Australian Notes

Australian notes

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

Tony Abbott was right. As I hurried along Phillip Street in Sydney the other Sunday afternoon to the service in St James Church to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Arthur Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales, a man bailed me up to ask me why the church bells were pealing so loudly (and echoing so beautifully) through the neighbouring city streets. He was a knockabout Aussie, untidily dressed and unshaven. It’s for Governor Phillip, I said. Who’s he, the man asked? He was the first Governor, I said, the man who made Australia what it is today. Wasn’t that Captain Cook, he asked? No, I said, Cook found the place but Phillip settled it. Was his Christian name Arthur, he wondered? Yes, I said, why don’t you come to the service? He nodded no, but walked with me to the church to watch the goings-on, including the arrival of Phillip’s successor, the Governor Dame Marie Bashir in one of her last vice-regal engagements before her retirement on 1 October. The service began with the choir singing  ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?’ — the text taken by the Reverend Richard Johnson in the first Christian service in Sydney on 3 February 1788. Justice Michael Pembroke delivered the Address in which he emphasised the principles of the Enlightenment which had guided Phillip in his administration. Dame Marie Bashir then unveiled the memorial (donated by the Pioneers’ Club) honouring Admiral Arthur Phillip, ‘founder of modern Australia.’  The service ended with everyone singing ‘Australians all let us rejoice.’  Tony Abbott was spot-on to acknowledge the arrival of the First Fleet under the command of Governor Phillip as a defining moment in our story — and everyone knows it.

The debate on Ukraine was one of the high points of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in the Sydney Opera House. Tom Switzer, the former editor of this magazine, took the cautious ‘Realist’ line and Masha Gessen of LGBT fame and author of the acclaimed Putin:the Man without a Face took the revolutionary and libertarian line. Switzer’s case is that Russia is a declining power (with a stockpile of nuclear weapons). If the West succeeds in humiliating Putin and insists on Ukraine  (‘Russia’s backyard’) joining NATO and the EU, Russia will react like a cornered and wounded animal. It will wreck Ukraine. It may bring on war. The better course is the Kissinger-Mearsheimer-Switzer line (which is also Malcolm Fraser’s) : make  Ukraine a neutral buffer state. Then everybody wins.

Masha Gessen will have none of this. She regards it, she said, as ‘interesting, distasteful, defeatist and immoral.’  As she reads Putin, he regards the West as weak. It is ‘Gayropa’, and Kiev is the centre of homofascism. Russia is a separate civilization, the world’s leader of traditional values. (She speaks, she says, as ‘a humourless lesbian’.) The Ukrainian people have made it clear, sometimes heroically, that it is, and wants to be, part of Europe. This is not a matter for realpolitik but for morality. Ukraine is an independent country. It is not Russia’s backyard. It should have Western support.   The opposing positions of Switzer and Gessen came to a head over the issue of whether or not to allow Putin to come to Brisbane in November for the G20 summit. Gessen insists it would be immoral to host him in Australia. Switzer says that to ban him would be a dangerous and provocative move that would backfire. The audience in the Drama Theatre was split, applauding both speakers thunderously. For my part, my heart is with Gessen but it is impossible to ignore Switzer’s clear-eyed awareness of the realities of international power politics.

If you are stuck on a platform listening to a long-winded and boring speaker, how do you avoid falling asleep or seeming to?  It’s an occupational hazard for judges on the bench. But the former chief justice of the High Court Murray Gleeson AC had a tip for beginners. Place your right hand over your right eye, he suggested, and stare sharply to the left. This may sometimes give relief. He gave this advice the other day in the common room of the NSW Bar Association when launching the latest mystery novel, The Only Case (Arcadia), by his brother judge Ian Callinan, also formerly of the High Court. It is Callinan’s ninth novel and like all of them is a page-turner written in taut lawyer-like prose. He draws on his intimate knowledge of the law, the courts, the legal profession and many of its clients. There have always been lawyers, from Henry Fielding on, who have written novels. Few do it so well as Callinan. For a glimpse of his politics, have a look at his chapter in The Howard Era (Quadrant books) where he identifies ‘a cell’ in the federal attorney-general’s department which never lets pass any opportunity to undermine the states.

It was a nostalgic moment for me the other day in Leichhardt Library, which is holding a photographic exhibition of Old Balmain from the days of my childhood when it was a great centre of soap-making. Original pictures of the soaps were all there — bars of Sunlight, Solvol, Lifebuoy, Monkey Brand, packets of Reckitt’s Blue, Rinso  and Persil. Some were missing. There was, for example, no sign of Nigger Boy, the ‘steel wool’ for cleaning pots. It has gone down the memory hole for obvious reasons — along with nigger brown as a colour to describe anything from dresses to boot polish or Nigger as a popular name for black dogs. They all went out, rightly enough, in the early benign phase of political correctness… before it turned vicious.

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