘Sydney Common Estate’, Evening News (Sydney), 17 October 1881, page 3

The new Act has only just been passed, and the fate of the ‘deferred’ commons and the ‘special reserve trusts’ has yet to be decided by your parliamentarians.  Instead of waiting to see what might happen, you can begin making inquiries now with your local council, Lands Office or State MPs.  Ask your MPs which way their vote was cast on this legislation, what they said in the debates, and which way they will vote for commons in the future.  Remind them to keep you informed of what they will do when commons next come before parliament.  Let them know you’ll be watching.  Don’t let them forget that historic, learned ways of local stewardship of local environments are central to continuing community traditions, living local economies and healthy local communities.  They must not be quietly stolen away.

Sometimes, a politician had to admit that a common was important, even if a public servant had to be the whipping boy. Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 23 February 1917, page 4

Sometimes, a politician had to admit that a common was important, even if a public servant had to be the whipping boy. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 23 February 1917, page 4

Some Useful Resources

 Some useful words:

  • Common: land over which rights of common may be exercised without personally owning the land.
  • Commonage: generic term for rights of common, such as grazing, wood gathering, camping, mushrooming, collecting clay and fishing.
  • Commoner: a person with rights of common, usually defined by residence near a common.
  • Tragedy of the commons: an economic theory claiming commoners only act in their self-interest and will inevitably destroy their shared resources, but which ignores the reality of commoners managing their shared resources prudently and cooperatively without any need for enclosure or privatisation.
Commons management in action, by the trustees elected by the commoners. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 12 September 1908, page 16

Commons management in action, by the trustees elected by the commoners. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 12 September 1908, page 16