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

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.