Author Archives: particularkev
Australia’s federal Liberal Party began not with Robert Menzies in 1945, but with Alfred Deakin’s Commonwealth Liberal Party in 1909, and before that with his Liberal Protectionists.
As a leadership party, the Liberals have always needed heroes. But in the 1980s, as Liberals embraced deregulation, they turned against Deakin and the policies he championed.
In his brilliantly succinct description of Australian settlement, Paul Kelly identified the core policies of the early Commonwealth with Deakin, and compulsory arbitration and the basic wage with his Liberal colleague, Henry Bournes Higgins.
Deakin’s support for protection and for state paternalism were his key sins in the eyes of the Liberal Party as it rehabilitated the free-trade legacy of New South Wales Liberal premier George Reid. Reid is not a well-known figure, so this left the Liberals with only Robert Menzies for their hero, although he has now been joined by John Howard.
In jettisoning Deakin, the Liberals made a great mistake and showed the thinness of their historical memory. The party and its traditions did not begin with Menzies, but stretched back to the nation-building of the new Commonwealth, and into the optimism and democratic energies of the 19th-century settlers.
Indeed, Deakin was one of Menzies’ heroes. The Menzies family came from Ballarat, where Deakin was the local member, and his Cornish miner grandfather was a great fan.
Accepting his papers at the Australian National Library just before his retirement, Menzies described Deakin as “a remarkable man” who laid Australia’s foundational policies. It must be remembered that in 1965, Menzies supported all these policies the Liberals were later to discard.
When it came to choosing a name for the new non-labour party being formed from the wreckage of the United Australia Party, it was to the name of Deakin’s party that Menzies turned, so that the party would be identified as “a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary”.
This is a direct invocation of Deakin and his rejection of those he called “the obstructionists”, the conservatives and nay-sayers, who put their energies into blocking progressive policies rather than pursuing positive initiatives of their own.
In June this year, Turnbull quoted these words of Menzies, in his struggle with the conservatives of the party. Clearly Turnbull wants to be a strong leader of a progressive party, rather than the front man for a shambolic do-nothing government. He does have some superficial resemblances to Deakin: he is super-smart, urbane, charming and a smooth talker who looks like a leader. But as we all now know, he lacks substance.
When I first began thinking about this piece I was going to call it “What Malcolm Turnbull could learn from Alfred Deakin”. But I fear it may now too late for him to save his government, and might be more accurately called “What Malcolm Turnbull might have learned from Alfred Deakin”.
First, he could learn the courage of his convictions.
Deakin too was sometimes accused of lacking substance. He was not only a stirring platform orator, but he was quick with words in debate, and could shift positions seamlessly when the need arose. But he had core political commitments from which he never wavered. The need for a tariff to protect Australia’s manufacturers and so provide employment and living wages for Australian workers was one.
One may now disagree with this policy, but there was never any doubt that Deakin would fight for it.
Federation was another. In the early 1890s, after the collapse of the land boom and the bank crashes of the early 1890s, Deakin thought of leaving politics altogether. What kept him there was the cause of federation, and he did everything he could to bring it about.
He addressed hundreds of meetings and persuading Victoria’s majoritarian democrats that all would be wrecked if they did not compromise with the smaller states over the composition of the Senate.
Deakin had a dramatic sense of history. He knew that historical opportunities were fleeting, that the moment could pass and history move on, as it did for Australian republicans when they were outwitted by Howard in 1999.
In March 1898, the prospects for federation were not good. The politicians had finalised the Constitution that was to be put to a referendum of the people later in the year, but the prospects were not good. There was strong opposition in NSW and its premier, George Reid, was ambivalent.
In Victoria, David Syme and The Age were hostile and threatening to campaign for a “No” vote. If the referendum were lost in NSW and Victoria, federation would not be achieved.
Knowing this, Deakin made a passionate appeal to the men of the Australian Natives Association, who were holding their annual conference in Bendigo. Delivered without notes, this was the supreme oratorical feat of Deakin’s life and it turned the tide in Victoria. Although there were still hurdles to cross, Deakin’s speech saved the federation.
The second lesson Turnbull could have learnt is to have put the interests of the nation ahead of the interests of the party and the management of its internal differences.
Deakin always put his conception of the national interest before considerations of party politics or personal advantage. And he fiercely protected his independence.
He too was faced with the challenges of minority government, but it is inconceivable that he would have made a secret deal with a coalition partner to win office. Or that he would have abandoned core beliefs, such as the need for action on climate change, just to hold on to power.
As the Commonwealth’s first attorney-general, and three times prime minister, Deakin had a clear set of goals: from the legislation to establish the machinery of the new government, or the fight to persuade a parsimonious parliament to establish the High Court, to laying the foundations for independent defence, and, within the confines of imperial foreign policy, establishing the outlines of Australia’s international personality.
Party discipline and party identification were looser in the early 20th century than they were to become as Labor’s superior organisation and electoral strength forced itself on its opponents.
But as the contemporary major parties fray at the edges, and their core identities hollow out, Australians are crying out for leaders with Deakin’s clear policy commitments, and his skills in compromise and negotiation.
Had Turnbull had the courage to crash through or crash on the differences within his party on the causes we know he believes in, he too might have become a great leader and an Australian hero.
Judith Brett’s new book The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is published by Text.
For centuries people have been getting up, joining a daily commute or retreating to a room, to work. The office has become inseparable from work.
Its history illustrates not only how our work has changed but also how work’s physical spaces respond to cultural, technological and social forces.
The origins of the modern office lie with large-scale organisations such as governments, trading companies and religious orders that required written records or documentation. Medieval monks, for example, worked in quiet spaces designed specifically for sedentary activities such as copying and studying manuscripts. As depicted in Botticelli’s St Augustine in His Cell, these early “workstations” comprised a desk, chair and storage shelves.
Another of Botticelli’s paintings of St Augustine at work is now in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. This building was originally constructed as the central administrative building of the Medici mercantile empire in 1560.
It was an early version of the modern corporate office. It was both a workplace and a visible statement of prestige and power.
But such spaces were rare in medieval times, as most people worked from home. In Home: The Short History of an Idea, Witold Rybczynski argues that the seventeenth century represented a turning point.
Lawyers, civil servants and other new professionals began to work from offices in Amsterdam, London and Paris. This led to a cultural distinction between the office, associated with work, and the home, associated with comfort, privacy and intimacy.
Despite these early offices, working from home continued. In the nineteenth century, banking dynasties such as the Rothschilds and Barings operated from luxurious homes so as to make clients feel at ease. And, even after the office was well established in the 1960s, Hugh Hefner famously ran his Playboy empire from a giant circular bed in a bedroom of his Chicago apartment.
But these were exceptions to the general rule. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, increasingly specialised office designs – from the office towers of Chicago and New York to the post-war suburban corporate campuses – reinforced a distinction between work and home.
Managing the office
Various management theories also had a profound impact on the office. As Gideon Haigh put it in The Office: A Hardworking History, the office was “an activity long before it was a place”.
Work was shaped by social and cultural expectations even before the modern office existed. Monasteries, for example, introduced timekeeping that imposed strict discipline on monks’ daily routines.
Later, modern theorists understood the office as a factory-like environment. Inspired by Frank Gilbreth’s time-motion studies of bricklayers and Fredrick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, William Henry Leffingwell’s 1917 book, Scientific Office Management, depicted work as a series of tasks that could be rationalised, standardised and scientifically calculated into an efficient production regime. Even his concessions to the office environment, such as flowers, were intended to increase productivity.
Technology in the office
Changes in technology also influenced the office. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Morse’s telegraph, Bell’s telephone and Edison’s dictating machine, revolutionised both concepts of work and office design. Telecommunications meant offices could be separate from factories and warehouses, separating white and blue collar workers. Ironically, while these new technologies suggested the possibility of a distributed workforce, in practice, American offices in particular became more centralised.
In 1964, when IBM introduced a magnetic-card recording device into a Selectric typewriter, the future of the office, and our expectations of it, changed forever. This early word processor could store information, it was the start of computer-based work and early fears of a jobless society due to automation.
Now digital maturity seems to be signalling the end of the office. With online connectivity, more people could potentially work from home.
But some of the same organisations that promoted and enabled the idea of work “anywhere, anytime” – Yahoo and IBM, for example – have cancelled work from home policies to bring employees back to bricks and mortar offices.
Why return to the office?
Anthropological research on how we interact with each other and how physical proximity increases interactions highlights the importance of being together in a physical space. The office is an important factor in communicating the necessary cues of leadership, not to mention enabling collaboration and communication.
Although employers might be calling their employees back to the physical space of the office again, its boundaries are changing. For example, recent “chip parties”, celebrate employees getting a radio-frequency identification implant that enables employers to monitor their employees. In the future, the office may be embedded under our skin.
While this might seem strange to us , it’s probably just as strange as the idea of making multiple people sit in cubicles to work would have seemed to a fifteenth-century craftsman. The office of the future may be as familiar as home, or even our neighbour’s kitchen table, but only time will tell.
Portable electric drills didn’t always look like oversized handguns.
Before Alonzo G. Decker and Samuel D. Black intervened in the 1910s, the machines typically required the use of both hands. The two men, founders of the eponymous American company Black & Decker, developed a portable electric drill that incorporated a pistol grip and trigger switch, apparently inspired by Samuel Colt’s pistol.
We are documenting a collection of more than 50 portable electric drills made roughly between 1930 and 1980.
Seen as part of a history of technology, they have a lot to teach us about function and form, masculine values and the history of Australian craft.
The collection also represents an important chapter in Australian manufacturing, and includes drills produced by local companies such as Sher, KBC and Lightburn that have since disappeared. It also features models made by Black & Decker, which once had manufacturing operations in Australia.
Design historians and collectors have paid little attention to the electric drill. It’s seen as an object of work, unlike domestic items such as the tea kettle, which can be statements of taste and luxury.
But the device deserves our attention. It’s considered the first portable electric power tool, and arguably helped to democratise the industry, putting construction in the hands of everyone from labourers to hobbyists.
The electric drill in Australia
Australia once played a significant role in producing the portable electric drill.
Ken Bowes & Co. Ltd, known as KBC, was a South Australian manufacturing company founded in 1936. Although it produced domestic appliances such as the bean slicer, die casting of military components such as ammunition parts (shell and bomb noses) and tank attack guns kept the company busy during World War II.
It appears that KBC entered the hardware market in 1948 with its first portable electric drill, designed for the cabinet maker and general handyman. The body of the drill was made from die-cast zinc alloy and it had a unique removable front plate on the handle to allow the user easy access to the connection terminals.
In 1956, Black & Decker established an Australian manufacturing plant in Croydon, Victoria, where drills such as the CP2 were manufactured.
Between 1960 and 1982, many power tool brands had a media presence. KBC sponsored a radio program called, appropriately enough, That’s The Drill. Wolf power tools were awarded as prizes on the television program Pick-A-Box.
Black & Decker ran advertisements that appeared during popular television programs and used endorsements by sporting celebrities such as cricketer Dennis Lillee.
While the popularity of portable power drills has endured, the manufacture of these objects in Australia more or less vanished by the end of the 20th century.
Why we value some objects and not others
The portable electric drill has been poorly documented by designers, historians and museums.
Obvious repositories for their collection, such as museums of technology or innovation, are increasingly challenged by space and funding pressures. Apart from a few token examples, many everyday objects have not managed to establish a museum presence.
The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney holds at least two vintage portable electric drills: one is a Desouthers, made in England, and another drill of unknown origin. Museums Victoria has one example of a Black & Decker electric drill from the 1960s in its digital archive.
The crude utility of the portable drill is part of the reason why it has escaped much academic scrutiny.
Design studies and collections tend to focus on luxury objects such as Ferrari sports cars and Rolex wristwatches. Even kitchen and home appliances get more attention, especially those designs associated with high-end companies such as Alessi and designers such as Dieter Rams and Jasper Morrison.
By contrast, the electric drill remains a B-grade object. It is a stock weapon in horror films, although even there it lacks the status reserved for the more sublimely threatening implements of violence such as swords, spears and guns.
The case for the drill
Hard yakka and aesthetics have not typically been happy bedfellows. However, labour and its associated objects can provide a compelling look at contemporary life.
Like the laptop computer, the shape of which is tied to the “macho mystique” of the briefcase, the pistol form of the portable drill seems to be significantly influenced by ideas of power and masculinity.
The symbolic association with the pistol is also practical, and would have no doubt eased the burden for those early users struggling with the device’s weight.
A recent turn towards the everyday as a site for design anthropology will hopefully shift focus towards inconspicuous yet important technologies like portable electric drills.
These objects are part of a rich history that will be forgotten if institutions focus exclusively on luxury items, big name designers and cultures of display and ornament.
Even our most anonymous objects are sources of cultural expression, and they should not be overlooked.