Slavery in Australia – in the laid back n’ easy goin’ ‘land of the fair go’

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In 1891 a ‘Slave Map of Modern Australia’ was printed in the British Anti-Slavery Reporter

Thalia Anthony, Stephen Gray, ‘Was there slavery in Australia? Yes. It shouldn’t even be up for debate’, The Conversation, 11.06.20

Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserted in a radio interview that “there was no slavery in Australia”.

This is a common misunderstanding which often obscures our nation’s history of exploitation of First Nations people and Pacific Islanders.

Morrison followed up with “I’ve always said we’ve got to be honest about our history”. Unfortunately, his statement is at odds with the historical record.

This history was widely and publicly documented, among other sources, in the 2006 Australian Senate report Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages.

What is slavery?

Australia was not a “slave state” like the American South. However, slavery is a broader concept. As Article 1 of the United Nations Slavery Convention says:

Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.

These powers might include non-payment of wages, physical or sexual abuse, controls over freedom of movement, or selling a person like a piece of property. In the words of slavery historian Orlando Patterson, slavery is a form of “social death”.

Slavery has been illegal in the (former) British Empire since the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade of 1807, and certainly since 1833.

Slavery practices emerged in Australia in the 19th century and in some places endured until the 1950s.

Early coverage of slavery in Australia

As early as the 1860s, anti-slavery campaigners began to invoke “charges of chattel bondage and slavery” to describe north Australian conditions for Aboriginal labour.

In 1891 a “Slave Map of Modern Australia” was printed in the British Anti-Slavery Reporter, a journal that documented slavery around the world and campaigned against it.

Reprinted from English journalist Arthur Vogan’s account of frontier relations in Queensland, it showed large areas where:

… the traffic in Aboriginal labour, both children and adults, had descended into slavery conditions.

Seeds of slavery in Australia

Some 62,000 Melanesian people were brought to Australia and enslaved to work in Queensland’s sugar plantations between 1863 and 1904. First Nations Australians had a more enduring experience of slavery, originally in the pearling industry in Western Australia and the Torres Strait and then in the cattle industry.

In the pastoral industry, employers exercised a high degree of control over “their” Aboriginal workers, who were bought and sold as chattels, particularly where they “went with” the property upon sale. There were restrictions on their freedom of choice and movement. There was cruel treatment and abuse, control of sexuality, and forced labour.

A stock worker at Meda Station in the Kimberley, Jimmy Bird, recalled:

… whitefellas would pull their gun out and kill any Aborigines who stood up to them. And there was none of this taking your time to pull up your boots either. No fear!

Aboriginal woman Ruby de Satge, who worked on a Queensland station, described the Queensland Protection Act as meaning:

if you are sitting down minding your own business, a station manager can come up to you and say, “I want a couple of blackfellows” … Just like picking up a cat or a dog.

Through their roles under the legislation, police, Aboriginal protectors and pastoral managers were complicit in this force.

Slavery was sanctioned by Australian law

Legislation facilitated the enslavement of Aboriginal people across the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland. Under the South Australian Aborigines Act 1911, the government empowered police to “inspect workers and their conditions” but not to uphold basic working conditions or enforce payment. The Aboriginals Ordinance 1918 (Cth) allowed the forced recruitment of Indigenous workers in the Northern Territory, and legalised the non-payment of wages.

In Queensland, the licence system was effectively a blank cheque to recruit Aboriginal people into employment without their consent. Amendments to the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 gave powers to the Protector or police officer to “expend” their wages or invest them in a trust fund – which was never paid out.

Officials were well aware that “slavery” was a public relations problem. The Chief Protector in the Northern Territory noted in 1927 that pastoral workers:

… are kept in a servitude that is nothing short of slavery.

In the early 1930s, Chief Protector Dr Cecil Cook pointed out Australia was in breach of its obligations under the League of Nations Slavery Convention.

‘… it certainly exists here in its worst form’

Accusations of slavery continued into the 1930s, including through the British Commonwealth League.

In 1932 the North Australian Workers’ Union (NAWU) characterised Aboriginal workers as “slaves”. Unionist Owen Rowe argued:

If there is no slavery in the British Empire then the NT is not part of the British Empire; for it certainly exists here in its worst form.

In the 1940s, anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt surveyed conditions on cattle stations owned by Lord Vestey, commenting that Aboriginal people:

… owned neither the huts in which they lived nor the land on which these were built, they had no rights of tenure, and in some cases have been sold or transferred with the property.

In 1958, counsel for the well-known Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira argued that the Welfare Ordinance 1953 (Cth) was unconstitutional, because the enacting legislation was:

… a law for the enslavement of part of the population of the Northern Territory.

Profits from slaves

Australia has unfinished business in repaying wages to Aboriginal and South Sea Islander slaves. First Nations slave work allowed big businesses to reap substantial profits, and helped maintain the Australian economy through the Great Depression. Aboriginal people are proud of their work on stations even though the historical narrative is enshrined in silence and denial.

As Bundjalung woman Valerie Linow has said of her experiences of slavery in the 1950s:

What if your wages got stolen? Honestly, wouldn’t you like to have your wages back? Honestly. I think it should be owed to the ones who were slave labour. We got up and worked from dawn to dusk … We lost everything – family, everything. You cannot go stealing our lousy little sixpence. We have got to have money back. You have got to give something back after all this country did to the Aboriginal people. You cannot keep stealing off us.

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Addendum: the above addresses only part of the story – e.g. convicts were also used as slave labour.

 

Sydney University – exposed for what it is

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Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the Bristol harbour this week

Natassia Chrysanthos, ‘Subjects on US slavery and fascism slated for cuts at Sydney University’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11.06.20

History subjects about the making of the US, American slavery, fascism and anti-fascism are nominated to be cut from the University of Sydney’s arts and social sciences faculty due to budget-saving measures. …

It comes as the statues of slave traders are torn down in Britain and thousands worldwide protest against police brutality in the Black Lives Matter movement, after the death of George Floyd in the United States.

History student Annabel Pettit said she was hoping to study American slavery next semester.

“It feels like a vital time to be thinking critically, and learning as much as we can about what has led us to this particular moment in history,” she said.

“It’s disappointing news to hear as a student, and deeply concerning given the current global anti-racist movement and the upcoming US election.”…

Seventy history students have written to the arts and social sciences dean, Annamarie Jagose, petitioning to save the subjects.

“These are vital subjects to study in a world where the mass Black Lives Matter movement has been threatened by the US President with military action to disperse protesters,” they wrote.

Senior history lecturer David Brophy said students felt they were being denied the opportunity to study topics that were “really important at this point”.

“It’s not a good time for Sydney to be weakening its offerings in these areas,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a global uprising against racism centred in America, and we’re stripping away these units that speak directly to the current context.

“There’s also an intense discussion that’s sparked up again about the way we speak about history, the debate about the commemoration of figures involved in slavery. They would normally be expected to attract significant interest in a time like this.” …

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A Greek, a Chinese, an Australian and truth

Aristotle in 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle

Aristotle portrayed in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle as a scholar of the 15th century AD.

‘falsity is the assertion that that which is is not or that that which is not is and truth is the assertion that that which is is and that that which is not is not.’

Aristotle, The Metaphysics, Trans and Introduction by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin, London, 2004, 107 (Gamma 7 1011b)

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Austllink chairwoman Amy Mo, a Beijing education agent who has operated in the Australian market for 15 years, said the deteriorating relationship (between Australia and China) will bring “immeasurable economic losses to Australia”.

“If Australian politicians don’t regret and keep being the running-dog of the United States in the name of so-called values, Chinese tourists and students will not go there,” she said.

“I hope Australia can change its attitude toward China. If a country loves Chinese money but doesn’t like Chinese people, China surely is not willing to do business with it.”…

Luke Sheehy, executive director of the Australian Technology Network of universities, which include RMIT and UTS, said the sector had prioritised welfare of students during the COVID-19 crisis and campuses were “vibrant, safe and welcoming places”. …

Eryk Bagshaw, Fergus Hunter, Sanghee Liu, ‘Students “to be steered to UK instead”‘ The Sydney Morning Herald, 11.06.20

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A star-spangled spanner and a hypocritical, Sinophobic, toady culture

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Australia’s newest warplane, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter…Israel is the only country allowed even a partial role in repairing its electronic systems.

Brian Toohey, ‘A star-spangled spanner in the works: how US secrecy controls Australian weapons’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25.05.20

The loss of Australian sovereignty within the American alliance is rarely raised amid the current alarm about whether the US is a reliable ally. Successive prime ministers have given the US a de facto veto over whether Australia can use its own weapons systems to defend itself.

At the same time, they have allowed Australian forces to become so tightly integrated into the Pentagon’s that it presumes Australia will automatically participate in a horrendous new American war, even when it’s an illegal act of aggression like the invasion of Iraq.

The erosion of our national sovereignty has not occurred suddenly. A Parliamentary Library research paper warned back in 2001 that American restrictions meant Australia could only use its advanced weapons for a short time before they became inoperable. Since then, Australia has become more reliant on complex weapons systems whose sensitive components have to be sent back to America for maintenance and repairs. Perversely, American secrecy prevents Australian personnel from learning how to perform these tasks.

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‘Let’s disengage from China…slowly and carefully.’

The US also denies Australia access to the computer source code essential to operate key electronic components in its ships, planes, missiles, sensors and so on. Israel is the only country allowed even a partial role in repairing the electronic systems at the heart of the troubled-plagued F-35 fighter planes Australia is also acquiring.

Although there is nothing new about the possibility the US won’t always come riding to Australia’s rescue, President Donald Trump’s erratic behaviour has sparked a growing awareness that nothing is guaranteed.

Even more conventional US presidents will act in what they see as their own political interest and some version of the national interest rather than always committing American blood and treasure to defend Australia. Many otherwise hard-headed Australian politicians and commentators reject this reality, despite the lessons of history.

In 1963, Bob Menzies’ coalition government was keen to commit Australian forces to a cross-border war against Indonesia in Borneo. Menzies wanted an assurance from then US president John F. Kennedy that the ANZUS treaty meant the US would supply troops to support Australian forces. Archival records show Kennedy told Menzies that the American people had “forgotten” about ANZUS and no troops would be supplied.

In 1999, John Howard wanted president Bill Clinton to provide “boots on the ground” to help an Australian-led force quell violence sponsored by Indonesia in East Timor. Clinton refused.

Drawing on these lessons, an official National Security Update in 2007 stated it was the Howard government’s policy that we must be the “sole guarantor of our own security” and that it was “not healthy for a country to become dependent on another for its basic defence”. Although the defence minister Brendan Nelson wrote a supportive introduction to the update, no subsequent government has attempted to implement this policy.

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The Mongolian Octopus: his grip on Australia 1886

A policy of greater self-reliance requires full access to all relevant computer source code. Resources would need to be devoted to beefing up Australia’s electronics industry to allow the defence forces to operate far more independently than presently. But this doesn’t mean all defence equipment has to be built in Australia – that would be prohibitively costly. Funds could be freed up by greater use of relatively low-cost drones and by scrapping mega projects such as the ludicrously expensive French/Australian submarine relying on US electronics. When eventually delivered sometime after 2035, the submarine will almost certainly be a financial and military disaster.

Meanwhile, there is no need to overreact to China’s imposition of an 80 per cent tariff on imported Australian barley. China began action in the World Trade Organisation in 2018 against Australia’s alleged dumping of barley.

The University of Adelaide’s Simon Lacey points out that currently Australia has anti-dumping action under way or proposed against Chinese wind towers, glass, electric cables, chemicals, herbicides, A4 copy paper and aluminium products, as well as steel.

China has now pointedly switched to buying more barley from the US to meet Trump’s demand that it imports a lot more from America.

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Images: top/middle/bottom

Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

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Men gargle saltwater to prevent infection at the War Garden at Camp Dix (now Fort Dix) in New Jersey, c. 1918

‘First cases reported in deadly Spanish flu pandemic’, History, 05.11.09

Just before breakfast on the morning of March 4 1918, Private Albert Gitchell of the U.S. Army reports to the hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas, complaining of the cold-like symptoms of sore throat, fever and headache. By noon, over 100 of his fellow soldiers had reported similar symptoms, marking what are believed to be the first cases in the historic influenza pandemic of 1918, later known as Spanish flu. The flu would eventually kill 675,000 Americans and an estimated 20 million to 50 million people around the world, proving to be a far deadlier force than even the First World War. 

The initial outbreak of the disease, reported at Fort Riley in March, was followed by similar outbreaks in army camps and prisons in various regions of the country. The disease soon traveled to Europe with the American soldiers heading to aid the Allies on the battlefields of France. (In March 1918 alone, 84,000 American soldiers headed across the Atlantic; another 118,000 followed them the next month.) Once it arrived on a second continent, the flu showed no signs of abating: 31,000 cases were reported in June in Great Britain. The disease was eventually dubbed the Spanish flu because people erroneously believed Spain was the epicentre of the pandemic.

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A woman wears a sci-fi looking flu nozzle attached to a machine c. 1919. It’s not clear how it worked or if it had any health benefits.

The flu showed no mercy for combatants on either side of the trenches. Over the summer, the first wave of the epidemic hit German forces on the Western Front, where they were waging a final, no-holds-barred offensive that would determine the outcome of the war. It had a significant effect on the already weakening morale of the troops—as German army commander Crown Prince Rupprecht wrote on August 3: poor provisions, heavy losses, and the deepening influenza have deeply depressed the spirits of men in the III Infantry Division. Meanwhile, the flu was spreading fast beyond the borders of Western Europe, due to its exceptionally high rate of virulence and the massive transport of men on land and aboard ship due to the war effort. By the end of the summer, numerous cases had been reported in Russia, North Africa and India; China, Japan, the Philippines and even New Zealand would eventually fall victim as well.

The Great War ended on November 11, but influenza continued to wreak international havoc, flaring again in the U.S. in an even more vicious wave with the return of soldiers from the war and eventually infecting an estimated 28 percent of the country’s population before it finally petered out. In its December 28, 1918, issue, the American Medical Association acknowledged the end of one momentous conflict and urged the acceptance of a new challenge: fighting infectious disease.

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How will the history of the 2020 viral pandemic be written?

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Crowded conditions and the movement of troops during World War I likely contributed to the spread of the 1918 virus around the world.

In a recent speech, Trump specifically blamed China for the outbreak of the current coronavirus pandemic (echoed, as was to be expected, by the ‘Christian’ Prime Minister Morrison in Australia). As with everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth or the mouths of those in his administration, it is either a lie or the expression of a provocative and crudely ideological position. The so-called ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918 may have originated in the U.S.

From the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention website, in the article ‘History of 1918 Flu Pandemic’:

‘The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919.  In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918.

It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States. Mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.’

As for the heroic leadership shown by this spiv businessman in addressing the current pandemic in the U.S., I quote from The New York Times:

‘Mr. Trump, who has been accused of downplaying the crisis, said that millions of virus testing kits would become available, but added that he did not think so many would be needed.

“We don’t want everybody taking this test,” he said. “It’s totally unnecessary.”

“This will pass, this will pass through, and we will be even stronger for it,” the president said.

Asked if he would be tested for the coronavirus because of his contact at his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, with an infected Brazilian official, he said, “most likely, yeah,” countering earlier White House statements that he would not be tested.

“I think I will do it anyway,” he said. “Fairly soon.”…

Testing has lagged in the country, infuriating the public, local leaders and members of Congress. Sick people across the country say they are being denied tests. Administration officials have promised repeatedly that enormous numbers of tests would soon be available, only to have the reality fall far short.

“I don’t take responsibility at all,” President Trump said in response to a reporter’s question on Friday, “because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time.”

While South Korea is testing 10,000 people a day, overall U.S. state and federal testing has yet to log even 15,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.’

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Excellent words from a priest

The masses are the victims of the deception of a priesthood which, in its envious conceit, holds itself to be the sole possessor of insight and pursues its other selfish ends as well. At the same time it conspires with despotism which…stands above the bad insight of the multitude and the bad intentions of the priests, and yet unites both within itself. From the stupidity and confusion of the people brought about by the trickery of priestcraft, despotism, which despises both, draws for itself the advantage of undisturbed domination and the fulfilment of its desires and caprices, but is itself at the same time this same dullness of insight, the same superstition and error.

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans., A.V.Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977, 330

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Scared of Huawei? You should listen to what Australia’s masters get up to.

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Rotor cipher machines, cryptographer and entrepreneur Boris Hagelin

Intelligence coup of the century: the CIA’s private spying business

Even hacked the Vatican. The Russians and the Chinese didn’t buy the machines. The Australians knew about it and took what their masters gave them – not to mention that Australian spies hacked the phones of the Indonesian President Yudhoyono, his wife, the Indonesian vice-president and other senior ministers (the response of the Australians when this was exposed is noteworthy) as well as bugged the offices of the East Timorese government during the ‘negotiations’ over the Timor Gap resources and then the federal government charged the ASIS agent who blew the whistle on this. The highly secretive case is on-going.

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A pair of helping hands

Mark Arbib

  1. Philip Dorling, ‘Arbib revealed as secret US source’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 09.12.10

Federal minister and right-wing Labor powerbroker Mark Arbib has been revealed as a confidential contact of the United States embassy in Canberra, providing inside information and commentary for Washington on the workings of the Australian government and the Labor Party.

Secret US embassy cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available exclusively to The Age reveal that Senator Arbib, one of the architects of Kevin Rudd’s removal as prime minister, has been in regular contact with US embassy officers.

His candid comments have been incorporated into reports to Washington with repeated requests that his identity as a ”protected” source be guarded.

Embassy cables reporting on the Labor Party and national political developments, frequently classified “No Forn” – meaning no distribution to non-US personnel – refer to Senator Arbib as a strong supporter of Australia’s alliance with the US.

They identify him as a valuable source of information on Labor politics, including Mr Rudd’s hopes to forestall an eventual leadership challenge from then deputy prime minister Julia Gillard.

“He understands the importance of supporting a vibrant relationship with the US while not being too deferential. We have found him personable, confident and articulate,” an embassy profile on Senator Arbib written in July 2009 says. “He has met with us repeatedly throughout his political rise.’’

Other Labor politicians reported in US embassy cables as regular contacts include former federal MP and minister Bob McMullan and Michael Danby, the Labor member for Melbourne Ports.

A former secretary of the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, Senator Arbib was a key backroom figure in the Labor ”coup” in June that resulted in Mr Rudd being replaced by Ms Gillard as PM.

He has been a senator since July 2008 and was made a parliamentary secretary in February 2009. Mr Rudd elevated him to the ministry in June 2009. He currently holds the ministerial portfolios of Sport, Indigenous Employment, and Social Housing and Homelessness.

Instructed to find out how decisions were made in the government, US diplomats were quick to focus on Senator Arbib as a “right-wing powerbroker and political rising star” who had made “a quick transition from the parliamentary backrooms into the ministry’’.

The US embassy noted that ”the New South Wales Labor party’s kingmaker” was integral in raising numbers for Mr Rudd to overthrow Kim Beazley as Labor leader in 2006, and that Senator Arbib was “a close adviser to Rudd and is his key conduit to the ALP factions’’.

“Arbib is an influential factional operator who has forged strong political connections with Rudd,” the embassy recorded. “We have been told that Rudd respects Arbib’s political expertise, and a contact noted that Arbib is brought into Rudd’s inner circle when politically important decisions are made.

“Arbib is said to be loyal to, but frank with, Rudd, and is one of Rudd’s closest advisers. Yet, publicly, Arbib has denied being part of Rudd’s inner circle.”

US diplomats also found that Arbib “is an astute observer and able conversant on the nuts and bolts of US politics’’.

Senator Arbib first appears as a contributor to US embassy political reporting while he was NSW Labor state secretary. In May 2006 he declared to US diplomats that Australia was at risk of becoming a ”quarry for the Chinese and a tourist destination for the Japanese’’.

He warned that it would be “a tough struggle for the Labor Party to win the federal elections in 2007”. But he thought Kim Beazley, because he was the opposite of the volatile Mark Latham, was ”the right man to lead the ALP at the present time’’.

However, he also told embassy officers that, unlike Mr Beazley, he supported Australia’s military commitment in Iraq “as well as the war on terrorism in general’’.

After the Rudd government’s election in 2007, Senator Arbib offered reassurance about then deputy prime minister Gillard’s political leanings, describing her as “one of the most pragmatic politicians in the ALP”.

He also confirmed Mr Rudd’s tendencies towards micromanagement and told the embassy that “Rudd’s staff would like to get their boss to spend less time on foreign policy and delegate more, but that they recognise that this is a hopeless task’’.

In October 2009, as Mr Rudd’s popular support began to sag, Senator Arbib openly canvassed emerging leadership tensions within the government, telling US envoys that Mr Rudd wanted “to ensure that there are viable alternatives to Gillard within the Labor Party to forestall a challenge’’.

Senator Arbib added that Mr Rudd still appreciated Ms Gillard’s strengths, while an another unidentified adviser to the Labor prime minister told US diplomats that “while the PM respects Gillard, his reluctance to share power will eventually lead to a falling-out, while Gillard will not want to acquiesce in creating potential rivals”.

In June this year, Senator Arbib and other Labor Right figures moved to depose Mr Rudd from the leadership, precipitating the events that led to Ms Gillard’s becoming Prime Minister.

Senator Arbib last night declined to comment on the WikiLeaks disclosures.

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Rudd Clinton

2. Daniel Flitton, ‘Explosive Wiki Rudd cable’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 06.12.10

Kevin Rudd warned Hillary Clinton to be prepared to use force against China ”if everything goes wrong”, an explosive new Wikileaks cable has revealed.

Mr Rudd also told Mrs Clinton during a March 24, 2009, meeting in Washington that China was ”paranoid” about both Taiwan and Tibet and that his ambitious plan for an Asia-Pacific Community was intended to blunt Chinese influence in the region. …

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The Lucky Country – part seven: the sickness at the heart of Australian culture

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

‘Bruce Ruxton is right: we should embrace the legends of defeat,’ Richard Glover, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20.04.90

I arrived home to find my partner ashen-faced. The cat was wailing in the kitchen and the kid was clearly upset. The words came gushing out as soon as she saw me: “I don’t know what to do. I just found myself agreeing with Bruce Ruxton.”

Since she had confessed, I thought I could too. A healthy marriage, after all, is based on sharing such dark secrets. “Yep,” I said, “I agree with him too.”

The issue, you understand, wasn’t Asian immigration, gay rights, or whether environmentalists are all dole-bludging hippies. It was Anzac Day.

Ruxton, the Victorian president of the RSL, is currently doing battle with the journalist Phillip Knightley, who has expressed the view that next Wednesday should be Australia’s last Anzac Day.

It is absurd, argues Knightley, that the battle at Gallipoli should provide our key national image of war. Gallipoli, he says, was a defeat; and a defeat in a battle waged for British interests.

Better to celebrate, he says, the taking of Damascus by the Australian Light Horse, or the victorious battle by General Sir John Monash’s troops on the Western Front in the last months of war.

“Monash’s scientific breakthrough tactics,” he says, “were a powerful factor in the German decision to ask for an armistice and  thus a real turning point in history. Yet the Australians who fought on the Western Front appear doomed to live forever in the shadow of Gallipoli”.

But Mr Ruxton replies that these triumphs, along with others, are already marked by Anzac Day, and that traditions, once established, carry their own weight and importance.

But we can take the argument further. Knightley is right: Anzac Day does mark a defeat. But as such it is in keeping with one of the most consistent themes in the Australian legend: the celebration (or at least worldly-wise acknowledgement) of failure.

Any country can make hoopla about its victories. What makes Australia unique is the way it has always preferred to remember the brave-but-defeated, the underdog and the loser.

Consider, for example, some of the subjects of Australia’s successful historical films: Phar Lap, the story of a horse with  international promise who was poisoned; Les Darcy, the story of a boxer with promise who was killed; Breaker Morant, the story of soldier with promise who was shot.

And, of course, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, the story of fighters of promise who were misled and misused.

Dad and Dave never expanded and made it rich, they just battled on against flood and rain – two steps forward, three steps back. The heroes of Lawson and Paterson were triers more than they were doers; just as the great national bards were humourists rather than battle-balladeers.

Waltzing Matilda, the real national song, is about a tramp who can only find freedom through suicide. The Dog on the Tucker Box comes from a poem reciting the multiple disasters of an accident-prone bullocky.

Oh, to live in a country that makes a national icon of a dog that relieved himself in a bullocky’s food hamper.

But not, it seems, for Knightley.

He wants Australia to follow every other nation: to edit the defeats out of history and concentrate on the victories; to puff itself up and worship the tall poppies.

His Dog on the Tucker Box would be straight from Walt Disney – a heroic pup who saved the bullocky’s life rather than spoilt his dinner.

But I rather like Australia’s curious traditions: I like being part of the land of the rising inflection, where every statement is turned into a question; I like a tradition that sees the grim absurdity of life and embraces legends of defeat with a wry smile.

There are many who have argued against Australia’s traditions: arguing our lack of self confidence has held us back; that we have driven away our talented by rejecting a culture of success.

There  may be some truth in this, and certainly we face continuing battles to wean ourselves from cultural and economic cringes of various kinds.

Of course, we do need to wave the flag and be proud. But my problem remains: how can you be flag-wavingly proud when what you’re proudest of is the lack of a pompous, flag-waving pride?

All in all, it seems to me a perfect symbol. And that’s why Bruce Ruxton –  just this once – is right.

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