It might also be that today there are fewer policy reforms worth doing – perhaps most of the big ones have already been done.
To test whether previous governments really were better at reform than more recent governments, we would need a running list of reforms proposed in advance, so we could see what proportion were adopted.
Between 1972 and 2018, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development produced 31 Economic Surveys of Australia – roughly one every 18 months.
Each publication put forward reforms that the OECD believed would increase economic growth and living standards.
The good old days were better
Our analysis of the full series finds that between 1984 and 2001 the overwhelming bulk of these recommendations were taken up by the Hawke and Keating governments, and by the Howard government in its first two terms.
But from roughly 2003 onwards, the record is a lot more patchy: many more of the reforms recommended by the OECD have been either rejected, only partially implemented, or (in the case of carbon pricing) implemented and then unwound.
Fate of OECD Economic Survey recommendations
Policies that the OECD recommended but which ran into the sand include reducing the gap between the company tax and top personal income tax rates, implementing a mining resource rent tax, reviewing negative gearing, creating competitive neutrality among Australian ports, aligning the eligibility ages for superannuation and the age pension, including more of the value of owner-occupied housing when calculating eligibility for the age pension, and raising Newstart.
A number of other proposed reforms continue to sit in the too-hard basket, including increasing the rate and coverage of the goods and services tax, swapping stamp duties for property taxes, congestion charging for roads, and the use of smart meters for time-of-day electricity pricing.
An imperfect measure, that tells us something
As a means to evaluate the history of reform, the OECD Economic Surveys aren’t perfect, but they’re guide.
It’s true that the scope and number of OECD recommendations has expanded over time, but that expansion was already underway during the Hawke/Keating and Howard eras.
And it’s arguable that these days, the OECD recommends smaller reforms – it certainly recommended many more between 1997 and 2010.
It’s likely that the OECD’s recommendations are partly influenced by the views of the government of the day. But many recommendations have been suggested under one government and implemented by the next.
And while OECD recommendations aren’t gospel, many policy experts support most of them. For instance, all of the policies that are on the OECD’s continuing wish-list are also advocated by the Grattan Institute.
Our review of what happened after the OECD surveys is broadly consistent with popular wisdom, or at least the recollections of old men (usually men) that the good old days really were better.
And it is consistent with work in progress by Alphabeta reviewing the history of Australian economic reform.
Our review also shows that it often takes a long run-up of research, advocacy, and detailing before a government implements a major reform. Many reforms were only implemented after sitting on the slate for well over a decade, including the goods and services tax, lower tariffs, a more flexible award system, lower company tax, and competition in utility industries. Reforms often require patient advocacy.
It’s hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Australia has got worse at it. But our review of the OECD’s recommendations for Australia over the past 48 years is consistent with the oft-cited view that governments in the most recent 20 years have rejected many more significant reforms than governments in the 20 years before them.
There’s plenty still on the slate for the 20 years to come.
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, looking at the way they changed the nature of debate, its impact then, and it relevance to politics today. You can read the rest of our pieces here. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.
William Cooper is not a household name, but he should be. This Yorta Yorta elder is one of Australia’s most formative political leaders.
In the 1930s, he began a remarkable political campaign, pushing for Indigenous rights and recognition, nearly all of which have significant implications for Australian politics today.
Cooper was born on the junction of the Murray and Goulburn rivers in December 1860. He was profoundly influenced by his people, who had demanded and won a reservation of land in the 1880s, which they called Cumeroogunga.
Yorta Yorta people farmed Cumeroogunga into the 1900s, only to lose it and have their families and community broken up by repressive policies of the New South Wales Board for the Protection of Aborigines in the 1910s and 1920s.
Cooper escaped the most severe of state protection boards’ special laws at the time, which denied Aboriginal people basic rights such as freedom of movement, custody of their children and control over personal property.
But he knew the suffering the laws caused and still had a very hard life, denied the opportunities enjoyed by most non-Indigenous Australians. Apart from anything else, this meant he suffered enormous poverty.
Importantly, in his early life, Cooper also acquired the means to understand and fight against his people’s oppression. In his teens, he was taken under the wing of evangelical Christian missionaries, Daniel and Janet Matthews, at the Maloga mission on the banks of the Murray River.
Their teachings were fundamental to the political work Cooper would eventually
undertake. They had a view of humanity that encompassed all people as God’s children, and so held the lives of Aboriginal people mattered, too. This provided a powerful antidote to the prevailing racial prejudice Cooper experienced and witnessed.
The Matthews saw God and religious principles as a higher order than government. And they provided a prophetic or predictive view of history that promised salvation for the Yorta Yorta, just as the Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, had promised to the persecuted and suffering Israelites.
It is understood Cooper spent much of 20s on and off missions and then earned a living working as a shearer, drover, horse-breaker and general rural labourer.
He was a member of the Shearers’ Union and Australian Workers’ Union. He also acted as a spokesman for Aboriginal workers in western New South Wales and central Victoria, having a “longing to help his people”. After returning to Cumeroogunga in his 60s, he moved to Melbourne, so he could get the age pension.
Petitioning the King
Now in his 70s, Cooper began a remarkable political campaign. This had several strands, many of which continue to have significance in Australian politics today.
First and foremost, in 1933 Cooper drew up a petition to King George V. With more than 1,800 signatures by the time it was presented to the federal government in 1937, the petition’s central demand was representation for Aboriginal people in the Commonwealth Parliament. This call for a federal MP who would be chosen by Aboriginal people was, if you like, a demand for a Voice to Parliament.
Cooper believed this was crucial, as government laws about Aboriginal people were made without any consideration of their opinions. He argued Indigenous perspectives differed markedly from those of white Australians – which Cooper called “thinking black”.
Cooper was heir to a tradition among Aboriginal people in New South Wales and Victoria that held they had a special relationship to the British king or queen. Certainly, Cooper believed Aboriginal people had a right to appeal to the British Crown on the grounds that it still had a responsibility for them because of duties it had undertaken to perform in the past.
Regrettably, prime minister Joseph Lyons did not pass the petition on to Buckingham Palace, and it has never been found in any archive. But in 2014, a copy finally reached Queen Elizabeth, after his grandson Boydie Turner travelled to London.
Equal rights and ‘uplift’
In 1936, Cooper founded the Australian Aborigines’ League, which he envisaged as an organisation to represent all Aboriginal people.
Under his leadership, the league developed a program to call for the rights and privileges that other Australian citizens enjoyed, while also seeking the “uplift” of Indigenous people, so they could overcome the disadvantages they suffered.
“Uplift” entailed a claim for special rights for Aboriginal people — to land, capital and other resources — that rested on their disadvantage, rather than their status as the country’s Indigenous or First peoples.
But in the course of demanding the rights of citizenship and “uplift”, Cooper repeatedly sought to draw attention to his ancestors’ prior ownership of the land and their subsequent dispossession, displacement and decimation.
He did so in order to remind white Australians of their obligations to Aboriginal people, incurred as a result of this history. As Cooper noted in 1938,
Surely the Commonwealth, which controls all that originally belonged to us, could make what would be a comparatively meagre allowance for us, by way of recompense.
To remind people of Australia’s black history, Cooper called for a “Day of Mourning” to mark Australia’s sesquicentenary in January 1938 and an “Aborigines’ Day” to be held in the nation’s churches every year on the Sunday closest to Australia Day.
Protest against Nazi persecution
Cooper and the League also rejected government policies advocating for the absorption of Aboriginal people into Australian society. Instead, he asserted a vision of Aboriginal people as a permanent and ongoing community in Australia. As he said in 1936,
all thought of breeding the half-caste white, and the desire that that be accomplished, is a creature of the white mind. The coloured person has no feeling of repugnance toward the full blood, and in fact, he feels more in common with the full blood than with the white.
Cooper and other members of the league identified very strongly as a persecuted racial minority and made common cause with others beyond Australia’s shores, including the Jewish people.
In the incident for which Cooper now seems to be best known by non-Indigenous Australians, in December 1938 he led a protest against Nazi persecution to the German Consulate in Melbourne.
Inspiring a new generation
Cooper’s life and work seem astoundingly relevant for today. But during his life his campaign for rights for Aborigines fell on deaf eyes as far as government was concerned.
As he lamented in 1937,
We asked [for] bread. We scarcely seem likely to get a stone.
Yet, by the time he passed away in March 1941, he had inspired a new generation of Aboriginal leaders, most notably his grand-nephew Doug Nicholls but also the Onus brothers, who became prominent in the struggle for Aboriginal rights in the immediate post-war period.
His notion of “thinking black” would in time also catch the imagination of yet another generation of Aboriginal leaders, such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
Most importantly, perhaps, Cooper is remembered above all else for his prescient call for an Aboriginal voice to Parliament.
Through this, and his fight to overcome Aboriginal disadvantage, he continues to speak to us today.
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, examining how they changed the country and political debate. You can read the rest of the series here.
You may never have heard of Graham Berry, but he was one of the most creative and controversial Australian politicians of the colonial era. Born in 1822, he was three times the premier of Victoria, but he is now almost unknown. He should be recalled for his daring and fascinating career, but even more for an enduring influence on the nation’s politics.
Berry’s significance lies partly in his identity and appeal. The son of a servant, he was apprenticed as a linen draper aged 11. He emigrated from England to Victoria during the gold rush of the 1850s, setting up as a grocer in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran.
The Australian colonies were unusually precocious in their extension of democratic rights to working-class men, and Berry was among the first to exploit these opportunities. But his opponents mocked him for his Cockney accent and his low status: “tradesmen” were still widely thought ill-suited to high office.
As I detail in my book about him, Berry responded by attacking the “snobbery” of his opponents and the self-interest of squatters and merchants. He proudly declared his identity as the “embodiment of human labour”. His supporters called him a “self-made man”.
The rhetorical appeals worked. Berry blazed a path for the language of “class” to play a central role in Australian democracy.
The grocer-turned-politician was the leader of a movement for “protectionism”. He argued taxes should be applied to certain categories of imported goods, especially manufactured goods. This would stimulate new industries, he said, and create good jobs at high wages.
Leading political economists attacked the doctrine. Berry was its most eloquent advocate as a platform speaker, newspaper editor and parliamentarian. He passed the first clearly protectionist tariff as Victorian treasurer in the early 1870s. He entrenched the system as premier in later decades.
He also travelled to New South Wales to spread the creed, arguing that protection against “cheap and underpaid labour” provided an impetus to national unity. Berry called the federation of the Australian colonies behind a great tariff wall “the great dream” of his life.
His protégé, Alfred Deakin, would advance that dream, but Berry’s earlier campaigns were the foundation of later success.
Berry also reshaped the practice of politics. He first emerged as a major public figure as an “out of doors” speaker in mass gatherings in central Melbourne at the end of the 1850s. Even when these turned violent – one climaxed in an attack on Parliament House and on several parliamentarians in August 1860 – Berry continued to support the rights of the citizenry to meet “where they liked, when they liked, in as great numbers as they liked”.
He equated “agitation” in the “body politic” with the “circulation of the blood in the human body”. To the extent that Australian democracy is active and contentious, it adheres to a tradition Berry fought to establish.
Berry also considered organisation to be central to political life. In 1877, he founded Australia’s first mass political party, the National Reform and Protection League. That party developed a network of more than 150 branches across Victoria, overseen by a central office. It had a common “platform” (an unfamiliar term at the time), its candidates were pre-selected and its parliamentary members met as a caucus and were expected to vote as a bloc.
As president, Berry campaigned for the party across the colony. This was widely seen as an importation of “American” methods of “stump oratory”. It helped to win Berry a stunning majority in 1877 and inspired widespread emulation. Australia’s “party democracy” begins with Berry.
As premier, Berry’s plans for legislation were frustrated by the power of the upper house, elected at that time by a small number of men who possessed substantial property. Berry sought to reshape the Victorian constitution and break the power of the upper house. The London Times likened its key passages to a “revolution”.
The episode precipitated a political crisis that ran from 1878-81. It generated a wider debate on what democracy should be.
From a contemporary perspective, the limits of Berry’s democratic vision are perhaps most striking: he supported women’s franchise (and voted for an unsuccessful bill in 1873) but did not make gender equality central to his political campaigns.
He supported the claims of Aboriginal people at the Coranderrk reserve against the attacks of the Aborigines Protection Board, but he also supported the so-called “Half-Caste Act”, which helped to threaten and fracture Aboriginal communities across the colony. Berry showed no interest in Aboriginal political organisation or capacity for self-government.
Berry also understood “protection” in racial terms and sought to exclude Chinese people from the colony.
These policies exerted a considerable influence on later Australian politics.
Recognising and examining these significant limits, contemporary democrats can nonetheless draw inspiration from other aspects of Berry’s career: a driving determination; a refusal to be bound by convention; and an understanding of democracy as an incomplete project, never a settled state.
Those frustrated by the limits of our own democracy might profit from a close examination of Berry’s life.
It is not widely known that many Australian colonial natural history collections are represented in German museums and herbaria, nor that there are initiatives to transform these artefacts of colonial heritage and science back into objects from living cultures with living custodians and their own stories to tell.
Dr Johann August Ludwig Preiss (1811–1883) played a significant role in this evolving story as the first professional botanist to collect systematically in the Colony of Western Australia from 1838 to 1842.
His collections of flora and fauna were pivotal in opening this globally significant region of biodiversity to the world — and he beat the British at their own game by bringing their new colony’s botanical wonder to scientists, nurserymen and gardeners in Europe.
Despite his unusually long sojourn collecting in Western Australia, Preiss has been largely forgotten – unlike his contemporary, the naturalist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–1848), well known for his work in northern and eastern Australia and his ill-fated 1848 expedition to cross the continent; and the globally active science visionary Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), whose birth anniversaries were celebrated in Germany and Australia in 2013 and 2019 respectively.
Preiss held no important posts in exploration, science or public office and left only a small selection of archived letters and some strangers’ impressions. So, we are left to speculate about the negative spaces between the known fragments of Preiss’s life and the agents – human and non-human – of the worlds he moved through.
The natural sciences in Germany and Britain in the 19th century shared much common ground: there were royal dynastic connections, cultural ties, migrations to Australia and complementary interests in advancing the natural sciences.
The British Empire, however, had the edge over Germany, with global networks plugged into the nerve centre of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew – an oasis of collecting, classifying, storing, propagating and dispersing exotic and useful plants in Britain and the colonies.
Germany had more diffuse networks of scientists, across scattered institutions – universities, herbaria and botanical gardens – focused on classifying and documenting the diversity of flora and fauna into rigid systems, using dried, preserved and some live specimens.
In Preiss’s time Germany had no colonies to draw on but collected on others’ turf. In British colonies this seemingly innocent practice was supported by their structures of privilege and violence.
While there were no legal prohibitions on German naturalists collecting in British colonies, Preiss irritated his hosts by staying so long, collecting so much and transporting most of it back to Germany, not London.
A botanising craze
Preiss came from humble origins in the small village of Herzberg am Harz, in the Harz Mountains of the Göttingen district of Lower Saxony. When I visited there in 2018 to learn about Preiss’s family and early life, the council archivist Dieter Karl Wolfe explained there was little local information known about his family.
Preiss was the eldest surviving son of 12 children, and his father was a master saddler (like his father before him), a vinegar brewer and land owner. His cousin Gustav Friedrich Preiss (1825–1888) was the family success: he printed the local daily newspaper Kreiss Zeitung from 1848, became the village mayor and built a fine home. There are portraits of him and his wife in the council archive.
Another more internationally minded relative helped start the town’s Esperanto Society in the early 1900s. Friendly Esparantists showed me public monuments for Esperanto and its Polish founder, Ludwik Zamenhof (1859–1917) – but there was nothing to commemorate Preiss, their local botanical achiever.
Speculating on why Preiss took up botanising in far distant lands, Wolfe extolled the benefits of Germany’s advanced education system for gifted youths of limited means – like Preiss and Leichhardt.
The ideal was a humanistic education to equip children with the foundations of learning and intellect, allowing students to build further knowledge and expertise in adult life. The curriculum included science and languages.
Preiss probably followed the same schooling trajectory as Leichhardt: boarding school, gymnasium, university. Preiss was university educated and held a German DPhil doctorate. This was more like a degree with an original research component than today’s formal doctorate qualification.
The craze for botanising gripped both scholars and amateurs and opened new opportunities for serious study, teaching and collecting – assisted by new equipment, including the vasculum (a botanical tin case for collecting in the field), drying papers for preparing specimens, Wardian cases (ensuring safe transportation back to Europe) and glass houses for cultivating living plants.
In the 1830s, the botanical world was abuzz with news of Western Australia’s unique floral diversity. Transport of plants to London was still in its early days in 1836 when Lehmann first recognised the chance for expansion through the 25-year-old Preiss.
Preiss recalled being instructed to collect everything – flora, fauna, minerals and fossils – and hoped to “collect the products of [natural history] and arrange those products in a useful way for the purpose of Science”.
Lehmann and his wealthy friend, Wilhelm von Winthem (1799–1847), a private collector and entomologist with extensive collections, organised funds for him through a form of venture capital under which the von Winthem family company publicised and sold shares to private citizens and collecting institutions.
On Preiss’s return, investors would choose items from his collections equal to the value of their shares.
Arriving in Perth in late 1838, a dusty village huddled between vast expanses of sea, bush and hinterland, Preiss encountered a parochial society.
Local collectors who worked with London’s botanical elite guarded their status jealously. Most colonists were disillusioned by false promises of rich farming lands and worn out by the struggle to survive.
I imagine Preiss as lonely and friendless.
The local landscape would have been so strange for Preiss, humanised by millennia of Nyungar curation but an apparent wilderness to the colonists’ eyes.
Botanical scientist Steve Hopper has revealed how the deep time of the region’s unusually stable environmental evolution both helped shape the unique floristic richness and endemism of this area and enhanced Nyungar people’s deep knowledge (kartijin) of their country – enabling them to live well off the diversity of plant foods they cultivated and nurtured with practices they adapted to the environment and passed down over many thousands of years.
This richness drew Preiss in.
Preiss began collecting immediately. In contrast to local British collectors he had the freedom of sufficient funds and no domestic encumbrances or civic duties. He also had no rights to own land.
His extensive collecting implicated him in the process of multispecies destruction and dispossession. The Indigenous Nyungar people were already in a state of crisis as colonists destroyed their ancient accommodations to the land and replaced them with their own hasty adaptations of species and farming.
The destruction intensified during the 20th century with the clearing of 90% of the region for wheat farming. In fewer than 200 years this encounter between Old and New World ecosystems transformed the landscapes of exceptional floral riches into a canary in the coalmine for climate change.
A new critical approach to Australian 19th century natural history collections in German institutions has been prompted by concerns about their colonial provenance and reports of environmental damage.
In 2018 in Berlin, curators and scholars attended an international conference on the politics of natural history and decolonising of collections and museums.
There were calls to open conversations with Indigenous custodians and reflect on issues of climate change. Environmental knowledge in Preiss’s field notebooks, now missing, could have made an important contribution.
In a report on the colony published in Flora (1842), Preiss wrote that he “recorded [information] about specimens he observed and learned accurately from the Aborigines”.
The field books from his 1841 survey commission held in the State Records Office in Perth suggest the extent of the loss, being richly illustrated with botanical and landscape features and detailed annotations of measures and calculations.
They speak eloquently today of how seriously Preiss took this colonial project to map “the significance of the earth … as a space to be occupied”.
Preiss wrote that he “traversed this land in all directions … [and] observed the greatest diversity of plants”. It seems he had no transport or equipment for long surveys, so often walked lengthy distances alone.
This was an intimate way for Preiss to come to know the bush. His proximity to plants and the earth sharpened his eye for shapes and colours as well as his capacity to interpret signs along bush pathways. He sometimes travelled with colleagues, and visited Rottnest Island with the colony’s chief botanist James Drummond and John Gilbert, who collected for British ornithologist John Gould.
And he relied on the hospitality of homesteaders and assistance from Nyungar people. The colony’s Advocate-General George Fletcher Moore noted an instance, perhaps disapprovingly, of Preiss walking out of the bush with a Nyungar woman, both of them loaded down with plants.
He added that “the natives seem quite surprised at his collecting the jilbah [shrubs] and are very curious to know what he does with them”, suggesting that Preiss was following the colonial practice of collecting without their permission.
Despite being the colony’s best qualified botanist, Preiss was never invited to join its British collecting networks. Instead, Preiss built his own networks in London and Germany.
Drummond became his occasional helper and nemesis. He warned his London patron, Sir William Hooker (1785–1865), that the new German botanist was collecting for the Russian, Prussian and some German states.
The German botanist Dr Ludwig Diels (1874–1945), who collected in the area in 1906, imagined the two men as benign opposites: the older “bushman, always in the saddle” out collecting rather than “arranging his specimens in order” and young Preiss, the “cultured scientist of old Europe” and first collector in the colony to have “each item in his collection carefully labelled, giving the locality and other data”.
However, simmering resentments erupted after Preiss challenged Drummond’s identification of a poison plant killing stock and quaffed an infusion of its leaves to prove his point. Preiss survived the ordeal but lost the argument after Drummond proved the plants’ toxicity for stock.
The more Preiss wore out his welcome in the colony, the more determined he became to stay and in 1839 he decided to try his luck as a British subject, with all the benefits and moral compromises this bestowed.
In 1839 he wrote to the colonial governor requesting naturalisation as a British subject, referring to British connections with the kingdom of Hanover near his birthplace.
He outlined his intention to return to Germany to raise funds for expeditions into the northern interior to explore, collect and open up the land and then become a farmer.
He proposed to sell his collections to the British government for £3,000 – “being produce of a British territory” – and added, “I flatter myself that such a collection has never been sent from this country to England” and there were many new species “not known in Britain and Europe”.
He also proposed a German immigration scheme to help resolve labour shortages in the colony, suggesting that 50 young farming families be enticed from Saxony and the Rhine Province in a payback arrangement with other settlers and for his own farming needs, with government land grants payable for bringing out workers.
If his proposal was not accepted he would seek Prussian and Russian funding to explore the north coast.
The British government refused Preiss’s offers, preferring to acquire from established British collectors such as Gould and Gilbert. His request for naturalisation was finally granted in 1841. The next year he travelled back to Europe, taking with him the largest collection then to leave the colony.
Lauded at the time, Preiss’s actions of taking Indigenous plant material and knowledge without consent for scientific gain would now be condemned as bio-piracy.
The collection included 200,000 plants with around 2,500 species and collections of algae, fungi, lichens, bryophytes as well as species of birds, reptiles, mammals, shells and more, as well as his copious notes.
Packed firmly in tin-lined boxes, they travelled well. Ironically, Preiss’s boxes left no space on board for Drummond’s collection of seeds and specimens to be sent to London. Delays in its passage meant that nurseries lost an entire season for planting – while Preiss’s quality collections and duplicate plants entirely spoiled the market for Drummond.
Diels lavishly praised Preiss’s collections for the sheer quantity of specimens he had collected in such a short period, the range of plant specimens, detailed information to identify flowers and plants and his collecting sites, the overall presentation that made his collections and notes so useful to science, and the outstanding achievement of producing the first West Australian collection for Europe’s leading herbaria.
Australian naturalist Rica Erikson (1908–2009) observed that his collections were “far superior to others being offered for sale in England”, but that British botanists “were prejudiced in favour of collectors of their own nationality”.
Preiss’s return to Germany via London was troubled – although he did manage to sell some plants and seeds to fund his journey across to Hamburg. But the situation he found there was disastrous.
The Great Fire of Hamburg in May 1842 had killed more than 50 people and destroyed many public and private buildings. The huge costs of rebuilding would cripple the state – and plans for the natural history museum that would have housed Preiss’s collections were shelved, along with their purchase.
Preiss was now forced to advertise the collections for sale – both to cover his debts from the trip and to offload the sheer quantity of material remaining after his investors’ selections.
He placed advertisements praising the excellence of his collections in botanical and gardening journals, wrote letters to institutions and private collectors, and published his report in the Flora with observations of natural features of the colony.
He also announced his intention to make a second longer journey in Australia from the Gulf of Carpentaria across country to the Swan River Colony. A portion of the current collections, he said, would be delivered to Lehmann “as soon as they are generally arranged, and … description and publication [entrusted] to him and other celebrated natural historians”.
Preiss’s expedition never eventuated, but the book hinted at in his report was a triumph. The two-volume publication named Plantae Preissianae (1844– 1847) was compiled by Lehmann with leading German botanists working from the collections, all with extensive publications on Australian species.
This was the first major reference book on Western Australian flora, and preceded by decades the British seven-volume Flora Australiensis (1863–1878) compiled by botanist George Bentham (1800–1884) – although that work, too, featured several of Preiss’s specimens.
There were further honours for Preiss: he was commemorated in the names of around 100 plants – a matter of considerable status; in 1843 he was elected to membership of the National Academy of Germany; and in the same year his name was added to the registry of the Regensburg Royal Botanical Society.
And his collections began their own journeys. Splitting them for sale dispersed them into private collections and an estimated 35 European herbaria, with the “original” or standard reference set of specimens for Plantae Preissianae passing from Lehmann to his widow, and eventually to its final resting place in the Lund herbarium in Sweden when Germany declined to buy it.
Preiss’s extensive zoological collections of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and other material did not fare so well.
Some were sold to European museums or dealers but many simply disappeared or can no longer be identified as his. Credit for his “discoveries” of new species was given to other collectors.
His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography laments that “had Preiss the backing of an ambitious and enterprising zoologist, as Gilbert had in Gould, it is certain that he would have been much better known today”.
Despite the success of the book and his standing among Europe’s natural historians, in 1843 Preiss suddenly announced that he was leaving Hamburg along with his collections – at the “urgent wishes of my father” – and that all future letters should be sent to him at Herzberg.
He gave no further explanation for this; in the modern parlance, it seems he just “left the building”.
This sudden shift by Preiss from a very public life to a very private one remains an unsolved mystery. Preiss’s legacy, however, is enduring.
His remarkable achievements in the few years between 1838 and 1843 created a permanent link between the botanical sciences in Western Australia and Germany. His sudden withdrawal opened a space for others to lead.
But how will the collections fare under the well-deserved critical scrutiny of their colonial origins and histories in German institutions? Can they be decolonised to take on new tasks relevant for today?
A couple of years ago, sitting with Preiss’s dryandra specimens at the Göttingen herbarium, I was inspired to see them as potential message sticks with agency to bring people together.
Now I’m part of a new project, Healing Land Healing People, based at Dryandra Woodlands south-east of Perth in the country of our project leader, Nyungar Elder Darryl Kickett.
We are working with the knowledge of Nyungar families, botanists, historians and artists to restore the biodiversity of the land and community cultural strengths. We work with similar projects at other sites in the south-west region.
In Germany we are linked with the Centre for Australian Studies at the University of Cologne and the Rachel Carson Center at the University of Munich. My role is to identify other collections from the region in European museums and herbaria and their curators.
With Nyungar Elders and curators sharing their knowledge and stories we can map the journeys of the message sticks from the sites where they were collected to their present locations.
With our German colleagues we can weave new narratives of biodiversity loss and restoration to engage the public, heal the past and ensure a future for our corner of Western Australia and other global biodiversity hotspots.
This piece is republished with permission from GriffithReview69: The European Exchange, edited by Ashley Hay and Natasha Cica, and published in partnership with the Australian National University griffithreview.com
The “palace letters” show the Australian Constitution’s susceptibility to self-interested behaviour by individual vice-regal representatives. They also reveal the vulnerability of Australian governments to secret destabilisation by proxy by the Crown.
They reveal a governor-general, fearing his own dismissal, succumbing to moral hazard, and the British monarch’s private secretary encouraging him in the idea that a double dissolution was legitimate in the event a government could not get its budget bills passed.
The letters confirm the worst fears of those who viewed Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s sacking of the Whitlam government as a constitutional coup. They reveal Kerr shortened by at most a mere three months the resolution of the crisis created by the conservative Malcolm Fraser-led opposition’s refusal to pass the government’s budget bills, compared to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s own timetable shared with Kerr.
The correspondence shows Kerr was privy to Whitlam’s plan to hold a double-dissolution election in February 1976 if all other avenues, including a half-Senate election, failed to secure passage of the budget beforehand. Whitlam candidly told Kerr he would be replaced as governor-general if he obstructed that plan. This introduced the element of moral hazard that saw Kerr take a reckless and self-interested route in ending the crisis rather than the steadier one privately put to him by Whitlam – one that Kerr could have, had he chosen, quite properly facilitated.
Crucially, the palace provided a specific nudge to Kerr in the direction of dismissing the government as a solution. It did so by highlighting one expert’s view that Kerr could secure an election while saving his own position as governor-general.
A September 24 1975 letter from the queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, to Kerr pointed him to Canadian constitutional law expert Eugene Forsey’s opinion that:
[…] if supply is refused this always makes it constitutionally proper to grant a dissolution.
In such correspondence, the queen’s private secretary is understood as speaking for the queen herself. As such, this could be interpreted as the monarch providing not just comfort but actual encouragement to the governor-general in his sacking of the government.
By adding his point about Forsey as a handwritten postscript to the letter, Charteris created a degree of ambiguity on this score, giving rise to a potential argument that it was Charteris’s personal view and not that of the queen.
But this should be read in the context of the overall correspondence in the year leading up to The Dismissal. In these letters, Kerr repeatedly canvasses the opposition’s potential blocking of supply, the likely resulting constitutional crisis and his difficulties in that context. There is, notably, no counterveiling call from the palace to let the legitimately elected prime minister see his plan through, even though Kerr had conveyed Whitlam’s plan to the palace.
In a crucial letter to Charteris on September 30, Kerr outlined Whitlam’s privately proposed electoral path to a resolution.
In the event the opposition continued to block the budget bills, Whitlam wanted to hold a half-Senate election. After that the government would again put the budget bills to the Senate. Should the opposition continue to block them, Whitlam planned a double-dissolution election. Kerr relayed to Charteris Whitlam’s view that it “could not take place until February 1976”.
Why didn’t Kerr co-operate with Whitlam to implement this relatively speedy path to resolution of the crisis? The answer likely lies in Whitlam’s candour in telling Kerr he would ask the queen to replace Kerr should he not accede to the plan.
Since the letters through Charteris also confirm the queen’s intention, unreservedly, to accept Whitlam’s advice to sack Kerr should she be asked to do so, Kerr knew this threat to be real and increasingly immediate.
The question is, since the queen made clear through Charteris she would uphold Australia’s constitutional convention that the monarch follow the prime minister’s advice, why would her representative, Kerr, not simply do the same with regard to Whitlam’s plans for the crisis’s resolution?
This is the note missing from the palace side of the correspondence – an absence against which Charteris’s handwritten postscript pointing Kerr to the Forsey opinion that “dissolution” was a legitimate option when governments fail to get their money bills passed is stark.
Forsey was later a strong public supporter of Kerr’s sacking of the Whitlam government. No wonder the palace fought to stop these letters being released.
For more than four decades, the question has been asked: did the queen know the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, was about to dismiss the Whitlam government, and did she encourage or support that action?
The release of the “palace letters” between Kerr and the palace can now lay that question to rest. The answer was given, unequivocally, by the queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, in a letter to Kerr on November 17 1975. He said:
If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe that in NOT informing The Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.
Certainly, Kerr had kept the palace up to date with the various developments in Australia. While governors-general usually communicate with the queen only three or four times a year during ordinary times, it is common during a crisis for updates on the political situation to be made every few days – particularly if there is a risk of the queen becoming involved or the exercise of a reserve power.
In 1975, there were multiple issues that might have drawn the palace into the crisis.
First, there was the question of whether Kerr should exercise a reserve power to refuse royal assent to an appropriation bill that had been passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Fortunately, Whitlam dropped this idea, so that controversy disappeared.
Then there was the question of whether state premiers would advise state governors to refuse to issue the writs for a half-Senate election, and whether Whitlam would then advise the queen to instruct the governors to issue the writs. This didn’t happen either, because Whitlam did not get to hold his half-Senate election. But the prospect was enough to worry the palace.
Next there was the issue of what to do with the Queensland governor, Sir Colin Hannah. Hannah, in a speech, had referred to the “fumbling ineptitude” of the Whitlam government. Hannah held a “dormant commission” to act as administrator of the Commonwealth when the governor-general was away.
Whitlam, contrary to the advice of both the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General’s Department, advised the queen to remove Hannah’s commission to be administrator.
Separately, the Queensland opposition petitioned for Hannah to be removed as governor, but that required the advice of British ministers, as Queensland was still in those days a “dependency” of the British Crown.
So the palace had to juggle advice on Hannah from two different sources.
A race to the palace
Another pressing question was what should be done if Whitlam advised Kerr’s dismissal. Kerr’s letters more than once referred to Whitlam talking of a “race to the Palace” to see whether he could dismiss Kerr before Kerr dismissed him.
Kerr saw these “jokes” as having an underlying menace. Kerr knew he didn’t have to race to the palace – he could dismiss the prime minister immediately. But he also knew, after Whitlam advised Hannah’s removal merely for using the words “fumbling ineptitude”, that Whitlam wouldn’t hesitate to act.
The letters also show Kerr had been told that while the “Queen would take most unkindly” to being told to dismiss her governor-general, she would eventually do so because, as a constitutional sovereign, she had no option but to follow the advice of her prime minister. This would inevitably have brought her into the fray in an essentially Australian constitutional crisis.
Kerr explained in a letter after the dismissal that if he had given Whitlam 24 hours to advise a dissolution or face the prospect of dismissal, there was a considerable risk Whitlam would advise the queen to dismiss Kerr. He wrote:
[…] the position would then have been that either I would in fact be trying to dismiss him whilst he was trying to dismiss me, an impossible position for The Queen, or someone totally inexperienced in the developments of the crisis up to that point, be it a new Governor-General or an Administrator who would have to be a State Governor, would be confronted by the same implacable Prime Minister.
Advice from the palace
The letters reveal much of Kerr’s thinking, but little from the palace. Charteris rightly accepted the reserve powers existed, but they were to be used “in the last resort and then only for constitutional and not for political reasons”.
Charteris stressed the exercise of such powers was a
heavy responsibility and it is only at the very end when there is demonstrably no other course that they should be used.
This did not give Kerr any “green light” or encouragement to act. No-one suggested to him that the end had come and there was no other course to be followed. That was for Kerr to judge, and rightly so, because the powers could only be exercised by him – not the queen.
Whether the end had come and there was no other course is essentially what continues to be debated today. Should Kerr have waited? Should he have warned Whitlam? Was another course of action available?
All of these questions may justly be debated. But, no, the queen did not direct Kerr to dismiss Whitlam. He was not encouraged to do so. He was only encouraged to obey the Australian Constitution, which is something we all should do.
Tensions over border closures are in the news again, now states are gradually lifting travel restrictions to allexcept Victorians.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says singling out Victorians is an overreaction to Melbourne’s coronavirus spike, urging the states “to get some perspective”.
Federal-state tensions over border closures and other pandemic quarantine measures are not new, and not limited to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our new research shows such measures are entwined in our history and tied to Australia’s identity as a nation. We also show how our experiences during past pandemics guide the plans we now use, and alter, to control the coronavirus.
The health board openly criticised the government for its handling of the quarantine measures, laying the groundwork for quarantine policy in the newly independent Australia.
Quarantine then became essential to a vision of Australia as an island nation where “island” stood for immunity and where non-Australians were viewed as “diseased”.
Public health is mentioned twice in the Australian constitution. Section 51(ix) gives parliament the power to quarantine, and section 69 requires states and territories to transfer quarantine services to the Commonwealth.
Ports then became centres of immigration, trade, biopolitics and biosecurity.
Spanish flu sparked border disputes too
In 1918, at the onset of the Spanish flu, quarantine policy included border closures, quarantine camps (for people stuck at borders) and school closures. These measures initially controlled widespread outbreaks in Australia.
However, Victoria quibbled over whether NSW had accurately diagnosed this as an influenza pandemic. Queensland closed its borders, despite only the Commonwealth having the legal powers to do so.
When World War I ended, many returning soldiers broke quarantine. Quarantine measures were not coordinated at the Commonwealth level; states and territories each went their own way.
There were different policies about state border closures, quarantine camps, mask wearing, school closures and public gatherings. Infection spread and hospitals were overwhelmed.
The legacy? The states and territories ceded quarantine control to the Commonwealth. And in 1921, the Commonwealth created its own health department.
The 1990s brought new threats
Over the next seven decades, Australia linked quarantine surveillance to national survival. It shifted from prioritising human health to biosecurity and protection of Australia’s flora, fauna and agriculture.
In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (or SARS) emerged in China and Hong Kong. Australia responded by discouraging nonessential travel and started health screening incoming passengers.
The next threat, 2004 H5N1 Avian influenza, was a dry run for future responses. This resulted in the 2008 Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza, which included border control and social isolation measures.
Which brings us to today
While lessons learned from past pandemics are with us today, we’ve seen changes to policy mid-pandemic. March saw the formation of the National Cabinet to endorse and coordinate actions across the nation.
Uncertainty over border control continues, especially surrounding the potential for cruise and live-export ships to import coronavirus infections.
For most of the human history of Australia, sea levels were much lower than they are today, and there was extra dry land where people lived.
Archaeologists could only speculate about how people used those now-submerged lands, and whether any traces remain today.
But in a study published today in PLOS ONE, we report the first submerged ancient Aboriginal archaeological sites found on the seabed, in waters off Western Australia.
The great flood
When people first arrived in Australia as early as 65,000 years ago, sea levels were around 80m lower than today.
Sea levels fluctuated but continued to fall as the global climate cooled. As the world plunged into the last ice age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago, sea levels dropped to 130m lower than they are now.
Between 18,000 and 8,000 years ago the world warmed up. Melting ice sheets caused sea levels to rise. Tasmania was cut off from the mainland around 11,000 years ago. New Guinea separated from Australia around 8,000 years ago.
The sea-level rise flooded 2.12 million square kilometres of land on the continental shelf surrounding Australia. Thousands of generations of people would have lived out their lives on these landscapes now under water.
Landscapes under water
For the past four years a team of archaeologists, rock art specialists, geomorphologists, geologists, specialist pilots and scientific divers on the Australian Research Council-funded Deep History of Sea Country Project have collaborated with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to find and record submerged archaeological sites off the Pilbara coast in WA.
In the final phase of the research, our team of scientific divers carried out underwater archaeological surveys to physically examine, record and sample the seabed.
We discovered two underwater archaeological sites in the Dampier Archipelago.
The first, at Cape Bruguieres, comprises hundreds of stone artefacts – including mullers and grinding stones – on the seabed at depths down to 2.4m.
At the second site, in Flying Foam Passage, we discovered traces of human activity associated with a submerged freshwater spring, 14m below sea level, including at least one confirmed stone cutting tool made out of locally sourced material.
Environmental data and radiocarbon dates show these sites must have been older than 7,000 years when they were submerged by rising seas.
Our study shows archaeological sites exist on the seabed in Australia with items belonging to ancient peoples undisturbed for thousands of years.
In Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula) this adds substantially to the evidence we already have of human activity and rock art production in this important National Heritage Listed place.
Underwater archaeology matters
The submerged stone tools discovered at Murujuga make us rethink what we know about the past.
Our knowledge of ancient times in Australia comes from archaeological sites on land and from Indigenous oral histories. But the first people to come to Australian shores were coastal people who voyaged in boats across the islands of eastern Indonesia.
The early peopling of Australia took place on land that is now under water. To fully understand key questions in human history, as ancient as they are, researchers must turn to both archaeology and marine science.
Protecting a priceless submerged heritage
Submerged archaeological sites are in danger of destruction by erosion and from development activities, such as oil and gas installations, pipelines, port developments, dredging, spoil dumping and industrialised fishing.
In Australia, the federal laws that protect underwater cultural heritage in Commonwealth waters have been modernised recently with the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976) reviewed and re-badged as Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018), which came into effect in July 2019.
This new Act fails to automatically protect all types of sites and it privileges protection of non-Indigenous submerged heritage. For example, all shipwrecks older than 75 years and sunken aircraft found in Australia’s Commonwealth waters are given automatic protection.
Other types of site, regardless of age and including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sites, can be protected but only with ministerial approval.
There is scope for states and territories to protect submerged Indigenous heritage based on existing laws, but regulators have conventionally only managed the underwater heritage of more recent historical periods.
With our find confirming ancient Indigenous sites can be preserved under water, we need policy makers to reconsider approaches to protecting underwater cultural heritage in Australia.
We are confident many other submerged sites will be found in the years to come. These will challenge our current understandings and lead to a more complete account of our human past, so they need our protection now.
Washington Post publisher, Philip L. Graham, famously declared that journalism is the “first rough draft of history”. It’s also the first rough draft of inspiration for movies and books “based on a true story”.
Since four Victorian journalists witnessed Ned Kelly’s last stand on June 28 1880, their vivid accounts have influenced portrayals of the bushranger – from the world’s first feature film in 1906 to Peter Carey’s 2000 novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, adapted to a gender-bending punk film earlier this year.
In the hours before the Glenrowan siege, the four newspaper men – Joseph Dalgarno Melvin of The Argus, George Vesey Allen of the Melbourne Daily Telegraph, John McWhirter of The Age and illustrator Francis Thomas Dean Carrington of The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil – received a last-minute telegram to join the Special Police Train from Melbourne to confront the Kelly Gang.
The rail journey would prove to be one hell of an assignment and inspiration for Kelly retellings over the next 140 years.
The journalists have a fleeting scene in the 1970 Ned Kelly film starring a pouty Mick Jagger. Two characters rush up to the train, holding huge pads of paper to signal their press credentials to the audience.
It’s a cinematic glimpse of the journalists whose historic descriptions continue to influence the Ned Kelly cultural industry that is the cornerstone of Australia’s bushranger genre.
The train left Melbourne late Sunday evening. Carrington, “embedded” along with the others, described the journey:
… the great speed we were going at caused the carriage to oscillate very violently … The night was intensely cold.
McWhirter’s take was somewhat more upbeat, suggesting a thrill in the cold evening air. He wrote the night was
a splendid one, the moon shining with unusual brightness whilst the sharp, frosty air caused the slightest noise in the forest beyond to be distinctly heard.
After 1am Monday, the train arrived at Benalla, where it picked up more troopers, horses and “Kelly hunter” Superintendent Francis Hare, played by Geoffrey Rush in Gregor Jordan’s 2003 adaptation of Robert Drewe’s novel, Our Sunshine.
Sometime later, the train was flagged down before Glenrowan by schoolteacher Thomas Curnow, alerting the travelling party to the dangerous Kelly gang ahead. In a follow-up article about the siege, Melvin reported the first details of the teacher’s bravery. This would become a pivotal scene in future Kelly recreations: “Kindling a light behind a red handkerchief, he improvised a danger signal”.
When the train arrived at Glenrowan station, the horses were released and bolted “pell-nell into a paddock”, wrote Carrington, as the Kellys opened fire.
Part of the story
Unhindered by modern media ethics, the journalists became actively involved in the siege. Their involvement is a nod to “gonzo journalism” practices – made famous nearly a century later by writer Hunter S. Thompson – in which journalists join the action rather than neutrally report on it.
Kelly had a love-hate relationship with the press. He once wrote:
Had I robbed, plundered, ravished and murdered everything I met, my character could not be painted blacker than it is at present, but I thank God my conscience is as clear as the snow in Peru …
Early in the siege, the journalists sheltered from the gunfire at the station, until they saw Hare bleeding from the wrist. Carrington wrote:
We plugged each end of the wound with some cotton waste and bound it up with a silk pocket handkerchief … Mr Hare again essayed to start for the hotel. He had got about fifty yards when he turned back and reeled. We ran to him and supported him to a railway carriage, and there he fainted from loss of blood … Some of the bullets from the verandah came whistling and pinging about us.
As the siege continued into the early hours, the journalists recorded the wails of the Glenrowan Inn’s matron, Ann Jones, when her son was shot, as well as the eerie tapping of Kelly’s gun on his helmet, which Carrington wrote sounded like “the noise like the ring of a hammer on an anvil”.
Their interviews with released hostages revealed gang member Joe Byrne was shot as he reached for a bottle of whiskey that, like Curnow flagging down the train, has become another key Kelly siege scene.
Man in the iron mask
Of all the gripping details the journalists recorded, their first descriptions of the bushranger emerging in his armour in the morning mist were what proved most inspiring to subsequent Kelly creators.
Allen wrote the helmet was “made of ploughshares stolen from the farmers around Greta”, describing the cutting blade construction, and called him “the man in the iron mask”. Carrington wrote:
Presently we noticed a very tall figure in white stalking slowly along in the direction of the hotel. There was no head visible, and in the dim light of morning, with the steam rising from the ground, it looked, for all the world, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father with no head, only a very long, thick neck.
After Kelly was shot in the legs, the writer described his collapse and his dramatic unmasking:
The figure staggered and reeled like a drunken man, and in a few moments afterwards fell near the dead timber. The spell was then broken, and we all rushed forward to see who and what our ghostly antagonist was […] the iron mask was torn off, and there, in the broad light of day, were the features of the veritable bloodthirsty Ned Kelly himself.
Precious film footage restored by the Australian National Film and Sound Archive of the 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang, the world’s first feature film, shows Kelly shooting at police in his iconic armour, then collapsing by a dead trunk on the ground surrounded by police. The scene is just as Carrington and his colleagues described it in their reports.
Perhaps the most faithful rendering of Carrington’s Kelly description is Peter Carey’s fictional witness in the preface of True History of the Kelly Gang.
Carey’s witness echoes the description of Kelly as a “creature” and describes its “headless neck”.
After he was shot in the legs, the witness recounts Kelly “reeled and staggered like a drunken man” and falling near dead timber. The book’s preface and Melvin’s first Argus report both describe Kelly after he fell as “a wild beast brought to bay”.
Carey’s witness may be fictional, but his account is based on journalists’ accounts of witnessing Kelly’s capture. Carey credited many of his research sources to Kelly historian Ian Jones, who republished Carrington’s account titled Catching the Kellys – A Personal Narrative of One who Went in the Special Train along with illustrations in Ned Kelly: The Last Stand, Written and Illustrated by an Eyewitness.
‘Hunted like a dog’
The journalists helped the police strip Kelly of his armour and carry him back to the station, cut off his boots and kept him warm, all the while interviewing him as the siege continued with the remaining bushrangers inside the inn.
McWhirter remarked the bushranger was “composed”.
“I had several conversations with him, and he told me he was sick of his life, as he was hunted like a dog, and could get no rest,” Carrington wrote. He described Kelly’s clothes underneath the armour – a crimean (meaning a coloured, no button flannel) shirt with large black spots.
The journalists then turned their attention to the burning of the inn, featured in the background of Sidney Nolan’s 1946 painting, Glenrowan which depicts a fallen Kelly towering in his armour over policemen and Aboriginal trackers.
Kelly was hanged in Melbourne in November 1880, a few months after the journalists’ train ride and the siege.
The journalists continued their careers, with Melvin becoming the most prominent of the four in participatory journalism. After a stint as a war correspondent, he joined the Helena ship as an crew member to investigate, undercover, the “blackbirding” trade that indentured South Pacific Islanders to the Australian cane fields.
In the 1906 review of the first feature film – The Story of the Kelly Gang and exhibition, The Age critic wrote, “if there were any imperfections in detail probably few in the hall had memories long enough to detect them”.
Yet, the 1906 film was criticised by the Argus for not being faithful to the original descriptions of his “bushman dandy” dress as described by Carrington and his colleagues on the day.
The art may be in the interpreting eye, but the scenes are from that first rough draft of history.
Readers are advised the following article contains descriptions of violence that may be traumatic.
In July 2018, Western Australia’s Police Commissioner Chris Dawson formally apologised for the mistreatment of Aboriginal people at the hands of police, acknowledging the “significant role” the police played in the dispossession of Australia’s First Nations people. Dawson made particular reference to the way:
forceful removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities, the displacement of mothers and their children, sisters, fathers and brothers, the loss of family and resulting destruction of culture has had grave impacts
“Forced removal” references the unique role played by police in many settler colonies such as Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, the United States and Canada in relation to First Nations peoples: executing assimilationist policies designed to dismantle First Nations families.
A closer look at the history of policing in Australia helps explain some of the dynamics at play in the Black Lives Matter and First Nations Deaths in Custody movement in Australia and a growing push for alternative models of policing.
The ‘Irish Model’ of policing
Mainstream histories of policing have looked to 19th century British Prime Minister Robert Peel’s London Metropolitan Police “British Model” of policing, with its focus on policing through consensus and “walking the beat”.
There is another model of policing, however, which better reflects the Australian history.
Known as the “Irish Model” from its origins in suppressing dissent in the Irish colony in the 19th century, it set the police against the community, placed them in military style barracks, under a highly centralised and hierarchical chain of command. In general, they were not there to win hearts and minds.
Look to Chris Owen’s magnificent study of policing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia between 1882 and 1905 – titled Every Mother’s Son is Guilty. Policing was based around a highly mobile horse mounted model to cope with the extraordinary distances. As Owen shows, attitudes of the police towards First Nations people were deeply influenced by contemporary beliefs that they were inferior to whites, and a priori criminal.
Many police officers in the frontier colonial era were conscious of being part of a “civilizing mission” and held highly paternalistic attitudes.
One officer who policed the remote regions of Western Australian in the 1920s recalls being
conscientious in my desire for their welfare, for I looked upon them then, as I do now, as children.
This was a feature of the Native Police Forces that operated in various parts of Australia from the 1830s until the early 20th century.
These forces, responsible for many atrocities against Aboriginal people, consisted of Aboriginal troopers under the command of white officers such as Constable William Willshire whose killings resulted in an unsuccessful murder trial in 1891 and Lieutenant Frederick Wheeler, whose massacres were reviewed by a Queensland parliamentary inquiry in 1861 (which decided to reprimand but not dismiss him).
The inquiry heard evidence of the Native Police Force’s murderous contact with Aboriginal people.
Historical accounts of the Northern Territory’s Native Police, modelled on the Queensland’s Force, documents its fatal force against Aboriginal lives to allegedly defend colonists’ lives and property.
In Western Australia, the 1927 Royal Commission into the killing and burning of Aboriginal bodies in the Forrest River massacre found police were brutal in effecting arrests.
The use of police brutality extended beyond Native Police expeditions, and was characteristic of police powers more widely. The Colonial Frontier Massacres Map documenting massacres of First Nations families across Australia include extensive records of police killings, such as 60 Warlpiri, Anmatyere and Kaytetye women, men and children in the Coniston Massacre in 1928.
Often police officers assumed the role of Aboriginal Protector under these Acts and exercised broad powers over Aboriginal lives.
Police also gained specific powers under legislation that allowed them to remove Aboriginal children from their families under “child welfare” legislation. Testimony from Victoria in the Bringing them Home inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families reported that:
From 1956 and 1957 more than one hundred and fifty children (more than 10% of the children in the Aboriginal population of Victoria at that time) were living in State children’s institutions. The great majority had been seized by police and charged in the Children’s Court with “being in need of care and protection”. Many policemen act from genuine concern for the “best interests” of Aboriginal children, but some are over-eager to enter Aboriginal homes and bully parents with threats to remove their children.
The experience of one Aboriginal child in Western Australia in 1935 was told to the inquiry:
I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we’d gone [about ten miles] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers’ backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of that car. When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old.
Police still play a role in removing First Nations children from their families today. The Family is Culture Report in 2019 noted significant concerns about the use of police during removals, saying:
when police are used for removal, especially riot police, this has historical continuity.
Police powers in the first half of the 20th century extended to the forced isolation and confinement of Aboriginal people on public health grounds, such as in various lock-up hospitals, on the basis of a diagnosis made by a police officer of syphilis or leprosy – or a decision that the person was at risk.
The police acted as the gatekeepers for enclosure in a ubiquity of institutions. At the same time as imposing the law, the police also acted as Protectors of Aboriginal people, distributed rations and blankets, provided pastoralists with Aboriginal workers in remote areas and ensured that they remained on pastoral stations.
If you put your own colour, police tracker, that means he can bring them in. He can bring them in to work and don’t let him steal it [beef]. Let them work. Let them work.
And Aboriginal stockman Barney Barnes remembers the removal of Aboriginal communities accused of cattle killing onto Cherrabun, Go Go and Christmas Creek stations in the Kimberley:
That manager made the police go out and bring all the people in from the desert. He reckoned that they were killing too many bullocks. So the police came out and rounded up all the Walmajarri people […] They kept going at it until nobody was left out there. They didn’t allow the Aboriginal people to live in the desert after that.
Aboriginal people who defied Aboriginal Protection Acts and the rules of reserves and settlements – such as speaking in language, practising culture, marrying without the protector’s permission, or otherwise disobeying orders of the protector – would be sent for punishment to places such as Palm Island. These Acts were often enforced by police officers.
Hope for the future
Moving away from a colonial and assimilationist model of policing in Australia involves restructuring police and honouring First Nations self determination.
Community Patrol models, which are embedded in First Nations communities and work towards the safety and wellbeing of women, children and families, provide a First Nations alternative.
It’s time to consider setting police models on a new course that abolishes force and re-imagines community relationships.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to add more detail and quotes.