Tag Archives: Tony Abbott

The Currency of Corruption

The Labor Party has now lost 2 shadow ministers since the election on 2 July, which suggests a high level of carelessness. Nobody seems to know yet just why Stephen Conroy decided to leave, but the reasons for Sam Dastyari’s resignation are hideously clear – accepting money from a Chinese donor to pay a $A1600 travel bill – and 2 bottles of Grange. He listed these in the donor register as ‘two bottles of wine’ and says he subsequently gave them to a charity auction.

It’s all a bit sordid, not least because the sums involved are so small. It reminds me a bit of that line in A Man for All Seasons, when Thomas More learns that Richard Rich has given perjured evidence against him in return for the job of Attorney-General for Wales: ‘It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world – but for Wales, Richard?’

For $1600 and a couple of bottles of Grange, Sam?

One can only hope that Andrew Leigh is finally getting an appropriate salary, which he missed out on when, for arcane factional reasons, the size of the shadow ministry blew out to 31.

Political gifts are curious things, and you can waste a pleasant hour at the moment googling the name of any Australian politician and the word ‘Grange’. In a depressing number of cases, up pops a gift bottle. The most famous recent examples are Dastyari and, before him, the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, who says he forgot all about the gift, but nonetheless resigned when his thank you note popped up. Other recipients, though, include Peter Costello, who received ‘a 6-pack’ in 2008, Kevin Rudd in 2006, and just maybe Tony Abbott in 2015/6.

Women don’t seem to get bottles of plonk in the same way – Julie Bishop and Tania Plibersek seem to be cleanskins, and the top item under ‘Julia Gillard + Grange’ shows her visiting the Milford Grange Retirement Community before the 2011 election – which is either admirable or sad, depending on your point of view.

grange2001

Penfolds Grange, for anyone living on another planet, is widely touted as Australia’s best wine. It is expensive, but it can always be described, on the politician’s register of gifts, as ‘a bottle of wine’, just as a Rolex can be just ‘a watch’.

Naturally it is very expensive, especially the older bottles, so Penfolds has designed a dinky little website to let buyers type in the date they want – here. O’Farrell’s bottle of Grange dates from 1959, his birth year, but sadly the system crashes if I enter my birthdate, which dates back earlier than the first Grange production. Sigh.

Unlike cash, a political gift is not intended to buy a politician outright, but to sweeten him up, to remind him – as he sips his wine or glances at his watch – of good old so-and-so. Often, the gift is an investment in the future. A strategic gift to a rising star in the opposition – Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Sam Dastyari – is like laying down a bottle of good wine to drink at some time in the future.

There are fashions in political gifts, as in other things. Sometimes cash is king. Lawyers still wear robes with a feature known as the ‘money bag’, a thin strip of material trailing down the front of the gown and the remainder of a ‘pocket’ on the back. Once upon a time – say, in Thomas More’s time – the lawyer would turn his back and pull on the strap to jingle the bag, ‘reminding’ the client that payment was due. English wigmakers (and professional spoilsports) Ede and Ravenscroft say the money bag is just the remnant of a monastic hood.

Usually though, the idea is to gently remind the recipient of a mutually advantageous friendship.

In the early 19th century, the Macarthur family perfected the art of the political gift. In 1804 John Macarthur’s fortunes turned when the Colonial Secretary, Lord Camden, authorized a land grant, which he named Camden Park. Keeping sweet with Lord Camden and his secretary George Watson-Taylor was important, so when his son Edward sailed to England in 1808, he took with him a menagerie of Australian wildlife to distribute strategically to potential allies.

Emus and chicks

Emus from John Gould, The Birds of Australia

Lady Castlereagh (wife of the Colonial Secretary) got two emus. It’s unlikely the poor birds survived for very long at Mount Stewart, the Castlereagh estate in Northern Ireland. A black swan and a goose also survived the voyage to be presented to Lady Camden – since Camden was no longer in office, she didn’t rate a matched pair. But they missed out on a pair of bronze-wing pigeons because Watson-Taylor thought ‘that too many presents at one time would overdo the business’ – and possibly coveted the birds himself, for Edward gave him ‘a very handsome present in the bird way’. ‘I have made several [presents] to different people’, Edward added, ‘and have not parted with all yet’.

More than a decade later, the Macarthurs were still greasing the wheels. George Watson-Taylor finally got a pair of black swans in 1821, and two years later John Macarthur Jr sent the junior minister at the Colonial Office, Robert Wilmot Horton, a number of kangaroo skins to make into boots: ‘It resembles dog skin, but is much more durable’.

Boots and swans; wine and watches. Fashions change but the objective remains the same – a valuable and exotic gift that will remind the politician of his friends, but if necessary can remain virtually anonymous. When Robert Wilmot Horton climbed the stairs of the Colonial Office in his kangaroo-skin boots, he could revel in their uniqueness, but nobody else would know. It was just a friendly gift, after all, without a hint of corruption. The gift of shares in the Australian Agricultural Company, on which he turned a quick profit of £12,000, were perhaps another matter.

References: Edward Macarthur’s gifts are discussed in S.Macarthur-Onslow, Records of the Macarthurs of Camden (1914)
John Macarthur Jr.’s gifts are recorded in the Macarthur Papers (Mitchell Library) and the Willmot-Horton Papers (Derbyshire Record Office).

Advertisements

Political Partners

Niki Savva’s new book, The Road to Ruin, has just been released and is all over the news this morning. It deals with the close relationship between the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and his chief of staff Peta Credlin. ‘Uniquely close’ is the term used – but was it? PM Chifley’s relationship with his personal assistant was pretty close too, while Elizabeth Chifley was sidelined in Bathurst.

Historians are Past Caring

In June 1951, Ben Chifley, the former Labor Prime Minister and now Leader of the Opposition, had a massive heart attack in his rooms at the Hotel Kurrajong.  The Hotel Kurrajong was essentially an up-market boarding house, built at a time when Canberra was still a country town without many places for its floating population of politicians and public servants to stay.  Chifley was moved to Canberra Hospital, but died later that night.  He was 65.

L. F. (Fin) Crisp was the professor of political science at Canberra University College.  He was working on The Australian Federal Labour Party, 1901-1951 (1955), and was fascinated by the story of Chifley, self-educated and rising from extreme poverty in the 1890s to become an engine driver, then a union leader, and finally Prime Minister.  Crisp was already gathering materials for Ben Chifley: a biography (1961).

Crisp knew that a lot of papers dealing…

View original post 776 more words

Changing Times on Norfolk Island

It’s crunch time for Norfolk Island. Next year the island will lose its independent status as a self-governing Australian territory, and there’s a lot of local anxiety about what comes next. I’ve recently come back from a week on Norfolk Island, a group-painting trip that was a lot of fun, and this was my first chance to see this beautiful speck in the South Pacific.

watercolour of a lone pine at Norfolk Island

‘Lone Pine, Norfolk Island’

Norfolk Island has a rich and strange history. It has been settled four times: once by Polynesians, twice by convicts and their guards, and once by the current inhabitants, who are descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

The Polynesians arrived about 1400, probably from the Kermadec Islands, perhaps following the migratory shearwaters (mutton birds) that used to fly due west from the Kermadecs to breed on Norfolk Island. Archaeologists have discovered obsidian tools at a dig site close to the convict ruins, but eventually the Polynesians left. Nobody knows why. They left behind banana trees and a vegetarian Polynesian ratRattus exulans.

Cook discovered and named Norfolk Island on his second voyage on Resolution in 1774. He managed to land briefly and reported on the pine trees and flax on the island. The French explorer La Perouse had less success. He sailed around the island in January 1788 in search of a safe landing spot, but eventually gave up and sailed away, commenting that the place was fit only for ‘angels and eagles’.

Only a few weeks later, in March 1788, a small group of marines and convicts from the First Fleet landed on Norfolk Island, partly to deter the French (since they knew that La Perouse was sniffing around) and partly because tall trees and flax were valuable resources for a maritime nation, always on the lookout for new sources of masts and canvas. Unfortunately for the Royal Navy, the pines that dominate Norfolk Island are less sturdy than they appear, snapping easily at a weak spot where the branches meet the trunk – so, no masts.

In the early years, the settlement around Kingston (named after the first commandant, Phillip Gidley King) supplied grain to the mainland. This settlement lasted until the mainland didn’t need Norfolk Island’s crops any more, and the residents were moved to New Norfolk in Tasmania. The last settlers left in 1813.

The second convict settlement began in 1825. Like the Moreton Bay settlement at Brisbane, which dates from the same period, this was a place to send convicts who had offended a second time. Like Brisbane, it was brutal. I went on a tour of the convict sites, and our guide described an archaeological dig done some time back, which took samples from one of the underground pits where recalcitrant convicts were confined as further punishment. According to him (and I have no verification, I’m afraid) chemical analysis of the walls and floor show a layer of blood, followed by a layer of whitewash, then more blood, more whitewash….

When convict transportation finally ended in 1852, this settlement was abandoned too, and the final residents transferred to Tasmania in 1856 [see Mr. Baskerville’s comment below].

Meanwhile, far to the east of Norfolk Island, in 1789 the Bounty mutineers, with a number of Tahitian men and women, settled on Pitcairn Island. One of their first acts was to burn the Bounty – allegedly so that it couldn’t be seen by anyone searching for the mutineers, but also making it impossible for any of the party to change their mind and try to leave.

The first years were brutal and bloody – Lord of the Flies, with added sex and racism – and by 1800, only two men survived of the original mutineers, John Adams and Ned Young, together with most of the Tahitian women. By then there were 19 mixed race children, carrying the names of Adams, Young and the other mutineers: Christian, Quintall, Nobbs, and so on.

Life settled down. The last mutineer, John Adams, died in 1829, and any fear of British retribution ended. The population grew, and the island – only 2 miles across – was unable to support them all. In 1856 they petitioned the British government to find them a new home.

Coincidentally, Norfolk Island had just been abandoned – so the British government offered them the island. Most of the Pitcairn Islanders moved to Norfolk Island, and they have been there ever since. They inherited the abandoned roads, mills and dams of the convict settlement, and drew lots for the houses. They reused some of the dressed stone, but most of the convict settlement remains intact.

The New South Wales Government gave each family 50 acres of land, but otherwise left them largely to themselves. The same names recur, in the graveyard, but also in the phone book – Quintall, Adams, Christian, Nobbs. After federation in 1901, Norfolk Island became an Australian territory [See Jack McClintock’s comment below], with its own stamps (as in Pitcairn, stamp collectors have been an invaluable source of revenue) but an Australian administrator and Australian currency.

In 1979 the Fraser Government gave Norfolk Island self-government, but at the end of 2015, that changes. The current Administrator of Norfolk Island, Gary Hardgrave, was a minister in the Howard Government who lost his seat in 2007. Tony Abbott appointed him with a brief to oversee the end of self-government and bring the island under Australian law.

At present, Norfolk Islanders pay no income tax, just a 12% GST, and the island is flat stony cold broke. There is no Medicare, no social security, and the infrastructure is decaying – the potholes in the roads need to be seen to be believed. And the population is falling, as children go to the mainland for further education and work.

Tourism is the only real source of income, but this is down as Australians travel further afield. Cruise tourism throughout the Pacific is up – but cruise ships face the same problem that faced La Perouse, and led to the wreck of the Sirius in 1790. Norfolk Island has no harbour, and no safe landing place for ocean-going ships. Supplies (or tourists) have to be transshipped into small lighters, which is slow and expensive and potentially dangerous in rough conditions.

Demonstration at Norfolk Island

Each hand is named, and represents an objector to the end of self-government on Norfolk Island.

Not surprisingly, the decision to end self-government is controversial. One local told me that some shops won’t serve the Hardgraves, and she had seen people smear the Administrator’s car with cow pats (cows have right of way on the roads). The locals have a history of mutiny, after all. Yet it is hard to see any alternative.

When self-government ends, Norfolk Island will have the status of a local government authority. The residents will pay Australian taxes, but get access to Australian welfare. They have been promised investment in infrastructure – perhaps even the longed for deep-water jetty that might transform their economy. Fixing the potholes would be a start.

With self-government, the role of the Administrator will change, but not disappear. The Administrator has often been a superannuated politician, and it is easy to see why someone might be pleased to take the gig.

Norfolk Island's Government House

Government House, Norfolk Island, first built 1829

Norfolk Island itself is quite achingly beautiful. It has a tight-knit community that is appealingly old fashioned, socially conservative, religious and royalist. The position of Administrator comes with a quite wonderful Government House, within a short walk of the beach at Emily Bay. The surf can be rough, but there’s good windsurfing nearby. The hills are steep, but a really dedicated cyclist would enjoy the challenge.

Update: As a friend points out, Norfolk Island got self-government in 1979 during the Fraser Government – Hawke didn’t come to power until 1983. Now corrected.
The Legislative Assembly has already been abolished (but not as yet Norfolk Island’s duty free status!). An elected Regional Council will be introduced in July 2016. More information available here.

See also Mr Baskerville’s comments below.

Coral Lansbury, the PM’s mother

I think I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with Malcolm Turnbull’s mother, not least because he was born in October 1954, more than a year before she married his father in December 1955. These things don’t matter a damn any more, but they probably cut quite deep for both mother and son back in the 1950s.

Most Australians know the general outline of the story, now covered in more detail in Paddy Manning’s new book, Born to Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull was the only child of Bruce Turnbull and Coral Lansbury. He was sent to boarding school when he was 8, in 1963, and ‘soon after’ – as her Australian Dictionary of Biography article discreetly puts it – the marriage fell apart. Coral left her son behind, but took the furniture. Turnbull talked a little bit about his mother on Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet – an old program, repeated on ABC recently after the leadership spill. It’s available on iView until 23 December (in Australia only).

Image 6-12-2015 at 1.00 pm

From Trove Newspapers

From her teens, Coral  worked in radio as an actress and scriptwriter. She married 3 times. Her first marriage was to radio actor George Edwards, who played ‘Dad’ in the long-running radio series Dad and Dave. She was 23, while he was 64, and this was his fourth marriage. Two days after the wedding, Edwards was hospitalized with pneumonia, and died 6 months later in August 1953.

What interests me, though, is that Coral Lansbury was a historian. She was appointed a lecturer in History and Australian Studies at the University of New South Wales in 1963, and wrote articles for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, including one on her first husband, actor George Edwards, one on the trade unionist William Guthrie Spence (with her supervisor, Bede Nairn) and – oddly – one on Charles Dickens.

It is now more than 50 years since the original Australian Dictionary of Biography was conceived, and at present discussions are going on to work out how – and how much – to update the project, just as in the UK the original Dictionary of National Biography has been updated to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web publishing makes such an update possible, though it is still a massive undertaking. It also requires policy decisions about who does or does not get included. These days I don’t think Charles Dickens would get the cut, although the ADB has included other British figures who never came to Australia, mostly politicians and bureaucrats who had a more obvious influence on the Australian colonies.

In 1970, Coral Lansbury published Arcady in Australia: the evocation of Australia in nineteenth-century English literature (1970), in which she argued that Charles Dickens

invented the Australian Bush Legend. In 1850 he was concerned, like most English people, with a great problem: what to do with all those distressed and unemployed, the rising mob in England. Well, you know what Dickens did. He sent Micawber off to Australia, and there you have him perspiring in the sun. The most unemployable character in literature becomes a magistrate… And the Arcadian legend is born not in Australia but (because) a great many English people… wanted to impose it on Australia.
‘Mum of ‘Spycatcher’ lawyer has regrets’, Canberra Times, 23 October 1988

Coral Lansbury’s academic career followed a strange trajectory, even by the standards of clever women of her day, struggling to carve out a place in the university system during the 1950s and 1960s. She went to the University of Sydney and did a BA with first class honours, but according to her ADB entry, ‘as an unmatriculated student, she was ineligible to graduate’. Why? How could that happen? She won prizes – the George Arnold Wood prize for history, and the Henry Lawson prize for poetry – but it took 11 years from starting an MA in 1952 to appointment as a lecturer at UNSW in 1963, the year that her son Malcolm was sent off to boarding school at the age of 8.

At about that time, her second marriage began to fall apart. She began an affair with a fellow historian, J. H. M. (Jock) Salmon, and they married when both their divorces were finalized. They moved first to the University of Waikato, New Zealand, and then to America, where Coral was appointed Professor and later Dean of Graduate Studies at Rutgers University. Her later academic publications include The Reasonable Man: Trollope’s Legal Fiction (1981), and Elizabeth Gaskell (1984). She also wrote a number of novels. She might have had an even more stellar career, but in 1991 she died of bowel cancer, aged 62.

Two years ago, the Australian Dictionary of Biography produced The ADB’s Story (ed. Melanie Nolan and Christine Fernon) to mark the 50th anniversary of the ADB project. Melanie Nolan also wrote the ADB entry on Coral Lansbury, which may be why Malcolm Turnbull, then Minister for Communications, was invited to launch the book. The full speech is here – but this is how he began:

Can I say at the outset how incredibly moved I was – I nearly burst into tears at the end of this room when I came here – because you were kind enough to mention my Mother was a contributor, not a high-volume contributor, but a contributor to the ADB (Australian Dictionary of Biography). But I was extraordinarily moved talking to you three and to others here, because I was for the first time I can remember, since my Mother’s death, in the company of historians. And I had forgotten what that felt like. And it is actually very different. And I can’t quite put my finger on it but I was nearly overwhelmed by a wave of emotion. So don’t think I’m just a flinty-hearted politician!

Some months ago, Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old archaeologist, was tortured and killed in Palmyra by ISIS thugs. Referring to this terrible event, Tony Abbott called al-Asaad an antiquarian. Now ISIS’s crime was so horrific that it seems churlish to mention in the same breath our former PM’s minor linguistic crime, but I must admit that it is a relief to have a new Prime Minister who knows the difference between an antiquarian and an archaeologist, and one who has expressed publicly his fondness for the company of historians.

Note: The original typescripts of Coral Lansbury’s radio plays are part of the Eunice Hanger Collection of Australian Playscripts in the Fryer Library, University of Queensland.

The end of the United Kingdom?

In 1698 a group of Scottish businessmen established a colony in Central America, on the Isthmus of Panama. The ‘Darien Project’, named after its location on the Gulf of Darien, turned out to be a disaster – fatally so, for most of the men and women who went out there between 1698 and 1700, but a financial disaster back in Scotland as well.

A bit like the South Sea Bubble, which caused such embarrassment for investors in England a few years later, the Darien scheme had involved a lot of lowland merchants and members of the political class, and with the collapse of their investment, they faced ruin. The term ‘sovereign debt’ hadn’t been invented, but effectively, so did the Scottish nation itself.

Since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England with the death of his cousin Elizabeth Tudor, the same Protestant branch of the Stuart/Stewart dynasty had ruled both Kingdoms, but they did not yet form a United Kingdom. Continue reading

Gender Wars

During the 1990s, I spent a lot of time researching the world of ‘first wave feminism’ for a biography of a woman called Maria Rye.  Maria was one of a number of middle class women who come together to campaign for women’s issues in the 1850s.  They started a club at Langham Place in London, published the English Woman’s Journal, and lobbied for improvements in women’s conditions: better employment opportunities, property rights for married women, access to higher education, and the right to vote.

The Langham Place group were gradualists; they didn’t throw themselves in front of horses or go on hunger strike, but argued their case rationally through public forums, petitions and the press.  There’s an essay on them on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website, for those with access to the site (outside the UK, it is only available to subscribers).

One of their leaders was Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925).  Bessie’s father, Joseph Parkes, was the editor of the London Morning Chronicle and an ‘election agent’ for the Liberal Party – essentially a political fixer.  Like most men, he loved his strong willed daughter – but he was not a feminist.  His letters to her, now in the Bessie Rayner Parkes collection in Girton College, Cambridge, are wonderful: juicy with political gossip, lively accounts of a happy father-daughter relationship.  He treated her as his intellectual equal, supported her in many of her campaigns – but he drew the line at political equality for women.

I can’t find my notes from nearly 20 years ago, so I can only summarise, but the gist of his concern was to warn Bessie not to go too far on the path to equality because, he said, ‘You don’t realise how much men hate women.’  Decent men protected and cherished women, he said, as long as they stayed outside the public sphere, but if they ventured into it, those constraints of decency would fall away, and men would make women the objects of their hatred.

In a week when the Taliban in Pakistan have shot a 14-year-old girl because she wanted an education, it’s important to calibrate levels of misogyny.  But in terms of civil and legal status, the position of women in 1850s Britain was not greatly different from that of women in the Swat Valley today.

Continue reading

Our Men in Oxford

In July 2010, I spent a few days in the library of Rhodes House, Oxford, going through a collection of manuscripts relating to the early Moreton Bay settlement.  It was a great place to work, light and airy, but with polished wooden furniture that glowed with a sense of the timeless traditions of Oxford – but with free wifi too.

The Rhodes Trust takes a keen interest in the achievements of its alumni.  Walking up the stairs to the library in mid-2010, I was startled to encounter a large photograph of Tony Abbott (New South Wales, 1981), who had a few weeks earlier replaced Malcolm Turnbull (New South Wales, 1978) as Opposition Leader.  In terms of global reach, perhaps Bill Clinton (Arkansas, 1968) was Cecil Rhodes’ greatest coup, but others include a President of Pakistan and Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, Jamaica and Malta.

Continue reading