Poets in prose; and the First Fleet – Tony and Betty! Rope and Pulley!

Keats had to die before Shelley really stood up for him, but when Shelley did, he did so with passion and venom.

It may well be said that these wretched men know not what they do.  They scatter their insults and their slanders without heed as to whether the poisoned shaft lands on a heart made callous by many blows, or one like Keats’s composed of more penetrable stuff….What gnat did they strain at here, after having swallowed all those camels?  Against what woman taken in adultery dares the foremost of these literary prostitutes to cast his opprobrious stone?  Miserable man! you one of the meanest have wantonly defaced one of the noblest specimens of the workmanship of God.  Nor shall it be your excuse that, murderer as you are, you have spoken daggers but used none.

It is I suppose a kind of curse upon all critics.  They might at least have this curse in mind when they go to shaft someone who has tried to create something for others, and not just prey or trade on the creations of others.  This would, I fear, be too much to ask of the gnats straining after the Essendon coach.

In a foreword to one collection of his poems, W H Auden offered a gradation of his work that may I think have very general application.

In the eyes of every author, I fancy, his own past work falls into four classes.  First, the pure rubbish which he regrets ever having conceived; second – for him the most painful – the good ideas which his incompetence or impatience prevented from coming to much…; third, the pieces he has nothing against except their lack of importance; these must inevitably form the bulk of any collection, since were he to limit it to the first class alone, to those poems for which he is honestly grateful, his volume would be too depressingly thin.

This could apply to what passes for my golf, fly-fishing, shooting (only at paper targets with the 30.06 Steyr from the top of the Benz – the Wolf goes tropo over the big bangs; he is threatening to consult Slaters over industrial deafness), drawing, or oil pastels – but best of all to my cooking: where the second category really comes into its own.

A propos of anything but poetry, I have been reading a book called The First Fleet.  Some things caught my eye.  When the whitefellas landed at Botany Bay, the blackfellas were as amazed as we would be by a visit from Martians – but the question that concerned them most was what sex the visitors were, and one Pom had to drop his strides so that they could see for themselves.  (The author does not inform us whether the Pom’s equipment was such that it may have commended itself to Senator Lambie.)  The French turned up at Botany Bay only five days after the Brits – our Anglo-Saxon brand of white heritage may have been a very close run thing.  The whites could not get over the sound of the kookaburras – I still can’t.  The Governor named Manly Cove after the manly bearing of the natives, but they left no-one in doubt that they were horrified and terrified by sharks that were everywhere near there – and a Mr Fanning will now be happy to corroborate them.

When the women convicts were finally landed, there were scenes of unspeakable depravity and lust that not even a vicious tropical storm could still – for all I know, the participants may have thought that the thunder and lightning were all just part of the general effect.  Just imagine the racket if they slaked their lust while in irons – they could have put the kookas to flight.

Two of those who got together on that memorable night were memorably named – Anthony Rope and Elizabeth Pulley.  I am glad to report that the lovers were married before the birth of the child conceived on that night, and that they were later granted their freedom and given some land.  Ropes Creek near St Marys is named after them.

I dislike Australia Day – to put it mildly – but in future I will raise a glass to our true white forebears – the refuse of the far-away slammer – Tony and Betty! Rope and Pulley!  (Perhaps we might start a Rope and Pulley Dining Club.)

But the part that really got me was not this great step for mankind when the whites arrived, but the little hiccup before they left England.  The commodore and future governor weighed anchor and signalled to the fleet to set sail after him.  Then Captain Phillip had to pause.  Two ships weren’t moving.  The reason?  Yes, you guessed it – their crews were Mozart and Liszt.  Adrian Quist.  As full as state schools.  Bliss was it not that day to be alive.  Well, my brothers and sisters, my comrades, say a long and fond hullo to the upcoming arsehole of the world, and the Land of the Eternal Long Weekend.

And God bless the convict shaggers of Sydney Cove, our own Australian Adam and Eve!

Passing bull 11 Franco was not a fascist

Political labels are generally used to brand people or ideas rather than to excuse them, but people who have firm views about politics or religion tend to cling to them.  People who have firm views about both are very prone to label-abuse – and they also have a curious penchant for denialism.

Phillip Adams interviewed Gerard Henderson – an occasion of mutual discomfort.  Henderson said that Franco was not a fascist. The military leader of a totalitarian state who got Mussolini and Hitler to help him bomb Guernica – just for practice – was not a fascist?  Just what more do you need to be a fascist?  (Franco and the church said that Guernica had been burnt down by the reds.)  But what does it matter what label you apply to this religious fanatic who was a cruel and murderous little shit, a part of the refuse of mankind?

I have written something on this that might bear on this discussion (in the final volume of a history of the west).  It reflects on the tendency of churches to line up with the army and the money.

Francisco Franco (1892 – 1975)

The Spanish Inquisition with its informers and bonfires of the auto da fe prefigured the totalitarian states of Stalin and Hitler to a degree that is frightening.  The conduct of the Church was no better under Generalissimo Franco.  The dedication to repression and oppression was indeed religious.  A major step on the road to the most frightful civil war came when Cardinal Pedro Segura, the primate of Spain, issued a pastoral denouncing the intention of the republic to establish freedom of worship and to separate church and state.  Both Hitler and Mussolini, who each had a Concordat with the Vatican, intervened in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the fascists.

Francisco Franco was born in a family with long links to the Spanish Navy.  He went into the army because the navy was in decline.  He fought in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco and then served in the Spanish Foreign Legion.  He developed the kind of perverted ideology then prevalent that held that the problems of the world were caused by Jews, atheists, Freemasons, and Leftists, not necessarily in that order, but certainly in a conspiracy.

The monarchy fell in 1931.  It was then the church against the barbarians and the republicans were lumped with the communists.  In 1936, Franco and others in the army sought to overthrow the elected government of the Popular Front.  This led to the Spanish Civil War, and to foreign fascist intervention.

Franco ruled as a dictator – Il Caudillo – for nearly forty years.  His weapons of repression included the death penalty, concentration camps, forced labour, and heavy censorship.  He got back into favour with the U S during the Cold War when they had a common enemy in Communism.  In the 1950’s, a cabinet of Opus Dei technocrats convinced him to move toward a market economy.  After his death, Spain moved toward democracy.  A Pact of Forgetting was introduced to encourage reconciliation.  Socialists and Conservatives now clash over how to deal with that bleak past

If we go back to Il Caudillo in power, on 19 May 1939 there was a grand victory parade along the Castellana, renamed the Avenida del Generalissimo.  The Caudillo would not be coming to town on a donkey to receive his Hosannas.  Antony Beevor says:

A huge construction of wood and cardboard had been erected to form a triumphal arch on which the word ‘Victory’ was displayed.  On each side the name ‘FRANCO’ was repeated three times, and linked with the heraldic arms of the Catholic monarchs.

Franco took the salute at this march past from a large tribune.  He wore the uniform of captain-general, but the dark blue collar of a Falangist [fascist] shirt could be seen underneath and on his head the red beret of the Carlists [royalists].  Below him in front of the stand his personal bodyguard of Moroccan cavalry was drawn up.

More than 120,000 soldiers, including Germans and Portuguese, took part.

The next day cardinal Goma, primate of Spain, gave Franco the wooden cross to kiss at the door of the church of Santa Barbara, where the Caudillo entered under a canopy, as the kings of Spain used to do.  In the middle of a solemn ceremony, imbued with heavy medieval imagery, Franco laid his victorious sword in front of the miraculous Christ of Lepanto, brought especially from Barcelona for the occasion.

This may remind you a little of the coronation of Napoleon at Rheims, but at least Napoleon had the decency to crown himself.  Two days after Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave an address on the subject of ‘the leader’ (the Fuhrer, Duce, or Caudillo) that the Nazis cut off.  Bonhoeffer said that a leader who allowed himself to be idolized was a misleader and that ‘leaders who set themselves up as gods mock God.’  It is hard to imagine a better case of a leader mocking God than that pompous little Spanish soldier called Franco.  Beevor goes on:

All the trappings and incantations represented the sentiments and self-image of the crusading conqueror.  In his struggle to defeat the Marxist hydra, Franco had been fighting against the past as well as the present: against the nineteenth century poisoned by liberalism; against the eighteenth century which had produced the Enlightenment and Freemasonry; and against the defeats of the seventeenth century.  Only in an earlier period could the Caudillo find the roots of a great and united Spain, the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella.

If Franco had gone back even further to when the Moors ruled Spain, he may or may not have found a similar attitude of rejecting the present that we see so often now in Islam.

Did the Generalissimo show Christian charity to the vanquished?

The Caudillo used to read through the sentences of death when taking his coffee after a meal, often in the presence of his personal priest, Jose Maria Bulart.  He would write an ‘E’ against those he decided should be executed, and a ‘C’ when commuting the sentence.  For those he considered needed to be made a conspicuous example, he wrote ‘garrote y prensa’ (garrotting and press coverage).  After coffee, his aide would send off the sentences to be passed to the military governor of each region of each province, who would communicate them by telegram to the head of the prison.  The sentences would then be read out in the central gallery of the prison.  Some officials enjoyed reading out the first name, such as Jose or Juan, to strike fear into all those who bore it, before adding the family name.  In the woman’s prison of Amorebieta one of the nuns who acted as warders would perform this duty.

That there are still churches standing in Spain might promote faith in miracles in this European nation that styles itself as civilized.  When it comes to mass killers like Himmler and Franco, can we that are left discern any moral difference in their evil or is it just a matter of arithmetic?  Did Eichmann ever do anything as obscene or as offensive to God as settling his death list for the next day while taking coffee with his personal priest?

The English historian Maitland said that when England turned its face against the inquisitorial process, it escaped the ‘everlasting bonfire.’  When you read about Franco, you might think that Maitland was right, although it may well be that the liberation of England from allegiance or subjection or vassalage of any kind to a foreign power was just as important in allowing it to escape the totalitarian cataclysms that engulfed those nations in Europe that had not been liberated.

Maitland compared the accusatory, contradictory and public process of a trial at common law to the secret inquisitorial process in Europe where torture was used.  He said:

Our new procedure seems to hesitate for a while at the meeting of two roads.  A small external impulse might have sent it down that too easy path which the church chose and which led to the everlasting bonfire.

The footnote refers to a book written by an English jurist before the Spanish Inquisition.  In De Laudibus, Sir John Fortescue condemned the use of torture in Europe (France).  The part quoted by Maitland is ‘Semita ipsa est ad Gehannam.’  ‘This is the very path to perdition.’  Gehanna is a valley outside Jerusalem that was said to be cursed.  It is frequently rendered as hell, or unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43) or, here, the ‘eternal bonfire.’  Fortescue commented on the wrack that ‘the execution of the sentence of the law is a task fit only for little villains to perform, picked out from amongst the refuse of mankind…’  There again we have a useful description of the little Spanish Generalissimo.

There must be people in Spain feeling betrayed by the church.  It is not just that the clergy so often seem to line up with those who want to hold on to power – it is that so many find it hard to suppress a sneer at that part of the sermon that says that the meek shall inherit the earth.  The sense of betrayal is even greater there because of the identity of the betrayed.  It is as if a common affinity of the clergy and politicians for ritual, ceremony, costume, hierarchy and incantation, together with a dread of change and a reverence for a largely imagined past and wholly imagined heroes leads some people to share a common affinity with repression and oppression in government that is loosely associated with the term ‘the Right.’  Certainly, you do not often see the clergy lining up to support the opposite team – ‘the Left.’

This is, to put it softly, very frustrating to those who admire the example of the young holy man who came to bury the Establishment and not to praise it, and who rode into town on a donkey for that purpose, and who then took to the money people with a lash, and in so doing signed his own death warrant.  There truly was leader whom we have mocked.  Can we get comfort from the words of Yeats?

The darkness drops again, but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

Il Caudillo was not as evil as the Fuhrer, or as downright ridiculous as Il Duce, but he was far worse than a serial pest.  He and his fascist fellow travellers held Spain back.  It and Greece were at risk, to put it at its lowest, of becoming backwaters on the edge of if not outside Europe because of their political immaturity.  The sad or violent history of Spain for most of the twentieth century is at least one indication of why it is one of those states at what is called the periphery that is in trouble keeping up with the north of Europe.

Dyson and Rupert again

Yes, I hate it, too, when someone says that I told you so, so I can only ask forgiveness for setting out below parts of a post about Dyson Heydon and Rupert Murdoch in December 2014.  Eighteen months and, say, $40 million or so ago.

Dyson Heydon has now in my opinion made a fool of himself with remarks about two Labor leaders.

The dinner address farce does not prove the point – it just illustrates it.  If you want to know the full extent of the poison for our judges, just look at the beginning of the piece on the front page of The Australian by one of Abbott’s closest supporters, Dennis Shanahan:

Tony Abbott’s sharpest weapon against Bill Shorten has been blunted.  Any findings of the trade union royal commission which reflect badly on the Opposition Leader’s behaviour while running the AWU have been tainted.

If you missed the point, you have the headline on page 6:

Bad judgment leaves the PM shooting blanks.

The sheer vulgarity and nastiness of it all defies belief.  And I cannot see why there is all the fuss about a fundraiser.  Is it  not enough that he is accepting invitations from the political party that got him to shaft the political party opposite them? The Attorney as usual got it all wrong.  He has some experience here.  He presented the address in 2010.  And billed us $1000 expenses for the privilege.

So what next?


Bomb  more Muslems – bomb Syria.  That should take us out of ourselves.

(If you want to know what the PM thinks about foreign policy, go to Greg Sheridan:

The PM has a strong inclination to confront and defeat Islamic State, but he also has a deeper strategic purpose.  That is to stiffen the resolve of the Americans.  This is a common strategic view among Western leaders, that the Americans need to do more and be more decisive, but that they cannot be easily persuaded to do more.

So, that is what our leader seeks to achieve by bombing Muslems – to put some steel into Uncle Sam.  This is pure Alice in Wonderland.)

And now we see another reason why Heydon should not have got involved in this political hit job.  He might get sued.  While conducting various proceedings over nearly thirty years, I have been sued in most courts in the land – I am not talking of appeals but of being taken to court to get my process stopped – and it is water off a duck’s back.  But I have never had the backing of the Act of Settlement, and I have never worn ermine.  If I go down, I do so alone.

That is not the case here.  The government is still trumpeting Heydon’s High Court credentials.  Well, there are plenty out there with standing to sue him.  For all I know, Heydon presently has before him a letter alleging bias and asking for an undertaking that proceedings before the Commission will cease until the issue has been determined by the courts – including, perhaps, the High Court.  Heydon is one name that you would not want mention up there just now.

The nature of the problem, that is way over the pay level of this government, is further discussed below.

When Dyson met Rupert – and the High Court of Australia beheld the gutter


It is not likely that Mr John Setka of the CFMEU has ever felt the need to tell a journalist that that he has often felt the need to express his dissent in the minutes of the union because he did not like the writing style of the other organizers and officers of the union – that he does, for example, have a real aversion to split infinitives, dangling participles, or a perceptible but unwarranted variation in the number of a noun that some others tolerate to avoid treading on the toes of those who get exercised over what is called sexism. These are some of the things that Mr Dyson Heydon, QC discussed on the ABC when reflecting on his time as a justice of the High Court of Australia. That court is our highest court, and by and large its members have served us well. It is a reputation devoutly to be preserved.

There was always going to be a problem in Mr Heydon continuing to do just that when he accepted the invitation of the current Prime Minister to go down into the world of Mr Setka and the phantoms of the enemies of Julia Gillard, the outgoing PM, and our first woman PM. Julia Gillard had been targeted by members of the press, especially the Murdoch press, about allegations of what had passed between her as a solicitor and a boyfriend twenty years ago. Yes, you heard – twenty years ago; more than three times longer than the standard limitation period fixed by the law for permitting civil claims to be raised.

The employees of Mr Murdoch, and their unattractive political sponsors like Senators Abetz and Brandis, to this day put their hands on their heart and say that they have pursued this issue in the public interest because what Julia Gillard did twenty years ago reflects on her fitness to hold office as Prime Minister. Well, if they are prepared to say that with a straight face, they will also be the shrillest in objecting to any suggestion that this kind of personal denigration could only have been wrought on a woman. However that may be, the attack on Julia Gillard, especially after she had lost office, appeared to many Australians to reach new lows, even by our standards, of partisan political bitchiness and moral vacuity in Canberra.

The CFMEU is what is called a militant trade union. It has succeeded to the position of the BLF as the Aunt Sally of choice for hardened and unlovely champions of the class war like Senators Abetz and Brandis. The public inquiry headed by Mr Heydon, and named after him, was predictably branded as a witch hunt, and we have no problem in imagining what the reprisals will be like, but it was always hard to see how anyone like Mr Heydon could get down into this gutter and come out with a reputation enhanced, or even preserved.

Mr Heydon has impeccable credentials as a member of the Establishment, or at least as close as Sydney can get to any such thing. He was educated at Shore School before going on to win the University Medal at Sydney University. He was a Rhodes Scholar – well the whole nation is coming to terms with the fool’s gold that that distinction may hide – but his winning the Vinerian Prize at Oxford is a good sign of a very bright and concentrated academic mind, if not a driven one.

Whether that can translate into good judgment and common sense is another question, especially when those early academic prizes are followed by the active pursuit of an academic career. Mr Heydon was a Fellow of Keble College Oxford before becoming a professor in Sydney and the Dean of the Law School. He is the author of works in the wantonly superior and acerbic style that some elevated lawyers in Sydney appear to find satisfying. He never sat as a trial judge, being appointed straight to a court of appeal and then to the High Court. I do not know if he ever appeared in a criminal trial or before a jury.

Mr Heydon was happy to tell those listening to the ABC that he wears as a badge of honour the title of conservative black letter lawyer. He acknowledged that others regard that term as an insult. Mr Heydon is not therefore averse to taking sides, and being seen to do so. South of the Murray, the Sydney black letter lawyers, the ‘whisperers’, are thought to have tickets on themselves and to be too brittle for their own good. Some of the sniping that they engage in looks downright bitchy, and you can see it in print, and in works that assert claims to scholarly merit. They can engage in behaviour that looks anything but conservative.


By the time his time on High Court had expired, Justice Heydon had become a compulsive dissenter, and he could express his views in language that was at best curious. In the case about packaging cigarettes, his Honour said:

After a ‘great’ constitutional case, the tumult and the shouting dies. The captains and the kings depart. Or at least the captains do; the Queen in Parliament remains forever. Solicitors-General go. New Solicitors-General come. This world is transitory. But some things never change. The flame of the Commonwealth’s hatred for that beneficial constitutional guarantee, s. 51 (xxxi) , may flicker, but it will not die. That is why it is eternally important to ensure that that flame does not start a destructive blaze.

Putting to one side the imputation to a polity of a visceral emotion, which would have entertained medieval Schoolmen, is this what we expect from the justices in our ultimate constitutional court – to speak of the hatred of the Commonwealth of a part of the Commonwealth Constitution? What do these people do to each other up there is that bleak suburban fastness of Canberra? What sort of masonry lies buried here? Where is the calm repose of the dispassionate jurist?

Mr Heydon was appointed to the High Court by Prime Minister John Howard, who is the mentor of the Prime Minister who appointed him to conduct this royal commission. This could be called keeping it in the family, although few Australians will reflect with equanimity on the suggestion of Mr Abbott that he is the political love child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop.

The government was aware that its bona fides were in issue – to put it softly – in this royal commission. They had to find a safe pair of hands, a man beyond reproach. How could you do better and more safely than with a former High Court judge who glories in his black letter conservatism? All that would have been enough for a government that puts slogans where thinking should be, and which puts political advantage over principle.

Well, it was never likely that Mr Heydon would, like Sir Garfield Barwick, be described as the hit man of the Establishment, but there were obvious difficulties in his appointment to this political task. With the best will in the world, Mr Heydon would have no idea of the world of people like Mr John Setka or Ms Kathy Jackson of the Health Services Union. You do not learn about them at Shore or Keble College, Oxford. You might as well ask Mr Setka to give advice to Mr Heydon’s club in Sydney, the Australian Club, on the etiquette surrounding the inviting of ladies to lunch at that club. (You don’t.) It is not as if Mr Heydon has spent time knocking back beers at a South Sydney boozer talking to people with pictures on their arms and with a bit of previous in their cupboards about the contribution of the blackfellas to the latest flag of the Bunnies. This is one factor in appearances when appearances count. It rather savours of two of the chaps from Oxford getting together to advance the interests of those who share their view of the world over the interests of those who are not so well off. Put differently, what member of the CFMEU or any other union target could give a bugger what somebody like Dyson Heydon, QC said about them? This is not just class that we speak of – it is caste.

But it was not just the sheltered, cloistered upbringing of Mr Heydon that made this appointment inappropriate – it was his lack of experience as a trial judge. Royal commissioners are not judges and they do not exercise a judicial function. They are part-time public servants conducting an inquiry and they are anything but independent of those who give them the job. But it is useful in many contentious inquiries to appoint someone who has judicial or at least forensic experience in determining issues of fact arising from conflicts between witnesses, and to do so with a person who is as distant from the fray as possible. Neither of those ends was achieved here.

Nor would Mr Heydon have the faintest idea of what might be involved in running the office of a solicitor, which was at the heart of the query about Julia Gillard and her boyfriend. Had Mr Heydon ever practised as a solicitor, it is inherently unlikely that a firm of which he was a member would have acted for a union, let alone one as punchy as the CFMEU. But even if he had acted as a solicitor for the big end of town, he would have been able to smile in a more informed way on some of the more banal suggestions about the conduct of Julia Gillard as a solicitor. They were and are being made by people who do not know what they are talking about.

When judges are sitting in court, they observe a fiction that says that they are not affected by what they read in newspapers, but it must have been apparent to Mr Heydon that the job he was being asked to do had more wrinkles than my aging kelpy cross. Most Australian lawyers know the kind of juristic mayhem that can flow when the industrial and criminal laws combine. There are two words that cause veils to descend over people’s eyes when they are mentioned in an Australian court – one is tax; the other is industrial.

The BLF kept fighting lawyers (including me) in feed for more than a generation. A rogue outfit like the BLF pushes the legal system beyond its snapping point. Judges find themselves saying things that they instantly regret, but they feel provoked and pushed. The BLF provoked a Labor government to pass a law of proscription and annihilation that would have made Adolf Hitler blush. But what appeared to be the case to someone who had got to act on both sides of a long running kind of civil war was that the more that governments lashed out at those in charge of these outfits, the more thoroughly were their members locked in behind them. You get a similar reaction if you say something rude about the Collingwood Football Club. Class and faith (bigotry) are as thick as blood.

And was there not something just downright bloody unseemly about getting a former High Court judge to inquire into the conduct of a former Prime Minister as a solicitor more than twenty years ago, and after her time in office had expired? Is this really all that the people of Australia can expect from those who claim the right to run this bloody country?


A royal commission, as the name suggests, is a manifestation of royal power. Her Majesty, through her advisers and officers, good monarchists all down here, is proceeding against her Australian subjects, named or otherwise, to achieve a political objective. The Domesday Book was a good case. The Queen is in a way going against or sending against some of her subjects. All of her ancestors have promised not to do that ‘except by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’ since clause 39 appeared in Magna Carta in 1215, but ancient rights must give way to current grubby political imperatives.

So, the Vinerian Scholar entered into this royal commission and into territory that would be less familiar to him than Mars – or the home of the South Sydney bunnies. He also came with a propensity to pedantic dissent from the mainstream, and a capacity to say things that put your teeth on edge. He looks like an unsettling nerd out of sync with the rest of us, a flat white made flesh, the lone Ranger sans Tonto, more of a protected species than a living national treasure.

And the main attack failed; the pursuit of Julia Gillard has been finally pronounced to have been what all but the bent or demented always believed it to have been. Mr Heydon said:

Findings are made that Julia Gillard did not commit any crime and was not aware of any criminality on the part of these union officials.

There was a time when a good trial judge would have just stopped there because he or she had just disposed of the relevant issue. But Mr Heydon went on to opine that part of her legal work ‘must be regarded as a lapse of professional judgment, but nothing more sinister.’

The introduction of the degree of comparison might suggest that in the opinion of the author, the error of judgment was in itself ‘sinister’. If you look that word up, you will get ‘prejudicial, unfavourable, darkly suspicious.’ Mr Heydon also used the lesser epithet of ‘questionable.’ Could it be that this long quest would just end with a question? How would it have gone down if a lesser lawyer, say a solicitor, had dared to question, en passant, Mr Heydon’s professional judgment as a barrister or judge?


Now all that kind of stuff is the staple of what passes for politics and journalism in this country – a less than elevating rough and ready blow by blow account of a shit fight. But that ugliness has been fed here by the lack of experience of this commissioner in trying controverted issues of fact. Mr Heydon is quoted in the press as saying:

Normally cross-examination of a non-expert witness is a contest between a professional expert who is familiar with every detail of the case and a relatively unwary member of the public who is not. But Julia Gillard had twenty years’ knowledge of the case and immense determination to vindicate her position. She was, so to speak, a professional expert on her own case.

Two reports in The Age quoted the same words, as if there was something wrong about them. There was. Mr Heydon, that is not how trial courts work. It may look that way to those in the proverbial ivory tower of Keble College Oxford or the High Court of Australia, but it is not what happens day to grinding day in any court in the land. The mystique of cross-examination is grossly over-rated, and as an artful technique it is nearly dead. You grope your way hoping not to get smacked or ambushed. The days when you are ‘familiar with every detail of the case’ do not happen often, if at all. If you have to listen to others do it, you try to help them reach the point, and sometimes just watch as people go over the precipice; you have to help them reach the point, because other litigants are waiting their chance to get this job done so that they can get on with their lives. Sir John Starke was the leading cross-examiner of his day, and he told me, more than once, that he always felt relief if when he sat down he was no worse off than when he started.

All that, apparently, has not been the experience of Mr Heydon, QC. We are not talking about what some call the sporting theory of justice. Rather, Mr Heydon looks on cross-examination as a kind of dressage contest where points are awarded for form, deportment, and style. The problem with treating the witness box as the scene of sport or even a contest is that the white hats may not do as well as the black hats. The black hats normally have the money behind them.

What Mr Heydon appears to be talking about is not cross-examination but the ghastly ersatz routine that is killing it. Counsel charge a fortune to read anything they can lay their hands on. They then bring their computer or wheelbarrow to court, smile wanly at the witness, and say; ‘Now, Sunshine, you and I are going on a little journey.’ They then proceed to circumnavigate the world, mostly to no effect, except to enhance their bank balance. Documents are flagged or tabbed to act as prompts or cues, and you neither see nor hear any real cross-examination at all. The process is tailor-made for the novice at one end and the truth-dodger and game-player at the other. We saw it all on live TV at the Leveson Inquiry. It was a boring as it was fruitless. I wonder if in truth Mr Heydon has ever seen a witness cross-examined at all.

I have tried to set out the reasons why I do not think that Mr Heydon was the right lawyer to conduct this inquiry, quite apart from his previous position as a High Court judge. He is too remote from the world and he has not had enough experience in resolving issues at first hand. These reasons were apparent to those advising the government, but they nevertheless went ahead, and Mr Heydon, perhaps from a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige, acceded to their request. It is difficult to avoid the inference that the government chose to go ahead with the appointment in spite of all the difficulties because they were set upon giving to their inquiry the gloss of the seal – the cachet, if you prefer – of the High Court of Australia – and there you have the whole bloody problem. We have drawn the courts, and our best one, into the political gutter.

A distinguished English judge was the late Lord Devlin. (He was also considered to be the Rolls Royce of trial judges, and it was said that he retired early because he was sick of the dry sodality of appellate work.) Lord Devlin once made a remark to the effect that English governments forever showed the very high regard that they and the English people had for their judges by their so frequent attempts to impose upon the judges to help them out of a political spot by giving their name and office to the conduct of a sensitive public inquiry*. This is why sensible and decent courts forbid that practice. That ban should extend to retired judges because the danger of communal reputational damage is just the same.

It would be tart to say that mistakes of professional judgment have been made here, and of a quite sinister kind, but is not the ordinary Australian, perhaps if you like ‘the relatively unwary member of the public’, not just a little ashamed at what is going on here? An Australian, as it happens a woman, has reached the highest form of electoral office that this nation can bestow; she is then made the subject of a sustained scheme by one of the world’s most powerful press head-kickers to blacken her name and run her out of office; she then has to face the indignity of being subjected to a public trial and humiliation at the instance of political opponents whose want of principle and character, and commitment to our basic political tenets, are becoming daily more apparent; and then their nominated inquisitor acquits her of the charges gainst her, but just gives her a backhander to go on with? Why would any sane Australian tell their children or grandchildren to do anything other than stay as far away from that cess-pit as possible? What can we say to these people, apart from what that now famous Boston attorney said to Senator McCarthy: ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’

What did we Australians do to deserve this smutty little fiasco; more signally, what have we done to deserve these truly awful people who so truly believe that they are our ruling class?

*The actual words of Lord Devlin (The Judge, OUP, 1979, 9) were: ‘In our own country, the reputation of the judiciary for independence and impartiality is a national asset of such richness that one government after another tries to plunder it. This is a danger about which the judiciary itself has been too easy-going.’

Accidents happen


Every time I go back to Sir Lewis Namier, I think of Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher – after him comes a lot of blue sky before you get to the next bloke.  He is a clean cut above the rest.  He is one of those writers who soon assure you that you are in the hands of a commanding intellect.

Namier certainly revolutionised our notions of history.  It would be tart to say that he said that it should be based on evidence – but that looks to me to be the gist of the revolution.  Rather than talk about what groups of people may be said to have done, Namier looked in great detail at the hard evidence of what named people really did, and he then worked on framing a narrative.  His period was eighteenth century England, but his microscopic research into and cataloguing primary sources led him to focus on the year or so following the accession of George III.  In the result we get an account of the political manoeuvrings leading to the first election of that reign and its consequences that looks as detailed as an account of an election held last year.

What you get are flashes of insight that you do not get from the standard histories of the Hanoverians.  The notion of ‘parties’ goes out the window for that period, but we get a full understanding of what they called patronage and we call corruption.  A lot of it makes the Godfather look like a novice.  And every so often, the author permits himself what might be called a philosophical observation that shows the breadth and depth of this historian’s mind.

In 1760, Pitt was the leader, the Minister for Measures, and the Duke of Newcastle was the machine man, the Minister for Numbers.  But Lord Bute had the ear and trust of the new young and innocent king.  Namier and history formed a low view of both Bute and Newcastle, but how would that minuet play out?

The game which in November 1760 started between Bute and Newcastle provides material for an exquisite comedy.  But historical comedy is never written.  Authors of historical novels have merely to imagine the past as the readers like to see it.  Writers of serious biography have critically to examine records of fact as handed down by the actors or their contemporaries, and then, without smile or grin, adopt what Meredith describes as an ironical habit of mind – ‘to believe that the wishes of men are expressed in their utterances’……It is more difficult to grasp and fix the irrational and irrelevant than to construe and uphold a reasonable but wrong explanation, and this is the greatest difficulty both in dealing with contemporaries and in writing history.

There it all is in one hit – especially as Namier, like Carlyle, sees history as a bundle of biographies.

….History is made up of juggernauts, revolting to human feelings in their blindness, supremely humorous in their stupidity.  [The author illustrates this point by referring to the famous painting of Goya of the execution by Napoleonic troops of Spanish peasants, and the ‘Fall of Icarus’ by Breughel’ – ‘the true humour of the tragedy is not so much the pair of naked legs sticking out of the water, as the complete unconcern of all the possible onlookers.’]  History of infinite weight was to be made in the absurd beginnings of a reign which was to witness the elimination of those who had hitherto governed England, the speedy and irretrievable grace of him who brought about their downfall, the lunacy of the man who meant to be King, the ruin of the life and achievements of the greatest statesman of the age, the break-up of an Empire such as the world had not seen since the disruption of the Roman Empire – history was to be started in ridiculous beginnings, while small men did things both infinitely smaller and infinitely greater than they knew.  For purposes of historical comedy, and with a view to destroying some beautiful and rational legends, it will pay to follow up in some detail the duel between these two reputed leaders and statesmen, Newcastle and Bute.

And that is what Namier does for the rest of the very substantial book called England in the Age of the American Revolution.  Have you seen a better job description for a historian?

Much earlier in the book, Namier had said:

Those who are out to apportion guilt in history have to keep to views and opinions, judge the collisions of planets by the rules of road traffic, make history into something like a column of motor accidents, and discuss it in the atmosphere of a police court.

All this is very deep.  It is not surprising that Namier got up the nose of the establishment, but a distinguished contemporary, Sir Geoffrey Elton (another immigrant with an Anglicised name) said much the same thing: ‘the general theories err in seeking profound causes for what is in truth a series of accidents tied together by a quite small number of personalities on either side.’

Hindsight badly blurs the role of luck – or accident.  All history turns on accidents.  My favourite example is the second day at Gettysburg when a young colonel from Maine, a lecturer in rhetoric, saved the day with the most cool valour under murderous fire – but for his survival and command, the day and then the battle could well have been lost – and with it, the Union, and the bulwark of Europe against Germany in the next century.  Another example occurred nearly 20 years before Waterloo on 10 May 1796 when French troops under the command of a young general bent on making a name for himself showed enormous courage to storm and take a wooden bridge 200 yards long in the face of constant fire and repeated grapeshot cannonades   The French troops named their general le petit corporal for his courage, but if one Austrian bullet had deviated an inch or two and killed Napoleon Bonaparte, the whole history of Europe and the world would have been different.  I would not be here, and God only knows what the view outside would be like.

While giving his views about the tawdriness of the ‘duel; between Bute and Newcastle, Namier said: ‘The greater a man’s power, the less can he gauge the outcome of his own actions; and it is only a truly humble recognition of his own limitations that lifts the great, sincere, religious man beyond the realm of historic comedy.’

Sir Lewis then referred to an anecdote about Lord Salisbury who was three times Prime Minister of England at the turn of the nineteenth century.  (According to Wikipedia, Clement Atlee was asked in 1967 who was the best PM in his lifetime, and he nominated Salisbury immediately.)  Salisbury had been entertaining guests at the family estate at Hatfield.  It was a time of the most acute international crisis, and the guests were keen to offer Salisbury their condolences for the grievous responsibility bearing upon him.  He was relieved when they left.  He was about to take a walk.

I didn’t understand what they were talking about.  I should understand if they spoke of the burden of decision – I feel it now trying to make up my mind whether to take the greatcoat with me.  I feel it in exactly the same way, but no more, when I am writing a despatch upon which peace or war may depend.  Its degree depends on the materials for decision that are available and not in the least upon the magnitude of the results which may follow….With the results I have nothing to do.’

We can see why those remarks of his Lordship may have appealed to Sir Lewis Namier.

[if you click on the book title at the head of this post you should get some remarks about Namier from a book I wrote.]

Passing bull 10 The end of sectarianism and tribalism?

We see Canberra as a sheltered workshop for the otherwise unemployable, a sad coalescence of politicians and journalists who stroke each other when they should be doing something else.  Our political journalists are too often too close and too matey with the politicians they report or comment on, and too one-sided.  They report on a vacuous game of man-to-man game grunting and dreaming that treats us the idiotic dupes of mantras and poses, where anything like policy or truth does not get a look-in.  It is a hideous dance of the veils.

Here is a typical slice from one piece last Saturday week.

The Prime Minister’s challenge is to frame these arguments in the public eye from the coalition side, highlighting the inconsistencies and choking any momentum at the start.  It is a political challenge but also an opportunity to demonstrate a ruthless and effective political will to further undermine Shorten’s leadership and Labor’s credibility…..

The next election will be about the economy above all else, and it is up to Joe Hockey to fill Labor’s void with a coalition profile.  The Treasurer needs to snap out of the mid-winter torpor before Labor gets away with another distraction…..

Abbott’s mantra of the first half of his term as Prime Minister – that Labor will bring back a carbon tax and can’t stop the boats – is under threat…..

Abbott of all people should realise the importance of acting quickly to frame an opponent’s personality or political strategy detrimentally, in your own terms.

When Abbott became the surprise Liberal leader in 2009 the ALP the unions and the Labor government deliberately moved into overdrive immediately to cast Abbott as old-fashioned, anti-women, ‘stuck in the past’, pugilistic, anti-worker, embarrassing and innumerate.

Dredging up long-dead events, leaping on scandalous and spurious claims, skirting on sectarianism and amplifying every criticism, Labor managed to imprint a firm caricature of Abbott, built on existing impressions, which created a lasting prejudice and has contributed mightily to his enduring unpopularity.

Halfway through the electoral cycle Abbott is better placed strategically than Labor after recovering from the failures of 2014, but he faces a new challenge of doubling down and repelling Shorten’s attempt to reposition Labor on key issues and shift the focus back on the Coalition….

The Coalition can’t assume the public – which supports renewable energy – won’t be dazzled by Shorten’s use of sunlight and blinded to another election campaign fought on rising electricity costs….

Well, at least the author does not hide whose side he is on or who his mate it is.  We get a quota of DLP paranoia – did you know that the ‘enduring unpopularity’ of the PM is largely down to a scare campaign put on by Labor and the unions of the kind that the author is recommending to the PM to deal with Shorten? – and we even get a bit of the old Mick chip on the shoulder about the Protestant Ascendancy – the Labor and union attack on Abbott was ‘skirting on sectarianism.’

But this kind of bullshit does not just show the vices in Canberra that make people ill.  It positively endorses and extols the place of bullshit in our politics.  And who is the most decent political leader that you can think of who demonstrated ‘a ruthless and effective political will to undermine’ the other side?  Is that not rather the role of the Opposition?

The following Saturday, we had a piece from the same writer headed ‘PM’s to-do list: walk from rorts, talk about jobs, go for Shorten’.  It has a kind of tribal and footy ring to it.  We are told that Labor’s attack on the Speaker’s entitlements was ‘opportunistic,’ but that Christopher Pyne would be allowed to ‘exploit the evidence that Shorten gave to the trade union royal commission that he took seven years to declare a $40,000 donation to his political campaign.’

Do these people have the Inquisition in their blood?

The same paper has one columnist reviewing a book by another, Ross Fitzgerald reviewing Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man, by Gerard Henderson.  The reviewer tells us that he did the final film interview with the subject, but the ABC and SBS were not interested – ‘I suspect that this was largely because of the deep dislike of and animus towards Santamaria by the Left and other supposedly progressive forces in Australia.’  This is the reverse Masonic handshake – the uninitiated can put the paper down right now.

As Henderson demonstrates, BAS was very much a Melbourne man….

Indeed, as Henderson convincingly argues, Santamaria had relatively little influence in NSW…

In a telling section of this compelling biography, Henderson reveals the highly negative…

Henderson, correctly in my opinion, maintains the principal cause of the great Labor Split in the mid 1950’s was the erratic federal Labor leader HV (‘Doc’) Evatt and not Santamaria….(That reminds me of the line of Falstaff: ‘Rebellion lay in his way and he found it.’)

Henderson’s assiduous research mirrors the conclusion of my own in The Pope’s Battalions….

Henderson also correctly claims BAS had a strong influence on archbishop (now Cardinal) George Pell – who delivered the panegyric at Santamaria’s state funeral…

As befits a book subtitled….Henderson’s captivating biography has a strikingly arresting front cover of BAS in profile directly gazing at the reader and standing in front of an old-fashioned Channel 9 camera….

Henderson’s biography is not only extremely well researched and clearly indexed but boasts an illuminating array of photographs…..The reviewer’s favourite is a photo of BAS in front of a crucifix of which the author says: This was an ill-advised pose for a Catholic activist with an Italian name at a time when anti-Catholic sectarianism prevailed within sections of Australian society.

Henderson has certainly done his homework into all aspects of Santamaria….The author recalls that the reviewer was prevented from including a piece by BAS on the Carlton Football Club in a collection about football, but the piece The Agony and the Ecstasy had pride of place in the follow-up volume.  Fittingly, in the first game of the 1998 season, the Carlton team wore black armbands in memory of their high-profile lifelong supporter.

It is all a bit like the school magazine of say Haileybury College circa 1957, or the Victorian Bar News circa 2015.

Now for the good news.  I am nearly seventy and all this sectarian bullshit, even the memory of it, will die with me and my generation.  Our kids could not give a bugger about any of it, and thank God for that.  Tribalism is another matter.

Crime Fiction

If you read only the hard stuff, you might get ratty.  About three years ago, I asked a friend to recommend a good crime or thriller writer.  He said that a woman called Donna Leon had a following for detective stories set in Venice, starting with a plot centred at the opera house La Fenice.  I read one and Donna and I are getting just fine.  I have just read about my tenth, which is also centred on La Fenice, and the stalking of the prima donna in Tosca being performed there.  This is a real bonus for fans of opera or Venice.

Donna Leon is or was an American academic who taught literature and music.  She has lived in Venice for 25 years, which is about the number of the novels in the series.  Like most crime novels they are written after a model.

Commissario Guido Brunetti is a very astute detective who studied law and who occasionally reads Greek tragedy for uplift.  (How many wallopers do that?)  His wife Paola lectures in English, specializing in Henry James.  She is also the daughter of a count and countess.  She can also cook, and we get full descriptions of her offerings.  They have two children who must now be of university age.

There is a support cast that reminds me of Perry Mason.  The bad guys are Brunetti’s superiors, who are from out of town, thick, and right wing.  The good guys include plain honest cops who have no guile or political ambition, and Signorina Elettra who is a whiz on computers and bending the law.  Anything to do with government, bureaucracy, the south, or the church is open season.  Indeed, for me the crime plot is just an excuse to hang up the clothes on which to examine Italian customs, foibles, and culinary and artistic traditions.  They are I would guess the main reasons that Leon has such a following.  She is translated into many languages, except Italian, and the Germans have made TV series about her stories.

Leon is an acute observer of her adopted country – or, I should say, city, since we are often told that Venice is different – and spoiled by tourists and cruise ships.  Many of her books look at current issues, such as child abuse, child slavery, or stalking.  But it is the descriptions of city life and eating and drinking, and the social customs that get me in.

Brunetti dined with his wife at her parents – ‘he was surprised by how casually his parents-in-law were dressed until he realised this meant that the Conte’s tie was wool and not silk, while the Contessa was wearing black silk slacks and not a dress.’  They discuss the grand-son’s love life.  The grand-daughter is not showing much interest.  ‘It won’t last much longer’, Paola said, voicing the eternal pessimism of the mothers of young girls.  ‘Some day she’ll show up at breakfast in a tight sweater and twice as much make-up as Sophia Loren.’  It is not just mums who know that.  The corruption is worse down south.  Some of the barbs are laugh out loud.  After some spectacular act of deviance, Signorina Elettra, who may have raised the pulse rate of a younger or single man, swaps stories with the dottore.  She knew of a guy who was a stage hand at the opera in Naples.  He never actually worked there.  He just clocked on and off five days a week and drove his cab seven days a week.  He had to.  He had many mouths to feed.  How long did this go on?  A mere quarter of a century.

These books are seriously entertaining and you get a slice of life of the people who gave us Verdi and Ferrari, two of mankind’s essential blessings.  The 2015 model, Falling in Love, is up to form.

My main political prejudices– Or, after Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents

[This note, which is far too long, began with conversations with two friends with very different political views at different times.  It says: Australians are different to Europe because they do not like doctrine or intellectuals; they are different to America because they depend on government.  The current parties Liberal and Labor have no identity, and the old labels of left/right or conservative/liberal are useless.  We cannot find criteria to choose who to vote for and we should leave to crooks and idiots the function of putting labels on people showing how we think that they might or should vote.  Standards in politics will continue to slide, and we risk being at the mercy of nuts and populists.  This note can stand as a permanent disclaimer of my political bias on this website.]

Political issues

We are for the most part talking about politics, that is, about how we get on with each other and how we make and implement rules (or laws) for that purpose.  Those issues call for emotional and moral responses as well as what might be called intellectual responses – and in many places or times, a religious response.  Those responses might therefore not just be non-intellectual but plainly irrational.  For example, a lot of people inherit their politics like their faith from their family or school or – God save us – their class.  (Australians do not like admitting this.)

Religion does not have the impact here now that it had in the 50’s and 60’s with the DLP (and that history of ours colours the view of many here to religion), or that religion has presently in, say, the US or Iran.  Morality now has a much shakier basis than before with the decline of God and the fall of the Church.  These changes do not help us in talking about politics because we no longer share the same underlying assumptions in the way that we did before.  That change in my lifetime has been great.

There are obvious differences between the discussion of intellectual issues, and the discussion of those based on morals or faith – before we start to take in more emotional responses.  One question is whether we can discern intellectual or historical trends in the way that people react to these issues in a way that can be expressed meaningfully and safely.  Another question is whether any current political groupings adequately reflect any of those classifications.

Typing, or labelling: putting people in boxes

Perhaps the more serious question is whether it is intellectually safe or morally decent to resort to these classifications – and, as it might be said, put people in boxes.  Or type them.  Or brand them.  (Was the term ‘pink,’ or is the term ‘fascist’, even if it has an identifiable meaning, ever used with respect?)

Before breakfast at Oxford, we get access to all the major papers.  As I was going in one morning, I heard an English lady of my age saying in that soft quizzical way that the English middle class have, ‘I have just been described as a typical Guardian reader, and I am wondering how I should react.’  We discussed it over our English breakfast (with English bacon!).  What did that mean?  Was it true or fair?  How did she feel about it?  I cannot recall the upshot, but I think it may have been that the comment was a bit uppity, if not downright bloody rude.

Typing people demeans them.  It denies people their own self.  I was very taken by two observations made by Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago: ‘In the Kingdom of God, there are no peoples, there are persons….To belong to a type is the end of a man, his condemnation.  If he doesn’t fall into any category, if he’s not represented, half of what is demanded of him is there.  He’s free of himself, he has achieved a grain of immortality.’

Political science, like economics, is in perpetual danger of succumbing to two propositions – that people behave rationally, and that their behaviour can be predicted.  The first is merely wrong; the second is very worrying.  The tragedy of any social science is that of a syllogism broken by a fact.  The curious thing is that often those who succumb to these fallacies are the ones who themselves become the most predictable, and boringly so.  In the words of Jane Austen, they happily submit to another lesson ‘in the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle.’  That was after all a very closed, provincial, bourgeois world, but you can find pockets of it around here now.

Typing and labelling leads easily to branding.  If you have borrowed too much, and find it hard to repay all the debt, you say that the lender is being cruel and unreasonable asking you to repay everything, and that the measures they want you to adopt are branded with the mark of ‘austerity’.  If sending the navy against unarmed refugees does not sound too good, send them against ‘people–smugglers’, and just forget their human contraband.  If you want to delete humanity altogether, just say ‘stop the boats’, and forget about everyone on board.  Some people will swallow anything, and only a pedant would remark that until recently, boats were the only way that people got here.  The First Fleet got here that way; so, apparently, did the ancestors of the blackfellas.

Abstractions and the intellect

Political discussion is also extraordinarily susceptible to the dangers involved of using general or abstract terms.  We do not like ‘–isms’ here.  We are I think different here to Europe.  They tend to put a value on high intellect and academic merit, and intellectual discussion, that we (taking after the English) do not.  (If I had to guess, I would say that the US is in between.)  Europeans like to work down from a grand design.  We tend to build up as we go.  John Stuart Mill may have been guilty of both typing and abstraction when he discerned ‘an infirmity of the French mind’ – ‘that of being led away by phrases, and treating abstractions as if they were realities which have a will and exert active power.’  The best example is the phrase ‘the French Revolution’.  There was no such thing.

But there is danger even in simpler terms.  Is there such a thing as ‘government’, or is that just a label that we apply to those people among us who are entrusted to make and administer our laws?  Do we look on a jury in the same way as we look on a parliament?  Do people like ‘government’ or is it at best an object of grudging suspicion and tolerance during good behaviour?  I do not know for Australia – I suspect a lot have that kind of view (which is about mine) – but you are not likely to see a party of anarchists here.

A while ago, David Cameron said that he would stop calling civil servants ‘bureaucrats’.  The word is pejorative if not insulting, and we have suffered enough damage to the idea of an independent civil service.  The political slide we are watching among politicians and civil servants is snowballing.

I think that our reluctance to get too wound up by intellectual ideas is very healthy.  It comes from England, and the faith that the best system of government in the world was built not out of ideas but from hard experience of a people who think that anyone who claims to have the answer is at best mad.  The German historian von Ranke said: ‘The English intellect is as far removed from the keen dialectic of the French as from the world-embracing ideology of the Germans; it has a narrow horizon; but it knows how to comprehend and to satisfy the requirements of the moment with circumspection and great practical sense.’

The upshot is that we can get into trouble when we try to impose an overarching imperative or prohibition drawn from logic on the matter-of-fact fabric of our legal thought.  The problem of judge-made policy is inherent in any system where a smooth Bill of Rights is imposed on the rough common law.  The worst example, at least in Australian eyes, is the way that the dogma of the right to bear arms has been allowed to destroy sense and life in the U S.

Australian idiosyncrasies

One result is that I think we are naturally conservative, in that we put a high value on what we have inherited and built, by hard experience rather than abstract thought, and that we deeply suspect those who think change can be well brought on by people who are merely clever.  We tend to fancy ‘a pragmatic tendency to focus on avoiding manifest harm rather than aiming for speculative improvement’.  That happens to suit me intellectually, I think, not just because I have spent a life in the law, but because my thinking reflects a heavy bias toward empirical philosophy, and Anglo-Saxon history – and the differences that I see between European history and ideas and ours’.  (In that quote, ‘pragmatic’ is favourable, but ‘pragmatism’ can suggest the surrender of principle of a trimmer; ‘speculative’ is on any view on the nose; both terms are loaded.)

Because of our different backgrounds and prejudices – I am now talking generally – we see the world differently, and we frame our questions about it differently.  And we all know that the answer depends on the form of the question – hilariously shown in Greece recently – and that the art of the advocate is to state the question in a way that makes the desired answer seem inevitable.  A lot of the problems of political discussion come when people ask different questions and then refuse to answer ones that they do not like – that is, questions that invite an answer which is or seems to be contrary to their declared position.  Our politicians now play by their own rules; they are strangers to straight talk about the world in fact.

It follows that Australians either suspect or reject outright political ideas that seem doctrinaire – as in the platform views of anything like a think tank – on either side.  The word ‘think’ is, frankly, a worry in this country’s politics.

We also follow England in distrusting those who go to the edge for doctrinal reasons – we seriously distrust ideologues.  The IPA might just replace the Socialist Left as the Australian bogeyman of extremism.  It prefers theory to evidence and ideas to people, and it is full of bush lawyers who play clever games with words and kick goals for the other team at will.  It is capable of election-losing purity.  It may be the secret weapon of the Labor Party.  Typically, only the Labor Party sees that; they have form – some time ago, I agree – on election-losing purity.

But if we are different to Europe because of our adherence to the British empirical view of the law and government, we have a very different view to those of the Americans on the role of government and the extent to which people can or should rely on government.  These differences do not derive from our British heritage, which is only partly shared because of time differences, but from the very different ways that Australia and the US grew up, starting with the Mayflower and our first fleet.

I have written about this elsewhere, but Geoffrey Blainey saw the main differences in the way that migrants arrived – theirs free except from a covenant with God, ours always with government assistance.  The frontier mentality also is much stronger in the U S, together with a Puritan tradition that is absent here.  The Puritans abhorred equity because it relieved fools of their covenants.

The result is that Australians look to government for support in ways that Americans think odd or bad, and that the Americans have a doctrinaire opposition to anything like our position.  We in turn think that their stance is at best odd, and at worst uncivilised.  The leading instance is health care.  The two nations are Venus and Mars.  We are unapologetically ‘socialist’ by many U S standards.  Many Australians regard the Americans as more than a little mad – as do many Americans.

It follows that if an Australian politician threatened to reduce government benefits in a radical way because some ideologue said that such a step was doctrinally sound, they would be kicking into two very strong historical headwinds – a historical reliance on government, and a historical distrust of doctrine.  That is why it was so silly for the Treasurer to announce the end of entitlements, and it helps to explain the public reaction to his first budget.

The party system

We inherited parliamentary democracy, the Westminster system, and the role of political parties, including the two party system, from the English.  There is no point in looking back now at the origins of ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ in the 17th century.  They evolved when the main issue was between the crown and parliament, when people had a logical difficulty with the idea of a ‘loyal opposition’, and during the 18th century when the English political machine was run on what they called patronage and what we call corruption.  The English constitution was in substance settled in 1689.  When the U S broke away in 1776 – before the white people settled here – they chose a very different model – one reason was that they had to find a replacement for the crown.  (Some think that they still looking for it.)  The revolution that started in France a year after the first fleet had very little effect here.

When our Commonwealth started, the English parties were mainly the conservative and liberal parties in the traditional sense of those terms.  Their labour party emerged later, as did ours, and after a bedding-down phase of a generation or so, our parties were the Liberal and Labor Parties.  The latter, both here and in England, were formed to represent the interests of organised labour – the trade unions.  That is a fundamental difference in the two party system in the U S and here and in the U K.  There is no party for labour as such in the U S.

I find it hard to say how we have benefited from either.  The Labor Party has always stood for sectional interests, been prone to blow its own brains out at least once in every generation, and been subject to doctrinal schism that might fairly be said to be that noxious thing unAustralian.  The result was the appalling national tragedy of Bert Evatt and the Split, and the disenfranchisement of a generation.  When they finally got back in under an egomaniac of great intellect and charm, they were bitter and twisted and clueless, and provoked the other side to throw the rule book out the window.

It was always hard to tell what the Liberal Party stood for, except the flag, the queen, the Women’s Weekly, the Sunday roast with World of Sport, and anything else that would anaesthetise us – together with an unremitting hostility to the unions and that Satanic force called Socialism.  They said this with a straight face although they were in bed with the Country Party, which is the Godfather of sectional interest politics and the champion of agrarian socialism – and Menzies had done more to regulate the banks than the others had dared to do.  The Liberal Party was just there to oppose the Labor Party, and after the Split they had God in the Vatican on their side.  What we now call their default position is that they may not be too flash, but the alternative is unthinkable.  Australians who find comfort there do not do themselves or their country any favours.  The suggestion that the Liberal Party is better at managing the economy is life threatening if it is true.

It is hard to see what either party stands for now, or how you could apply their history or stated principles to define the differences between them on major issues.  Both are now led by ghastly unprincipled mediocrities who stalk around the Members’ enclosure with a Form Guide in their back pocket called opinion polls.

The unions now are at best an embarrassment for Labor in this country.  When we are told that peripheral countries in Europe need structural reform, we hear of what some would say of at least some unions here.  A friend in the Labor Party said that some unions run very backward looking closed shops – some would say protection rackets – and it is not easy to see many that are well run.  If you go to the unions that are described as ‘militant’, you will not find many women, blackfellas, Asians, queers, or refugees.  Their only achievement in three generations has been to sink the split between Micks and Prots – because so few of their members could give a bugger about either.

But, although the present is not attractive to anyone who is not a bigot, there are states of mind that are deeply entrenched.  It is very hard to get back powers you have surrendered to a government, and for a democratic government to reduce the benefits that it has extended to those on whom it must rely for its support.  The present federal government has been amazingly naïve about both these forces, and has reduced itself to cowering inaction – waiting on enlightenment from the Form Guide.

But a tribal attachment to one party, or rather a tribal aversion to the opposite party, still prevails in many places.  Many people are simply unable to vote for one party.  That means that for them that the two-party system offers no choice.  It may as well not exist.  That is one reason why it is collapsing.

I have laboured these historical differences for at least two reasons.  First, we are obviously the product of our history – mistakes, accidents, tragedies, and the lot.  We have nothing like the maturity of the U S as a nation because we never had a revolution or civil war.  We still have to have a communicant member of the Church of England chosen by birth as our head of state.  Secondly, we need to recall the big difference between things as they are, and things as they might be if different views on life prevail – or things we might wish them to be, or things as they ought to be.

About ten years ago, I did a course on the philosophy of religion at Oxford.  There was audible discontent when we seemed to be spending so much time looking at what the main religions meant by the word ‘God’.  We thought that we were doing philosophy not anthropology.  The argument seemed to be: the three major religions in the west believe in one God that has certain qualities; independently of those beliefs, a God may be logically shown to exist; the God in the second proposition therefore must have the qualities of the God in the first.  The conclusion just does not follow.  Looking at how things are is different looking at how we might wish them to be if we could effect change.  But if you forget the first while looking the second, you will hit the fence very hard.

Very few people are happy with the way that our party system is now working.  It is the same in England.  As a result we have minority parties and coalition government and consequent concerns about whether elected governments will have the capacity or will to effect necessary change.  It is very rich for any member of one of the two major parties to complain that people are getting into parliament who behave like mad dogs.  People are voting these people into parliament precisely because the old guard behave like mad dogs.

The result is that we get more independent MP’s and cranks – who happen to have more appeal to many than the pros.  A more worrying trend in Europe, and some would say the U S, is a growth in parties that are unashamedly populist, and in the old language, Right wing.  The quite shameless populism of Donald Trump is a very bad swallow indeed.  The Right, like the Mafia, thrives on a failure of government and standards.

Palmer and Trump also signify the lack of faith in politics – their trump is that they are new to it and not yet corrupted.  They say that they have succeeded elsewhere, and that if they have been unlovely in doing so, that may not be such a bad thing.  They have the prerogative of the minority throughout the ages – all power and no responsibility.  They are happy to go direct to the gutter.  They are brazenly inept.  People smile or giggle nervously – as they did to some other brazenly ambitious people for far too long.  Is this prospect not alarming?

Even the most die-hard conservative does not want inaction by default.  When I told a new Liberal MP that I could see no difference between the parties, she said that she had joined the Liberal Party because they were better for small business.  I wondered about that.  Would that logically entail that in her party capital would prevail over labour?  At the crunch, would the interests of small business, the great sacred cow of Australian politics, prevail over the interests of the wage-earners?  Her party would never assert that as a platform – neither would the Labor Party ever assert the contrary.  Is there any issue now on which the platforms of the two major parties dictate policy differences between them?  If the present parties are not offering criteria to distinguish policies, where else can we go?

Left Right, Liberal Conservative

The old distinction between left and right is not helpful.  I have tried to describe it elsewhere.

The ‘left’ tend to stand for the poor and the oppressed against the interests of power and property and established institutions.  The ‘right’ stand for the freedom of the individual in economic issues, and seek to preserve the current mode of distribution.  The left is hopeful of government intervention and change; the right suspects government intervention and is against change.  The left hankers after redistribution of wealth, but is not at its best creating it.  The right stoutly opposes any redistribution of wealth, and is not at its best in celebrating it.  The left is at home with tax; the right loathes it.  These are matters of degree that make either term dangerous.  Either can be authoritarian.  On the left, that may lead to communism.  On the right, you may get fascism.

You might add that the left always claims the moral high ground and the right claims the exclusive ownership of management.

Those differences, which are very much matters of degree, hardly throw light on whatever differences there are between the Liberal and Labor parties.  They do however provide terms of abuse.  And have you noticed how many people are happy enough to brand others as Left or Right, but not all that happy to accept the invited correlative that they are then Right or Left?

About the only the only identifier left for the Left and Right in Australia is the Middle East.  Israel has the Right and the Arabs have the Left.  Why that should be so, and what good it does for anyone, is beyond me.

To go back to the beginning, we ‘are for the most part talking about politics, that is, how we get on with each other and how we make and implement rules (laws) for that purpose.’  The ultimate issue is how much we want to allow those in government to interfere with each of us by making and implementing the rules or laws for that purpose.  People who want to live with others necessarily agree to give up some of their freedom in order to do so.  It does not add that much to say that we would prefer to give up as little as possible or to keep government as small as possible.  No sane Australian wants to give powers to government that the Germans gave to Hitler or that Stalin wrought from the Russians, but very few Australians would want to have a government so small that it did not provide the level of health care that ours does.

The old distinction between the conservatives and liberals tended simply to be that the first were slower out of the blocks.  It is hard to see the intellectual justification for that view now.  It will among other things depend on how people classify the kind of change being sought.  For example, is it a change in our attitude to the rule of law, or is it a change of direction in policy to give effect to a change in community attitudes?  ‘Reform’ here is a very slippery term that might beg its own question.

If we are talking of a change of policy, should government lead?  The answer depends on what people think of the policy – and, after the event, how history has judged the change.  I can well understand people saying that unelected judges should not be involved in changing policy – but that seems to me to be the inevitable result of the U S Constitution and legal system.  And as it happens, history has vindicated the radical lead given by the Supreme Court on desegregation, and Harvard tells its students that most of the advances in civil rights of the last generation had come from class actions.  (I accept that ‘advances’ here carries a similar loading to ‘reforms.’)

Political labels again

I want to go back to my misgivings about putting labels on people for the sake of it.  It is one thing to ask someone standing for election to be candid about what they stand for across various policy issues; it is another thing to put a label on a person because the views that they express in one field suggest that they might have certain views of say a similar ‘radical’ or ‘reactionary’ nature on other issues.  The result is likely to be an insult if not a fight.

And the exercise involves arrogance at one end, and a kind of denigration of the judgment of the person branded.  It is called taking people for granted, and it is a besetting sin.  Many people are not happy unless they are put in a box – but they do not see why others are more unhappy to go the same way, or on the same tramlines.  They speak in streams – coded slogans, which are usually useless, or language charged with resentment and fear.  They hardly appear to be up for a sensible chat.  It is like talking to a brick wall, except that in their unwillingness to concede any point at all, they too often try to crash through with a fallacy.  The ad hominem is a house speciality – it suits their narky side, half way between a cat and a mouse.  They live in that world that has that ghastly label – binary.

There is little point in reading most political commentators in this country – you know what they are going to say.  They are like Collingwood supporters – it is all a game but it is a game that should only end one way; if it does not end that way, the system has failed, and the result should be neglected.

Let me say why typing irritates me personally so much.  I have set out some of the reasons why the Labor Party makes me very nervous.  The Liberal Party has the same or worse effect on me for the following reasons.  They have never been a real conservative party with a coherent conservative platform or policy.  I have not forgiven them for Vietnam, 1975, or Iraq.  I regard Little Johnny as a dreadful little vote-counter and trimmer who personally denied me the Republic that I will not live to see.  And, worst of all, the bastards forever behave like Tories born to rule.  They actually believe that they are better!  For good measure, the present crop is as brainless and gutless as ever.

I have a specific gripe against the Liberal Party at the moment.  This P M is an idiot who is not up to the job.  He is a pushy, punchy simpleton, a vapid, grinning hand-me-down from the DLP.  You do not change at his age.  He pacified people for a while, but now he is back in form.  At a supermarket the other day, he was asked how the Greek and Chinese crises might affect us.  ‘Look, the important thing is to do whatever we can to build a strong and prosperous economy locally.  And again I get back to the Grocery Code of Conduct.  We have a great supermarket system.’

Coles and Woolies will save us from China and Greece.  This is shirt-fronting, duke-knighting country.  The Liberal Party has a real P M standing there, who is preferred by most in the electorate, one who does not fawn on Bolt and Jones, but they have to wait for another call from New York before they can move.  Why are they worried?  They might look as bad as Labor looked when they ejected a loser.  And people can see how bad that was on T V.  It is pitiful, is it not?

And yet, whenever I give vent to those views, I am generally taken as indicating that I favour the other side.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  That will I think be obvious from what I have said.  How is it then that people get it so wrong?  Because for most of them, their political views are the product of as much rational thought as was involved in selecting what God they follow or what footy team they support, or whether they prefer mixed clubs or gentlemen’s or ladies’ clubs, or co-ed or single-sex schools.

The upside, I am told, is that we are not likely to wake up to Hitler or Bonaparte at Yarralumla; the downside is that civilised political discourse hardly takes place in this duckpond.  How long do we have to wait for the next long weekend footy blockbuster so that we can line up for our dispensation of bread and circuses?


Let me take another example of the impact of history on politics and the way we that we live and think.  Apart from self-government, or independence, and not getting into bad wars – and there are no good wars – my big concern is education.  I think that what we have is a shambles that is a disgrace for a country as young and rich as ours.  We have two kinds of schools and those at the bottom of the pile or at the edge of town are very lucky indeed if the school that their kids go to is as good as that private school that the better off get their kids to.

If you discuss this in Paris, Berlin, or Vienna and say that part of the problem comes from our adopting the English public schools, and until recently allowing them to entrench the class system and single sex clubs, the person you are speaking to will shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, give the rationalist version of crossing themselves, and set about a stiff drink.  (You get a similar response at Cambridge and Oxford because they are very sensitive there to allegations of elitism.)

But if there is one cow holier than small business out here, it is private schools.  That is an issue that cuts clean across all class, ethnic, religious, and financial barriers.  Any Australian politician even looking at that lions’ den is asking to be eaten alive.  If you want to blow up any barbecue or dinner party, just suggest that the parents are sending their kids to the wrong kind of school – but this is another area where any differences between the main parties are accidental.

Our wars

Before I get back to the issue of how to distinguish policies, let me just say something about our wars.  It is as if we have become addicted to failure.  When the Japs overran Singapore, we turned from the England to the U S for security.  We have since gone to war at their request.  We do so as payment on the policy of the security that they offer us.  But we never come clean about that.  It so happens that with Vietnam and Iraq there were other and worse lies too.  There is no worse a crime that a government may commit than to send its young men off to die for a lie, but we will never get an apology.

We are far too obedient with the U S – and Labor leaders always get duchessed as quickly in Washington as at Westminster.  All these problems come from our national immaturity and our refusal to cut the apron strings.  (I was interested to hear Malcom Fraser say that his disenchantment with the U S went back to the acquisition of the F111.)  On our most recent failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, public opinion was split.  But not for our politicians.  They marched on grimly in lock-step to salute the flag.  That is not even our own.

Other criteria?

Well, let us get off typing people for the sake of it, and look again at criteria for differing between policies and platforms.  Liberal and Labor are useless.  Left and right and are not much good and prone to abuse.  The question is how much power and responsibility we give to government and for that purpose the old labels ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ do not take us far.  One dill of a sorry bent who appeals to one senior politician fancied egoessential against egoregressive.  Well, that has the advantage of candour.

If you wanted to talk about people being ‘libertarian’ or ‘progressive’, are you doing so to classify them from above, or testing them to see whether you would vote for them?  I am not interested in the first, and I doubt whether you would find any appetite for the second.  Policy criteria must, as it seems to me, either derive from accepted custom, or provide workable tests.  The terms ‘libertarian’ and ‘progressive’ look to me to be too abstract and to look like an attempt to frame the question to attract the desired answer.

The short answer is that I cannot see what kinds of criteria might be adopted by major parties to distinguish themselves on a consistent basis across the issues of the day.  That is one reason why I think the two-party system is falling apart.

Let me look at three contemporary issues that are discussed now – the environment (climate change), immigration (refugees), and gay marriage.  I can understand some tenderness between, say, conservatives and liberals on the last, but I really have no idea why there should be said to be a similar division on the environment or immigration.  (For that matter, I do not know why the Right is always so keen to pick a fight about racism in this country, or why they want to pretend that it is not happening – when the rest of the country knows that it is.)

Current issues – the environment

I have deliberately stayed right out of the climate change argument.  I know nothing about it because my instincts told me it would be a field day for conspiracy theorists and fanatics or fundamentalists – like, say, those who get exercised over animal rights.  Why do you not just consider the evidence and make policy accordingly?  That is all that lawyers are trained to do.  Why should it be a matter for party politics?  I have no idea at all why some people on the conservative side – in the extreme case, The Australian – get so wound up this issue.  It has not been a problem for English Tories.  I have no idea why it has become so politically contentious here for those on the Right.  That is why I am so glad to be out of it.

I offer only three remarks.  I suspect that the problem is that too many people are not happy to be dispassionate, but have to take sides and team up on any issue; they have to fight because they thrive on conflict; their ultimate fear is to be left alone in a quiet room to think.  Next, I must confess to my own personal bias or prejudice on this point.  Sometimes I incline to a position for no other reason than that I distrust those opposing it.  I freely concede that this is irrational, but this is still a free country, and if people like Tony Abbott and his best mates Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones want to agree that a cat is white, I will be happy to proceed on the footing that that cat is black.  Finally, I do not know why a political party wants to adopt a position that might be shown to be empirically false – like the Vatican on astronomy.  I thought that was the kind of thing that politicians devoted their lives to avoiding.


Nor do I have any idea why our response to the immense problem of refugees should have become a party political issue along the old conservative/liberal divide.

This is by far the biggest issue of the three.  It will still be with us when the rest has been forgotten – which will not be far away.  We have not even started to come to grips with it.  According to the U N, during 2014, more than 55 million people were driven from their homes by force.  For 2013, the U N estimated that 232 million migrated for economic and other reasons.  We just cannot get our heads around these figures.  Since 2000, Germany and Russia have taken 10 million, and the UK and France eight million.  (These figures come from a piece by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian Weekly.)  Our position is that we will take as few as humanly possible, and that we will deploy our armed forces to secure that result.

I have no idea what the answer is – that is, what is a position that the people of this country might reasonably be persuaded to adopt – but I have even less of an idea of why this issue should be split along the lines of the old conservative/liberal divide.  I would have thought that the question comes down to compassion and how a government sensibly seeks to persuade its people to adopt a course that they can live with.  As far as I can see, our government does not to think along those lines, but that still does not help me see why people should split on theoretical fault lines.

I will say that I do not know many people here who are proud of the way that our government is going about the military operations.  Nor do the Europeans seem anxious to follow our model.  It was soul destroying to see Morrison turn up with Darth Vader before crossed flags and refuse to talk about operational matters in Operation Sovereign Borders.  This government runs gunboat diplomacy like the Keystone Cops.

We now have the Australian Border Force headed by an ex-rozzer named Roman Quaedvlieg.  The website has bullshit that is astounding even by our own impressive standards.

We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating nation states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border. 

Treating the border as a continuum allows an integrated, layered approach to provide border management in depth— working ahead of and behind the border, as well as at the border, to manage threats and take advantage of opportunities.
By applying an intelligence-led model and working with our partner agencies across the border continuum, we deliver effective border control over who and what has the right to enter or exit, and under what conditions.  

Officers in the Australian Border Force are operationally focused, uniformed and part of a disciplined enforcement body undertaking functions across our operating environment – patrolling our air and seaports, remote locations, mail and cargo centres and Australia’s extended maritime jurisdiction.

There is not a word about refugees from a government that claims to follow the teachings of the Jewish man who preached about the good Samaritan taking time to help a stranger who had been robbed.  But our Prime Minister was prepared to invoke the God he believes to be the Father of that preacher in launching the Force and its Commander-in-Chief in his suit of French blue with silver leaf on the lapels: ‘May God bless you, may God bless your work, may God bless the country you are helping to protect and prosper.’

Not in my bloody name, Sport – who would want to have anything to do with a God who would respond to that sort of bullshit?  It defies belief.  This prime minister is a very stupid man, but even he might see the unlovely comparisons with a leader of a nation standing before a bundle of its flags and calling down the blessings of Almighty God on the Supremo of a quasi-military force set up deal with people less fortunate than him.

We can deploy as many in uniform as we like to stop refugees, but at some time and in some place we are going to have to face the moral question of how many we should take.  We have a land of plenty with hardly anyone on it while tens of millions are oppressed and displaced.  Years after I visited Rio, it faced a huge problem with urchins and orphans oozing out of the sewers to occupy Copacabana.  We see the same now at the channel tunnel.  Somewhere and at some time, the problem will have to be faced.  In times to come, will we resemble the young boy using his finger to plug a hole in the dyke to stop his nation being flooded?

The fixation on the sovereignty of our borders and the deployment of military force to secure them may derive from a fear of being overrun by strangers.  Then we would end up with no title to our own land.  That leads us to the question of Lenin: who are we?  Who are the true owners of ‘our’ land?  The people who currently show the most agitation on this point are commonly those who show the least agitation about the dispossession of the original owners.  Those who are most bitter about refugees are those who are least sorry for the aboriginals.  Their nightmare is becoming refugees in their ‘own’ land.  Compassion can be very self-centred.

Gay marriage

That leaves gay marriage.  Here, I can understand a debate along the old lines, between those who fear that the change may do too much damage to existing social insitutions and those who think that the change is the least that is required to bring equal rights to different forms of enduring union – and I accept that both sides would quarrel with that description.

I personally have no issue with equal rights.  I would prefer not to use the word ‘marriage’, because I don’t like being told by politicians how to use the English language, and I resent people who want to tear down rubrics to satisfy a transient urge, but I am not going to go into the trenches about one word.  If a bloke wants to leave the pub saying that he is off to sleep with his husband, he could expect a variant on the Lewis Carrol response, and not expect a standing ovation for his contribution to inter-sexual peace and enlightenment in a country boozer, but I suppose that eventually things will settle down.  (Adoption, of course, involves other considerations.)

I can understand people resisting the notion that if it looks like the numbers are there, they should bury their conscience, and lie down and enjoy it.  I can also understand people being upset if such a step is seen to be imposed by judges rather than being settled on by elected members of the legislature.

As to the latter, that risk seems to me to be inherent in the American legal system where sadly the highest court tends to divide on party lines especially when performing a de facto legislative function.  The usual complaints have been uttered in The Australian.  They have excoriated the majority and celebrated the minority – which did of course include Scalia, who is not only predictable, but predictably rude in the unshakeable conviction of his own rectitude.  Unfortunately, but typically, the commentators have not told us what the legal issue was, or what were the reasons why the majority decided that issue as it did.  It is hard to say that it is bad, when you are not told what it is.

Nor have I understood how the proposed law will adversely affect the conscience of people who are religious.  Yet Paul Kelly in The Australian says that the central issue in same sex marriage is whether the new definition of marriage ‘will authorise an assault on churches, institutions and individuals who retain their belief in the traditional view of marriage’ and ‘whether same-sex marriage will deny conscience rights to much of the population.’  I am not sure what this means, but I am entirely ignorant of any ground for suspecting that the proposed law will adversely affect the religious conscience of anyone.  Is there any basis for fearing that the proposed law may have the effect of causing people to act against their conscience?  If there were some attempt to legislate a compulsive utopia which entailed that ministers of religion were legally obliged to act against their faith, I would oppose it.

Still, I know that the people at The Australian are going through a hard time now, because in addition to their demons at the ABC and Fairfax, they now have to put up with the demons in the Supreme Court of the U S and the Holy Father, each of whom has real clout, but I do not presently understand this point at all.  Since Mr Tim Wilson is said to be involved, this may not be surprising.


Those three contemporary issues suggest to me how hard it is to fix on criteria for sorting views or voting for candidates across the range of issues that might arise here and now.

I wish to say something about one factor that has intruded in two of them – religion.  It is a fact that religion and churches are on the nose here now, and elsewhere, even more than politics, but those discontents are now merging, and it is hard to see our being better off as a result.

Our Prime Minister is keen on invoking God, or at least his God, and not just in the gay marriage debate (in which he is behaving very much as his mentor Howard did on the republic).  We might have known that the former seminarian had it in for us from the moment that he assured the nation that he would not allow his faith to affect the way that he performed his office as Prime Minister.  The other day, he told the Interfaith Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast: ‘Faith does not make us good, but by God, it makes us better.’  (Really – I have heard a recording of this; and just spare a thought for the poor bastards who have not been made better – and think of what our PM may have been like without God.)

Fairly or otherwise, the Church has been seen to be on the side of reaction, and authority, and the established order.  It is seen as the soul of conservatism.  This government is intent on preserving that record and it will not do it, the Church, or the nation any good.  If you had to nominate who had done the most damage to religion – to God and his Church – in this country, Tony Abbott or his mate George Pell, it would be a very close run thing.


Some say that we are obsessed with inequality.  I have not seen that, but I do fear that after the problem of persons displaced by violence, most of which comes from religion, the next biggest potential cause of disorder is inequality of income and wealth.

I do not have the faintest idea about what to do about this either, but if two people report to work at a bank for a day, and one emerges with a wage one thousand times higher than the other, we have a problem.  Our whole communal life is founded on assumptions which in turn are based on notions of reasonableness, proportion, and fairness.  These notions I accept are large and unquantifiable, but, rightly or otherwise, most people have an idea of what is going when those basic assumptions are not met.  You get words like ‘outrageous’, ‘obscene’, and ‘mad’.  If some arrangement is not made, you might get something more than words.

People who either do not think that there is a problem or that if there is, it will go away if we ignore it, remind me of Louis XVI, who said in his diary for 14 July 1789, ‘rien.’  The French crown and nobility paid heavily for their failure to see and deal with the cause of the discontents within their people; so did the Russians.  As I say, I have not the faintest idea what to do, for the explosion that might come from the growing crisis of displaced persons, or inequality, but I would not be like to be around for the next version of Citizen Robespierre, or Comrade Lenin; or boats backed by warships.  I do however have the strong suspicion that our politicians have no idea of what might be in the wind.

More worrying than inequality of reward is inequality of punishment.  People down the bottom get jail terms while people at the top pull off fantastic frauds that endanger the economies of nations and the world, for which they should get about twenty years in the slammer on the tariffs set for those beneath them – instead, teams of well-heeled lawyers, financiers, and PR people meet teams of government lawyers, officials, and spin doctors, and the government agrees in a deal made in private to trouser a huge fine as a bribe, that is paid by innocent shareholders, and instead of going to jail, the guilty money men trouser another few billion in bonuses.  There will have to be a reckoning for this kind of madness.

When talking of inequality of wealth, we might remember that the wealth of nations consists largely of promises, or of the expectation that those promises will be met.  In assessing that wealth, the moral value underlying those promises may or may not matter so much, but if the underlying moral fabric is pulled too hard, the whole structure may collapse.  To adopt another metaphor, if you want to live in a castle in the air, and not just dream of it, you must ultimately come down to earth.

Trends in time

This observation is even more general and unverifiable than anything before, but I do have the impression that whereas is the 60’s and 70’s, the great conspirators and conspiracy theorists, the Looney Tunes and the bad clowns, were mostly on the left, they are now mostly on the right.  The right – they like to say the centre-right – is now more cloistered, vengeful, and paranoid than the left ever was – it is now the repository of bitterness.  It is certainly easier to discern what might be called the public enemies in that direction.  And whatever else it stands for, it is not compassion.

Similarly, what used to be called the chattering classes now seem to me to be on the side of reaction rather than change.  The new right seems to be more uptight and vengeful than the old left.  They are capable of hot and extreme language.  Some are driven to express physical revulsion and that is a sure symptom of intolerance.  They have little judgment and they are not able to make concessions.  In the result, they often find themselves defending the indefensible, and they have not learned the first precept of advocacy – if you have a good point, make it, and don’t spoil it with a dud; if you don’t have a good point, shut up.  What goes for advocacy goes for politics – or it should.  The regimes that fall over are those who do not see the imperative need to negotiate to stay in touch.

I suspect that the problem with ideologues is the same as the problem with our politicians and judges – they spend too much time in their own company.  They go to functions where you check your brains, or at least your critical functions, in at the door.  They should spend more time with people outside their own bubble.  The internet is only encouraging this Masonic clubbism.  And that is before you get to the circumambient paranoia about the ABC and Fairfax for people who gallop around in small circles like the black hats and white hats in the matinee western serial at the Ashburton Civic in 1952.

Well, all that is the kind of typing I have been complaining about.  Does any of it matter?  After all, most people in Australia hardly give a bugger about politics, and very few want to talk about it at any length.  They are dispirited by the whole bloody mess, and they think that it is the ideologues, academics, and journalists who are very much to blame for our present condition.

How to vote

Voting along party lines as a rational choice, as opposed to a caste or tribal diktat, presupposes two things – the party has a coherent platform or policy, and it can be trusted to adhere to it.  You can then see clearly why that system is over here.

I tend to look for the leader who most appeals.  Mr Baird and Mr Wetherill appear to be doing good jobs.  If I had to nominate two Australian politicians I admired, I might mention Lindsay Thompson and John Cain, two Victorian premiers.  They were completely honest.  (We take that for granted in Victoria, but we are the only ones who can.)  They were dedicated party people who saw themselves as servants of the public.  They knew and respected the system and their ambition was neither unmanageable nor indecent.

If I had to nominate two shockers I could start with Campbell Newman and Tony Abbott.  Their ambition is or was indecent.  Both thrive on conflict of the pettiest party order.  They look to be without principle and to be responding to polls rather than leading opinion, and in a very sad reliquary way.  They do not appear to respect the system, and each is guilty of inflicting a major wound on our body politic by trashing the judiciary – Newman by appointing Carmody to Chief Justice and Abbott by appointing a former High Court judge to lead his war on the unions.  Carmody and Heydon established their ineptness by accepting a position knowing it would bring the courts into political controversy.  It is impossible to assess the damage to the High Court from the appointment of one of its former members to lead the class war in an inquisition into unions.  It is sadly typical of this Prime Minister that he has no idea of the trouble he has caused.  Newman and Carmody at least had the wit and decency to quit.


It is hard to see any upshot, let alone upside.  I might best therefore leave it all to those with more brains.

In his Treatise, David Hume said ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’.  The mind spells out what comes from the heart.  He concluded his Enquiries with the famous proclamation of the empirical position.  He said we could pick up any book in our libraries, and ask: ‘Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?  No.  Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?  No.  Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’

In the preceding paragraph, we get a remark that brings those two together and applies to politics.  ‘Morals and criticism are not so properly objects of the understanding as of taste and sentiment.’  There are no demonstrable answers there.

That is the intellectual tradition that I grew up in, and as it happens, I subscribe to it.  Does that mean that we cannot talk rationally about politics?  Of course not – but there will be no hard or fast answer.  Yes, but surely sensible adults should be able to map out common ground and at least agree on what the question is and the criteria by which the question should be resolved?  Sadly, no; emphatically, no.

The reason was given by Hume a few pages before in language that is timeless.

The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counterpoising argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; nor have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments.  To hesitate or balance perplexes their understanding, checks their passions, and suspends their action.  They are, therefore, impatient to escape from a state, which to them is so uneasy: and they think that they would never remove themselves far enough from it, by the violence of their affirmations and obstinacy of their belief.

I will refer to just a few others.  Keats referred to the capacity of Shakespeare he called ‘Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’  F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed a similar idea when he said that ‘the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function’.

Negative capability is not the prerogative of genius, but we all know the irritation of being kept in doubt, as in a close call on election night, or a close call on a video replay for the third umpire.  When confronted with something new we behave like small children reaching for their comfy rug.  Our whole life is a quest for bedrock, and under stress we are inclined to lapse back into slogans, formulas, or dogmatism.

Kant said that: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.  Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.  This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another … Dogmas and formulas, though as mechanical instruments for rational use (or rather misuse) of his natural endowments, are the ball and chain of his permanent immaturity.’

Edward Gibbon referred to our discomfort when a crutch is knocked away: ‘The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of humankind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation.  The state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds.  But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision’.

That is enough.  We know what the problem is, but we have never been able to fix it, and we never will be.  It would be going too far to abolish think tanks, but we could at least scrap the study of political science, a contradiction in terms, and suggest that people read Jane Austen and Flaubert instead and get a real education.  That way we would have the satisfaction of knowing that we have sent at least one think tank clean out of its tidy mind.

The most that we can ask for is not to be put in pens or boxes, or despatched to a bad end, but to do the best we can with the ball and chain of our own permanent immaturity.

Two pairs of hands

There is a famous photo of Maria Callas as Violetta, the wronged courtesan of La Traviata (from La dame aux camellias)She is standing weeping like a distressed, wasted waif, wringing her hands.  The caption frequently says that even her hands seemed to weep.  It is a moment of theatre at its highest given by a woman who lit up the whole theatre and changed people’s lives.  Callas used her hands crossed over her chest to remarkable effect when taking bows – or when making an entrance, as at the Garnier before the French President, and upstaging Bridget Bardot, well after her voice had failed.  Callas made even her bows into an art form.

There is another famous photo of Callas in the great Visconti production of La Traviata at La Scala in 1955.  She and Giuseppe di Stefano are taking their bows.  She is what the French call radieuse; he looks handsome and respectful of her priority.  The photo, a copy of which hangs at home, is taken at the side from behind, so that their image is set against rows of boxes near the stage.  Her fulfilled radiance is caught by the full glow of the footlights.  (That loathsome shipper who defiled her life was years away.)  Her right hand holds a bouquet, and di Stefano has her left hand.  This is a portrait of accomplished artistry at what might be called the altar of the temple.

Jonathan Thurston is number 6 for the Cowboys, Queensland (the Maroons), and Australia.  He is a half-back and goal kicker – that is, he is one of the play-directors in his kind of rugby.  When the scouts came back from North Queensland about twenty years ago, they said that they had found a blackfella who could play footy, but they said that this one was too small and could not tackle.  He is now, and has been for some time, widely seen as the most valuable player in his code in the world.  Watching him at work is one of the great moments in Australian sport.  Typically he might be standing there passing the ball between his hands, with twelve of his bruisers behind him, and thirteen of the others facing him.  Each one of them could render him into something like manure, but they seem to be caught in the moment.  He just holds the ball while he holds his eye on them – he is waiting for the first hint of a drop in a shoulder that might suggest a weakness in the line.  If he sees it, he has a split second to move to pass to one of his own players, or to put himself in what he hopes will be a hole in the enemy line.  Because of the off side rule, he has to know what is going on behind him.  He therefore has to have the coolness and the antennae and play-making powers of Diesel Williams (who also had another party trick of a different order).

On the weekend I saw Thurston on TV threading a pass that shocked the commentators.  They said that it was like threading a needle – while human missiles were flying all around him.  After many slow motion replays, we finally caught the moment when that beautiful pair of hands released the pass backwards at the precise moment that allowed it to pierce the fray and to hit its fast moving target.  The other side hardly knew what had happened, and with anyone else we would have said that it was a fluke.

Whether you prefer the grace of the hands of Thurston to those of Callas is a matter of taste, and nothing more than that, but thank God that there is still some magic left in the world to relieve us of the drab misery of the measurers and the fibbers.

Riders in the Chariot

In the late 1950’s, the late Arthur Boyd painted a number of luminous and searing paintings about blackfellas.  They are called the Bride series or the like.  I used to have a print of one – striking images of a black man and a white bride in the Australian bush, they appeared to me then and now to show a phase in our national awakening.

I was looking at them again the other day in a book about Boyd.  Two things stood out.  One was the wide white eyes of the blackfellas, hunted or haunted and shifty (probably for the same reason, as in The Inquisitor of El Greco).  The other was the use of colour in the blackfellas.  Boyd had, I think, a thing about blue, especially that cobalt blue above the Shoalhaven, but in these paintings he uses shades of blue for the colour of the blackfella, and in the most confrontational painting, the blue becomes almost purple.

The late 1950’s was not an easy time for an artist in this country to broach the subject of race by looking at blackfellas and half-castes with white brides.  It must have taken some courage for this artist, who was as soft and gentle a man as you could find, to jolt his nation in this way.  It is the sort of thing that could easily lead to bloodshed in many parts of the world.  The author of the book referred to the character Alf Dubbo in the novel Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White that was published in 1961.  I do not know whether those paintings had any effect on White – if they did, his biographer did not appear to know of them – but the mention of Alf Dubbo led me to go back and read that novel, my favourite by that author, for the third time.  It is a truly astonishing work of art.

There are four riders in a spiritual chariot, people who have received some kind of light, people like seers or prophets, like spirits that may ride in chariots of fire.  They are for the most part also outcasts or misfits.

Miss (Mary) Hare is the child of a wealthy but loveless family that has a great mansion in the bush called Xanadu.  Plain and unsettling, the bourgeois life of the pastoralists passes her by, and as time goes, she merges into the mansion that merges into the landscape.  Dirty, wizened, and unkempt, she is at best a subject of pity to others in the small country town, who think that she is mad.  She may be, but she has a feeling for the earth that is denied to them – although not to the blackfellas, who are always called, and looked down on as, abos.

Mordecai Himmelfarb is a very intellectual German Jew who has literally seen the doors of the gas chambers.  His father had been baptised – he had sold out – to the mortification of his mother, and Mordecai has a load on his mind from the death of his wife.  He comes to Australia and renounces any position that he could have got as a distinguished man of letters.  The reason is simple.  ‘The intellect has failed us.’  He gets the most menial position in a factory in one of those country towns where reffos and misfits feel the full brunt of colonial small-mindedness.  Was this a place where this outcast of the world might look for redemption or even security?  Or would this escapee from the Final Solution find himself at risk in a land infected with the same Original Sin?

Ruth Joyner was born and brought up in England as an Evangelical Christian, a faith that moulded and sustained her all her life.  She loves her hymns, like the one about the ‘King in his royal State Riding in the clouds His chariot.’  She determined on her own to migrate here, and became a trusted servant to people as moneyed and unloving as the parents of Miss Hare.  For reasons that only God knows, she falls for and marries the iceman, Tom Godbold.  He is one of those no-good bastards who gets full, beats his wife, and then breeds.  Mrs Godbold, as she is called, bears all this and raises her children while taking in laundry in what is little more than a shed.  Tom finally buggers off on the night that Mrs Godbold puts on her hat and goes to get him back from the local knock-shop, Mrs Khalil’s.  Mrs Godbold is selfless, and wants to help both Miss Hare and the Jew, as he is called.  She is not an outcast as the others are, but she has the compassion of an elemental humanity, and we are not surprised at all when she is called ‘a kind of saint’.  Mrs Godbold is a solid as a rock, one of those broad-beamed women who survive, the only one of the four riders to do so.

Alf Dubbo is the half cast product of a grizzly meth-driven tryst on the river bank between a gin and an unknown white.  As a half cast outside any tribe, he is lost to the world – and as the author asks, why should we attribute his difference to the black bit rather than some Irish part?  Alf is brought up by an Anglican vicar who teaches him Latin verbs and buggers him.  Being set adrift, Alf stays for a while with a slut on a rubbish tip before taking up with a hooker who lives with a queen.  She and another queen then violate Alf in a worse way than the vicar.  They steal his art.  You see Alf, the blackfella, could see things that white men could not, and he had a gift to express his vision – a very spiritual vision – in art.  Poor Alf could never find someone to trust, but when he goes to work at the same factory as the Jew, the two feel an affinity between outcasts.  He is so down and out that one night, when he has been on the grog, he takes himself to Mrs Kahlil’s.  When he falls over, pissed, he experiences the native kindness of Mrs Godbold.

Each of the four riders speaks of the chariot, but it is very far from being a leitmotif.  White said:

What I want to emphasise through my four ‘Riders’ – an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress, and a half-caste Aboriginal painter – is that all faiths, whether religious, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist’s act of praise, are in fact one.

And he might have added something to the effect that about that which we cannot follow, we must be silent – or give in to the creative artist’s act of praise.  Somehow the novel prefigures the work of Manning Clark who was haunted, as the riders may have been, by the wish of Dostoevsky to be there when they find out what it is all about.  Each of these misfits has something that those of us who are whole do not.

There are the moneyed people that offer some of the light relief of the kind shown in The Eye of the Storm.  There are two old widows, Mrs Jolley, who becomes a housekeeper for Miss Hare, a truly disastrous mismatch, and Mrs Flack.  They both, we find, have their secrets, and they are the blackest possible version of Edna Everage.  They are one embodiment of anti-Semitism and hypocrisy, but the amount of bile invested in them by a man who carried a lot of bile may now seem heavy handed.

But Harry Rosetree, who runs the factory, and his wife Shirl are real characters in an appalling tragedy.  That is not their real name, but they are desperate to assimilate.  Their kids have learned to crave ice cream and potato chips and to shoot tomato sauce out of the bottle ‘even when the old black sauce was blocking the hole’.

So the admiration oozed out of Harry Rosetree, and for Mrs Rosetree too, who had learnt more than anyone.  With greater authority, Mrs Rosetree could say: That is not Australian.  She had a kind of gift for assimilation.  Better than anyone, she had learned the language.  She spoke it with a copper edge; the words fell out of her like old pennies.  Of course it was really Shirl Rosetree who owned the texture brick home, the stream-lined glass car, the advanced shrubs, the grandfather clock with the Westminster chimes, the walnut-veneer radiogram, the washing-machine and the mix-master.

That is the world that our Edna would inherit, but Harry and Shirl had changed more than their names.  They had gone the way of Moshe, the father of the Jew.  They had not done so for lucre, but might they end up like Judas?  How would the arrival of the Jew sit with the conscience of Harry Rosetree?

The climax of this grand opera comes at the time of Passover and Easter at the end of the war.

When the white man’s war ended, several of the whites bought Dubbo drinks to celebrate the peace, and together they spewed up in the streets, out of stomachs that were, for the occasion, of the same colour.  At Rosetree’s factory, though, where he began to work shortly after, Dubbo was always the abo.  Nor would he have wished it otherwise, for that way he could travel quicker, deeper, into the hunting grounds of his imagination.

The white men had never appeared pursier, hairier, or glassier, or so confidently superior as they became at the excuse of the peace.  As they sat at their benches at Rosetree’s, or went up and down between the machines, they threatened to burst right out of their singlets, and assault a far too passive future.  Not to say the suspected envoys of another world.

There was a bloke, it was learnt, at one of the drills down the lower end, some kind of bloody foreigner.  Whom the abo could watch with interest.  But the man seldom raised his eyes.  And the abo did not expect.

Until certain signs were exchanged, without gesture or direct glance.  How they began to communicate, the blackfellow could not have explained.  But a state of trust became established by subtler than any human means, so that he resented it when the Jew finally addressed him in the washroom, as if their code of silence might thus have been compromised.  Later, he realised, he was comforted to know that the Chariot did exist outside the prophet’s vision and his own mind.

It must have taken enormous courage for Patrick White to take on a story about a German Jew who lives most of his life in Germany, where a lot of this book is set, and a half-caste blackfella who is abandoned to an underworld that the author could never have experienced.  It is not hard to imagine a lesser writer coming a big gutser on such an undertaking.  What we get instead is a triumph of the imagination.

I do not want to reveal the end, which is shocking more ways than one, but this is how our four riders finally come together near the end of novel.

Then Dubbo looked inside, and saw as well as remembered that this was the shed in which lived Mrs Godbold, whom he had at first encountered at Mrs Khalil’s, and who had bent down and wiped his mouth as nobody had ever done.  Consequently, as she had already testified her love, it did not surprise him now to find the same woman caring for the Jew.  There in the bosom of her light the latter lay, amongst the heaps of sleeping children, and the drowsy ones, who still clung to whatever was upright, watching what had never happened before.  And the fox-coloured woman from Xanadu lay across the Jew’s feet, warming them by methods which her instincts taught her.

As Dubbo watched, his picture nagged at him, increasing in miraculous detail, as he had always hoped, and known it must.  In fact, the Jew was protesting at something – it could have been the weight of the bedclothes – and the women were preparing to raise him up.  The solid white woman had supported him against her breasts, and the young girl her daughter, of such a delicate greenish white, had bent to take part, with the result that some of her hair had been paddling in the Jew’s cheek, and the young fellow, his back moulded by the strain, was raising the body of the sick man, most by his own strength, from out of the sheets, higher on the stacked pillows.

The act itself was insignificant, but became, as the watcher saw it, the supreme act of love.

So, in his mind, he loaded with panegyric blue the tree from which the women, and the young man His disciple, were lowering their Lord.  And the flowers of the tree lay at its roots in pools of deepening blue.  And the blue was reflected in the skins of the women and the young girl.  As they lowered their Lord with that utmost breathless love, the first Mary received him with her whitest linen, and the second Mary, who had appointed herself the guardian of his feet, kissed the bones which were showing through the cold, yellow skin.

Dubbo, taking part at the window, did not think he could survive this Deposition, which, finally, he had conceived.  There he stood, sweating, and at last threatened with coughing.  So he went away as he had come.  He would have been discovered if he had stayed, and could not have explained his vision, any more than declared his secret love.

Alf Dubbo had never seen The Deposition by Pontormo at the Santa Felicita in Florence, but he may have seen a picture of it on one of his trips to the public library to investigate whitefella art.  He would surely have marvelled wide-eyed at the softness of the Mediterranean pastel colours, so unlike his own flash dabbings, and the fluid innocence and majesty of the scene.  What was it about Boyd and White that led them to express their compassion for our outcasts in the colour blue at about the same time in our drab national journey?

This is writing of sacramental and humbling power – like the paintings of Boyd.  These works of art are acts of both courage and faith, and they remind us that above the tawdry records of the world, there is the insight into our own humanity that we get from our great artists like Arthur Boyd and Patrick White, who teach us that art is the lyrical reflection of the human condition.

Passing bull 9: Let’s hear it for mere bullies

Prejudice warps thought.  People who have made up their minds and do not want to change them do not think straight.  They will go around corners to avoid a result that they do not like.

You can see two instances of this kind of warped thinking in the reaction of people like Bolt and Jones to the controversy about Adam Goodes.  They say two things – Goodes asked for it by provoking people (a view endorsed by silly people like Kennett and Latham); and at least some of those in the crowd giving offence were bullies and not racists.  It is not clear whether these arguments are said to be a defence or merely something put in mitigation of the offence.  I rather fear that it is the former.

Let us take the bully first.  Bullies are people who use their superior position to intimidate and hurt those people who are not as strong as they are.  A racist is a person who thinks less of another person because of their race and who as a result is more likely to hurt such people than others.  The racist will usually see themselves as being in a superior position to the person of a different race.  We can then see that using a superior position to hurt others will be common to many acts of bullying and racism.  Put differently, the racist in action is just one type of bully.

Is this not just what we see in the people booing Goodes?  They are using their superior position to intimidate and hurt Goodes, and part of their felt superiority and his perceived inferiority is that they are white and he is black.  Can you imagine a member of the Thought Police asking those booing – are you doing this because you do not like aboriginals, or just because you are a bully?

But even if you could separate some bullies from the racists, where does that get you?  Does the abuse of power become any less vicious or hurtful because the wrongdoer is miraculously oblivious to the difference in race?

Let us then look at provocation.  If there is provocation in some relevant moral sense, it is not generally thought to offer a complete defence, but only some extenuation.  And you may have to be careful how you put the argument and in what company.  If a person charged with rape admitted the offence but said that the victim had asked for it – the argument of the President Zuma of South Africa – or provoked him by getting out in public so scantily attired, the net result might be another couple of years in the slammer.

But when you get down to look at what Goodes has done that is said to have been provocative, you find tension if not conflict between the two arguments.  The mere bully says that race is irrelevant.  Can the person provoked claim this when both acts relied on as provocation – maintaining a complaint of racial discrimination and performing an aboriginal dance – are inextricably bound up with the race of Goodes?  Indeed, at least some of his accusers maintain that it is Goodes who is creating racist division by asserting pride in his own history.  People who discriminate against others and hurt them almost inevitably say that the victim has done something to earn their fate, and that claim in my view only aggravates the original offence.

In my view, each suggested answer is bullshit that only makes the offence and its defenders worse.

There is in truth an air of unreality to this whole discussion, which is a discussion that we should not need to have.  It is only made necessary by the warped judgment of people whose minds are closed, and who refuse to try to look at the position of other people involved.  No one says that the booing of Goodes is good or healthy.  But what its defenders refuse to concede is that real people are being hurt by it.  A blackfella in the Kimberley said this (if it matters, in The Australian):

Hope and opportunity are not words that are used up here very often.  This latest furore has given all those kids who want to be the next Adam Goodes a kick in the guts.  Why would you want to succeed if all you do is cop abuse?  If we are to get ahead, to hope and aspire, our young people must have role models to look up to.  There is no greater role model than Adam Goodes to us blackfellas.  We are proud of his achievements, his drive, his ambition and the recognition he has won in the toughest arena of all – white Australia.  So, the next time you boo a footballer like Adam Goodes, remember you’re booing those young hopeful kids in the backblocks of Australia who only want a chance to showcase the unique skills and talents indigenous footballers bring to our wonderful national game.

And that is before you get to the pain and suffering inflicted on a dual Brownlow medallist and Australian of the Year.

Bigots like Bolt and Jones do not think of this.  It is not just that they will not allow mere humanity to stand in the way of a good conspiracy theory, it is that their livelihood depends on conflict.  People like Kennett and Latham do not want to confront the evidence because they are pig-headed and big-headed, and their people gave them the boot for just that reason.  Even God-fearing doubters like me pray for the day when Bolt and Jones go the same way.

But the Alice in Wonderland – the bullshit – does not stop with silly speculation about the state of mind of the crowd.  We get it with speculation about the state of mind of the victim – or, for Bolt and Jones, the man who is the culprit.

It is apparently said that when Goodes performed his dance, and spear-throwing routine, he was being threatening and warlike.  The blackfellas have a different view of the effect of this ritual and they are insulted by being lectured by whitefellas who do not understand them.  Let us put that to one side.  Let us also put to one side that the three preeminent football codes played in this country are essentially war-like and threatening in their nature: it is of their essence that they are tests of manhood and courage.  Is it suggested that when Goodes performed this dance he was threatening war?  Was one blackfella picking a fight with about thirty thousand whitefellas?  Are we not here in the realm of diagnosable insanity?

Two of the best blackfella footballers in the country play a different code.  Ingles and Thurston are of the ilk of Franklin and Ablett.  Ingles celebrates a try – sometimes for Australia – with a goanna crawl.  Andrew Bolt is relaxed about this.  Why?  ‘That’s not a threatening move’.  Is this what the national debate has come to?  If it is, Bolt should not go to watch Thurston against the Raiders, because J T, as he is known, will perform his own war jig in solidarity with Goodes if he scores a try – and poor Andrew might be scared out of his tidy wits.

In my previous note, I said that the political savoir faire of Adam Goodes may be open to discussion.  If he had asked my advice about the conduct complained of, I may have been cautious.  But who am I to criticise him?  I am a white babyboomer with a public school and university education, topped up now and then at Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard, a member of an exclusive and privileged profession that involves a monopoly that encourages people to charge like wounded bulls, and who for nearly thirty years has been invested with the full power of the State of Victoria over other Victorians.  I have never been spat on, looked down on, or just abused in public by people who regarded me as racially inferior.  What bloody right might I have to sit in judgment on the conduct of blackfella footballer?  Just where does the arrogance come from for those who claim this right?

That brings me back again to the Prime Minister.  I am very sorry that his response was so late and so anaemic because I had thought that his attitude to the blackfellas was better than that.  His problem is not just that Bolt and Jones are friends and allies – they are soul-mates and political warriors who all thrive on conflict.  It is an old saying but true – if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

Marcia Langton was shocked by the ‘the widespread tolerance and support for the most vicious kind of racism that I have seen since the dark days of apartheid.’  As ever, the cover-up is worse than the original offence.  I was not shocked by the attacks on Goodes and the reaction to those attacks, but I was shocked by the viciousness of the attacks on Julia Gillard and the simple refusal of so many people to see that she was being attacked as a woman, just as Goodes is now being attacked a blackfella.  The whitefellas have some awful demons in their Dreamtime that they do not want to confront.  Perhaps we should take lessons from the Germans.  Either way, these failings make you ask just what being an Australian might decently mean.