Australia Australian Notes

Australian Notes

19 May 2012

Parliament begins each sitting day with the Lord’s Prayer. This is not good enough for the Prime Minister or the independents, who think Parliamentarians need a code of conduct. The New South Wales Parliament has long had a splendid code of conduct. It did nothing to prevent the series of scandals of recent years. They only stopped when the voters hurled the government out of office. The voters are a better defence than an Integrity Commissioner against Parliamentary corruption. We may have to wait a while before we can vote on the Gillard government. Meanwhile, we still have the Lord’s Prayer.


Troppo was the word Niki Savva, a shrewd observer of politics, used to describe Michael Kroger and his extraordinary attack on Peter Costello. No one in the Liberal party — or the media — believed that Costello was plotting a return to Parliament. I certainly don’t, and I have spent a lot of time with him over the years (including writing The Costello Memoirs). His leaving Parliament was a wrench, but it was final. Read his forceful ‘Statement’. (‘I am out of politics. I wish Michael Kroger every success. I hope he will cease his personal attacks.’) So why did Kroger make out that Costello was bad-mouthing his old colleagues? Why suggest he was eye-ing off various safe seats which their new incumbents would not in a fit vacate? Why blot out media coverage of Tony Abbott’s excellent Budget reply? There are various theories. Troppo is as good as any.

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From the depths of memory the other day I dredged up a conversation I had with Bob Hawke some 50 years ago! It was back in the days when we were still friends from our time together at the ANU. The excavation was prompted by reading Melissa Bellanta’s new and clear-eyed history of Australian larrikinism. Hawke (then of the ACTU) and I, with Les Tanner the Bulletin cartoonist, were breasting the bar in the so-called Bulletin pub in Sydney’s lower George Street. Somehow the conversation turned to Athol Townley, the earthy Minister of Defence in the Menzies government. A press report had quoted him: ‘Australians want a Prime Minister who is a bit of a larrikin.’ Suddenly Hawke became grimly serious. ‘No, they don’t!’ he snapped. ‘Name one Prime Minister who has been a larrikin. Menzies? Chifley? Curtin? Lyons? Scullin? Bruce? Australians will never make a larrikin Prime Minister.’ This tiny episode stuck in my mind for the light it cast on the younger Hawke. He was already known to have Parliamentary, even Prime Ministerial ambitions. (Why not? His uncle was a Premier.) He was also widely and fondly regarded as ‘a bit of a larrikin’. But he well knew he would have to get his weaknesses under control if he were to climb the greasy pole. Australians may have a soft spot for a knockabout bloke who is ‘a bit of a larrikin’, but they do not want him making decisions on their behalf. As everyone knows, in good time Hawke adopted self-restraint, gave up booze and became a successful Prime Minister. His sceptical view of larrikinism is of a piece with Bellanta’s in her Larrikinism:

A History. She considers two questions. First, how did the original larrikins of the 1860s — thieves, gang rapists and anti-Chinese rioters — entirely disappear by the 1920s? She attributes it to compulsory schooling, compulsory voting and prosperity (and perhaps a few hangings). Her second question is: why did ‘larrikin’ cease to be a term of contempt and come to mean a happy-go-lucky nonconformist? Bellanta has no firm answer. It is still a mystery. She notes that there are hoodlums in all countries, but their citizens do not flatter themselves ‘I’m a bit of a hoodlum’. Only in Australia will you still hear the boast: ‘I’m a bit of a larrikin.’ Bellanta wonders what this tells us about Australia. Let Barry Humphries, creator of that ageing larrikin Sir Les Patterson, have the last word. At his death, the old reprobate is found sprawled on the floor of his hotel bedroom. There are remnants of a Chinese takeaway on the bed, and a smouldering cigarette butt. A frightened hooker says he collapsed while trying to open the mini-bar. The death, however squalid, is not without its pathos. Part an Australian Sir Toby Belch, part T.S. Eliot’s Apeneck Sweeney, Les died as he lived and went down fighting. But at least he did not become Prime Minister.


The gulf between urban lefty Aborigines and bush Aborigines became headlines last year when Professor Larissa Behrendt of Sydney tweeted that watching a TV show ‘where a guy had sex with a horse’ was less offensive than watching Bess Price, an Alice Springs Aborigine, defend the Northern Territory Intervention on the ABC program Q&A. Behrendt later made a sort of apology. But she had made Price famous: a folk heroine who spoke for remote indigenous communities against those she termed the ‘white blackfellas’ of the big cities. Now she is standing as the Country Liberals candidate for the seat of Stuart in the August election for the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. The voting population numbers 4,500 across an electorate far larger than the state of Victoria. Price is related to most of the population and speaks their languages. If elected she will be a voice for realism in the Territory government, dismiss its tokenism, oppose welfare dependency, support economic development — and back the Intervention. There is, she says, a revolution going on in the bush. Let’s hope it extends to overthrowing the reactionary system under which the government continues to deny the right to buy a private home on Aboriginal lands. 

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