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  This new Act repealed the Crown Lands Act 1989 and a number of other Acts such as the Trustees of Schools of Arts Enabling Act 1902, the Western Lands Act 1901, the Hay Irrigation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

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Do NOT Boycott the Census

Crikey today published an article calling for Australians to boycott the census to be held on 9 August this year (Bernard Keane: ‘The 2016 Census is a high threat to your privacy – boycott it’, https://www.crikey.com.au, behind a paywall).  I submitted a response to the article, and reproduce it below for non-Crikey subscribers.  I urge people: DO NOT boycott the census.  Instead, take this opportunity to be counted as a citizen, and to be part of the common legacy we bequest to future generations.

Dear Crikey,

I am saddened to read your ‘boycott the census’ call.

Every citizen and resident has a right and a responsibility to be counted in the census.  We had a constitutional referendum in 1967, after a long campaign, to finally stop the exclusion of Aboriginal people from being counted.  In doing so we finally began treating Indigenous people as fellow citizens and equals.

Every same-sex couple has been able to exercise a right to have their relationship recognised since the 2011 census provided for our relationships to be officially recorded.  Despite the obstructionism of Christianists, the existence of our relationships can no longer be denied, thanks to the census, and our named census forms will one day be a monument to our relationships.

I have, since the 2001 census, always agreed to my named census form being retained and archived for access by researchers 99 years later, especially family historians.  It is one of the few bequests I can make.  I have also come to know many of my ancestors in ways otherwise impossible through the named census forms that were retained in the past, and I am thankful for that legacy.

By the way, such named forms are only available in Australia for the early colonial period.  Your claim that that citizens “provide copious, highly personal detail of themselves for indefinite retention and use by governments … is longstanding tradition in Australia” is nonsense, as any understanding of the history of censuses and their destruction in Australia will show.  The campaigns by historians for retaining named census forms in the 1980s and 90s was constantly attacked by officious ‘we know what’s good for you’ types, and unfortunately your crusade seems to adopt the same tone and language.

source: http://slwa.wa.gov.au/find/guides/family_history/australia/western_australia/census

Named census form, York District, Western Australia 1859 – should such historical records be destroyed for ‘privacy’? Source: http://slwa.wa.gov.au/find/guides/family_history/australia/western_australia/census 

I have enjoyed being a Crikey reader for some years now, but the semi-hysterical nature of the article smacks of a personal crusade rather than the informed opinion that has been one of Crikey’s strengths.  Claims of “sinister uses” and “targets” and “every Australian will be tracked down” and “forced to upload extensive personal information” is too melodramatic for me to take seriously.  Should I expect Keanu Reeves/Neo to come knocking?

Your claim that the census form contains “copious, highly personal detail” sounds like a claim made by someone who has never actually filled-in a census form.  For ‘copious, highly personal detail’, try filling in an income protection insurance application, especially the questions about your sex life.  The amount of personal information collected and misused by private corporations outweighs the alleged abuses you claim of census data.  I don’t remember you ever calling for a boycott of the incessant gathering and trading in other people’s personal data by private corporations, with their ever-increasing surveillance of us all for their own private commercial gain.  Indeed, in this article you seem to regard them and their “higher standards” as exemplars to be emulated.  I don’t even recall you ever calling for a boycott of Commonwealth agencies such as Centrelink or the ATO because of the vast amounts of personal data they amass – far more than any census form will ever record.

A whole collection of named census or muster forms, published for all to see.  Source: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/blogs/musters-and-lists-new-south-wales-and-norfolk-island-1800-1802

A whole collection of named census or muster forms, published for all to see. Should this be banned?  Source: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/blogs/musters-and-lists-new-south-wales-and-norfolk-island-1800-1802

As a citizen I chose to participate in the census.  As a consumer I choose to emulate your example, but to boycott the census-haters.  Sadly, that means boycotting Crikey by the only means I know how, returning each daily edition to sender, un-opened, and eventually not renewing my subscription.  It pains me to do this, and I will certainly miss my daily read, but I cannot support boycotting the census and in doing so surrendering my own citizenship, because that is all your boycott really achieves.  As a citizen I have a responsibility to be counted, and a right to have my named census form retained and archived as a permanent historical record of my continuing citizenship.  That is the right I chose to exercise.

The annual Australia Day Wars: this year’s winners

The phrase ‘a modern Australia’ is constantly used by some parts of the political class, implying any disagreement could only come from the most troglodyte of citizens. Allain de Botton wrote in The News: A User’s Manual (2014, page 11) “Societies become modern, the philosopher Hegel suggested, when news replaces religion as out central source of guidance and touchstone of authority … The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural, unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to report that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own highly distinctive priorities.”

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With that in mind, the last two Australia Days, in 2015 and 2016, have witnessed pitched battles through the media, each of which could be conceptualized as surrogate battles between republicans and monarchists for control of the day. Battles, this is, fought within the political class (in which I include the media), to which the general public have largely been bewildered onlookers.

The signal event in each year was the Australian knighthood conferred on Prince Philip in 2015, and the Australian of the Year Award conferred on recently retired Lieutenant General David Morrison in 2016. There were other events and debates, but these two dominated the media coverage and are similar enough to allow for comparisons to be made.

In this post, I compare and analyse press coverage of the two battles to see if any winners or losers can be detected, and our bewilderment assuaged.

I collected items in the ‘mainstream’ media (Sydney Morning Herald representing Fairfax, Daily Telegraph and The Australian representing Murdoch, and Crikey, an independent online news outlet), published between 26 and 30 January in 2015 and 2016. The items include reporting, opinion pieces, and letters from readers, totaling 390 items in 2015 and 207 in 2016.

In order to remain consistent with the language of the 1999 referendum, items categorized as ‘Yes’ means they are supportive of a republic, ‘No’ means they are opposed to a republic, or supportive of the monarchy (not necessarily synonyms), and ‘Other’ means related to the issue, but without explicit or reasonably implicit alignment with either side. Typically, ‘Other’ items relate to the national flag, gender issues and/or commentary on personal characteristics or physical attributes. This category also includes Indigenous issues, which appear to have received much less media attention than before 2015.

This post does not pretend to be a scientific survey or analysis, and these results are presented here for interest and discussion rather than as proof of any particular argument.

Some analysis

  1. Inverse relationships between media writing and popular writing

In 2015, reporting/opinion writing was 55% for a republic, 45% against; readers writing was 46% for a republic, 54% against. The reader writing was almost an exact replication of the referendum result 16 years earlier, suggesting there had been no change in public opinion over that long period.

In 2016, reporting/opinion writing was 62.5% for a republic, 37.5% against; reader writing was 39.5% for a republic, 61.5% against. They were diametrically opposite of each other, suggesting a strong polarization over the previous 12 months, and a strong disconnection between media and reader points of view. Overall, there was a consistent ratio of about 1 media article produced for every four readers letters published.

  1. Honours and honour attacked each time:

In 2015, knighthoods per se, Prince Phillip personally, and Abbott as initiator of the knighthood, were all attacked as ridiculous for their ideological (monarchical) purity, especially among media writers.

In 2016, Australian of the Year Awards per se, Lt Gen Morrison personally, Turnbull as a ‘manipulator’, were all attacked as betraying an ideological (republican) position, especially among media writers.

In both years, reader writing did not necessarily follow the media line, but over the five-day period, tended to become more consistent with it. Whether that reflects the selection processes used in each media house for publishing readers letters, or the patterns in all letters received, is not able to be determined.

  1. Surprise factor each time

In 2015, the knighthood was announced on Australia Day, with no warning. It was a complete surprise. There was some preceding news from Opposition leader Bill Shorten about starting a republic debate the day before, but no obvious connection between the two events.

In 2016, Morrison’s statement committing to republic when accepting the Australian of the Year Award announced on Australia Day eve was a complete surprise. It had a more obvious precursor in the ARM release of 7/8ths of first ministers declaring support for a republic earlier in the day.

  1. Gender issue each time:

In 2015, there were attempts to blame Peta Credlin for either encouraging or not discouraging the royal knighthood, so moving attention away from PM Tony Abbott, and discouraging attention on the merits of the knighthood.

In 2016, Catherine McGregor was castigated for saying Morrison was a ‘conventional’ appointment, so moving attention away from the Australia Day committee, and discouraging attention on Morrison’s republic commentary.

Blaming Credlin was less successful in drawing attention away from the decision maker than disparaging McGregor, whose transgender status attracted more personal attacks. The archetypal Lucretia Borgia and Mata Hari figures were, it seems, quite consciously constructed by media writers, and as such they tell us more about the writers than the two women or their supposed nefarious influences. It was perhaps an unconscious parody in this context that Crikey titled its single editorial piece ‘Time to grow some republican balls’.

  1. Media writing patterns

In 2015, Fairfax published ‘Yes’ articles every day (7 ‘Yes’ over the period, 1 ‘No’); Murdoch was more sporadic, with 3 ‘Yes’ and 2 ‘No’ articles over the period; and Crikey carried neither Yes nor No articles, but 7 ‘Other’ articles.

In 2016, Fairfax again published ‘Yes’ articles every day (13 ‘Yes’ over the period, and 1 ‘No’); Murdoch was again sporadic, with 6 ‘Yes’ (all on two days), and 8 ‘No’ across all days; Crikey carried 1 ‘Yes’ article and 0 ‘No’ articles.

Comparing 2015 and 2016, Fairfax producing multiple ‘Yes’ articles both years, and a token ‘No’ article; Murdoch was more sporadic in coverage, with a larger volume in 2016 compared to 2015, but ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ roughly balanced until the final day in the period (30 January) when ‘No’ took the lead; Crikey produced nothing in 2015, one editorial only in 2016.

These patterns suggest Fairfax writers are committed and enthusiastic republicans, as are its readers (ARM Chair Peter FitzSimons says he’s a ‘Fairfax man’, and Fairfax sponsored a NSW Australian of the Year entrant); Murdoch sees its readers as more aligned to monarchy, but has to balance that with its owner’s republican sentiments (and it tends to use more cartoons and satire, less wordy arguments); Crikey aligns with the Fairfax position, but doesn’t really seem to regard republicans v. monarchists as a core interest of its readers.

  1. Letter writing patterns

In 2015, Fairfax published letters every day, 9 ‘Yes’, 11 ‘No’ and 30 ‘Other’ letters; Murdoch also published every day, 21 ‘Yes’, 38 ‘No’, 64 ‘Other’ letters; and Crikey also published every day, 17 ‘Yes’, 7 ‘No’, and 63 ‘Other’ letters.

In 2016, Fairfax again published every day, 12 ‘Yes’, 10 ‘No’, 22 ‘Other’ letters; Murdoch again published every day, 8 ‘Yes’, 56 ‘No’, 26 ‘Other’ letters; Crikey also published every day, 4 ‘Yes’, 7 ‘No’, 10 ‘Other’ letters.

Comparing 2015 and 2016, Fairfax published a similar volume of letters, roughly balanced between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, but with ‘Other’ topics higher; Murdoch published a larger volume in both years, but with a dramatic increase in ‘No’ and decrease in ‘Yes’ and ‘Other’ letters in 2016; Crikey published a low volume of letters, with ‘Yes’ and ‘Other’ falling, while ‘No’ remained steady.

These patterns suggest Fairfax letter writers are ‘rusted on’ to Fairfax, talking to each other, and perhaps avoiding direct confrontation through ‘Other’ topics; Murdoch letter writers may have been unsure in 2015, but in 2016 were firmly in the ‘No’ camp; and Crikey letter writers counter-intuitively switched from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’, but only because of fall in ‘Yes’ letters rather then rise in ‘No’. It is also worth noting that the two media in which letter writers changed views, Crikey and Murdoch, have more continental audiences (although no letters from WA, NT or Tasmania were published), while Fairfax letter writers’ addresses are mainly in the southeastern capitals. This would not be an auspicious sign for any advocate of constitutional change.

  1. The ‘Other’ category counts items that relate to the issue, more or less directly, but without explicit or reasonably implicit alignment with either side.

In 2015, the other issues were changing the flag, desirability of a republic, role of Credlin and her gender (cast as a scheming femme fatale controlling an implicitly de-masculinised and effete Abbott), the credibility of knighthoods, abolition of knighthoods, personal attacks on Prince Philip, and warnings of Abbott’s impending doom if he didn’t focus on ‘proper’ political issues such as the economy.

In 2016, the other issues were changing the flag, demands for a republic, conflation of demands for another republic referendum with equal marriage and Aboriginal recognition referenda, role of the Australia Day committee, credibility of Australian of the Year awards, personal attacks on Morrison, Turnbull’s ‘breaking hearts’ and treachery (implicitly a hollow man chasing power), complaining about Australian of the Year recipients hectoring and lecturing people with trendy ‘politically correct’ views, and sniping about gender issues (McGregor was cast as a hysterical queen undermining the sound republican Morrison).

Some conclusions

The most critical conclusion is probably that popular opinion moved strongly towards the monarchy between Australia Day 2015 and 2016, and even more emphatically after Australia Day 2016. Views hadn’t really changed much since 1999, but the public battle over Prince Philip’s Australian knighthood had a polarizing effect with the letter-writing public noticeably cleaving to the monarchist position.

The political class (in which I include the mainstream media) has moved decisively over the past twelve months towards a republic, while popular views have moved just as decisively towards the monarchy, suggesting a strong disconnection between the political class and the public. Some of this polarizing may come from a revival of the old, remembered divisions leading up to the 1999 referendum that people either do not want, or want to delay, re-visiting.   Such a conclusion is consistent with the trend in polling on the issue. Even the self-selecting Sydney Morning Herald readers’ panel, which on 30 January 2015 voted 72% for a republic and 20% against, had evolved by 30 January 2016 to 59% for a republic referendum now, 22% for waiting until the Queen dies to hold a referendum (who may vote Yes or No) and 14% supporting monarchy.

In both cases, these battles originated in the Prime Ministers’ Office. The knighthood was a personal decision of PM Abbott. The Australian of the Year Award was a decision of a body located in the Prime Ministers’ Office of PM Turnbull. In neither instance was the decision made within the traditional honours system, located within the Governor General’s household, of which the Order of Australia is the best-known component. The cumulative effect of the two battles has probably undermined public respect for the honours system generally through a perception of a blatant politicization of honours processes and outcomes. It is a clear illustration of why all honours must be kept separate from partisan politics.

In terms of the tone of the media coverage, the republican-aligned press was clearly surprised by the reaction in 2016. It did not recognize any near-identical flip side of 2015 reactions. The derisory responses to Prince Philip’s knighthood appear to have set the rules and tone for the counter-response to Morrison’s Australian of the Year Award. For example, in 2015 a Fairfax write described Prince Philip as “Phil the Greek … the most mocked and least useful member of the royal family who is not currently accused of sex orgies with teenagers”. In 2016, a Murdoch writer described Morrison as having a “…fierce, almost jihadist fanaticism in his eyes, the tightened facial muscles, what might be taken to be self-righteous vindictiveness lurking in his delivery”. Similarly, Abbott was mocked as a Quixote-like medieval knight, and Turnbull was derided as a Benedict Arnold-like traitor. Prince Phillip and Morrison, Abbott and Turnbull have had their defenders among the letter writers, many of who seemed repulsed by such insights into the vulgarity of political class thinking. The characterizations are demeaning and their purpose remains obscure (to outsiders, at least), but 2015 seems to have set a template for 2016.

The attacks on Credlin in 2015 and McGregor in 2016 point to a propensity to attribute the cause for perceived ‘failures’ by men in this matter (Abbott, Prince Phillip, Turnbull, Morrison) to cunning, sexually threatening women. This points to the primal emotions involved in issues around monarchy, identity and honour, emotions that go way beyond any black-letter legalism.

The ‘surprise factor’ is evident in both years. Making surprise announcements, especially on an “it’s done, get over it” basis, concerning identities, monarchy, honours and symbols will produce very negative reactions. This indicates the level of deep emotion involved, and the need for proposals for change to be preceded by long lead times with lots of public foregrounding and open discussion. Such changes cannot be airily cast as ‘simple’ constitutional matters. The surprise story of the premier’s ‘declaration’, released on the morning of Australia Day-eve, probably antagonized the monarchists and primed them for outrage that evening. It had vanished from the media coverage by the 27th (possibly to the quite relief of some first ministers), replaced by accusations of Turnbull’s betrayal of the cause, suggesting the declaration had a contrary effect to that intended.

Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, speaking to the National Press Club, reportedly separated Aboriginal constitutional recognition from republican issues, for which he was attacked as an apologist for Abbott. But there is no necessary connection, in the letter writers, between supporting monarchism and opposition to equal marriage, gender equality, Aboriginal recognition, flag changes or honours (despite some cranky Colonel Blimp letters). One Murdoch opinion writer referred to ‘jingo bandana republicanism’, a label illustrated by the response to McGregor’s critique of Morrison’s appointment: she was attacked by Fairfax republicans and Murdoch conservatives alike as the political class closed ranks around what this analysis suggests is regarded as ‘its’ cause. As FitzSimons said, “Morrison is one of ours”.

Opinion pieces on the last day of the survey were consistent in each media house: Fairfax writers defended the Australian of the Year awards, saying they should not be debased, and blamed ‘nostalgic’ monarchist reactionaries for the conflict; Murdoch writers all professed their true republicanism, but said the time is not yet right to pursue republicanism, it must wait for a while, and blamed FitzSimons for blokey impatience. The Sydney Morning Herald editorialized “The Herald knows the selection board will look closely at the 2016 process…” with all the confidence of an insider.

One final thought around the labeling of republican and monarchist among the media writers. It’s a labeling that harks back to the 1990s and its divisiveness. All the Murdoch writers professed their republicanism, all the Fairfax writers stuck to their stated editorial policy of republicanism. The only professed monarchists were among the letter writers. This whole analysis could be based upon a false binary of republican v. monarchist, when really the battles have been between republican factions (minimalists, direct electionists, jingo bandanistas) seeking to appropriate Australia Day to their cause. But, that’s an issue for another post.

So, who won the battle in 2016?

It could be said, in the annual Australia Day Wars, that the 2015 Battle of Philip was won by the red bandanas, the 2016 Battle of Morrison was won by the gold crowns. The battlefields have both been within the honours system, displaying an iconoclastic disregard for its integrity. The question now is on what grounds will the 2017 be battle fought, who will ‘win’, how will it be reported, who will report it, and will the Australian honours system be further demeaned by crude politicization?

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Paris will never sink

The Great Arms of the City of Paris have told many stories since 1358, but perhaps most importantly of all, a story of continuity over 650 years of troubles and dramatic changes.

The motto of the city, Fluctuat nec mergitur, is usually translated into English as ‘She is tossed by the waves, but does not sink’, or in French ‘Est battu par les flots mais jamais ne sombre’.  Its a story of resilience, and a perfect reminder that however gloomy and scary the times may seem now, a great city always rises again.

See and reflect upon the Arms of one of the world’s great cities.  We are all in that boat.  Paris will never sink.

Paris Coat of Arms

Vale Australia’s Third Knightage

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week announced the abolition of the third Australian knightage – or, as the jubilant Fairfax-Murdoch press complex and the even more triumphant social media opinionists shouted, he “abolished knights and dames”. What a man!

I have in earlier posts (Why Knighthood Matters in 21st Century Australia, Honours for the Honourably Challenged) supported the restoration of the knighthood level in the Order of Australia or elsewhere within the Australian honours system. I continue to do so. However, the enraptured celebrations of the Turnbullistas, and the square metres of media space given to the gleeful FitzSimons-Turnbull republicans to broadcast their support for this bold, brave move, have given me pause to reflect upon the nature of the latest abolition and the character of the responses to it.

The responses, as far as I can guage, fall into six main categories: the anachronistic, the nationalistic, the vulgar, the Abbott-hating, the derisive and the simply confused. It’s quite a raffish, larrikinish ensemble, and I’ll consider each in turn.

The anachronistic. Anachronism is one of the principle reasons given by the PM for abolition. Describing something as anachronistic means it is in the wrong time (like an 18th century clock in a 21st century room).  In the academic world it is a pejorative, but it is used in the vernacular to mean something like old-fashioned or out-of-date, although not necessarily bad. Apparently, it doesn’t apply to titles such as Adjunct Professor or Honorary Doctor, and it certainly doesn’t apply to the Melbourne Cup, won a few days later by Prince of Penzance (although I heard one sports commentator this morning, apparently desperate to stay in the new zeit, call it Pirate of Penzance!), with the jockey described in much of the press the next day as the Cup Queen of Queen of the Sport. Anachronism, it seems, can be quite desirable in some circles.

The nationalistic. This has perhaps been the most bellicose of the responses, with all sorts of claims about imperial honours, toadying to the palace and the general un-Australianess of allowing someone to have the uppity pre-nominal title Sir or Dame which is contrary to our legendary egalitarian (and I mean, legendary). The knighthoods were a level within the Order of Australia, and unless Australia is now an Empire, and they are awarded to imperial subjects in oh, I don’t know, say Manus or Nauru or Mawson, such claims are the ultimate in 1950s cultural cringe made by nationalistic Rip van Winkel’s still stuck nostalgically reading the Bulletin of the 1890s.

The derisive. In many ways a variant on the anachronistic and nationalistic strands, found especially in the medium of cartoons that can be relied upon to depict the characters in some sort of medievalist setting and, by implication, casting anyone not antagonistic to knighthoods as anachronistic and deserving of being cast out of the polis. The fact that these depictions and allusions bear little, if any, relationship to the actual medieval world is beside the point. This is the Medieval Australia we never had, but apparently must have now, to show the cleverness of the anti-knights, to have existing prejudices confirmed through a cartoon medium that always contains a sense of epicaricacy.  To be ahistorical is to be modern.

The vulgar.  Another variant on the nationalistic, and particularly favoured in the cold anonymity of social media commentary. Those not sufficiently opposed to knighthoods, those who received knighthoods, and of course Tony Abbott, are generally described in very short, often single-word sentences that, in a sort of unconscious anachronism, rely almost exclusively on a broad knowledge of terms popularly considered to be old Anglo-Saxon words for cursing and describing those who have annoyed or offended, and intimating physical violence will be used on dissenters.

The Abbott-hating. The focus of these responses was on characteristics attributed to the former PM, with nationalism and vulgarity heavily featured. A key element in these responses is the acceptable racism of Brit-bashing, in which a circular narrative positions Abbott as a foreigner because he was born in Britain, and because of that he must retain some sort of genetic loyalty to a foreign monarch, which means he is British and so un-Australian (any nationality can be inserted into this old formula). There is a strong whiff of American birtherism and Social Darwinism in some of these responses, which along with the nationalistic and vulgar strands points to the capacity for the internet to both connect closed minds and to keep them truly closed.  It is an ironic response in a migrant society.

 The simply confused. All of the above strands will be evident in these responses to some degree. It is characterised by the ad nauseam references to imperial honours, and illustrated in one Fairfax opinion piece that, on the one hand, actually said something sensible and even supportive of Prince Charles, but then, almost as if surprised by this, concluded he would have made a suitable candidate for an Australian knighthood. Prince Charles was made a knight in the Order of Australia in 1981! Never let historical accuracy get in the way of political rhetoric.  A Murdoch opinionist demanded to know why the Queen had to approve changes to the rules of the Order, in a casebook example of never letting actual knowledge about the Order get in the way on forthright opinionising.

These responses reveal much about the people who use these tropes. They suggest that the media savvy anti-knighthood warrior is one who is thoroughly and consciously modern (although in a post-modern world, does that make them already anachronistic?), who is truly, really, 100% Australian (with no qualms about living on stolen land), who is never short of a clever phrase, sharp response or derisory smirk to anything that offends them, who can easily hurl the rude or tasteless witticism at any time, who may have a special reserve of bile for Tony Abbott and/or any or all current or former elected office holders, and who, perhaps more than anything else, wears their mind-numbing ignorance of the Australian honours system or honours generally as a badge of pride.

Some things have not been evident in the responses, most notably any actual knowledge of the Australian honours system, any real signs of actual republicanism or monarchism, and perhaps most disconcertingly in a liberal democracy, anyone brave enough to stick their head above the parapet and question, let alone dispute, the abolition. The reported response from the leader of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy saying the abolition was simply revenge by a republican for 1999 may contain some shard of truth, but it essentially conforms to a rhetorical framework set up by the abolitionists in which such responses can be cast as fuddy-duddyism and turned to support their characterisations of those who don’t agree with them. Passion in the face of derision will only ever encourage the tormentor.

This post is not a defence of Tony Abbott’s approach to the Australian knightage. As Prime Minister, Abbott mishandled this whole issue from the beginning. The surprise announcement of their restoration, apropos of nothing at the time, was a bad omen from a man who had promised a ‘no surprises’ government. The quality of the early appointments seemed to overcome this surprise until another surprise, an Australia Day appointment of Prince Philip as a knight. Australia Day is the nationalist’s day, when they try and pretend there was no invasion in 1788, and so their online response at what they perceived as the hijacking of their day became the story du jour in the ‘old’ media, who needed to do little to turn such frothing content into printed words other than give instructions to some cartoonists. They had such fun with that that it became impossible for anyone to defend the appointment without also being subject to a self-righteous bollicking in the middle-class press.

By the time Abbott tried a tactical retreat on the issue by returning the right to nominate knights to the Order of Australia Council (from which it should never have been removed), he had inflicted a grievous wound on the third knightage. More than anything else, the interaction (or failure of interaction) between Abbott’s office and a content-hungry media revealed to the public the shemozzle within the political classes. The knightage had been dangerously politicized, worse in a way than the old honours-for-mates knighthoods of the 1980s that finally killed off the first knightage. The Order of Australia Council could have made recommendations for knighthoods after this point, but seems to have instead opted for silence.

Tony Abbott had a chance to invest some of his political capital, while it still existed early in his term, in a broad public discussion of the Australian honours system and how it could be improved (and there’s plenty to improve). That would have provided a context for introducing the idea of restoring knighthoods, and ensured a more reasoned discussion. Even if the outcome had not been a restoration then, it would have opened up discussion about appropriate means to honour achievement and merit in ways that are more inspirational than the current system and that may, one day, have provided a space for restoring the knightage. Rather, a hubristic moment was allowed to prevail over an opportunity for introducing a considered and enduring change that could appeal to tradition, to moderation and to the generations who had not experienced the ignominy of the end of the first knightage and were curious about the idea.

Instead, we have now had to endure the degrading spectacle of the mainstream and online media yet again participating in and shaping the hunt, well-blooded by the recent years of priming the leadership battles with which the political classes have been amusing themselves. Bringing down a prime minister is now passé, but nasty personal attacks on Prince Philip, criticisms and sly imputations that people such as Dame Marie Bashir or Sir Peter Cosgrove were just grubs with their snouts in the trough, and any number of ever-more bizarre conspiracy theories, especially online, really showed an ugly, callous and spiteful element in the character of our country and, indeed, in many of us.

Abbott’s method of restoring the Australian knightage proved to be unacceptable, and in this his cryptic personality played a role. However, the virulence of the anti-knights is cast from the same mould, as is the pseudo-casual and smug manner with which Prime Minister Turnbull dispatched the third knightage. If only one lesson is learned from this whole fiasco, it should be that neither politicians nor the media (that is, the political classes) should be allowed anywhere near the honours system, especially in shaping the system and its rules, or participating in the nomination or assessment components of that system, although they should remain eligible for awards. As it is, any chance to review and ‘modernise’ (in the current lexicon) the Australian honours system now seems to have been lost for another generation.

And what we are now left with? Dame Quentin Bryce, Dame Marie Bashir, Sir Peter Cosgrove, Sir Angus Houston and Prince Philip, and by implication Sir Ninian Stephen and Prince Charles (from the second knightage) none of whom were politicians, and who each have been recipients of the highest honour bestowed by the Commonwealth of Australia, have had their reputations questioned, their dignity trashed and even their physical appearance ridiculed by an ugly mob sharing the shadenfreude delights of the political classes, in our very own Australian virtual Place de la Revolution. That’s cause enough for national shame, but even worse is that the ugly mob was us. No-one defended our actual, living, feeling ‘knights and dames’. They were, by our silence, thrown to the arm chair revolutionaries, and we all played the role of Madame Defarge, click, click, click. By our silence we let it happen to them, and no amount of disruptiveness, agility, nimbleness or modernity will hide that.  It was an expression of sublime anachronism.

 Vale the Third Knightage.

MH17 One Year On | Mr Norris never forgotten

Today, it snowed in the Blue Mountains where I live.  Today has been marked by commemorations of the first anniversary of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, and the murder of everyone on board.  Today, wattle blossom was for remembrance.

Among those killed was one of my old high school teachers in Geraldton, Western Australia. Nick Norris, or Mr Norris as I knew him, was well-liked by his students, captain of the school cadets, and well known to all when I was a teenage boy at Geraldton Senior High School between 1971 and 1975.

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He was not one of my regular teachers, but I well-remember a day when he stood in for a teacher in a class dealing with human relationship and sex education. The bogans at the back of the class were creating their usual disruptions when he called the ring leader out to the front of the class and gave him the opportunity to share with everyone his knowledge of the venereal diseases that he had been telling his mates about in the back row.

Seeing one of the school bullies red faced and fumbling for words was one of those delicious moments that remains forever in the minds of every school boy and girl who has been subjected to a school bully. At that moment, when the power of a bully crumbled before our eyes, Mr Norris became one of those heroes never forgotten. He showed us that bullies can be stood up to. He gave us back a power we thought we had lost. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who will remember.

That Mr Norris, all these years later, became a victim of the most vicious and invisible of bullies, makes his death even more meaningful. It exposes the awful violence at the heart of nationalism, and through this tragedy we saw the tragedy lived every day by the poor people living among the sunflowers. That his death was shared with his grandchildren and so many other people on that plane makes their loss even sadder and more hurtful. But, as the commemorations today have also shown, neither Mr Norris nor any of the other passengers and crew are forgotten.

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Vale Mr Norris and everyone else murdered on that awful day over the sunflower fields of Ukraine. Your presence will live for a long time yet. You were, and will always remain, a true champion.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness

Only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate

Only love can do that.

(Martin Luther King, 1958)

 

Anzacery, or, Who Is Not Invited To The Great War Centenary?

I watched the commemorations last weekend broadcast from Albany in Western Australia marking the centenary of the departure of the first convoy of ships taking Australian and New Zealand troops to the war. The streets were filled with thousands of cheering onlookers as returned and serving army, navy and air force personnel paraded with banners flying and bands playing. The sun was shining, the old town was all dressed-up, the waters of Prince Royal Harbour and King George Sound were sparkling in a truly inspiring setting. It was all very rousing.

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But it all left me with an odd feeling. Something was missing, but what? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t the sunlit scene, the delight of the crowds or the pride of the marchers. It was something else, something about the way the images were being framed for the television audience, something about the story being told. I wondered if the townsfolk and the marchers knew how their participation was being presented?

Then flicking through the weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald two stories caught my attention. The first, a commentary on page 11 upon the Albany commemorations, noted that Banjo Paterson had been in the convoy as a ‘special commissioner’ reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald. Banjo was apparently an enthusiastic war correspondent for the paper, and wrote a typically evocative piece describing the departure from Albany. However, it was the final two paragraphs that caught my eye. Paterson’s reporting was ignored, his descendants had not been invited to the commemorations, and there were no official plans to honour or mark his connection to the anniversary. Good enough for a ten-dollar note portrait, but not for Anzac commemorations?

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Then on page 18 there was a report on a rarely-noticed event, the attack on a Broken Hill picnic train on new year’s day 1915 by two ‘Afghan’ cameleers that killed four people and wounded another ten. Local people wanted to commemorate the attack, but their requests for support from the official commemorative authorities in Canberra had been ignored. The local police, back in 1915, killed the cameleers, and the attack was reported in the press as a ‘Turk atrocity’. The local people’s retaliation including torching the German Club in Broken Hill, and preventing the fire brigades from extinguishing the fire.

Thinking back to the commemorations in Albany I began to pick at my unease. The dais from which the official speakers spoke was blazoned with the official “100 Years of Anzac” logo. I have been uneasy about this for some time, as it seems to cast the whole five years of war as a single event, almost predetermined, whose only real significance lay in its causing the creation of the Anzac story and, by implication, the birth of ‘the’ Australian ‘nation’. It follows, of course, that anything not connected to Anzac (especially this version) would not get a place in the “100 years of Anzac” story, and I began to see what was making me uneasy, and I began to see who was not in Albany.

The first, and most obvious missing historical actor, was any sense of British involvement. Australian Prime Minister Abbott once mentioned the British Empire in his speech, and New Zealand Prime Minister Key once referred to the Australian Imperial Force, but otherwise any sense that the convoy of a century ago was participating in a British imperial war, or that the departing soldiery had any sense of Britishness or being British subjects was completely erased from the event. When the laying of wreaths took place, there was eventually a call for the “British Ambassador” to take his turn. The whitewashing of Britishness from the commemorations was, to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of early 20th century Australian or New Zealand history (or current intra-Commonwealth diplomatic terminology), utterly bizarre and ahistorical.

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“100 Years of Anzac”, as well as being Britannically-amnesiac, also appears to have no interest in reconciliation with former enemies, except for a certain type of Turk. ‘Johnny Turk’, fighting from the trenches on the Gallipoli peninsula, has been reified as the noble adversary (perhaps has had to be) in order to explain the Anzac’s “loss” in that deadly battle. And, in the roll call of wreath layers was a Turkish diplomat. But, no one was called to represent those erstwhile enemies, the Germans (or the Austrians, Hungarians or Bulgarians). Ironically, that is who the soldiers in the convoy thought they were sailing off the fight. How the Ottoman armies later encountered by the Anzacs in Palestine and Mesopotamia will be represented is yet to be seen, but the historical inconvenience of the ‘Turk atrocity’ near Broken Hill doesn’t augur well.

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The other missing actor from Albany was royalty. The Australian Crown was well represented by the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove KC and the Governor of Western Australia the Honourable Kerry Sanderson AO, but in 1914 there was no Australian Crown, only a single unitary British Crown. The divisibility of the crown was an outcome of the war, but it was unheard off in 1914. Members of the royal family have been evident at war commemorations in Britain and Canada, but apparently have been subject to some sort of silent fatwah in Australia.

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The unease I felt watching the Albany commemorations picked up a similar unease I had felt watching two recent television series, Anzac Girls and The War That Changed Us, both shown on ABC. Both displayed very good production values and told entertaining stories, but at their heart they both conformed to the standard, orthodox, nationalist interpretation of the Great War that has prevailed since the 1960s.

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This interpretation could be called the ‘futilist’ view, and consists of five main points. One, the war was futile and had no actual purpose; two, the main protagonists were Australia (young, free, bronzed, Anzacs) and Britain (decayed, class ridden, pasty, Colonel Blimps) while the Germans and others were a bit of a side-show as ‘our boys’ valiantly fought the incompetent gin-sodden pommie generals; three, everyone on the home front was a pacifist trying to stop the war, either overtly or covertly; four, men only joined up for a ‘boy’s own’ adventure, they had no other meaningful reasons for doing so; and fifth, the few people who actually supported the war in Australia were hysterical imperialists who, by definition, were obviously not real Australians. It is a script straight out of British revisionist historian Alan Clark’s 1961 book, The Donkeys, with an Australian nationalist overlay.

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This futilist approach leaves no space for any counter-narratives. It cannot account for, or even acknowledge, the shameful treatment of German Australians during the war. This national disgrace has never been faced, never accounted for, and still, I believe, forms a large but ignored historical scar. The centenary of the Great War could be a time to open our eyes to seeing this scar, to at least beginning a reconciliation and acknowledgement of our German Australian heritage. It could be a time to face the denigration and repression of German Australia that continued well into the 1920s. It could be a time of healing. It could be time when we might learn of any ‘honourable Germans’, like the Gallipoli Turks. It could be a time to question the war-time attribution of an innate Germanness to the royal family. However, the “100 Years of Anzac[ery]” seems it will be at best ambivalent about any questioning of the German-hating propaganda and rhetoric of a century ago. As the official slogan proclaims, “the spirit lives”.

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The Anzacery of the “100 Years of Anzac”, it seems, is simply unable to cope with histories beyond the futilist view. It just can’t encompass Britishness, reconciliation with old enemies, royalty, a Turkishness beyond Gallipoli, even the descendants of Banjo Paterson. And this is the official commemorative body set up, funded and endorsed by the federal government in Australia. This is the official narrative of commemoration. What is unfolding before our eyes, it seems, and not unexpectedly, is a very limited and nationalistic version of history that, if not endorsed by the “100 Years of Anzac”, then it’s just not the true, real, actual history of the Great War (or rather, of the Anzacs).

It will be fascinating to see just who gets included and who gets excluded from this new official history, and even more fascinating to see the underground commemorations or anti-commemorations that arise among communities who don’t, can’t or won’t conform to the “100 Years of Anzac” official narrative. They might instead choose to mark the centenary of the Great War by trying to understand its consequences that we still live with today.

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References

Neil McMahon, ‘Poet sailed in to Anzac history’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 November 2014, page 11

Damien Murphy, ‘First terror attack recalled’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 November 2014, page 18

Damien Murphy, ‘Silver City Showdown’, Sydney Morning Herald News Review, 1-2 November 2014, page 28

‘Centenary of ANZAC: Albany Commemoration’, News, ABC1, 12:00-3:00pm, 1 November 2014, and blog

‘Anzac Girls’, Drama, ABC1, 10 October to 14 September 2014 (six episodes)

‘The War That Changed Us’, Documentary, ABC1, 19 August to 9 September 2014 (four episodes)

100 Years of Anzac: the spirit lives 2014-2018, official website

Alan Clark, The Donkeys: A history of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915, Hutchinson & Co., London 1961

The Royal Family attending Commonwealth Great War commemorative services in Glasgow and in Liege