The rise of Bob Hawke to the prime ministership now seems to have been so unstoppable, so inevitable, that it is hard to imagine Australian political history might have unfolded differently.
But what if, instead of entering the House of Representatives at the 1980 election, Hawke had retired from his leadership of the union movement into, say, a business career? What if he’d not had willpower to give up the booze? What if he’d lacked the inclination to tone down his image as a larrikin union leader?
In that event, we might perhaps recall Hawke as a gifted union leader – probably a bit of a “character” – but one who had lacked the personal discipline to fulfil his potential. Perhaps we would remember him as epitomising those olden days when mighty trade unions imagined they were a kind of fifth estate, and when their big bosses were giants whose power rivalled, and sometimes eclipsed, that of leading politicians and capitalists. Hawke might have justly been recalled as a symbol of the pride before the fall.
Instead, Hawke is recalled as one of our greatest prime ministers and certainly among the most influential. It is a strength of the ABC’s upcoming two-part documentary, Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader, narrated by Richard Roxburgh, that it evokes the industrial world that gave Hawke both a long and rich apprenticeship in public life and a remarkable celebrity status. Some of the 1960s and 1970s footage is marvellous. You can almost smell the beer and Brylcreem.
But we are also reminded of the personal transformation that was needed before Hawke could be seriously considered for national political leadership. As the pollster Rod Cameron comments in the program, the public might have been willing to tolerate, while frowning on, a womanising prime minister, but they would not take a drunkard.
The larrikin side of the Hawke personality is now a popular favourite at events, where the octogenarian acquiesces to the urgings of an adoring public by sculling a beer – a reprise of his record-breaking student effort at Oxford. But the beer-swilling larrikin, who would still be there at closing time in the bar of Melbourne’s John Curtin Hotel, had to be placed in the shade in the 1980s.
The reformed larrikin, of course, is a familiar type in Australian culture, most famously embodied in Bill, the protagonist of C.J. Dennis’s The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. Bill gives up stoushing to become a properly domesticated husband and father, “Livin’ an’ lovin”. Hawke did a lot of both. The program’s discussion of his philandering is more coy than its handling of his drinking, but the expression on Hawke government minister Susan Ryan’s face when discussing Hawke’s relationship with women paints a thousand words.
The treatment of Hawke in this series is rather generous. Hawke was himself interviewed and all the talking heads clearly admire him to a greater or lesser extent – mainly greater. There are occasional hints of a darker side. Graham Richardson says he did some pretty appalling things under the influence of drink, but will not tell us what; only that Hawke would not have made it to the prime ministership in the age of the internet and the mobile phone.
Hawke’s 1971 Victorian Father of the Year award is treated ironically. The news footage has Hawke looking decidedly sheepish; the long-suffering Hazel privately wondered whether the judges had been on opium. Neal Blewett, a minister in Hawke’s government but a Bill Hayden supporter, thought Hawke and the party’s brutal treatment of Hayden on the eve of the 1983 election did long-term damage to the Labor Party’s morality.
The documentary does bring together many of the threads that help explain Hawke’s success as a politician. There was the sense of destiny, instilled in this Congregational minister’s son from childhood. His mother claimed that her Bible was forever marvellously opening at Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder”.
We are reminded of Hawke’s love affair with the Australian people, the “almost mystical bond” with voters. During that golden period of about 18 months after the 1983 election – as the drought broke, the recession ended and Australia II triumphed in the America’s Cup – Hawke was lucky, but he also knew how to exploit the brightening national mood to the full. Hawke did not just ride the wave of national pride and optimism during what Jim Davidson has aptly called the “Age of the Winged Keel”. He embodied it.
For a time at least. The 1984 election, in which Labor lost ground, took off much of the shine. Then there was the “banana republic” crisis of 1986, but the documentary does not pause long over economic policy. It does recognise that Hawke was immensely lucky in the depth and breadth of talent in his ministries, but that he was also skilled in bringing out the best in those he worked with. His ego was colossal, but he had the wisdom to share power.
There would be more election victories – in 1987 and 1990 – but things were never the same once his relationship with his younger treasurer and natural successor, Paul Keating, degenerated into acrimony. Yet, to the very end, as his approval rating plunged during “the recession we had to have”, Hawke clung to the idea that his relationship with voters was special. Like so many others, he failed to grasp the opportunity to leave office on his own terms.
Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader moves along rather breezily. The episodes in Hawke’s career that reveal his attachment to high moral principle, such as his hostility to racism, or those achievements that rhyme with the present preoccupations of progressive politics – environmental protection and Medicare – receive loving attention. Hawke’s failures are not ignored, but get more superficial treatment. An exception is the abandonment of national Aboriginal land rights legislation and the proposal for a treaty, which figures in a melancholy few minutes towards the end of the second episode. But Hawke always has good intentions.
This is a nostalgic program that begins by noting that Australians today “have never been so distrusting of politicians. But there was a time when things were different”. So, how did we get from there to here? On this question, Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader is silent.
But it may be that for all of Hawke’s achievements, the era’s narrowing of political possibilities – the equation of economic efficiency with good government, and of national productivity and competitiveness with national achievement – planted the seeds of both later economic success and political decay.
This piece is republished with permission from Commonwealth Now, the 59th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis on the relevance of the Commonwealth of Nations in today’s geopolitical landscape.
We will make better decisions on all the great issues of the day and for the century to come, if we better understand the past. – Gough Whitlam
The celebration of the “Queen’s birthday” in Australia is a perfect reflection of a fading, remnant, relationship. Commemorated in the Australian states as a public holiday on three different days – none of which is her birthday – and honouring an event of dubious significance, the “Queen’s birthday” reminds us that, despite our national independence, the symbolic ties of colonial deference remain.
The “Queen’s birthday” may seem a fitting if absurd genuflection to a powerless relic of a former time, and in itself confirmation that the Queen no longer has a role in post-dominion matters. But things are not always as they seem.
Neither sovereignty nor national independence flowed neatly from federation. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act created Australia as a federation of the former colonies and a constitutional monarchy, with all the tension inherent in that term – between a democratic government chosen by the people and a monarchical head of state whose ultimate constitutional power stemmed solely from inherited aristocratic assumption and unchallenged legal privilege.
The gradual devolution of Australian autonomy appeared assured at the Imperial Conference of 1926. This affirmed the relationship between Great Britain and its dominions as being that of:
… autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown.
The critical qualifier in this proclamation of an imperial gift of national autonomy, equality and independence is this: “though united by a common allegiance to the Crown”.
The imperial assertion of continued dominion allegiance to the Crown was a stark counterpoint to the proclaimed national autonomy. Indeed, it undermined the very autonomy and equality of nations the conference so proudly affirmed.
Five years after the Imperial Conference, the Statute of Westminster gave statutory expression to the principles of equality established at the Imperial Conference and vested full legislative authority and independence in the “dominions”.
Nevertheless, it remained the case that some bills would continue to require the Queen’s assent to be passed into law. The Statute of Westminster also granted dominion ministers the right of direct access to the sovereign. This access had previously been available only indirectly through UK ministers and reflected their then incomplete post-colonial status.
A fight for independence
Yet, in reality, neither of these critical junctures in the evolving British–Australian relationship created the clear-cut path to national independence that these paternalistic statements of ceded imperial power might suggest.
Although the dominions were entitled to separate representation at the League of Nations and subsequently the United Nations, as made clear at the Imperial Conference, the cultural expectation of continued British primacy and Australian dominion subservience remained.
It can be seen in the British attitude toward the efforts of Australia’s minister for external affairs, H.V. Evatt, to champion the role of the smaller nations against the Great Powers at the San Francisco conference in 1945 that established the ground rules for the UN.
Evatt’s insistence that Australia would take its own independent position as an autonomous nation in these high-level international negotiations infuriated the British representatives at the fledgling discussions over the UN.
At a preliminary meeting of Commonwealth nations in London, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had bemoaned Evatt’s defiant independent stance.
Describing the Commonwealth as “the third of the Great Powers”, Churchill argued that the Commonwealth could only maintain its influence by ensuring unity among members and speaking with one voice – and that one voice of course would be Britain’s, not Australia’s.
These expectations of British administrative, legal and political authority, based more in the established imperial mindset, behaviours and networks than an exercise of formal political control, remained powerful resistors to change throughout the 20th century.
The undercurrent of lasting imperial privilege and hierarchy proved to be a major obstacle in ending the complex web of residual colonial ties across legal, constitutional and political domains.
In particular, continued allegiance to the British Crown as the imperial condition of dominion nationhood was a political oxymoron. It cast an impossible constraint on the form of national autonomy, while Australian allegiance to the British Crown was superimposed on the representative model of parliamentary democracy.
The fundamental contradiction this established at the heart of the Australian polity remained largely dormant during the long years under the avowed Anglophile prime minister Sir Robert Menzies, until inevitably rupturing along the faultlines of divided allegiance – to the British Crown on the one hand and to Australian democratic governance on the other – with the 1972 election of the Whitlam Labor government.
Whitlam tries to loosen the ties
Gough Whitlam came to office with a core policy agenda of ending the residual colonial ties between Australia and Britain.
Although largely seen as ceremonial and symbolic, these colonial links were to be immensely significant in the trajectory of the Whitlam government and its dismissal threeyears later.
Whitlam moved rapidly on some of these. He ended the British honours system and introduced Australian honours, introduced an Australian national anthem to replace God Save the Queen, changed the Queen’s title by removing arcane references to God and Empire, and, in 1974, removed the words “God save the Queen” from the official proclamation dissolving parliament.
Eighteen months after his second election victory in the double dissolution of May 1974, Whitlam was peremptorily removed from office by the Queen’s representative in Australia, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, without warning and despite Whitlam maintaining a clear majority in the House of Representatives at all times.
Concerns were immediately raised over the possible role of Buckingham Palace and British authorities in this unprecedented vice-regal action. The suspicion that the Queen knew more about Kerr’s intentions than has ever been publicly acknowledged has grown in recent years with the Queen’s embargo of her correspondence with Kerr at the time of Whitlam’s dismissal.
Of all the residual colonial ties, the one that Whitlam found particularly abhorrent, and was determined to sever, was the right of appeal from some state supreme courts to the Privy Council. In his view:
No people with an ounce of self-respect would allow decisions made by their own judges … to be overruled by judges sitting in another country.
Whitlam described this as an “absurd” and “ludicrous” situation. Yet his efforts to end remaining state Privy Council appeals were stymied at every point.
Whitlam’s attorney-general, Lionel Murphy, reported he had struck nothing but intransigence, non-co-operation and obstruction from the British authorities in the government’s moves to implement this core policy.
Returning from his first visit to England as prime minister in 1973, Whitlam was clearly frustrated by the UK’s reluctance to end colonial ties when he told reporters, more in hope than confidence:
We are a separate country from Britain. We are an entirely independent country.
A tense meeting with Edward Heath, the British Conservative prime minister, the following year saw little change. An exasperated Whitlam again declared that:
All these colonial relics are incompatible with the position of Australia as a separate, sovereign country.
When the Whitlam government was removed from office by Kerr, three years later, these state-based appeals to the Privy Council remained, unchanged.
What we know about the Palace’s role
The archival records of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) covering these official visits are at once illuminating and disturbing. They show a troubling lack of respect for such a significant engagement with a senior member of a new Australian government.
Murphy’s visit was, after all, the first official visit by any of Whitlam’s cabinet to England. And yet, even before his arrival, the FCO files show that British authorities viewed Murphy, and indeed the Whitlam government itself, as a troublesome interloper whose presence they barely tolerated and whose policy concerns they did not share.
More than mere intransigence, or even simply a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Whitlam government, these archival records disclose profound breaches of confidence, secrecy and even deception of Whitlam by the FCO, the British High Commission in Canberra, and the Queen’s private secretary Sir Martin Charteris. They show a partisan pattern of disrespect for and undermining of the new Labor government.
Most significantly, far from any equality of national status, “in no way subordinate one to another” professed at the Imperial Conference, these files reveal the FCO’s brazen presumption – “our right as the colonial power” – to deceive the prime minister, to liaise in secret with the conservative states and, ultimately, to intervene in Australian politics to prevent the government holding a half-Senate election to resolve a stalemate in the Senate over the passage of supply bills.
From October 16, 1975, opposition senators refused to vote on the government’s supply bills, which provided the annual funds for government expenditure. In the new political vernacular, supply was “blocked”.
Calling the half-Senate election, which was then due, had been Whitlam’s resolution to this unprecedented situation since the day supply was first blocked. The Labor caucus had voted unanimously in support of Whitlam calling the half-Senate election “at a time of his choosing”.
The FCO files document a rapid breakdown and reversion to imperial imbalance in the British-Australian administrative relationship that began with the election of the Whitlam government and ended with its dismissal. They reveal a deep suspicion of the new government that quickly led to secrecy, deception and to routine breaches of the highest levels of confidentiality by both the British prime minister’s office and the Palace throughout the terms of the Whitlam government.
Most alarming is that the FCO files also reveal overt British involvement in Australian politics in the weeks before the dismissal – specifically with the half-Senate election due at that time and which Whitlam was to call on November 11, 1975, to end the blocking of supply in the Senate.
Kerr’s papers in the National Archives of Australia provided the first glimpse of the Palace’s role in the dismissal.
Although there are some who continue to claim that the Palace was not involved, this has increasingly become more a matter of faith than fact. Revelations from Kerr’s papers, the Palace letters, and the FCO’s files have rendered that position untenable.
We now know that Charteris wrote to Kerr in October 1975 to discuss action the Palace would take if Whitlam became aware of Kerr’s plans to remove him from office and sought to recall him as governor-general. Charteris told Kerr that the Palace would, in that instance, “try to delay things”.
This communication between the Queen’s private secretary and the governor-general over the position of the governor-general himself is politically and constitutionally shocking. It reveals the Palace to be in deep intrigue with Kerr, to protect his tenure as governor-general, in the weeks before the dismissal – unknown to Whitlam.
It was also a breathtaking rupture of the vice-regal relationship. At the heart of this relationship in a constitutional monarchy is that the appointment of the governor-general is made by the Queen on the advice of the Australian prime minister alone. This has certainly been the case since 1930, when King George V accepted Labor prime minister James Scullin’s advice to appoint Sir Isaac Isaacs as governor-general.
Despite being vehemently opposed to Isaacs’ appointment, the King told Scullin:
… being a constitutional monarch I must, Mr Scullin, accept your advice.
For the Queen’s private secretary to intervene with Kerr himself on the question of the governor-general’s tenure was a staggering breach of that relationship.
From this point on, knowing that Kerr was considering dismissing Whitlam and concerned that Whitlam might then recall him, and having agreed to a course of action in order to protect Kerr’s position should Whitlam do so, the Palace was already involved in the dismissal.
The fight over the Palace letters
The letters between Charteris and Kerr are part of the so-called “Palace letters”. This is the secret correspondence between the governor-general and the Queen, her private secretary, and Prince Charles, in the weeks before the dismissal.
Although these letters are among Kerr’s papers and held by the National Archives in Canberra, they are closed to us. This is because the Palace letters are considered “personal” and not official “Commonwealth” records. This is despite Kerr’s own description of them as his “duty” as governor-general, and despite their obvious significance to our history.
The Palace letters are embargoed until 2027, “at her Majesty the Queen’s instructions”, with the Queen’s private secretary retaining an indefinite veto over their release even after this date. It is quite possible, then, that they will never be released.
The Palace letters are extraordinarily significant historical documents. They are contemporaneous real-time communications between the Queen and her representative in Australia, written at a time of great political drama, and are a vital part of our national historical record.
At the heart of this still-secret vice-regal correspondence was the prospect of the dismissal of the Whitlam government, which Kerr had already raised in September 1975 with Prince Charles and Charteris.
The designation of the Queen’s correspondence with her representative in Australia as “personal” means they do not come under Australia’s Archives Act, which relates only to official “Commonwealth records”.
And so, in a rather neat catch-22, the decision by the National Archives to deny access to the correspondence cannot be appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
There is only one way to challenge this decision: through a Federal Court action, which is a complex, expensive and onerous proposition. This is clearly an area in need of legislative reform to ensure a viable appeal process is in place for records described as “personal” in this way.
In an effort to secure the release of the Palace letters, I launched an action against the National Archives in the Federal Court last year, with a legal team working on a pro-bono basis and supported by a crowdfunding campaign. This concluded in September 2017; the decision is anticipated within months.
At the heart of the case is this central question of just what constitutes “personal” as opposed to “Commonwealth” records. Lead barrister Antony Whitlam (Gough Whitlam’s eldest son) argued to the court that “personal records” would be records covering matters “unrelated to the performance of Sir John’s official duties”, and that this could not extend to correspondence between the Queen and her representative in Australia prior to the dismissal. He said:
It cannot seriously be suggested that there was a personal relationship between the Queen and Sir John Kerr.
It is difficult to see, from common sense alone, that the correspondence between the Queen and her representative in Australia could in any way be seen as “personal”. The precise legal points on which the question of Palace letters’ status will turn – whether as personal or Commonwealth records – will be a different matter.
The case itself has brought to light a significant amount of new historical and contemporary material on the relationship between the Queen and the governor-general and its implications for Australian national sovereignty.
One thing that can be said is that from the moment this case came before the court, the question of the release of the Palace letters changed irrevocably. Their status and their release will now be determined by an Australian court, according to Australian law – and not as a quasi-imperial grant of release by the Queen.
This alone is an historic and important outcome that ends one of the few remaining “colonial relics” that continue to deny us access to historical documents relating to the Queen about a historical episode also relating to the Queen.
The continued embargo by the Queen of the Palace letters and the revelations from the British archives of the FCO all point to the lingering imperial power that comes from an incomplete severance of colonial ties. They show above all that the residues of colonialism, the “imperial aftermath” in Whitlam’s words, can never be fully extinguished until Australia becomes a fully independent republic.
It is surely absurd that in the 21st century we can still see the Australian prime minister giving an Australian knighthood to the Queen’s consort, Prince Philip, and that the governor-general, the Queen’s representative in Australia, can still dismiss an elected government on the basis of claimed “reserve powers” derived from, and in the name of, the Queen.
As an independent autonomous nation, Australia has a right to know its own history, including and in particular the records pointing to British involvement in that history, if we are to ensure such a profound rupture in our political structures and denial of our national sovereignty cannot happen again.
This troubling time in our history and in the Australian–British relationship is also critical to our decisions as we recommence the debate over the inevitable move toward a republic.
The fundamental issues to be confronted in that debate will relate absolutely to the events surrounding the dismissal of the Whitlam government: how to protect the institutions of democratic parliamentary governance, how to secure the formation of government in the House of Representatives, and what the powers of the new, Australian, head of state should be.
You can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.
For those who take only an ordinary interest in politics, the drama over citizenship and eligibility to be a member of parliament has been puzzling. Surely these people looked at the rule book, the Australian Constitution, before deciding to stand for election? Why were their nominations accepted if they weren’t qualified?
Well, it’s not quite that simple. The constitution is not the rule book, but the record of a deal between the leaders of six self-governing colonies to form a federation; it covers what they wanted to cover, and it means what relevant people make it mean.
It doesn’t say that there has to be a prime minister, but it does say that “there shall be an Inter-State Commission”. That we do have a prime minister and don’t have an inter-state commission reflects the way relevant people have used the words in the constitution.
What did the constitution writers think they were doing?
The constitution was put together by many hands over ten years. The qualifications for candidature were drafted by the Tasmanian attorney-general, Andrew Inglis Clark, in a straightforward and inclusive way: at least 21 years old, resident of the electorate, and a subject of the Queen (which would have included New Zealanders, Canadians and Britons).
But Samuel Griffith, the Queensland prime minister (as they were then called), wanted a section on disqualification. This would cover felony, bankruptcy and:
any person who has taken an oath or made a declaration or affirmation of allegiance to a Foreign Power or done any act whereby he becomes a subject or citizen … of a Foreign Power.
So there were separate sections on qualifications and disqualifications, from different sources and reflecting different values, and they took this form in the successive drafts of the constitution.
In the smoke-filled room: the drafting committee
The final session of the constitutional convention was held in Melbourne early in 1898. There was no further discussion of what became the now-infamous section 44, and a drafting committee took over to prepare a final draft.
Edmund Barton – soon to become Australia’s first prime minister – was the chair and dominant figure. He insisted on working till 4 or 5am, even though the other two members of the committee had gone to bed and only Robert Garran, the secretary, was left to maintain the illusion of a committee.
After four days of drafting, Barton presented the convention, on its second-last day, with 400 amendments. He proposed a three-hour break for the delegates to study them, after which they could be put to the vote en bloc.
Barton assured the convention that there was only one amendment of substance – to section 44(ii). What he did not say was that section 44(i) had been completely rewritten, changing it from an active voice (“done any act whereby”) to a passive voice (“is a subject or citizen … or is entitled to”).
No attention was drawn to this change, there was no explanation of it, and there was no time for debate on any clause unless someone objected to it. The constitutional text that proved so significant more than a century later was a last-minute change, drafted in private and accepted out of weariness.
it may one day interest a curious lawyer to inquire whether judicial review has lingered with significant consequences on new words approved on trust and intended … merely ‘to put the wishes of the convention in more complete and concise form’.
As it turned out, it interested more than the curious lawyer, and created a problem which has yet to be adequately managed.
Appealing to the umpire?
The constitution was rather unclear about how these provisions would be enforced. It said both that questions about qualification could be settled by each house, but also that “any person” who believed that an elected representative was disqualified by section 44 could sue them in “any court of competent jurisdiction”.
Even then it refused to hear a case calling for Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard to produce evidence they had renounced their UK citizenship, on the basis that they had declared that they were qualified, and so the court should presume that they were. To do otherwise would be a vexation and an abuse of the court’s time.
But when the court did deign to interest itself in the matter, it took the traditional High Court view that it was not interested in the problem, or what the writers of the constitution were trying to do, but only with the possible meaning that a black-letter lawyer could squeeze from these words, irrespective of its impact on the governing of Australia.
Where does this leave us?
The situation now is that the qualifications for candidature for the Australian parliament are set by the parliament, but the disqualifications are largely set by foreign governments via the High Court. This diminishes the ability of electorates to choose the representative they want (though, when given the chance, electorates show what they think of the High Court’s action by returning the ousted members in the ensuing byelection).
And the High Court’s escapade in the china shop is not yet over, for it has yet to rule on the disqualification of those who are “entitled to” foreign citizenship, even if they have not applied for it. If the court applied the same logic that it has used in the cases already decided, this would disqualify not only any Jew, but also anyone with a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse, all of whom are entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Israeli Law of Return.
The best course would be to start with recognising the problem, rather than searching for a preferred solution. In contemporary Australia, identities are often complex, and citizenship entitlements may be multiple and overlapping. How these are to be recognised in the qualifications for candidature demands a period of public discussion culminating in political action.
The only way we could get this is to take the matter out of the hands of the High Court and foreign governments and return the task of defining qualifications and disqualifications for candidature to parliament. This could be done by adding to section 44 the phrase “until the parliament otherwise provides”, which is used in section 30 on qualifications, and at a number of other points in the constitution.
This would be a logical and constitutional response to the political problem that has landed on us. If the five main parties in the parliament (all of which have had their parliamentary representation threatened by the High Court’s actions) supported a referendum to achieve this change, it would probably be carried.
The voters, too, as they showed in New England and Bennelong, have had enough. They want the political leaders to lead.
At a public meeting in Hobart in the late 1830s, Solicitor-General Alfred Stephen, later Chief Justice of New South Wales, shared with the assembled crowd his solution for dealing with “the Aboriginal problem”. If the colony could not protect its convict servants from Aboriginal attack “without extermination”, said Stephen, “then I say boldly and broadly exterminate!”
Voluminous written and archaeological records and oral histories provide irrefutable proof that colonial wars were fought on Australian soil between British colonists and Aboriginal people. More controversially, surviving evidence indicates the British enacted genocidal policies and practices – the intentional destruction of a people and their culture.
When lawyer Raphael Lemkin formulated the idea of “genocide” after the second world war, he included Tasmania as a case study in his history of the concept. Lemkin drew heavily on James Bonwick’s 1870 book, The Last of the Tasmanians, to engage with the island’s violent colonial past.
Curiously, books published before and since Bonwick’s have stuck to a master narrative crafted during and immediately after the Tasmanian conflict. This held that the implementation and subsequent failure of conciliatory policies were the ultimate cause of the destruction of the majority of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. The effect of this narrative was to play down the culpability of the government and senior colonists.
More recent works have challenged this narrative. In his 2014 book, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, Professor Tom Lawson made a compelling case for the use of the word “genocide” in the context of Tasmania’s colonial war in the 1820s and early 1830s, a time when the island was called Van Diemen’s Land. As Lawson writes, in the colony’s early decades, “extermination” and “extirpation” were words used by colonists when discussing the devastating consequences of the colonial invasion for the island’s Aboriginal inhabitants.
Nick Brodie’s 2017 book, The Vandemonian War: The Secret History of Britain’s Tasmanian Invasion, argues that the war was a highly orchestrated, yet deliberately downplayed, series of campaigns to efface Tasmanian Aboriginal people from their country. Brodie’s book makes extensive use of over 1,000 pages handwritten by Colonel George Arthur, revealing exactly how he prosecuted the Vandemonian War. (Disclaimer: Nick Brodie is my partner and occasional research collaborator.)
Arthur’s correspondence tells all
In his dual roles as lieutenant-governor of the colony and colonel commanding the military, Arthur directed a series of offensives against Aboriginal people.
Imperial soldiers, paramilitaries and volunteer parties were regularly deployed. Some parties were assigned Aboriginal auxiliaries as guides. Arthur’s war eventually included the largest ground offensive in Australian colonial history.
Shortly after he arrived in the colony in 1824, Arthur began stockpiling weapons. He blurred the lines between military men and civilians. Military officers and soldiers were given civil powers.
Former soldiers were encouraged to settle in Van Diemen’s Land and to help quell Aboriginal resistance. Settlers were issued with hundreds of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Convicts who fought against Aboriginal people were rewarded.
Military and civilian parties scoured the island for Aboriginal people, taking some prisoner and injuring or killing others. They destroyed Aboriginal campsites and caches of weapons.
Arthur knew his war parties were killing their opponents, but continued to send them out regardless. He feigned ignorance after John Batman, leader of one of the parties and later founding father of Melbourne, fatally shot two injured Aboriginal prisoners in his custody.
Colonial strategy became more severe over time. Bounties were introduced at £5 for an adult Aboriginal person and £2 per child to encourage colonists to bring in live captives. These payments were later extended to cover not only the living but also the dead.
Arthur’s regime leaked stories to the press to manage the public’s understanding of the war. It publicly announced the retirement of parties that it continued to support, and selectively recorded evidence given to an investigative committee.
As the war progressed, Arthur ordered men to conduct many covert operations. While there were some expressions of empathy for Aboriginal people, many reports painted them as aggressors, thereby justifying government action and even secrecy.
Ultimately, a couple of thousand soldiers, settlers and convicts were recruited for a general movement against Aboriginal people in late 1830. During this major campaign, Arthur rode his horse up and down the lines. He personally oversaw the operation. He sent dedicated skirmishing parties out in front of “the line”. Surviving records do not reveal how many casualties may have resulted.
In the latter stages of the war, Arthur sent George Augustus Robinson to carry out so-called diplomatic “friendly missions” to Aboriginal people. While these were taking place, Arthur continued to orchestrate military and paramilitary operations, including some conducted by nominally diplomatic operatives.
Eventually, Arthur declared that details of the war had to become a military secret. He then continued with a series of major military offensives against the island’s remaining Aboriginal population.
By the mid-1830s almost all of Tasmania’s surviving Aboriginal inhabitants lived on small islands in Bass Strait, some with sealers and others at the Aboriginal Establishment on Flinders Island. From an Aboriginal population numbering somewhere in the thousands on the eve of invasion, within a generation just a few dozen remained.
Whereas the master narrative framed this state of affairs as proof of a benign government caring for unfortunate victims of circumstance, the colony’s archives reveal that Aboriginal people were removed from their ancient homelands by means fair and foul. This was the intent of the government, revealed by its actions and instructions and obfuscations. In the language of the day the Aboriginal Tasmanians had been deliberately, knowingly and wilfully extirpated. Today we could call it genocide.
Learning from New Zealand
As well as legacies of death and dispossession, the colony left a legacy of deliberate forgetting. Our neighbours across the Tasman Sea acknowledge and now formally commemorate the 19th-century New Zealand wars. The first Rā Maumahara, a national day of remembrance, was held on October 28 2017.
Yet today in Australia people quibble over whether the nation’s colonial conflicts ought to be called “wars”, or indeed whether any conflicts took place.
Despite some differences, wars prosecuted in the Australian colonies share strong similarities with the New Zealand wars. British colonists and imperial soldiers fought against Indigenous people who took up arms to protect their families, land, resources and sovereignty.
Yet colonists perceived their Indigenous opponents differently. Through British eyes, Māori were feared as a martial foe. Australian Aboriginal people, on the other hand, were considered incapable of organising armed resistance despite extensive evidence to the contrary.
New Zealand has begun a new chapter of national commemoration for the wars fought on its soil. Is Australia ready to follow suit? Or will it, by omission, continue to perpetuate the secrecies of its own wartime propaganda?
Four stars in the night sky have been formally recognised by their Australian Aboriginal names.
The names include three from the Wardaman people of the Northern Territory and one from the Boorong people of western Victoria. The Wardaman star names are Larawag, Wurren and Ginan in the Western constellations Scorpius, Phoenix and Crux (the Southern Cross). The Boorong star name is Unurgunite in Canis Majoris (the Great Dog).
They are among 86 new star names drawn from Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Mayan, Polynesian, South African and Aboriginal Australian cultures.
These names represent a step forward by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – the global network of the world’s roughly 12,000 professional astronomers – in recognising the importance of traditional language and Indigenous starlore.
What’s that star called?
Many cultures around the world have their own names for the stars scattered across the night sky. But until 2016, the IAU never officially recognised any popular name for any star.
Instead, each star is assigned a Bayer Designation, thanks to a book published in 1603 by German astronomer Johann Bayer. He systematically assigned visible stars a designation: a combination of a Greek letter and the Latin name of the constellation in which it is found.
He gave the brightest star in a constellation the letter Alpha, then the next brightest star Beta, and so on down the list. For example, the brightest star in the Southern Cross is Alpha Crucis.
The IAU recognised that the lack of official star names was a problem. So the Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) was formed in 2016 to officially assign popular names to the hundreds of stars visible in the night sky.
That year the working group officiated 313 star names, derived mainly from the most commonly used Arabic, Roman and Greek names in astronomy. But the list contained few Indigenous or non-Western names.
The WGSN is looking to identify even more star names from Australia and other Indigenous cultures around the world. As Indigenous cultures have a rich collection of names for even the faintest stars, many new star names could gain IAU recognition.
So what do we know about these four stars and the origin of their names?
Wardaman star names
The Wardaman people live 145km southwest of Katherine in the Northern Territory. Wardaman star names come from Senior Elder Bill Yidumduma Harney, a well known artist, author and musician.
He worked with Dr Hugh Cairns to publish some of his traditional star knowledge in the books Dark Sparklers (2003) and Four Circles (2015). These books remain the most detailed records of the astronomical knowledge of any Aboriginal group in Australia.
Larawag (Epsilon Scorpii)
The stars of the Western constellation Scorpius feature prominently in Wardaman traditions, which inform the procedures of initiation ceremonies.
Merrerrebena is the wife of the Sky Boss, Nardi. She mandates ceremonial law, which is embodied in the red star Antares (Alpha Scorpii). Each star in the body of Scorpius represents a different person involved in the ceremony.
Larawag is the signal watcher, noting when only legitimate participants are present and in view of the ceremony. He gives the “All clear” signal, allowing the secret part of the ceremony to continue.
Epsilon Scorpii is an orange giant star, lying 63.7 light years away.
Wurren (Zeta Phoenicis)
Wurren means “child” in Wardaman. In this context it refers to the “Little Fish”, a child of Dungdung – the life-creating Frog Lady. Wurren gives water to Gawalyan, the echidna (the star Achernar), which they direct Earthly initiates to carry in small bowls. The water came from a great waterfall used to cool the people during ceremony.
Just as the water at the base of the waterfall keeps people cool and rises to the sky as mist, the water in the initiates’ bowls keeps them cool and symbolically transforms into clouds that bring the wet rains of the monsoon season. These ceremonies occur in late December when the weather is hot and these stars are high in the evening sky, signalling the start of the monsoon.
Zeta Phoenicis comprises two blue stars orbiting each other, 300 light years away. From our perspective, these two stars eclipse each other, changing in brightness from magnitude 3.9 to 4.4 every 1.7 days.
Ginan (Epsilon Crucis)
Ginan is the fifth-brightest star in the Southern Cross. It represents a red dilly-bag filled with special songs of knowledge.
Ginan was found by Mulugurnden (the crayfish), who brought the red flying foxes from the underworld to the sky. The bats flew up the track of the Milky Way and traded the spiritual song to Guyaru, the Night Owl (the star Sirius). The bats fly through the constellation Scorpius on their way to the Southern Cross, trading songs as they go.
The song informs the people about initiation, which is managed by the stars in Scorpius and related to Larawag (who ensures the appropriate personnel are present for the final stages of the ceremony).
The brownish-red colour of the dilly bag is represented by the colour of Epsilon Crucis, which is an orange giant that lies 228 light years away.
Boorong star name
Unurgunite (Sigma Canis Majoris)
The Boorong people of the Wergaia language group near Lake Tyrell in northwestern Victoria pride themselves on their detailed astronomical knowledge. In the 1840s, they imparted more than 40 star and planet names and their associated stories to the Englishman William Stanbridge, which he published in 1857.
In Boorong astronomy, Unurgunite is an ancestral figure with two wives. The Moon is called Mityan, the quoll. Mityan fell in love with one of the wives of Unurgunite and tried to lure her away.
Unurgunite discovered Mityan’s trickery and attacked him, leading to a great fight in which Mityan was defeated. The Moon has been wandering the heavens ever since, the scars of the battle still visible on his face.
Unurgunite can be seen as the star Sigma Canis Majoris (the Great Dog), with the two brighter stars on either side representing his wives.
One of the wives (Delta Canis Majoris) lies further away from Unurgunite and is closer to the Moon than the other wife (Epsilon Canis Majoris). This is the wife Mityan tried to lure away.
On rare occasions, the Moon passes directly over the wife of his desires, symbolising his attempts to draw her away. He also passes over Unurgunite, representing their battle in the sky. But Mityan, and Moon, never passes over the other wife (with the Arabic name Adhara).
Delta Canis Majoris is an orange-red supergiant that lies 1,120 light years away.
With the inclusion of the Parramatta Female Factory institutional precinct on the national heritage list, the federal government has recognised for the first time that institutionalisation is and has been a central part of Australia’s welfare system over two centuries.
The listing is testament to this precinct’s unique capacity to tell the stories of institutionalised women and generations of Australians who experienced out-of-home care, known as forgotten Australians, child migrants and Stolen Generations. It is now up to national, state and local interests to embrace this change.
The Parramatta Female Factory was identified as a site of abuse by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which has now made its final recommendations.
It is timely to ask how past sites of institutional abuse can be transformed from places of incomprehensible violence and suffering into places that can be harnessed to achieve the commission’s goals of redress, justice and the prevention of future institutional abuse.
The long wait for justice
The Parramatta Female Factory institutional precinct has been in continuous use since an assignment depot for female convicts was established there in 1821. In 1847, the original site was repurposed as Parramatta Lunatic Asylum, and again, in 1983, as the present-day Cumberland Hospital.
The adjacent Roman Catholic orphanage site, founded in 1844, became Parramatta Girls Industrial School in 1887, and operated as Norma Parker Women’s Detention Centre until 2010. An estimated 30,000 women and children passed through the portals of the child welfare and Female Factory institutional complex alone.
This is Australia’s longest-operating site of institutional incarceration and violence against females. It is also a place of punitive incarceration of children, women and Indigenous Australians and those labelled as mentally ill. Why did it take so long for this site to be added to the national heritage register?
If not for former residents of Parramatta Girls Home this listing would have never happened. Parragirls founder Bonney Djuric lodged the original national heritage application in 2011, which was the basis for its final listing in 2017.
Parragirls have continuously fought, for more than a decade, to preserve this place so that the injustices they suffered will never be repeated again.
But, until today, the neglect of the girls’ home and the entire precinct has replicated the abandonment the women have experienced in seeking justice for themselves and the thousands who passed before them.
Girls interned at Parramatta Girls Home experienced systematic and endemic levels of violence and neglect – the effects of which are endured by survivors to this day. These violations have been recorded by the royal commission.
Findings from the commission’s investigation into the girls’ home catalogue a regime of discipline and punishment and emotional trauma, including physical and medical control, and physical and sexual abuse. Compensation and civil claim processes related to the home also came in for criticism in its report.
The problem confronting both the commission and Australians more generally is how to contend with personal and collective trauma on this scale. With the site now earmarked for redevelopment under the Parramatta North urban transformation plan, the New South Wales government faces this same challenge.
Creating a site of conscience
Apologies, stone memorials and trauma tourism no longer suffice for those living with the consequences of serious abuse. We urgently need a new imaginary for our past, where we make use of Australian heritage to do justice.
Former residents of Parramatta Girls Home have shown us how this is done by implementing a singular vision to transform this forgotten place. It’s called a site of conscience.
In principle, the site of conscience global movement proposes the reclamation of places of human suffering to make common ground for dignity, respect and civil participation, instead of abuse and neglect.
Engaging with a site’s history in this way, government, civil society and the public can better understand contemporary social justice issues and build a future society that does not repeat the wrongs of the past.
In practice, on the grounds of Parramatta Girls Home, a site of conscience has been brought into being through the community activities of Parragirls and PFFP memory project. Launched in 2012, the memory project has enabled Parragirls to supplant isolation, shame and silence with shared memory, creativity and social gathering.
Activities include inaugurating an annual children’s day and memory garden, collaborative exhibitions and performances, and Stolen Generations’ songwriting and live music events. The memory project has also enabled Parragirls to contribute to the design of the Parramatta Girls Home memorial and to impact academic research on ethics and policy on child welfare records.
Agency is crucial to the activation of this institutional precinct as a site of conscience. This means, first and foremost, those who experienced injustice – its former occupants – are empowered to determine how we remember the past and how to use it build a better present and future.
Imagine a living public memorial that includes all Australians in the commitment to ensure our children are protected both now and in the future.
From this precinct, we can learn how past legacies and social issues impact contemporary practices of institutionalisation and systemic violence against women and children.
It is here, in this very place of inordinate pain and loss, that we can best put justice to work and make use of past wrongs for future good. And this enables us, as a nation, to put into action the royal commission’s goals of redress, justice and the prevention of future institutional abuse.
This vision calls for our collective embrace of transformative justice. It also demands our civic engagement to hold the government to account in the development and future use of Australia’s principal site of institutional welfare heritage.
The White Paper called Working Nation became the Labor government’s major economic statement in Paul Keating’s second term. However, the policy was principally an after-the-fact attempt to clean up a mess in the labour market and be seen to be doing something even if a little belatedly.
Cabinet papers released today by the National Archives of Australia show the white paper began as a rational exercise but was soon overtaken by pressing contingencies and the desire to make the policy everything to everyone. While concerned ministers were anxious to reposition the government in the midst of an ongoing recession, the process of preparing the new White Paper became an exercise in opportunism and bureaucratic capture.
On 15th December 1993 the Keating government released a significant draft policy entitled Restoring Full Employment – a nostalgic resonance to the original war-time Full Employment paper of 1945. Australia’s unemployment rate at the time was a staggering 10% and while younger school leavers found it hard to find work or were actively discouraged, many older workers (especially males) were being thrown out of jobs, many never to work again.
Paradoxically, unemployment had not featured significantly in the 1993 election (which was fought on the GST), but Labor was now worried that if nothing was done about the deterioration in the labour market (and specifically job creation) then the government would not hold onto office in 1996.
In early February 1994, the Keating cabinet began work on a follow up government policy statement provisionally entitled: a White Paper on Employment and Industry.
The resulting Working Nation paper was one of five “Nation” statements favoured by the two Keatings (Paul the PM and Mike his head of department, not related). The cabinet papers show it began life with the worthy goal of “achieving sustainable high economic growth,” but soon became a “jobs and training compact” to reduce long-term unemployment.
What Working Nation was designed to do
Working Nation was meant to provide an employment strategy, stimulate regional development, introduce a new industry policy, and assist Australia “going global” in expanded trade opportunities. Ministers hoped the policy would lead the economic transformation of Australia.
It began life under ministers Kim Beazley (then head of the Department for Employment, Education and Training) and Peter Baldwin (Department of Social Security). The focus was on the job seekers who would be helped by individual case management, but with the insistence on “reciprocal obligation” – that those on income support had a responsibility to stay in education, be in training or doing other productive work.
But this obligation could easily be evaded through the misuse of medical certificates. Only women over 40 whose partners were unemployed were spared these expectations.
In its implementation by the federal bureaucracy, and the beleaguered Commonwealth Employment Service in particular, the policy descended into a treadmill of labour market programs. There was a saturation of jobs advertisements in the media – that even according to senior administrators led to considerable “churning” of people through 12-18 month job compacts back onto the unemployment queues.
Cost blow outs
Cabinet deliberations at the time show two prominent political aspects of the policy. First, when money was up for grabs the policy intent expanded exponentially and ministers from tangential portfolios rushed to put their hands up for a share of the proceeds.
Second, fiscal circumstances were tight at the time, but costings for the multi-faceted White Paper went from estimates of A$200 to A$300 million for income support, to A$1 billion to A$1.4 billion a few days later. Then it became a maximum of A$1.7 billion.
When the program was announced in May 1994 it came in at an annual cost of A$2 billion, with claims of a total cost of A$6.5 billion before it was wound up in 1996.
The formulation process showed how a determined bunch of policy entrepreneurs, senior bureaucrats led by the head of Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and academic economists, were able to drive a policy response based on detailed research and theoretical propositions. Social Security bureaucrats were also able to exploit the opportunity to implement their own preferred policy adjustments, almost unrelated to the main thrust of the policy statements. At the same time these bureaucratic players largely marginalised ministers in the process. Indeed, the 1994 Employment Minister Simon Crean had to be briefed by officials on the content of the policy when Working Nation was released.
Moreover, these insider policy entrepreneurs carefully sidelined the government’s main economic adviser, the Treasury department, during the whole process. This perhaps reflects the deep suspicion of some of these actors to the ideological bent of the then Treasury officials.
While a jobs training package sounded a simple response to a pressing problem, the Working Nation policy created more headaches for a government with umbilical links to the trade union movement. There was contention over a “training wage,” whether it should be greater than the Newstart allowance and how it related to the minimum wage. There was also debate on whether workers could jobshare (which was not endorsed by cabinet) and how increased income support impacted on housing and rental relief measures.
Working Nation was a classic case of just how complex and interrelated such well-intentioned policy statements can become when they cut across other areas of established policy.
Even before it was wound up, there were concerns, noted by cabinet, that the program was not achieving its objectives and that those on the Job Compacts program remained without work when their program entitlements expired.
Even after economic growth in Australia improved, the unemployment rate remained stubbornly stuck at 8.5% before the 1996 election, – an election at which Labor suffered a heavy defeat. Working Nation led to the Commonwealth Employment Service being disestablished and replaced by the now familiar network of private or community job-seeker agencies delivering services under competitive contracts.
While Working Nation was a major economic and social policy statement of the government, it was an inadequate response (too late and too slow) to the imperatives of the 1991-92 recession. And in the process of producing the White Paper, strategically placed insiders grabbed the opportunity to flex their own policy muscles inserting their preferred options into the statement.
Once released, Working Nation had a short-lead in time for implementation (eight weeks) placing huge burdens on a centralised bureaucracy, not generally equipped to respond so receptively to such demands. Working Nation highlighted not only the policy-making inadequacies of the federal government but also the tardy delivery capacity of large unwieldy bureaucratic organisations.
A highly publicised international deal on climate change is two years old. Australia’s federal government, under pressure from environmentalists and with a new prime minister at the helm, signs up and quickly ratifies it. However, its emissions reductions actions don’t work, and the government faces a dilemma: strengthen the measures (including perhaps carbon pricing), or keep cooking up voluntary measures, spiced with a dash of creative accounting.
While the paragraph above might just as well describe the present day, it also sums up the situation in 1994, when Paul Keating’s government was wrestling with Australia’s climate policy. The period is better remembered for angry timber industry workers blockading Parliament, but there were also important battles over carbon pricing and Australia’s international negotiating position.
Cabinet papers from 1994 and 1995, released today by the National Archives of Australia, show how Keating’s cabinet fought an internal civil war over how to respond to climate change, while working hard to protect Australia’s fossil fuel exports.
Australia used this credibility to propound a “fossil fuel clause,” which made the now-familiar argument that:
…economies that are highly dependent on income generated from the production, processing and export, and/or consumption of fossil fuels and associated energy-intensive products and/or the use of fossil fuels … have serious difficulties in switching to alternatives.
The cabinet papers released today reveal that defending this clause was a major preoccupation of the government of the day.
In early 1994 Ros Kelly’s political career was brought low by the “sports rorts” affair. She was briefly replaced by Graham Richardson, and then the highly respected John Faulkner.
By this time, all climate eyes were on the first UNFCCC summit, to be held in Berlin in March-April 1995. As an August 1994 cabinet memo noted:
…international pressure is mounting to strengthen the Convention’s emission reduction commitments,
…Australia’s measures will fall short of reaching greenhouse gas emission targets and that Australia’s greenhouse performance is likely to compare unfavourably with that of most other OECD countries.
This was a reference to the 1992 National Greenhouse Response Strategy, which was already being shown to be toothless, with state governments approving new coal-fired
power stations and renewable energy ignored. Environmentalists wanted more mandatory action; business wanted to keep everything voluntary. After a roundtable hosted by Keating in June, cabinet debated climate change in August.
The political calculations involved are evident in the official record, which states:
[Australia’s] ability to influence international negotiations away from unqualified, binding uniform emissions commitments towards approaches that better reflect Australia’s interests will be inhibited by a relatively poor domestic greenhouse response.
And what are Australia’s national interests? It won’t surprise you to learn that the government worried that:
…action by the international community could have a major impact on Australia’s energy sector and on the economy in general, by changing the nature and pattern of domestic energy use and/or by changing the world market for energy for Australian exporters.
Cabinet pondered finding international allies – such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and New Zealand – for the get-out-of-jail idea of “burden sharing”, which would allow countries to finesse their climate commitments by funding emissions reductions elsewhere.
Cabinet also canvassed the possibility of adopting either a proactive or reactive stance, or even withdrawing from the UN climate negotiations altogether. That last option – one that in essence would be adopted by John Howard, at least after George Bush opened up that space in 2001 by withdrawing from Kyoto – was seen as too risky. While the UNFCCC didn’t contain provisions for banning imports from recalcitrant countries, nevertheless:
As a major exporter of energy and energy intensive products, Australia would need to be involved in the negotiations to guard against the possibility of this occurring.
Faulkner had already flagged that he would bring a proposal to December 1994’s cabinet meeting, possibly including a small carbon tax – something the Greens, Democrats and Australian Conservation Foundation were all pushing for.
His opponents were ready, with a two-pronged approach. First, they produced economic modelling (with, it later emerged, significant help from fossil fuel companies), which warned that “to stabilise emissions at 1988 levels by 2000, taxes per tonne of CO₂ would need to be around US$192 for Australia and US$24 for the OECD.
So far, so frightening. But given that decisions reached at the Berlin summit might have consequences for Australia’s prized coal exports, some sort of
response was necessary. Fortunately, the Department of Primary Industry and Energy had prepared a document, called Response to Greenhouse Challenge “in consultation with key industry organisations” such as the Business Council of Australia. This had provided a “basis for discussions with industry and incorporates the key principles that industry wants included in the scheme”.
The carbon tax decision was deferred, and ultimately after a series of meetings in February 1995, Faulkner was forced to concede defeat. A purely voluntary scheme – the “Greenhouse Challenge” – was agreed, with industry signing on to what was essentially a reboot of the demonstrably ineffective National Greenhouse Response Strategy.
The Berlin meeting did lead to a call for binding emissions cuts for developed countries, and
Australia signed on, albeit grudgingly. By the end of the year, the same industry-funded modelling was used to produce a glossy report which argued that Australia deserved special consideration because of the makeup of its economy. Australian diplomats would use this argument as a basis of their lobbying all the way through to the 1997 Kyoto climate summit.
In one of history’s ironies, on the same day that this report was released – December 1, 1995 – Keating’s cabinet discussed “the development of a more comprehensive effort in greenhouse science”, noting that:
Climate change is capable of impacting severely on coastal infrastructure, living marine resources and coastal ecosystems such as reefs. The Australian
regional oceans strongly influence global climate, and Australia is vulnerable to oceanic changes affecting rainfall and possibly the incidence of tropical cyclones.
A look at 2017’s weather tells you they may have been onto something there.
As I pointed out in last year’s cabinet records article, “when it comes to climate policy, there are no real secrets worthy of the name. We have always known that the Australian state quickly retreated from its already hedged promise to take action, and told us all along that this was because we had a lot of coal”.
Reading these documents is a bit like yelling at a person in a horror movie not to open the door behind which the killer lurks. You know it is futile, but you just can’t help yourself. The December 1994 cabinet minutes contain sentences like this:
Greenhouse is expected to generate future commercial opportunities for Australia with increased export of renewable energy technology e.g. photovoltaic, wind and mini-hydro technology, especially in the Asia-Pacific Region [to] support renewables.
At yet, several governments later, we’re stuck having the same debates while standing by and letting other countries embrace those exact opportunities.
If Labor was surprised by its re-election in March 1993 – the “sweetest victory of them all”, as Paul Keating claimed – there was, for months before the 1996 election was called, much less confidence in government ranks that it could hang on.
They were right. A 6.17% first-preference swing against Labor in 1996 confirmed the momentum John Howard’s Coalition leadership had built over the previous year. The political mood was shifting decisively.
Howard pitched to the values of the “battlers”, affirming “the Australia I believe in”. In contrast, Don Watson, Keating’s speechwriter, recalls that the “big picture” reforms of Keating’s prime ministership “never found a place for the people” in testing those values.
Political scientists Paul Strangio, Paul t’Hart and James Walter add that, after 1993, Keating became ever-more dominant in “a small clique of very senior colleagues”. He drove a policy agenda that had been rallied after the 1993 victory.
There were big ambitions, like Working Nation, and big symbols, like the republic. These initiatives were part of a push through 1994 and 1995, as revealed in the cabinet papers released today by the National Archives of Australia, to ensure a legacy for the program Labor had crafted since 1983.
In that process, the term “benchmarking” figured repeatedly in the cabinet submissions ministers debated. It was time to take stock of what had been achieved, in terms of reform, expectations of it, and principles that could not be undone by their successors.
Changing attitudes to social policy
The measures of such impact included a vital element of attitudinal change.
In social policy, ministers were assured that the past ten years marked a decisive shift for people with disabilities from a welfare approach to a “human-rights-based focus”, measured in labour market access. Cabinet called for regular reports to track how effectively this support continued to move from the margins of specialised programs to mainstream provision.
Other measures included a standard pension rate of 25% of male total average weekly earnings, a target of 100 residential care places per 1,000 population aged over 70 by 2001, and a child support system that fostered “a change in the community ethos” with regard to the obligations of separated parents.
In May 1994, cabinet endorsed tackling the more “legally complex or controversial issues” identified in the 1992 Half Way to Equal report on women’s rights. Among them was a commitment to target potential pregnancy “as a ground of prohibited discrimination”.
As Labor’s 1994 national conference adopted a commitment to a 35% quota of safe seats for women candidates by 2002, these issues achieved a clearer place in public debate.
Reforms in public and community housing were aimed at increasing the co-ordination of federal and state governments in delivering stock to meet diverse needs. The beneficiaries of such attention, it was argued, would include people with psychological illness. The minister concerned, Brian Howe, pushed for the principle that rent in such housing should not exceed 30% of income.
Progress on Indigenous Australians
For Indigenous Australians, ministers agreed that “priority be given to social benchmarks” for housing and also health and community support, employment and education. Together they would hold agencies accountable for the delivery of services, rather than simply describing the conditions to those receiving them.
The minister, Robert Tickner, urged that consultation with Indigenous clients must take into account that their “reluctance … to provide information” reflected “a more complex, historical issue”. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission’s work as a national representative body was seen as integral to overcoming this challenge.
The new National Native Title Tribunal brought sharp focus to these concerns. Keating urged that this body must have sufficient authority to counter the “implacable” opposition of interests and governments such as that in Western Australia.
Cabinet also moved to establish an Indigenous land acquisition program. The May 1995 launch of a National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, followed by the official gazettal of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, further consolidated a network of recognition it would not be easy to unravel.
Indigenous affairs had some of the elements of “compassion” and “justice” Keating spoke of returning to politics. This pushed the boundaries of prevailing values.
Yet, with promising economic forecasts in early 1994, ministers were also keen to ensure there was no backsliding in the stricter discipline of microeconomic reform.
Having recently bedded-down principles of enterprise bargaining, cabinet was advised in March 1994 that the still-fragile foundations of a “productivity culture” were too vulnerable to “unrealistic” expectations developing in workplaces across Australia to risk any further iterations of the Prices and Incomes Accord.
A cabinet submission claimed that “it may be necessary to push the limits of what is acceptable” to the unions, and instead “establish benchmark criteria to assist employers in responding to claims”.
While sticking to this message, ministers still worried that the people seemed not to be travelling with them. In mid-1994 they decided to appoint an independent consultant to probe the question of why reported poverty levels had not declined, “despite all the measures taken over the last decade”.
Cabinet’s Social Policy Committee regarded the evidence informing such analysis as a “statistical artefact”. The Department of Social Security ventured that the long-term impact of labour market deregulation might help explain such sentiments. Finance countered that an already overgenerous social welfare system acted as “a disincentive to efforts to improve private incomes”.
As economic signals wavered through 1994 and 1995 – despite Keating’s assurance with the 1995 budget that “this is as good as it gets” – the challenge of inclusion grew.
There were some benchmarks, clearly, that were up for debate within a cabinet still pushing Australian economic as well as social transformation.
Climate change becomes a more pressing concern
There were also some benchmarks that were troubling on a larger scale.
Over 1994 and 1995, the government was briefed on the extent to which global commitments were already proving insufficient to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations:
… at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.
And even within the concessions Australia had won in those formula as an “emissions-intensive economy”, it was “only likely to achieve 46–53%” of its target by 2000.
Enhanced support for “greenhouse science” was identified as one option Australia might pursue in preserving its international reputation on these issues. More was required if we were to hold our standing in relation to vulnerable island states of the South Pacific. And more was required at home.
Major decisions were being taken that were “contrary to the terms of the 1992 National Greenhouse Response Strategy”. As ministers were told, Western Australia’s new Collie Power Station would “provide electricity at a higher cost than gas-powered alternatives”. The “extension of the electricity grid to outback areas of NSW ignored the potential for lower cost solar energy”.
Decisions to defer minimum energy standards for appliances showed “little more than lip service” to the fundamental issues of climate change. What was the point of such benchmarks if nothing was done to observe them?
If the 1996 vote reflected an electorate wearied of “big picture” reform, it was clear that the Keating government itself was seeking indicators that could affirm and entrench its achievements. Not all were easily found.
But, in retrospect, several do still stand up as enduring principles, and/or as markers around which a good deal of political conflict was to come.
Not long after defeat in the 1999 referendum, Malcolm Turnbull, a leading republican who had chaired the Republic Advisory Committee (RAC) appointed by Paul Keating, was licking his wounds.
“We must not let the desperate desire not to be ‘elitist’ lead us into imagining that the voters always get it right,” he reflected. “They don’t. Sometimes nations vote for the wrong people or the wrong propositions … There is nothing disrespectful in questioning the judgement of 55% of the Australian population.”
Like many republicans, Turnbull laid much blame at John Howard’s feet. But cabinet papers released today by the National Archives of Australia suggest a very different story: the republic was doomed from the moment the Keating government rejected the idea of a directly elected president.
The submission, considered by cabinet’s Republic Committee on March 22, 1995 (and by cabinet on June 6, 1995) warned:
Public opinion polls … suggest that any mechanism for appointing a head of state short of direct election will be controversial.
The document, unusually couched in the first person with Keating as narrator, is haunted by the ghosts of 1975. The risk of direct election, it explained, was:
… that the head of state might be tempted to assume, or presume to take moral authority from, a popular national mandate … and exercise the powers of that office in a manner which could bring the office into competition with the government of the day.
Here, in a nutshell, was the problem republicans faced. They wanted to present Australia’s constitutional arrangements as deficient enough to justify reform, yet they refused to countenance change that might lead to any but cosmetic changes. A bunch of politicians wanted to prevent an outbreak of politics.
Direct election of a president, we are told:
… would in time fundamentally change the character of Australian Government and could well move our parliamentary democracy towards an executive presidency, where power is no longer diffuse and representative and where substantial national power is vested unalterably in one person for a set period.
“This matter,” the submission went on to explain, “needs to be handled sensitively so that public understanding increases as the debate continues”.
In other words, it was the public’s ignorance that led it to support direct election. If only citizens better understood their political system, they would realise that selection by a joint sitting of parliament, with a two-thirds majority required to endorse a prime ministerial nomination, would make it impossible for a partisan figure to become president.
The paradox was that election by politicians was supposedly needed to avoid a politicians’ republic. Years passed, but no-one ever found a way to work through this conundrum of the republicans’ making. In the meantime, Keating faced another problem: even if parliamentary selection was accepted, what should the powers of that president be?
The governor-general had many roles and powers, some of which the Constitution defined. Some were exercised by convention on ministerial advice, and some were in a third, murky and controversial category known as reserve powers. The submission dismissed complete codification of the reserve powers as politically impossible:
An acrimonious debate on this issue would have the potential to derail the whole republic initiative.
It then went on to consider other ways of dealing with the problem. Eventually, the full cabinet would opt in June 1995 for a formula to be included in the constitution asserting that the president would “exercise his or her functions in accordance with the constitutional conventions which related to the exercise of the powers and performance of the functions of the governor-general”.
However, the conventions would not be regarded as “rules of law”, nor would the provision prevent “further development of these conventions”.
The attention that the reserve powers received underlines how powerfully 1975 preyed on the mind of Keating, who had been a young, recently appointed minister in the Whitlam government at the time of the dismissal. He pointed to the risk that:
… without codification, every half century or century the nation could suffer a wilful or misguided head of state who exercises political judgement against the interests of one of the parties or without due regard to historical conventions.
The priority was to avoid another Kerr. Indeed, he is even mentioned by name, as one whom few thought “benign to begin with – and he did not have to run the gauntlet of parliamentary approval, but he did suffer subsequent admonition by a large section of the country”.
Future presidents, unlike Kerr, would be constrained through their manner of selection by a super-majority of the House of Representatives and Senate sitting as one. The president would need to have the confidence of both parties, and so was likely to be non-partisan and of high calibre. However, if they proved “misguided or aberrant”, they could be removed via a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting convened by a simple majority vote of either chamber.
The psychology of this minimalist position is epitomised in how the submission dealt with the issue of what to call the republic.
It opted for keeping “Commonwealth of Australia” – not, it seems, because there was anything valuable or resonant in this title, but because it “would reflect the (minor) extent of the changes sought to the Australian system of government and would avoid the need for numerous consequential changes to the Constitution and other areas of official life”. An example of this would be the national anthem’s reference to “this Commonwealth”.
Leaving aside the absurdity of the last point, to argue for a change while also telling people that little would change was a balancing act beyond the republicans’ powers. At a time of populist revolt – the Hanson outbreak occurred in 1996 – it became even easier to cultivate hostility to “elites” out of touch with ordinary Australians.
I voted “yes” in 1999. I would vote “no” today if offered a reheated minimalist republic.
The arguments in the cabinet submission suggest a failure of imagination and, more seriously, of trust. They grossly exaggerate the fragility of Australian parliamentary government, which is sufficiently entrenched to avoid the spectre of a well-designed scheme for direct election leading to a US-style executive presidency.
The late historian John Hirst, the Australian Republican Movement’s Victorian convener in the 1990s and an RAC member appointed by Keating, warned a Canberra ARM audience in 2011 that parliamentary selection would never win public support. The ARM therefore should support direct election.
Hirst also warned against a consultative two-step process that invited voters to consider the principle of a republic, followed by a further vote for a specific model.
The first of these votes would permit a potent “no” campaign around such tried and true themes as change is dangerous, republics are bad, we already have an Australian head of state, politicians cannot be trusted, and voters should not issue a blank cheque.
The recent same-sex marriage survey provides Hirst’s warning with ample vindication. Opponents of a republic would be no more likely to campaign directly for the monarchy and against a republic than opponents of same-sex marriage campaigned explicitly against homosexuality. Red herrings would be the order of the day.
But in contrast to same-sex marriage, if the principle of a republic were to be defeated in a popular vote, like Sleeping Beauty it would have a restful century or so while it waited for a reviving kiss from a handsome prince.