Us and the U S – Chapter 14

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Patriotism; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]



We might state some conclusions from what we have looked at as follows.


Well, it would seem safe to say that the U S at least feels more independent than Australia, and that its people feel that they and their nation are standing on their own two feet in a way that Australians cannot claim while they continue to import their head of state whose credentials turn on the English Constitution.  The ‘Fourth’ celebrates independence; Thanksgiving in part looks back to the Puritans having a good harvest at Plymouth; Australia Day looks back to the day that the English declared their foreign jail open.  Australians also look for another holiday for the Queen’s Birthday in the Land of the Long Weekend.  Anyone who has celebrated the fourth or fourteenth of July in the nations that do so will know just how flat and empty Australia Day may be.  It can be downright depressing for some.


Next, it would be surprising if there were no differences in the outlooks on life of the two peoples looking at the very different ways that their settlers and migrants arrived.  For the most part the Americans did it on their own, while the Australians did so at the cost of or with the help of government.  People in America, and their politicians, are not as quick as Australians are to look to government for help in life.  Put differently, Australians seem to depend on government more for welfare than Americans do.  The razzmatazz heart of capitalism can put a value on frugality and see a virtue in simplicity that would dismay southern Europe – and Australians.

Australians do not see this as a minus – anymore than England, France, and Germany do.  How many Americans see their side as a plus is an interesting question, but is this also one ground for suggesting that people in Australia, as opposed to the people of Australia, may be less independent than their American counterparts?  The Americans seem to have been primed to seek independence from Britain by their earlier acceptance of settlers and migrants who were not British, and by their greater spread of wealth among the landed gentry and the middle classes in the cities – and by their greater and longer accumulation of wealth.

Has this distinction led to a greater emphasis on what is called free enterprise or the role of the entrepreneur in America than in Australia?  Do people in America rely more on what they can negotiate for themselves and are they less dependent on their classification with the government than Australians?  Is the old difference between contract and status still relevant?

These are hazy areas, but Australians going to the U S are frequently impressed immediately by the eagerness of people to do business with them on a one on one basis.  The Americans tend to look and sound more business-like – and it is first person singular: it is what ‘I’ have or can do, not what ‘we’ have got or can do.  ‘What are you offering cash for on your first drink?  Can’t you see that I am running a business behind in this bar?’  And, if a tip is part of the deal, don’t be surprised to be told that you have not kept up your end of it.  But if in some sense Americans have been more enterprising than Australians, then that distinction may well be being eroded now at either end.


The impact of the frontier is much, much more evident and extensive in America than in Australia.  There was a kind of battle or series of wars going on for territory for hundreds of years.  If this led to some rough and tough sense of independence, as it did with the Boers in South Africa, it also has led to an appalling tolerance of guns and violence that so disturbs friends of America.

The macho man is on the wane, and men at large can no longer pretend that women just do not exist.  The whole idea of a man’s world is now just bullshit, although the grosser aspects of American football and ice hockey are some fairly stern reminders of the deep love of violence in the American psyche.

There is something of a contradiction close to the heart of American politics.  For all the popular participation in or celebration of the American system, there is a deep streak of aversion to or suspicion of government or the state in America, as some kind of bogey man whose only function is to rob real people of their purpose – and their money.  Australians do not like or trust politicians.  That is not a prejudice, but a reasoned conclusion from evidence that is all too obvious and painful.  But do you see there the same kind of suspicion of the very basis of government?  Australians have been wrapped up in government from their beginning, and have not been as exposed as the Americans to the isolating effects of the frontier.  The North Queensland separatism is not of the Texan order.  There may well be a big distinction in basic attitudes to government in the two countries.  A seizing up of the American machine, even if self-induced, may amplify any difference.


What most Australians and other outsiders see as the continuing murderous triumph of the gun lobby in the States is partly down to money – which does seem to carry more weight in America than in other parts of the West – and partly down to what might be called a doctrinaire streak in American public life.  The English Constitution derives from the common law and is set out in many old acts and texts.  Ultimately, it is a state of mind.  Its empirical methods are utterly different to those of a rationalist interpreting and applying a code.  The common law discourages large pronouncements on doctrine.  A constitutional court applies a much more rationalist approach from a large and irrefutable predicate, the constitution, and it produces a lot more doctrine and dogma as a result.

This is where the great power – liberal or conservative – arises with the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court.  The right to bear arms in the 1689 Bill of Rights is still part of the law in England and the Australian states, but not as part of an unalterable tablet of the law.  The difference is immense – only a very loose cannon in England or Australia would suggest that it might have the consequences presently contended for by a majority of the U S Supreme Court.

Almost no American would want to give up their Bill of Rights, although all sides would dearly like to see a great change in some or other of its manifestations from time to time.  You find people on both sides of the divide in Australia, but the short answer is that there is nothing to suggest that a referendum might be passed to amend its Constitution to entrench a Bill of Rights.

As against that, the Americans do have a commitment to their ‘rights’ as an article of faith which is admirable.  If that leads to a kind of legalism, and readiness to resort to law that most in Europe or Asia would find vulgar, or something that only Americans could afford, so be it.


Both countries are parliamentary democracies.  The states have more power and substance in America.  (That is a plus there – it would not be in Australia, where there is far too much government already.)  The U S gave the President more power on paper, but Australians would not want their nominal leader not to be answerable in the parliament.  The Australians have by attrition just about ditched an independent civil service, and ministers no longer resign for the sins of their department.  Australia is abandoning the Westminster System by default.

An independent judiciary is available to and essential for both nations.  They have inherited this facility from the English, but it is a major difference between these nations and others from the common law tradition and just about the rest of the world.  Lawyers had a formative role in building the constitution in both England and America, and in fighting for that constitution and for people’s rights.  The judges and juries and lawyers have provided a check on power and a release for dissent that have been indispensable to continuity in government and freeing the nation from the violent political friction that is seen almost everywhere else in the world.  Lawyers, or at least legally qualified statesmen, like Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison (the Father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights), Marshall (the first Chief Justice), Adams, and Lincoln were true political giants and not just for Americans.  We see there concentrations of intellectual firepower that might make the Florentine Renaissance look knock-kneed and which might also give their successors reason to pause.

The party system, and with it the parliamentary system, are stressed, for different reasons in each country, but to an equally worrying degree.  Money is huge in American politics, and that fact is not good for the image of America.  It resembles a capitalist feudal structure, a hierarchy of power and patronage built on capital rather than land.  It looks to outsiders as if too many people are in the pockets of too few other people and as if money has too much clout.  The world looks on nervously to see when Wall Street might invite us to look into a black hole of its own devising.

God only knows what Jefferson or Hamilton might have made of our deathless embrace of the dollar.  The conservative columnist George Will wrote that there was ‘an elegant memorial in Washington to Jefferson, but none to Hamilton.  However, if you seek Hamilton’s monument, look around.  You are living in it.  We honour Jefferson, but live in Hamilton’s country.’  At the end of his recent work, Jefferson and Hamilton, Professor John Ferling of the University of West Georgia said:

Today’s America is more Hamilton’s America.  Jefferson may never have fully understood Hamilton’s funding and banking systems, but better than most he gleaned the potential dangers that awaited the future generations living in the nation state that Hamilton wished to bring into being.  Presciently, and with foreboding, Jefferson saw that Hamiltonianism would concentrate power in the hands of the business leaders and financiers that it primarily served, leading inevitably to an American plutocracy every bit as dominant as monarchs and titled aristocrats had once been.  Jefferson’s fears were not misplaced.  In modern America, concentrated wealth controls politics, leading even the extremely conservative Senator John McCain to remark that ‘both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.’  The American nation, with its incredibly powerful chief executive, gargantuan military, repeated intervention in the affairs of foreign states, and political system in the thrall of great wealth, is the very world that Jefferson abhorred.

To what extent do Trump supporters abhor that world?  While Australia remains wedded to English legal procedures, and you can see and feel a horse-hair wig in many state courts, the American court system has developed on its own with benefits to others including Australia.  We should all be grateful that the Americans are continuing to champion the role and place of the jury.

Here is just one example of the differences in government between the two countries, and one that is very characteristic.  Americans do not have compulsory voting; Australia does.  Each side thinks that the other is mad.  The Americans rely on doctrine about liberty; the Australians rely on results.  They think that their system works and that the American does not.  This is another example of doctrine or dogma triumphing over experience in America – at least that is how it appears to Australians.


Religion got off to a strong start in America.  It got off to a bad start in Australia – the Reverend Marsden was a flogging parson, and the Anglican Church was and is as establishment as you can get – the monarch of the nation, its Head of State, has to be a member of it; its bishops were lords of the realm, and members of the House of Lords.  It does seem clear that religion is a more live force in America, and that Australians tend to count their comparative relaxation if not liberation as an unqualified plus.

The churches in Australia played a far greater role in the development of independent schools.  The churches now have very little part to play in these schools, but the failure of governments in Australia to see that its schools keep up with the private schools – called, after the English model, ‘public schools’ – is a part of the biggest failure of government in Australia – and a failure for which the church is not to blame.  There is a frightful inequality among Australian schools, a kind of educational apartheid.  Many parents who can afford to reject the schools offered for their children by their government.  This may be Australia’s biggest failure.

Although education is not a Commonwealth function under the Constitution, it is in fact their responsibility.  Generations of ineptitude and buck-passing at all levels had led to a disgraceful failure to provide an equal opportunity for the young people of Australia to get the kind of good education that they deserve and that the nation needs.  We now see a parliament composed in large part of those who had a free university education legislating to deny that right to others.  The products of the age of entitlement are kicking away the ladder.  This tragic failure of national fibre may never be corrected.  It would require deep foresight and a cool nerve.  Australia’s politicians have neither.


A sense of independence and self-creation, a real revolution, the creeping frontier, real heroes, and mythical ones, and God – all these have made patriotism much more visible in the U S than elsewhere.  Americans look to get more involved in national affairs than Australians, and to show more reverence for their flag and at least for the office of President, but this patriotism can get syrupy in a way that got up the nose of Alexis de Tocqueville, and it can lead to a kind of moral blindness – in places in the world where that kind of thing might ultimately be noticed.


Each nation got to where it by means that many would prefer to forget.  Both relied at the start on the free labour of imported convicts – they were Australia’s raison d’être – but before they could do that, they had to wrest the land from its native occupiers.  They did so in a way that caused immeasurable misery and loss and by means that most people cannot now square with the tenets of religion of the invaders.

There is not much to be gained from getting hung up on labels, as the Turks want to do with the Armenians.  The label of ‘genocide’ may or may not be contentious.  What matters are not labels, but the evidence of what happened, and the moral or political conclusions that can be drawn from that evidence.

These are issues as much for Britain as they are for America and Australia, and that may not be a bad thing, because the British may not get so skittish about a subject that they may know a lot about because of their shame in Ireland and because of their experience in the rest of their Empire.

In reviewing a book by Tom Lawson, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, Professor Bernard Porter said:

The lesson the Holocaust should be used to teach – if it’s proper for history to be used in this way at all – is that any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right.  It wasn’t just the Germans.  In different circumstances the British might have behaved as badly.  In certain circumstances – and the Tasmanian case is an example – they did.

‘Any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right’ is you might think a self-evident truth.  It is surprising how many people either do not acknowledge it, or do not accept that it applies to them, and they do so on the footing of the foundation of the whole bloody problem, the state of mind called ‘racism’, the belief that we are better than they are.


The main difference between the two nations lies in their standing in the world.  America is the biggest economy and the leader of what used to be called the free world.  America’s leading role was achieved by industry and invention working on its resources, and intellectual property laws have helped to secure its world primacy.

Australia is a client state of the U S.  It is not as troublesome as Israel, but not as close either.  Australia loyally followed its patron and protector into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan in order to honour and secure the alliance, but not one Australian government has felt able to acknowledge that fact.  There is what is now called ‘a disconnect’ between the governors and the governed in Australia on the subject of honouring the U S alliance in much the same way that there is a disconnect in America on the subject of tax – they are, if you like, the elephants in the room.  While Australians were objecting that all their politicians were the same, those politicians stood firm in favour of the Afghan War when most Australians wanted to get out of it.

But against that is the tendency to hubris that we saw, and the brittleness of Americans noticed by de Tocqueville – and now their obvious lack of appetite for any ventures overseas, for which they receive no offer of help beforehand or vote of thanks afterwards, and which is predicated on a failure of the U N for which the U S is not responsible.


Finally, and for whatever reason, there is a deep streak of orthodoxy and conservatism, or, if you prefer, an aversion to risk and scepticism of novelty or adventure, in both countries.  At least in the case of America, that comes as a surprise.

More than one hundred years ago, the English nation elected as their Prime Minister a grandson of an Italian Jew, who went on to become the closest confidante of the most powerful monarch in history.  More than eighty years ago, the English elected as their Prime Minister a man of Scottish descent who represented the labouring class.  More than thirty years ago, they elected their first woman Prime Minister.  Americans now have had their first black President, but it took them nearly two hundred years to elect a Catholic as President, and they are yet to elect to that office a woman, a working man, or a Jew.  All three of those omissions are extraordinary – to speak softly – in light of the contribution to American life made by those who have not made it.

In truth, the U S does have the appearance of a conservative and hidebound republic.  To this day no one could reasonably run for the office of President of the United States while claiming to stand for working men and women or to profess openly the views on religion that we believe were held by Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and Lincoln – none of whom stands low in the American pantheon.  The inability to move appears worse with a political engine where the gears are clashing, and with a disparity in incomes and assets that appears to be both growing and insidious.

Hardly any of the criminals behind the 2008 crash ever looked like going behind bars; the great citadels of business look to be beyond, or immune to, the criminal law that otherwise maintains an ever growing prison population that is massively black; the big corporates just do cosy deals in private with the lawyers and civil servants called regulators; an agreed amount of boodle goes to the state as a bribe; the company adjusts its books in an accounting exercise; the shareholders get a reduced dividend; the real crooks keep their jobs and their unimaginable bonuses; and your average Joe winds up in the slammer for much lower levels of crime.

Australia is struggling under too much government and too much law, and a disinterest and distrust of politics that was once a charm, but which now sustains groups of inept and mediocre politicians who have never held down a real job and who are determined to put their own interests above those of the people.  The nation has next to nothing to look back on politically except a kind of enduring noiseless torpor.  There is almost no chance of anyone seeing anything like the vision, drive or guts of David Lloyd George or Winston Churchill when they fought for the People’s Budget.  By and large, the politicians and the press have succeeded in either anaesthetizing or repelling the people.  Each of the two main parties is prepared to execute a leader who is insufficiently bland and to replace them with an antiseptic model that the people trust even less: and then the people in disgust or despair vote for authentic layabouts, charlatans, urgers, bludgers and downright thieves.

In truth, if you look at the giant steps that the English took leading up to the settlement of 1689, and the explosion in France in 1789, most of the work of laying down the fabric of government in America and Australia was done for them by more purposeful people elsewhere, and they have proceeded quite doggedly to hold the line and preserve the status quo.  The day of the indigenous peoples has long since passed; the day of people of colour may or may not be at hand; only God knows if women will ever win anything like equality.


The suggestion that America and Australia are both innately conservative might come as a surprise to those in either country who like to see each as progressive if not radical.  It will not come as a surprise to those at the bottom of the pile in either America or Australia.  Those poor people will see their country as anything but progressive, or open to people of all types.

This conservatism might show itself in different ways.  We saw that Benjamin Franklin said that America was a land ‘where a general happy mediocrity prevails.’  That condition has not been sustained in a way that has produced any real kind of social equality in America – at the very least, American society does not look nearly as egalitarian as Australia’s.  Trump got elected on inequality.

The downside for Australia is the frightening mediocrity of its politics.  The land dubbed as ‘the quarry with a view’ is now revolted by its politicians.  How is it that the nation appears to be so economically successful?

Nearly fifty years ago, a writer called Donald Horne published a book called The Lucky Country.  The book immediately resonated with Australians and became a best seller, and is now something of a classic.  Its essential conclusion looks more true now than in 1964:

Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck….Many of the nation’s affairs are conducted by racketeers of the mediocre who have risen to authority in a non-competitive community where they are protected in their adaptations of other people’s ideas….Much of its public life is stunningly bad, but its ordinary people are fulfilling their aspirations.

Robin Boyd’s book The Australian Ugliness was just as insightful, but it did not have the same measure of success.  In touching on the shallowness of Australian public life, Boyd said of the Australian that ‘He has a high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of assurance in anything he thinks.’

At the end of his book The Rise and Fall of Australia, Nick Bryant referred to remarks made by Bertrand Russell to Australians in 1950 as he was leaving their shores after the intellectuals’ version of a royal tour: ‘Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble.  Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not.  I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence.’

A similar observation might have been made to Americans at the time.  Were Americans or Australians too comfortable to take so much trouble?  Has each of them settled for a general happy mediocrity?

[That is the final extract from Us and the U S.  Nest week, we will begin instalments, unaltered, from ‘Top Shelf – Or What Used to be called a Liberal Education’ – a review of great books or books that reflect how we live.]

Here and there – Huckleberry Finn

[This is an extract from a follow up on great books in ‘Top Shelf’ which is currently being put together.]

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.  I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary Aunt Polly – tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book – which is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before.

That’s how this novel starts.  Huck then has supper with the widow.

After the supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers; and I was in sweat to find out all about him; but by-and-by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable time; so then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

This book is about the friendship between two people, Huck and Jim, who are both fugitives – Huck is fleeing from one beastly white man, his father; Jim is a Negro who is fleeing from all white men.  They are both, if you like, refugees – but Jim’s condition is pitiful and illegal, while Huck is troubled that he is assisting to escape – it is like aiding a thief.

The hypocrisy shocks us now.  One lady, quite possibly one of an ‘evangelical’ disposition, feels sorry for and takes pity for someone she believes to be a runaway apprentice – Huck – but boasts about unleashing the dogs on a runaway slave – Jim.  Twain said that ‘a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,’ and he certainly got that right.

Three things will trike you quickly about this book – it is a ripper of a yarn; it is written in a graphic vernacular; and it tells home truths about America as it was – and, sadly, still is.

On each of those grounds, it is a wonder that T S Eliot was a fan.  And he was more than just a fan.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the only one of Mark Twain’s various books which can be called a masterpiece….Huck Finn is alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction.  The fact that he has a father only emphasizes his loneliness; and he views his father with a terrifying detachment.  So we come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other great discoveries that man has made about himself.

Well, there you go – none of those five characters – or ‘permanent symbolic features of fiction’ – is a bottom-feeder.  Each is, apparently, a great discovery that man has made about himself.

Some of the most hilarious passages in the book concern two grifters known as the King and the Duke – David Garrick the Younger and Edmund Kean the Elder – who scam hillbilly towns by posing as actors.  They have a killer merchandising card: ‘LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED.’  That really winds up the locals.  (Before the election of Trump, you may have thought that kind of mockery was over the top.)

But how could they leave Jim on his own on the raft on the Mississippi when any number of people would rush to seize him for the reward?

He was uncommon bright, the duke was, and he soon struck it.  He dressed Jim up in King Lear’s outfit – it was a long curtain calico gown, and white horse-hair wig and whiskers; and then he took his theatre paint and painted Jim’ s face and hands and ears and neck all over a dead dull solid blue, like a man that’s been drownded nine days.  Blamed if he warn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see.  Then the duke took and wrote a sign on a shingle so –

Sick Arab – but harmless when not out of his head.

And he nailed that shingle to a lath, and stood the lath up four or five foot in front of the wigwam.  Jim was satisfied.

Heartless or malicious people can’t write like that.  It is therefore sad – if perhaps not surprising – that some members of the American academic establishment think this book is ‘racist’ and that it should be banned from schools or the like.

Some get exercised over the repeat use of the word ‘nigger’.  It is not a good idea to try to resolve issues of moment by recourse to labels.  It is as hard for me to think that the author of Huckleberry Finn was loaded against black Americans as it is hard for me to think that the author of Kim was loaded against the peoples of India.  The whole of the book in each case refutes the allegation.  Rather, in my view, the charge reflects a prejudice in the mind of the person making it.

The two novels have a lot in common.  The hero of each is a boy.  He falls in with a man who is older than him and who is of a different race and a different world.  They embark on a journey, physically and morally.  The novel is about their coming together – like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  If we were a little less Anglo-Saxon about all this, we might even say that this was a love story.

However that may be, Huckleberry Finn, like the other two novels just mentioned, is a testament to humanity that can stand however many readings you need for a decent fix.  So, read it say once a year – as Faulkner said that he did with Don Quixote – and leave those dreary drongos to strain like gnats at a camel.

Here then is T S Eliot again, a man not given to sweeping praise.

What is obvious … is the pathos and dignity of Jim, and this is moving enough; but what I find still more disturbing, and still more unusual in literature, is the pathos and dignity of the boy, when reminded so humbly and humiliatingly, that his position in the world is not that of other boys, entitled from time to time to a practical joke; but that he must bear, and bear alone, the responsibility of a man.  It is Huck who gives the book style. The River gives the book its form.….

And it is as impossible for Huck as for the River to have a beginning or end — a career. So the book has the right, the only possible concluding sentence. I do not think that any book ever written ends more certainly with the right words:

‘But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before’.

I wonder if Ken Kesey had that ending in mind when he ended One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the words: ‘I been away a long time.’

Passing bull 160 – Sense and nonsense


According to something I wrote, the ‘genius of Einstein gave us the insight that people who cannot explain an idea to a six year old can probably not understand it themselves’.  I am not sure where that leaves the theory of relativity, but it is a good talking point.

Hannah Arendt revealed two competing views in her lectures on Kant’s political philosophy.  Kant said that ‘every philosophical work must be susceptible of popularity; if not it probably conceals nonsense beneath a fog of seeming sophistication.’  Now, we lawyers have been copping that raspberry for centuries – as often as not in all fairness – together with priests and doctors.  (Economists are just out of this world.)

Elsewhere Kant said:

Do you really require that a kind of knowledge which concerns all men should transcend the common understanding and should only be revealed to you by philosophers?….In matters which concern all men without distinction, nature is not guilty of any partial distribution of her gifts, and in regard to the essential ends of human nature, the highest philosophy cannot advance further than is possible under the guidance which nature has bestowed even upon the most ordinary understanding.

Well, very few of us can penetrate The Critique of Pure Reason, but at least Kant’s heart was in the right place – and, since he was speaking before Einstein, Kant was speaking of a reachable objective.

Very few people read Hegel now.  The following shows why.

Philosophy by its very nature is something esoteric, which is not made for the mob, nor is it capable of being prepared for the mob; philosophy is philosophy only to the extent that is the very opposite of the intellect and even more the opposite of common sense, by which we understand the local and temporary limitations of generations; in its relation to this common sense, the world of philosophy as such is a world turned up-side down.

This is a direct contradiction, almost word for word, of Kant; it oozes with snobbery right down its front; and in truth it envisages a kind of intellectual apartheid.

When therefore we meet people who reveal or claim a level of learning that entitles them to talk down to us, let us tell them, among other things, that they are careering towards oblivion – and that we wish them God speed in their career.


‘The harms essentially are bad outcomes to financial consumers,’ he says.

‘A harm is, for instance, a financial consumer paying for a product that they don’t need, or paying for a product that is just completely inappropriate for them, or paying for a product which was faulted from its very inception.

‘It’s really important, and this is the influence of thinkers like Professor Sparrow, a regulatory agency needs to identify the harms that we want to prevent. It’s not so much about risks. Risks will always be there. There will always be the risks of the probability of the harm occurring.

‘Then you have drivers for harms. For instance, everyone talks about technological change. Technological change is not a risk, it’s not a harm but it’s a driver.’

Shipton says that when he first arrived in Australia for pre-meetings before taking over as ASIC chairman he met with APRA chairman Wayne Byres to discuss collaboration and co-operation.

‘I remember going to his office and saying to him in no uncertain terms I am absolutely firmly committed that ASIC as an organisation I work with is going to redouble, triple its efforts in ensuring that we work collaboratively, co-operate and we co-ordinate as and when necessary depending on the different regulatory settings,’ he says.

The Australian Financial Review, 8 August, 2018.

Hamlet said that there was a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  That may be just as well, because otherwise we are all doomed.

I wonder if Hegel may have contemplated that the one phenomenon may have been – at the time – a risk, a harm, and a driver.

Passing bull 159 – Yours sincerely


One of the problems of saying something ‘sincerely’ is like that which you may experience in saying something ‘honestly’ – what inference might your correspondent draw if you choose to omit the modifier?  If you say that you are being sincere or honest, what happens if you do not say so?  Depending on whether there is a relationship of trust and confidence, might the problem be worse if you say that you are speaking ‘candidly’?  ‘What am I to think if you choose your words to suggest that you are not being candid with me?’  Might you be entering that moral zone that allows some people to commit not the original but the ultimate sin – cheating at golf?  Or are you one of those people who think that tampering with a cricket ball, which is a breach of the rules with a defined penalty, is worse than bowling underarm (or bodyline), which is not a breach of the rules, except that which refers to ‘the spirit of the game’, but which certainly brings the game into contempt and may create an international incident?

The Oxford English Dictionary has for ‘sincere’ – ‘Not falsified or perverted in any way; genuine, pure; veracious; exact.’  When you say that you are being sincere, you are saying that ‘I (really or truly) believe this’. You are in fact, as the OED suggests, denying that you are lying.  That is why it is usually at best dangerous and at worst wrong for a disciplinary tribunal to order someone to apologise for what they have done.  If you order John or Betty to say ‘I am sorry I did that’, you may be ordering them to lie.

But the notion of sincerity has a role to play in public life.  Some politicians come across as insincere and that is very bad for them.  Let’s put to one side the leading Australian contender for that role and look at Hillary Clinton.  Too many people believed that she did not really stand for anything except Hillary Clinton, and that was a significant reason why she lost.  The fact that the man who beat her was and always will be so much guiltier of that failing is one of those sad accidents of history to which the lottery of democracy is unfortunately prone.  (And we might add that the failings of democracy are best advertised by those who claim to represent the ‘people’ – which is about the most lethal form of insincerity that you could imagine.)

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who should know better, has a related problem.  With as much front as Myers, she solemnly and sincerely affirms to the camera: ‘I insist on being truthful, not neutral’.  This is not just a false dichotomy – as a journalist she not only can but should aspire to being both truthful and neutral.   But if she sincerely believes this promo, CNN has a problem.  It is endorsing loaded reporting – how does this distinguish them from Fox News?  You may argue that being passionate is consistent with being professional – I think you would lose; but you certainly cannot be both professional and partisan. 

Sincerity is always likely to be out of place where objectivity is required – particularly in a professional relationship.  If your doctor says to you ‘I sincerely believe that surgery is your best way forward,’ you would surely wonder why a professional person would feel the need to give some form of personal warranty.  You want your doctor to be professional not personal.  It’s the same if your lawyer says ‘I sincerely believe that you should take this offer.’  And it’s a total disaster if the lawyer tells the judge or jury that he or she sincerely believes anything.  The process involves an objective review of the evidence according to law, not a subjective exposé of the state of mind of one of the participants.

It may be part of the job of the professional adviser to assist the punter – the patient, or client, or parishioner, say – to reach a sensible conclusion while believing that they have reached that position with complete freedom.  (Some professionals have a conception of ‘guided democracy’ that is not far short of that of Messrs Erdogan or Putin, but that is a matter for another day.)  But if the professional offers some form of personal assurance in that process, they are not just defying logic – they are being unprofessional.

And that proposition – which I regard as assured – illustrates the main problem in our public life now.  Sensible discussion proceeds by a sensible (or, you prefer reasonable or objective) review of the evidence and arguments, and not by succumbing to some personal invocation to ‘Follow me.’  We should leave that to people who are content, for whatever reason, to follow the injunctions of the man called Christ or the man called the Prophet or the man called the Führer.   But, tragically, too many people are happy to check their brains in at the door and follow, like a herd of cattle, the personal call of people like Farage, Hanson, or Trump.

For the second time in two years, I am dealing with an illness that will kill me unless it is dealt with.  To deal with it, I am immensely fortunate to have access to the best science and professional practice in the world.  I place full trust in my professional advisers.  I act on their advice.  I am not a religious fanatic whose faith may limit my options, but I suppose that at least in theory, there were at least two options open to me (excluding sticking my head in the sand).  One was to follow science as expounded by my professional advisers.  Another was to follow the tribal customs of, say, the Hottentots or Esquimaux or the Murdoch press – and commit the teaching of science to the flames.

How else do you express the mess that we have got into on our environment than by expressing the view that too many people have been seduced into the second course?  And that is before you ask whether these snake-oil salesmen believe their nostrums – ‘sincerely believe’ them – or just lay them out because this is how they make a living.  The latter would of course involve another form of unprofessional conduct, but that, too, is a matter for another day.

In his book, On Bullshit, Professor Frankfurt says:

It is just this lack of a connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit … Bullshit is unavoidable wherever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.  The essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony.

Of more relevance to this note, the Professor ended his book with these words:

Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.


Asked if it was standard practice for the federal government to hand $400m to an organisation without any tender process or transparency, Frydenberg said the process had ‘a lot of transparency.

 ‘I really think that this is being raised as a distraction from the government’s achievement in investing in the reef, as opposed to anything else’ he said.

The Guardian, 3 August, 2018.

‘A lot of transparency’ is up there with ‘a little bit pregnant’ or ‘I really think’ – bullshit.  Do these people sincerely believe that we came down in the last bloody shower?

Us and the U S – Chapter 13

Us and the US

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Patriotism; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]



The English Bill of Rights bans anyone from holding the Crown of England who is ‘…reconciled to, or shall hold communion with…the…Church of Rome…or shall marry a papist’.  The English Bill of Rights is still part of the laws of each state of Australia.  The English Act of Settlement of 1701 forbids the holder of the crown to marry ‘a papist’ and says that anyone who shall ‘come into possession of the Crown shall join in communion with the Church of England’.

The Queen of Australia must ‘join in communion with the Church of England.’  Her successor may marry someone of another faith – say a Muslim sister of Osama bin Laden – and Australia might ask the English Crown to approve of the appointment of a Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or Infidel Governor-General, but the English crown – the Australian crown – is denied religious freedom or tolerance.  It is, and must remain, Anglican.  Well, why shouldn’t the English have what they want?

Section 116 of the Australian Constitution provides:  ‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth’.  On the issue of an established church, and imposing religious observance, the Australian Constitution therefore provides for the direct opposite of the constitution of the United Kingdom.  Australia is schizophrenic at its ecclesiastical summit.

There does not look to have been much chance of some pious and ambitious types trying to set up an established church in Australia, but the Commonwealth of Australia is left in the anomalous position of being a country that cannot have an established church taking its monarch from a nation that must have an established church as a result of ancient British laws that Australians cannot change, but that are entirely repugnant to the laws of Australia as a whole.

Putting that quirk to one side, Australians have not had much trouble with religion, but such troubles as they have had did religion no good.  It is very much an ebbing force in communal life in Australia.

Religious conflict in Australia was mainly imported.  That is hardly surprising in a migrant nation.  Geoffrey Blainey has this comment: ‘Between 1929 and 1949, Irish Australians, three of whom were Catholics and one a lapsed Catholic, held the post of Prime Minister in every year but two.  One of the Catholics, Joe Lyons, dramatically left the Labor Party and headed a conservative government from 1932 to 1939.’  This was a bad premonition of an even worse split in the Labor Party, one that would disenfranchise a generation.

The issue of Church and State flickered on about state aid to church schools, but the disasters of about sixty years of religious fuelling of political debate meant that anyone trying that kind of thing could expect to be under a large bucket of something quite malodorous.  The churches as a whole now have very little influence in politics, and proponents of some worthy causes might be inclined to pray that the princes of the church just stay out of the fray.  However, on issues that are said to be moral like abortion and euthanasia, a small number of religious people can make enough noise to frighten off politicians who are by nature timid.  In 2017, that would be said of the dispute about equality.

The international abuse scandal is seen by those opposed to the churches as confirming all their fears, and when it broke, the church found no reservoir of goodwill or even sympathy.


The First Amendment to the U S Constitution provides: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances’.  So, the Australian model had followed the American on setting up rather more than Chinese Walls between Church and State by banning an established church and by guaranteeing freedom of religion.

The picture on the ground in England and in the U S looks to be the reverse of what it is on paper.  The English queen is the head of a state religion, but religion has a minimal effect on English politics; you could make much the same observation for Australia; in the U S, there is no established church, but de facto the president has to go through the motions of being a professed Christian, and religion has a continuing and significant effect on U S politics, an effect that is not widely admired outside of the U S.

For the most part, the early presidents were products of the Enlightenment who were at best not enthused about a personal God.  Lincoln was clearly nowhere near being a practising Christian.  There is not much point speculating which presidents may have been communicant Christians.  One American historian spoke of ‘The assumption that the United States is morally superior to other nations, the assertion that it must redeem the world by spreading popular government’, and ‘faith in the nation’s divinely ordained destiny to fulfil this mission.’  The ‘rhetoric of empire’ is a lot worse than the Napoleon complex – that cost more than five million lives in European wars fought so that Europe might know the blessing of French republican liberty – Napoleon did not claim to be sent by God.

This kind of talk is terrifying to those outside America.  It is not just that the U S has an appalling record of getting into bed for its own purposes with corrupt, repressive, and wicked rulers who are sponsored to stand over and hold down their people in the name of freedom and democracy – the more serious problem is that this is being done because the Americans, like the Hebrews, Romans, and English before them have been chosen by Providence for just that mission.  That is something that no-one outside America believes, and hopefully something that very, very few sane Americans believe.

Then, even putting to one side that two presidents in the lifetime of the author suffered from a manic incapacity to hold their pants up, and an equally manic drive to abuse the power of their high office and trust, and putting to one side TV evangelists, there is the spell-binding hypocrisy of it all.  Here we have Uncle Sam bringing truth, justice, freedom, and the American way to the oppressed peoples of the world – in the name of and on a mission from Almighty God – even to those poor souls not yet blessed with a revelation of God’s plan for them – in faraway and dangerous places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Then the problem of hypocrisy went into orbit with the election of Donald Trump.

A few years ago Australia saw its first female Prime Minister.  One day the U S might chance its arm on a woman, but there is little or no chance on present form that the first U S woman president will be a professed atheist living in sin.  Neither that PM, nor any other Australian has claimed that Australians have a mission to the world for which they have been chosen by God.


Here and there – Shakespeare on film – a first XI


Someone suggested that I do a note on my favourite films of Shakespeare – recognising that the list today might change radically tomorrow.  Here then is today’s first XI – in alphabetical order.

All’s Well that Ends Well is the only play by this author I have not seen on stage.  The 1981 BBC version features two of my favourite actors, and not just in Shakespeare – Ian Charleson and Michael Hordern.  Bertram is a rotten role, but Charleson was so good.  Hordern for me is like Gielgud – they both look like they were born to play Shakespeare.  Hordern oozes Lafew.  There is a wonderful scene – Act V scene ii – where Parolles is wretched and roughly dealt with by the Clown, and Lafew takes him under his wing.  It is pure magic that can’t be taught.  No wonder Hordern terrified Richard Burton as a scene stealer.

The 1984 BBC Coriolanus has a spellbinding performance from Alan Howard in the lead.  He makes no effort to hide his contempt of the mob, and this author knew how to show politics in the gutter.  The sets the BBC employed are perfect for this plot.  Irene Worth is the mother-in-law from hell.  Riveting political drama that is relevant to our time.

I have never understood the fuss about Citizen Kane, but it is hard to avoid the word genius with Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight of 1965.  The film draws on all the Falstaff plays – except Merry Wives.  Somehow it manages to convey the essence of the author’s most famous character.  Gielgud plays the king, and Norman Rodwell is brilliant as a restless young prince wondering if he might be soulless. He was his father’s son.  (It was a bit rich for the producers to give second billing to the late Jean Moreau for Doll – she has about four lines.)

It’s hard to believe that Branagh’s Hamlet came out more than twenty years ago – in 1996.  I saw it four times at the Astor in packed houses.  Some of these dream cast jobs can get wearisome but not this one.  The late Richard Briers was a Branagh favourite and another professional scene stealer.  Rufus Sewell was perfect for Horatio – the kind of guy who would give you a very worrying night if he came to take out your daughter.  The late Robin Williams aired his magic as the courtier, and Gerard Depardieu shows what a wonderful screen presence he has as he stares down Richard Briers with the least lines in the play.

Branagh’s Henry V (1989) got flogged to death in my house when a daughter wrote a ballet to the music.  Branagh’s enthusiasm is infectious.  He broke off with Emma Thompson, but she is very sexy here – and backed up by the great Geraldine McEwan.  Ian Holm nearly steals the show as Fluellen, he having played the lead in the Harper Collins audio.  You also get the bonus of Brian Blessed as Exeter and Richard Briers as Bardolph. The other great scene stealer is Mountjoy, the French Herald.  Blessed is wonderful in confronting the French, and Scofield shows what a great actor he was.  (I’m sure Brian Blessed was in Z Cars and that Sergeant Barlow called him ‘a teddy boy in uniform’: that English frankness was a real revelation to me.)

The whole cast of the BBC Henry VIII (1979) is strong – led by John Stride and Claire Bloom – but Timothy West is splendid as the doomed Cardinal Wolsey – the very definition of a professional politician.  The phrase ‘spin doctor’ could have been coined for this great play.  The scene where the plot to unseat the Archbishop is foiled is unforgettable high politics.

When Brando did Julius Caesar in 1953, I was about eight.  This film helped introduce my girls to Shakespeare: ‘Golly, Dad, who’s that hunk?’  This is another wonderful political plot.  Brando is amazing in the big speech, but we tend to forget the dramatic power of the next two scenes.  Shakespeare wrote a lot about how easy it is to inflame the mob.  He would be horrified but not surprised by seeing the mob in action today.

Fantasy and slapstick are hard to put on the screen, but the 1998 Hollywood Midsummer Night’s Dream gives it a real shot.  Kevin Kline and the director, and clips from opera, make Bottom an intriguing star, but David Strathairn and Sophie Marceau are just right as royalty – and there is no doubt that Michelle Pfeiffer was Hollywood royalty.

The Branagh Much Ado about Nothing of 1994 has one of the most invigorating starts of a movie.  Emma Thompson is deadly as Beatrice, but Michael Keaton nearly runs off with show in the comic parts.

It would be churlish to skip Richard Burton and his then wife Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 Taming of the Shrew directed by the great film and opera director, Franco Zeffirelli.  The screen is painted with something close to an Old Master level, and Michael Hordern as the unfortunate dad again shows his lethal scene stealing.

When I saw Julie Taymor’s debut as feature film director in Titus in 1999 at the cinema, on each occasion I could feel and hear the audience shift uneasily at the end when Anthony Hopkins appears on the screen ‘dressed as a cook’ – which I think is the stage direction.  This is for obvious reasons a difficult play to put on but I thought then and I think now that this production was a complete and gutsy success.  It is brilliantly set and choreographed.  Geraldine McEwen has a small part that finds the wrong end of a billiard cue.  While the sources are Roman, this film comes across as the archetypal Greek tragedy of a cursed house.  Hopkins is perfect as the square-jawed servant of public duty. Jessica Lange still conveys that sexy fatality.  As the play is developed in the film, it could be at the root of the great Westerns.  Most of the show is about how bad the bad guys are, so that when their dispatch comes at the end, the sense of relief is complete.  This is the revenge show of all revenge shows.  The film is also a demolition job on the notion that ancient Rome was civilised.

Well, there’s my first XI for today.  Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter were both terrific in Twelfth Night of 1996, but the slapstick didn’t quite come off, and some of the boys got worried when they thought that Ms Stubbs – who I would have given an arm and a leg to see play the Jailer’s Daughter – looked sexiest when dressed as a copper and with a moustache.  That kind of thing may be unsettling, but she carried it off with her customary trade craft.

Well, whatever else may be said, we are not denied great offerings – and that’s without going to the Globe and other live productions.

Passing bull 158 – The equality fallacy


In the six productions I have seen of Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre in London, none was a dud and each was in its own way a decent and uplifting celebration of the art and theatrical technique of William Shakespeare.  In my view the blend of high art and popular entertainment was about right in each show.  (They get a lot of tourists from across the pond there.)  You would expect that at the Globe or the RSC at Stratford, since both were created to perpetuate the work of the greatest playwright the world has known.

You go to those venues to see the work of that artist presented as he wrote it.  You don’t go to see what some latterday wunderkind might imagine Shakespeare could have done with the subject had he been among us now.  Nor would you go to see the ballet Swan Lake at the Bolshoi in Moscow or at the Maryinsky in Saint Petersburg expecting to see it performed by coloured rap dancers or people in wheel-chairs – or by an all-male or all-female cast – unless you had been specifically warned that you were being invited to a performance of a work that was not the creation of its original author.  Rather you were going to see a show that has the horribly dubious title ‘after’ [the original author].

Peter Brook referred to the desperation that some young directors feel to do something new to a play that has been put on so often.  ‘This is the trap opening under the feet of every director. Any scene in Shakespeare can be vulgarised almost out of recognition with the wish to have a modern concept’.  He might also have referred to Aristotle’s put-down of those who think that they are wiser than their ancestors.

Sadness therefore flooded over me when two friends wrote about their sense of betrayal – that is my word, not theirs – on seeing a recent performance of Hamlet at the Globe.  This tragedy may be the best known and best loved play on our stage, but what my friends got was a bastard freak show.  It was, I am told, officially touted as ‘gender-blind, colour-blind and disability-blind.’  The producers may as well have added ‘theatre-blind, quality-blind, and art-blind.’  Hamlet and Horatio were played by women.  Ophelia was played by a man.  (I have not been told if they cut Hamlet’s invocation to Ophelia to get herself to a nunnery, perhaps out of respect for the sanity of an audience listening to a woman express that directive to a man.)  Rosencrantz or Guildenstern was played by a deaf mute – to whom, I gather, Gertrude responded in kind.

I was not told if colour-blindness was called for, but I recall a production of King Lear by the MTC about twenty years ago when a politically turbo-charged director thought it would be a good idea to have the bastard played by an aboriginal.  Followers of this playwright know that the bastard generally has a pivotal role in his plays.  As it happens, the genealogy of this bastard is described by the author in detail – almost down to the colour of the sheets between which the act of conception occurred – and it is impossible for the bastard to have been born with colour.

If the object of the director of a play is to help the audience suspend disbelief, and to remove hurdles to that process, what possible excuse can there be for a director to place massive road blocks in the way of their audience getting the most out of the play?  I take it that they would draw the line at sending out a white man to play Othello, or a blind man to play Gloucester in King Lear, or a fourteen stone fifty year old to play Mimi in La Bohème, or a eunuch to play Don Giovanni, or an eighteen year old floozy to play at centre-half forward for the Richmond Tigers in the Grand Final.  Why then should my friends have been subject to this violation of the text and sense of William Shakespeare?  I am aware that the Wagner family like to say they get adventurous at Bayreuth, but I am not aware of that licence leading to the desecration of the work of the Master.  And as best as I can see, this Hamlet was an act of desecration.

But I see from their website that those running the Globe have issued a kind of public warning.  They see their primary mission as follows.

We celebrate Shakespeare’s transformative impact on the world by conducting a radical theatrical experiment.

Well, when you buy an airline ticket, you get little more than a ticket in a raffle.  So, when you buy a ticket to the Globe, you get an invitation to descend into a test-tube.  You are submitting to take part in a ‘radical experiment’ – even if that phrase is preceded by the anaemia of ‘transformative impact.’  (What dolorous cadre could have doled out this pap?)

For my part, I would like to see someone sue the bastards and test the efficacy of this warning in court.  Without descending to detail, I don’t think the producers could legally claim that this public warning protects them from claims for misrepresentation or for serving up a product that is manifestly unfit for its purpose.

And it is pathetic to see people claim that because an artist broke new ground, producers or curators or conductors may centuries later seek to emulate the artist’s creative novelty by departing radically from the original work.  All great artists create something new.  Does that mean that Michelangelo’s depiction of the virgin and her crucified son in the Pieta would allow some pacifist in the Vatican heedless of his career to stand in front of that sculpture with a neon display of that wonderful sign that appeared in our trains during the Vietnam War: ‘Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity’?

As a matter of logic, the first objection to this kind of Hamlet is that whatever political impulse is behind it looks to be based on the fallacy that equality = sameness.  That is pure bullshit.  Putting to one side what I may say about another man wishing to be me, any woman wishing to be me would be at best crackers.  Men and women are, thank God, very different.  You don’t flatter either by denying that obvious truth.  Women have an equal right with men to play football – but not in the men’s side.  That would be both absurd and dangerous.  Casting a woman in a man’s role may not be dangerous, but it is certainly bloody absurd.  ‘Diversity’ is like ‘tokenism’, a weasel word with nowhere to go, but here they congeal.  Why not sauce the mix with a few mediocrities, or people who just can’t act?

Next, if this political message, or experiment, or test, is being put on in order to advance what are dangerously described as ‘rights’ of people who are seen by some to be disabled or disadvantaged, then putting to one side the obvious risk of the exercise being viciously counter-productive, there must be some balance with the rights of the audience – and, just as importantly, the moral right of the dead author.  Those rights include the right to have the integrity of their work respected.  I do not see how the producers of this Hamlet could claim to have respected the integrity of this great tragedy.  Indeed, their website suggests that they claim some ‘right’ to do the exact opposite by conducting a radical experiment with it.

Finally, and in part following from those objections, I began by referring to an underlying political impulse.  I cannot envisage any aesthetic or theatrical impulse for this kind of radical revisionism.  But I go to see and hear Shakespeare – and not to be preached at politically by a faceless but ego driven director.  This is a plain case of abuse of power.  As it happens, the plays of this playwright contain some of the finest analysis of the political process that I know – and anyone claiming to be able to improve on the insights of Shakespeare is at best mad.

But madness is no defence here.  What we really have is a cold-blooded arrogance and insolence of office – and an equally cold-blooded insult to the author and the integrity of his art.  What we have is in truth a gruesome echo of the self-love and world-denial of that unfortunate and illiterate oaf who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC.  This is the proud man’s contumely that has brought us the incivility of our time.

The short point is that people going to the Globe Theatre to see Shakespeare are not going there to see the director.  The clear-headed music, and cricket, authority Neville Cardus once wrote a long column about a Beethoven concert played by Artur Schnabel.  He got right to the end of the review and saw that it was all about Beethoven with nothing about Schnabel.  So he added that Schnabel had played with extreme insight.  He was worried about how Schnabel might react, not least when he received an invitation to lunch with the great pianist.  There, Schnabel said that Cardus had paid him the greatest compliment possible.  ‘This is just what I always wanted to achieve.  I want the audience to listen to Beethoven, and go home thinking about Beethoven – not about Schnabel.’  Cardus wondered what may have been the reaction if he had done the same to von Karajan.  Or, we may add, those putting on this Hamlet.

I apologise that this note is so long, and is in parts testy, but the issue is important.  I know that my views are shared by people who can speak with real authority on this subject.  I am happy to walk out on a film – it is almost de rigeur with Tarantino – but as a matter of courtesy to those on the stage, I have avoided doing so in the theatre.  I may change that policy if I take the view that someone is not just taking a lend of me, as we used to say, but is in effect slapping my face.  We may have something to learn from the audience at La Scala or La Fenice.


Tony Abbott to John Roskam at an IPA bash:

John, you’ve done very well with just 20 staff – but remember what Jesus of Nazareth did with just 12, and one of them turned out to be a rat.

The Saturday Paper, 28 July 2018

If you can read that without losing your lunch, your digestion is OK.

Here and there – Ethnic cleansing and riffing on extirpation – and some serendipity


The other day I was driving my Mini in the Grampians listening to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall when it got to one of my favourite parts – the luscious put-down of the Emperor Gallienus.  I was laughing out loud, and then my mood changed when I heard a passage which I have read and heard before, but which I could not recall.  Gibbon referred to ‘a most savage mandate’ Gallienus issued after he had put down a revolt by a man called Ingenuus, who had assumed the purple (claimed the title of Emperor) in the provinces.  The mandate was indeed savage, but it had a revoltingly modern air to it.

It is not enough that you exterminate such as have appeared in arms: the chance of battle might have served me as effectually.  The male sex of every age must be extirpated; provided that in the execution of the children and old men, you can contrive means to save our reputation.  Let everyone die who has dropped an expression, who has entertained a thought against me, against me, the son of Valerian, the father and brother of so many princes.  Remember that Ingenuus was made emperor: tear, kill, hew in pieces.  I write to you with my own hand, and would inspire you with my own feelings.

All that is revolting, but the modern part is that in bold.  And the word ‘extirpate’ immediately brought to mind the mandate that led to the infamous massacre at Glencoe.  It occurred about thirteen hundred years after the extirpation of the followers of Ingenuus, and is so movingly described by the other great English composer of history, T B Macaulay.

The tribal conflicts left the Highlands in a savage state.  The clan MacDonald had an awful reputation for outlawry.  Their blood enemies were the Campbells.  (Still now in Australia you might hesitate to ask a MacDonald to break bread with a Campbell.)  The new king, King William III, asked the clans to take an oath of loyalty.  The Macdonald chief was a day late in turning up and his enemies saw their chance to get even.

The Scot responsible for managing the clans was the Master of Stair.  ‘He justly thought it was monstrous that a third part of Scotland should be in a state scarcely less savage than New Guinea…..In his view the clans, as they existed, were the plagues of the kingdom; and of all the clans the worst was that which inhabited Glencoe….In his private correspondence, he applied to them the short and terrible form of words in which the implacable Roman pronounced the doom of Carthage.  His project was no less than this, that the whole hill country from sea to sea, and the neighbouring islands, should be wasted with fire and sword, that the Camerons, the Macleans, and all the branches of the race of Macdonald should be rooted out.’  (The word ‘race’ is there used for ‘clan’.  The word ‘extirpation’ is built on the Latin word stirps, meaning the stem or block of a tree, and the OED quotes Macaulay in support of its definition ‘to root out, exterminate; to render extinct.’)

The Master of Stair was dire in his directive.

Your troops will destroy the country of Lochaber, Lochiel’s lands, Glengarry’s and Glencoe’s.  Your power shall be large enough.  I hope the soldiers will not trouble the government with prisoners.

Troops of the Campbells accepted the hospitality of the Macdonalds over twelve days and then, like Macbeth, murdered their hosts.  Many escaped, but about thirty-eight were murdered – that is the word – and perhaps many more died of the cold or starvation.  The massacre proceeded under an order signed by King William that included these words.

As for Mac Ian of Glencoe and that tribe, if they can be well distinguished from the other Highlanders, it will be proper, for the vindication of public justice, to exterminate that set of thieves.

That was not a lawful order for a king to give in a nation that subscribed to the rule of law –which says that people are ruled by laws not people, and that they are only to be punished for a breach of those laws, and not at the arbitrary whim of the monarch.

Well, it was unlikely that anyone down the line would take that point, even had they wanted to.  And it is plain enough that extirpation in this context means extermination.  And that apparently is how the Campbells saw their authority and duty – to commit mass murder.  It is not to be supposed that they could have reported to the Master of Stair, or their king: ‘We shot and killed a dozen, but the others promised to behave in the future, so we stopped the killing.’  Among other things, they would be leaving witnesses to an act of infamy that no decent person could want to see the light of day; and the vendettas would have made Sicilian fishermen look decidedly docile.

But this was a problem for our author.  He was a bigger fan of William of Orange than all the people of Belfast put together.  Had his hero given a warrant for ethnic cleansing, if not genocide?  (Remember that the historian used the word ‘race.’)  Macaulay said that people as high as kings – he might have added me and my tax returns – rarely read a lot of what they sign.  That is true enough – but we all have to live with the consequences of so acting.

But Macaulay gets into trouble saying that ‘extirpate’ has more than one meaning – in this context.

It is one of the first duties of every government to extirpate gangs of thieves.  This does not mean that every thief ought to be treacherously assassinated in his sleep, or even that every thief ought to be put to death after a fair trial, but that every gang as a gang, ought to be completely broken up, and that whatever severity is indispensably necessary for that end ought to be used.

That’s like kids playing marbles behind the shelter shed and making up the rules as they go.  You don’t authorise or order a killing in ambiguous terms.  Nor do you make the killing subject to a value judgment – that this killing is ‘indispensably necessary’ to effect ‘extirpation’ – what if the family of a deceased and a prosecutor appointed by a government of a different colour come to a different result, and the executioner finds himself on a murder charge for doing what he reasonably believed to be his lawful duty.  (And the history of revolutions is full of instances where the executioners are among the first to die when their government falls.)

(Macaulay comes across this difficulty again when, much later, he discusses the government findings on the massacre.  The finding was that the massacre was murder and was not authorised by the King’s warrant.  But the report merely censured the real author of the crime, the Master of Stair, and recommended that some officers down to the rank of sergeant be charged with murder.  Macaulay says this was dead wrong.  (If it matters, I agree.)  ‘They had slain nobody whom they had not been positively directed by their commanding officer not to slay.  That subordination without which an army is the worst of all rabbles would be at an end if every soldier were to be held answerable for the justice of every order in obedience to which he pulls his trigger….Who then is to decide whether there be an emergency such as makes severity the truest mercy? Who is to determine whether it be or not be necessary to lay a thriving town in ashes, to decimate a large body of mutineers, to shoot a whole gang of banditti?…..And if the general rule be that the responsibility is with the commanding officer, and not with those who obey him, is it possible to find any reason for pronouncing the case of Glencoe an exception to that rule?’  All that seems very right to me, and the government response looks like another case of the Establishment looking after itself.)

Macaulay then makes his case worse by referring to Hastings’ dealings with the Pindarees, and Bentinck and the Thugs.  Any reference to different kinds of savagery is only likely to inflame the issue, and the Scots.

Finally, he says that another example of the soft use of ‘extirpate’ is in the coronation oath in Scotland when the king swears ‘to root out heresies.’  Heretics were commonly burnt then, but a heresy is not a person and cannot be put to death.  Macaulay says that King William asked what this meant and the Earl of Argyle (the Campbell chief, as it happens) was authorised by the Estates at Edinburgh to say that ‘the words did not imply persecution.’  The most polite thing that you can say about that is that it is plain silly.

A simpler explanation for the liability of the English for the massacre at Glencoe was that this was just a manifestation of the evil that had already plagued England for two centuries in its dealings with Ireland, and which had descended to a new low point under that religious fanatic named Cromwell – their contempt for people they regarded as being of an inferior race.

Well, a painter of history as gorgeous as Macaulay is entitled to the odd blemish.  And the people of Glencoe have moved on.  Or at least their publican has.  I have visited the site on three occasions, and if you visit my second loo, you will find a framed collage of scenes of Glencoe, in the middle of which is a photo of a brass sign on the front door of the pub: ‘NO HAWKERS OR CAMPBELLS.’

Finally, because I regard Macaulay’s account of the massacre as one of the glories of our letters, I just read it again.  People like Gibbon, Macaulay and Carlyle don’t write history –they compose it, or paint it, or write an opera about it.  For the first time, I think, I read the long footnote in which Macaulay mentioned his only two sources.  One was the government Report of 1695.  The other was a contemporary pamphlet that helped blow up the cover-up.  It was called Gallienus Redivivus.  It was published well before Gibbon, but its author was aware of the mandate of Gallienus that I have set out above, and part of which Macaulay quotes.  ‘Gallienus ordered the whole province to be laid waste, and wrote to one of his lieutenants in language to which that of the Master of Stair bore but too much resemblance.’  The man who said that there is nothing new under the sun was dead right on this point.

   Passing Bull 157 – TV or not TV


The other night I turned off two different codes of football on the TV and highlights of a cricket match in quick succession.  The reason was the same.  Each game was halted because of intervention by the off-field referee – the bane of TV replays.  They may be OK for line calls in cricket and tennis, but they are a pest elsewhere.  And it is hard to see how we might get rid of that pest if the overwhelming majority of the audience of the game is watching by TV – and has access to replays whether the broadcaster offers it or not.

More than twenty years of watching the NRL have convinced me that this apparatus does not so much settle arguments as inflame them.  FIFA is now finding that out – including in the final of the World Cup.  We are not talking about sport so much as entertainment, and stopping the game negates that.  It may also stop a side that has momentum.  Teams go to some length to slow games down when it suits them, and now an invisible official can do that for them.  We are acquiring evidence that suggests that if you invest officials with power, they may feel neglected unless they are seen to exercise it.  And heaven only knows what all this quibbling on technology does for our kids.  Sport is supposed to teach them how to lose and how to go with the call of the dice or the rub of the green.  This hair-splitting does the reverse.

The rugby union game I turned off was the worst.  Two New Zealand sides were playing in Fiji.  The score was 40+ to nil at halftime.  Then the loser scored two quick exciting tries and, as they say, it was game on!  But wait!  If you rolled the film of play back 50 meters there was a bubble in play that may have been a knock-on.  After a few minutes of replay, the second try was disallowed.  I snapped off in disgust.

Apart from ruining the game – either as a game to be enjoyed by those playing it or as a spectacle put on by professionals to entertain us – there seemed to me to be a problem of fairness, if not jurisprudence.

I assume that the rules of the game allow for this process of reviewing and over-riding the on-field referee by the invisible hand, as Adam Smith may have put it, but that is not the end of it.  A knock-on is against the rules in either form of rugby because you must pass the ball backwards.  (I am tentative because I was brought up with AFL footy.)  As I understand it, most knock-ons are accidental – deliberate knock-ons attract different responses or penalties.  The penalty that is awarded where the on-field referee calls the knock-on can usually be justified on the grounds of fairness because it represents a kind of award to the other side for applying sufficient pressure force the error – or it is just a smack for a mess up.  But the penalty consists of putting down a scrum with the side infringed against having the put in.  It must then apply its skills to get the benefit of that play.  When a penalty is offered and taken by a shot for goal, the side infringed against has to have someone who can kick it – and a lot may turn on where on the ground the offence occurred.  But where a try is disallowed because of a prior knock-on, the infringer is penalised, and to the tune of five points rather than two, without the other side having to do anything.

That does not seem right – to put it at its lowest.  There is no correlation between the offence and the penalty.  The penalty is awarded in fact (de facto) rather than by law (de iure) but its extent is determined by events after the breach of the rules.  That is why the penalty does not match the crime.  One reason that I have been following rugby is that the refereeing is much better, in my view, than in other codes.  T V is fast eroding that benefit.

Some rules say that the invisible hand can only interfere where the infringement is ‘clear’ and ‘obvious’.  What is the difference?  And how do you answer those who say that little in rugby is ‘clear’ or ‘obvious’?  What about stipulating that the infringement must look to have had consequences for the play?  Referees have to make calls like that in awarding penalty tries.  The fact that the on-field referee did not notice the offence may itself suggest that it was inconsequential.  What about saying that in each case the referee must make a call and that unless within say ten seconds the off-field referee is satisfied that that decision was plainly wrong, it stands?  What about reserving reviews for the side aggrieved and limiting their right to call for them – as happens in cricket?

Something must be done.  When did you last see an umpire call a fast bowler for a no-ball?  And what decent person wants to do a job where you get hung out to dry before millions of people?  And at least if the bloke in the middle buggers it up, you know whom to abuse.


Trump as President is doing a great deal of good and a great deal of bad.  Judging the balance is exceptionally difficult.  If you denounce Trump you are destroying the good; if you endorse Trump, you are denying the bad.  Yet the essence of strategic effect is correctly diagnosing reality.

The Australian, 14 July 2018, Greg Sheridan.

The problem with our politics.  Two fallacies followed by a nostrum.  We should be able to handle conflicting views.  Our failure leads to people like Trump.  Keats said:

… once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Here and there – Submission to Banking Royal Commission

[The following submission was made to the Royal Commission before hearings started.]

Auf wiedersehen, Fraulein Longmuir

I refer two letters to NAB, my previous banker, that are set out at the end of this note.  Those letters refer to acts of what I would describe as misconduct by a bank – and I don’t think threatening to renege on bank cheque can be dismissed as mere discourtesy.  I offer the following observations, based in part on the conduct referred to in the letters, but mainly on a lifetime in dealing with banks – and acting for and against them.

  1. My father and mother, Mac and Norma Gibson, had banked with a NAB predecessor, CBC, throughout their married life. Miss Longmuir at Queen Street looked after them in my lifetime until I married.  Those days are long gone, and my two letters to Mr Clyne were in large part a lament for their passing.
  2. Shortly after the incidents referred to, I wished to change my will. Before the bank produced it, they demanded payment of arrears of storage.  So much for two generations of patronage.  This was too much for me, and I terminated the connection.
  3. I now bank with Bendigo. Although I do a lot on computer (and COMMSEC looks after my super), I enjoy going to the Kyneton branch of the Bendigo Bank, and talking to real, live human beings.  I actually got to speak to an account manager who knew what she was talking about – and who wasn’t stitched up by parroted bumpf about bank ‘products.’  Too many bank employees soon convince you that you have arrived at the perimeter of their safe knowledge.  And, if you are a lawyer, you might then wonder just how forensically vulnerable they may be because of their lack of understanding.
  4. My super fund has shares in Bendigo and the big four – except for NAB. I first got into them because a mate who was a stockbroker said to me that banks might generate returns to shareholders by doing the very things that so annoy us as customers.
  5. The truth is that the big four are a kind of oligarchy or protected species. They’re like koalas, but they’re not loveable.  The government protects them by a regime that would surely provoke anti-trust inquiries elsewhere.  And you and I get to stand behind them as de facto   You would therefore expect them to have a decent sense of community, if not gratitude.
  6. Although I am reasonably happy as a bank shareholder, I feel very squeamish about being a party to the payment of huge salaries – say, twenty times what we pay High Court judges – to people who earn about 100 times what they pay their tellers, and whose bonuses may turn on how many of those tellers they sack. On reflection, ‘squeamish’ is not nearly strong enough.  I am revolted.  It’s like being a resident of Dachau in 1936 and looking the other way.  (And when I went there in 1966, the residents were still skittish about acknowledging that they knew where the concentration camp was.)
  7. I was initially against conferring another Christmas bunfight upon lawyers with an inquiry like this, but one thing in particular changed my mind. People in the financial press were fond of talking about the ‘culture’ of banks.  Some, including those who should know better, said that the culture of a bank was a matter for the CEO.  They were incandescently wrong about that as a matter of law.  The board of directors may be able to delegate powers, but they cannot absolve themselves of their legal responsibility.  I got an uneasy feeling that too many bank directors didn’t know what they were there for.
  8. The fallacy about the responsibility for culture is in my view related to the shift in powers in major corporates over the last generation or so. The law says point blank that the ‘business of a company is to be managed by or under the direction of the directors.’  As best I can see, too many boards now act as glorified audit committees and leave the running of the bank to the CEO and management.  They need to be reminded – in neon lights – that they, the directors, are as a matter of law responsible for every aspect of the management of the business of the bank.  They are not there just to pick up their pay cheque, and check their insurance policies.
  9. I am told by someone who has been much closer to banks than me that the problem is compounded when too many bank directors do not know enough about the business of banking. Smart managers can then sell them pups.  If you see a lawyer on a bank board, ask them how they would feel about a bank manager running a law firm.
  10. But one fallacy should not lead to another. The directors are not answerable to their shareholders alone, and the bottom line of profit is not their ultimate aim or justification.  People succeed in business when other people want to do business with them.  When we speak of the worth or value of a business, we often refer to ‘goodwill.’  In substance that is the willingness of people to keep doing business with that entity.  That goes for fish ‘n’ chip shops, service stations, hairdressers and banks.
  11. We know that the term ‘goodwill’ can be difficult for accountants and lawyers, but most of those difficulties are avoided in public companies. A market value is put on each item of ownership of the company or each loan instrument that it issues as another way of raising capital.  In the result, the market sets one way of looking at the value of a publicly listed bank.
  12. That may lead to a sense of security in the directors of banks that is misplaced. How much actual goodwill do banks have with or from their customers?  How many of us enjoy doing business with our banks and want to keep going back to them?  In my experience, very few of us would happily say ‘yes’.  My impression is that the standing of banks with their own customers and with the community at large has been on the slide for at least two generations.
  13. On any view, the low opinion that most Australians hold about their banks should suggest to the directors of those banks that they have not been managing their business properly. Perhaps those directors might stop being sated by figures, even whoppers, and concentrate on intangibles.  In colloquial terms, there is more to being a bank director than counting beans.
  14. May I give an example of how distrust of the big four banks operates? My super fund is in part invested in four banks.  I only hold shares.  I will not deal in bonds, in part because I accept the advice of Mr Buffett not to invest in something I don’t understand, and in part because dealers in bonds seem to me to be the worst of a bad lot.  Nor would I go near bank hybrids.  Why not?  There is too much gobbledegook in the fine print, and frankly I would not trust one of the big banks to do what I would regard as ‘the right thing’ if things turned sour.
  15. As it seems to me, one fundamental question facing the directors of our banks is as follows. In the year of Our Lord 2018, can you acquit yourselves of meanness to your staff, indifference to your customers, and a failure to give back to Australians by saying ‘But we are making buckets of money’?
  16. There are many reasons why the duties of bank directors extend well beyond looking after the bottom line. As I mentioned, these banks are owned and guaranteed by millions of Australians.  They are protected by our government.  These facts of our communal life have allowed banks to lead a sheltered, even cloistered, lifestyle which may well have soothed their directors into apathy.
  17. But community attitudes to large corporations have changed in the space of one generation. The GFC properly put the fear of God into a lot of people, including me.  Many people, including me, are angry that more of the malefactors are not doing time for their role in bringing the whole world to the brink.  We were told that some of these constructs of greed were too big to fail, and that we, through our governments, had to intervene to save them.  For this relief, we don’t appear to be receiving much thanks.
  18. This apparent immunity of those directing what should have been failed businesses is another aspect of the lesion of inequality that corrodes our community. After the GFC, many people feared and distrusted big corporates in equal measure.  This fear brought to mind something that the late Mr Justice Smith told me about what ordinary people thought about judges.  His Honour said that the average bloke looked on judges as being not far removed from coppers – they were people who had power and who might, unless you were careful, do you some kind of harm.
  19. It’s not just that people pay less respect to big business – paradoxically, they now expect much more from it. We saw it with the willing participation of many corporations in the marriage equality debate (even if this was above the pay level of some of our thicker politicians).  We see it now in the guns debate in the U S where, as with climate change, some corporates are accepting responsibility for communal welfare, in default of decent government.  We can see it with the #MeToo movement.  Mark Shields of The Boston Globe (and PBS) said that corporates are learning that they can no longer be morally neutral.  I think he’s right and that the change is fundamental.
  20. And all that’s before you get to the legal obligations of banks as employers, and as institutions that hold positions of trust and confidence with their customers. Here, too, things are much in flux.
  21. About thirty years ago I was acting for a bank with the late Brian Shaw, QC in a matter that got to the High Court. I think it was one of those cases where a farmer had borrowed in Swiss Francs and taken a huge hit.  As best I can recall it, the trial judge had taken a shine to the cocky – but certainly not to us.  In talking with Brian, whom I greatly admired, I made a mistake that I wouldn’t make now.  ‘Brian, the banks get very jittery about being lumbered as fiduciaries.’  I got one of those angular, quizzical looks.  ‘Do they deny, then, Geoff, that they owe obligations of confidence and secrecy to their customers?’  That served me right for using a weasel word that is attractive to people who like going round in circles.  (And after all, even Swiss banks learned of the price they were paying for aiding and abetting crooks.)
  22. Two points come out of that case. The law says that directors and other employees owe their companies duties that are described as fiduciary – such as obligations of good faith, and avoiding conflicts of interest and duty.  The time is I think coming when that traffic will cease to be so one-way.  I am aware that there is some dispute about this in the cases, but I think that the arid rigour of the syllogism will soon surrender to what Oliver Wendell Holmes called ‘the felt necessities of the time.’
  23. One example might come when a bank learns that an employee poses an unacceptable risk as a predator to other employees. Another will surely come when the bank accepts that an advisory service it offers puts it, and its staff, in a hopeless position of conflict.  It is in my view likely that big corporates will find themselves under a legal obligation not to leave their staff compromised.  I will deliberately leave the language as loose as that.  The corporates are liable for the wrongs of their employees but, at least for the most part, the employee may have a personal liability to the victim.  There may also be an issue of moral responsibility.  People who think that the law has nothing to do with morals are dead wrong.
  24. There have already been marked changes in the general law relating to the duties of banks. Take the Swiss Franc cases in the eighties.  At one time or other, I acted on different sides while these cases were in vogue.  Customers of banks, many on the land, complained that they had been lured into borrowing in Swiss Francs by bankers who had not adequately explained the risks inherent in such a course.  Many of those borrowers got badly burnt.  They then sued the bank.  At bottom, one business person was saying to another: ‘When we entered into this contract, you knew more about this kind of transaction and the risks inherent in it, and because of your superior position, you owed me a legal duty to inform me of those risks before signing me up.  Had you discharged that duty, I would not have gone on with the deal.  It’s therefore only right that you should bear the loss.’  When such a proposition was first uttered, it sounded heretical – and not just as a matter of law.  Capitalism is built over the graves of dead competitors.  But most of the time, the farmer got up, either by verdict or compromise.
  25. There were I think two reasons for this. First, most litigation falls to be determined, thank heaven, by what lawyers call the merits.  If you go into a court room where a bank is confronting a man of the land whose life work it has written off in a deal that now looks as dodgy as Bitcoin, it will not be long before you detect which way the breeze is blowing in that court.  Banks rarely get to kick with the wind.  The best that they can do is take solace, if that’s the term, from the gorgeous nicety of the language of Lord Devlin.

The fact that juries pay regard to considerations which the law requires them to ignore is generally accepted…It is, for example, generally accepted that a jury will tend to favour a poor man against a rich man: that must be because at the bottom of the communal sense of justice there is a feeling that a rich man can afford to be less indifferent to the misfortunes of others than a poor man can be.

  1. Secondly, counsel for the farmer was often able to say to counsel for the bank, something like: ‘Having seen your branch manager’s diary notes, I have no doubt you will not be calling him to give evidence. Nor will your people want to see any of it on the front page of the local paper.  The poor bloke didn’t know what he was doing.  He wouldn’t know the difference between a Swiss Franc and a Swiss tart.’
  2. This kind of problem suggests a vulnerability of big corporates generally. Those at the top know how to look after themselves.  They are trained in various techniques involving what might be called massaging.  Those who actually deal with people over the counter are far more vulnerable.  As I indicated above, you can often see this if you get to talk to a fellow human at a bank.  You sense that they are all at sea as soon as they go off script about the ‘product’ that they are trying to flog.  I referred to some examples in my letters to Mr Clyne.  Such people could undergo real pain and cause real hurt to their employer in the witness box.  You don’t have to be a member of the Smorgon family to know that the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
  3. The late Neil McPhee, QC had a better nose for the currents of the law than any lawyer I have known. I was talking to him about the forensic susceptibility of the banks that had let people down, and he shared this insight with me.  ‘Geoff, I have been involved in a number of cases for and against banks.  I have examined and cross-examined economists and other experts about fluctuations in currency markets – what’s called volatility.  These experts have established, to my complete intellectual satisfaction, that there is no rational basis on which anyone, no matter how smart or wise, can predict fluctuations in currency markets.  But I cannot help thinking that many of the promotions of the banks to their customers are somehow premised on an implied assertion that some people can predict such fluctuations.  Any such assertion must be false.’  It seemed to me then, as it does now, that such an argument must have weight.  And woe unto the lawyers who are charged with framing, and then defending, the disclaimer.

They are the issues I would to raise for the consideration of this commission.  I am sorry that this letter is so very long.  I can only say that the issues appear to me to be of substance.

I hope that this commission will encourage the directors of banks to seek to recover the trust of their customers and the respect and decent careers of their staff.  Mac and Norma are long gone, but is it too late to aspire to the return of Miss Longmuir?

We may not get the Domesday Book from this royal commission – but neither will we need the great F W Maitland to decipher it.

Yours truly,

Geoffrey Gibson

14 Breakneck Road,


Victoria, 3446.

  1. I am known to the commissioner, but I don’t think that fact precludes my making these comments to the commission.


23 March 2012

Mr Cameron Clyne
Chief Executive Officer
National Australia Bank
Reply Paid 2870

Dear Mr Clyne


You don’t know me.  Neither do any of your employees.  Since you have been my banker for 60 years, I think that that is very sad.  Don’t you think that is very sad, Mr Clyne?

When I bought my present house, I was subjected to treatment by some of your operatives that in part caused me to write the attached paper on ‘The Decline of Courtesy and the Fall of Dignity.’  You will see that your bank has the misfortune there to be compared to Telstra and Qantas.  That is not good company to be in, Mr Clyne.  The part that really got me was the threat – that is exactly what it was – to pull the pin – that was the phrase – on a bank cheque.  Your staff could give a customer a heart attack threatening to do that to them on the day that they are settling on a house purchase.  A bank threatening to renege on its own paper?  It is hard to imagine a better example of how banks have lost their way – how once respectable business houses have now become unrespectable counting houses.

Being minded to move home, I thought I should confirm my leeway with your bank before making an offer.  I drew Sales Team D in the lottery.  I said I was happy to go to your Kyneton Branch and talk face to face, but, no, Sales Team D told me they were on top of my case.

Your staff can fill you in on the sad results, Mr Clyne.  I had to prove my identity – at least twice.  Sad after 60 years, is it not?  The property I am looking at is worth under half of a city property that I can offer for security.  The increase to the existing facility is modest.  For any bank that knew me as its customer, and wanted to look after me, the proposed transaction would hardly raise a query.  Not so with Sales Team D, Mr Clyne.  I was required to produce tax returns, and then told I would have to surrender one credit card and submit to a reduction on the remainder.  I began to feel for the people of Greece.  Now, Sales Team D wants to go beyond the tax returns, and I now have two accountants wondering just what has got into Sales Team D.

How would you or your fellow directors like it if they were treated like this by someone they have been doing business with for ten minutes, let alone 60 years?  In the course of more than 40 years’ legal practice, I have held various statutory appointments, including running the Taxation Division of the AAT, later VCAT for 18 years.  Some people – including Her Majesty the Queen in right of the State of Victoria – therefore felt able to take me at my word.  But not Sales Team D.  Do you know why, Mr Clyne?  My bank does not know who I am.

Perhaps they are worried about my recent expenditure on credit cards.  Let me assure you, Mr Clyne, so was I.  Very worried and very annoyed.  I bought a CLK Mercedes about six months ago at a very good price.  I just needed to extend a borrowing facility by six thousand to get the $26,000.  I got handballed around four operatives, having to prove my identity along the way.  I got referred to various teams.  Most asked my occupation.  (Sales Team D the other day asked if I was still a member of a firm I left about ten years ago and which ceased to exist the other day.)  I was told my case was difficult because the facility was secured.  Then I was asked to produce tax returns to support a request to extend a secured facility by six thousand dollars.  That is when I gave up, and used the credit card to buy the Mercedes.

I do not blame any of the few employees you have left.  They are trained – programmed – to be automated and not to think.  They also know that the market, which can never be wrong, values their contribution to the bank at about one hundredth of yours.

Do you know what I think, Mr Clyne?  George Orwell was wrong.  It is not big government that is tearing up the fabric of our community by Big Brother – it is Big Money, and Big Corporations.  I think that you and your fellow directors should be ashamed of yourselves.

If it matters, I hold shares in the bank, and I am not a happy shareholder either.

Yours sincerely

Geoffrey Gibson


3 April 2012

Mr Cameron Clyne
Chief Executive Officer
National Australia Bank
Reply Paid 2870

Dear Mr Clyne,


Well, they did it for you.  Sales Team D – may we just call them STD for short? – stopped me from buying the new home that I wanted.  It was not perfect – it was just ideal.  Ideal for me, Mr Clyne.  But, then, what is a mere home to someone like me to a great Australian banker?

How did STD manage to pull it off, you may ask, Mr Clyne?  Quite simply really.  They did not know me, and they did not know what they were doing.  This all became sadly but inevitably apparent when a roaming STD cell-commandant opened his phone talk with me after my first letter to you with the gambit that my problem was that I had overstated my income.  Really, Mr Clyne, your attack-dogs and flak-catchers would want to be on the highest level of dental insurance if they want to go around behaving like that.  No wonder you forbid them to meet your customers in the flesh.

But I suppose that the ADs and FCs of STD kept you safe from my letter.  You would prefer to stay like Achilles gleaming among his Myrmidons, except that you would not stay sulking in your tent – no, you would be glowing over all that lucre.

You and the people at STD are a real threat to business in this country, Mr Clyne.  You should be helping the flow of capital.  The big Australian banks are doing just the reverse.

And you should really stop those ads that tell the most dreadful lies.  Lies like your people are free to make decisions, or that the big banks like competition.  Nothing could be further from the truth, Mr Clyne.  The people at STD know that they are forbidden to think, much less make decisions, and STD shut up shop completely, and have been in a surly sulk ever since I told them I was talking to another bank.  (Although they did ring the other bank to inquire – without my consent – about what I was doing.)  The major Australian banks are just a collusive cartel operating sheltered workshops that rely on the people of Australia to bail them out whenever they balls it up – and then they pass on their guilt and paranoia to those same people by refusing to lift a finger for their customers when they need a bank.

Those people do not hold your staff responsible for the shocking fall in the standards of our banks, Mr Clyne.  They hold you and your like responsible.  You do after all get paid about one hundred times as much as the folk of STD.

If you and your board step outside your cocoon of moolah, minders, and sycophants, you will not find one Australian – not one – that has a kind word for any of you.  What all those people should do to the big banks is to take their business elsewhere.  That is what I will do.  You never know, Mr Clyne, I may meet a real person in the flesh, one who might know what they are doing, and who will even know who I am.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Gibson

No answer came the firm reply.