Australian Notes

Australian Notes

13 November 2014

3:00 PM

13 November 2014

3:00 PM

Right and proper that generous tributes are paid at a memorial service, even if sometimes undeserved or exaggerated. But what remains in my memory of the extraordinary Gough Whitlam service is not so much the tributes or even Noel Pearson’s magniloquence (marred a little by its preposterous inflation of Whitlam’s triumphs) but the image of Bob Hawke going out of his way to greet and talk with Tony Abbott (who had just been booed by the crowd) in clear view of everyone in the Sydney Town Hall. The incident was a hint of what made Hawke one of our most successful prime ministers. It was a gesture beyond the likes of Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard – although not, I think, of Gough Whitlam.

Censorship, for and against? Barry Humphries is for a bit of it. Lachlan Murdoch is against all of it. Humphries has been appointed artistic director of next year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Lachlan Murdoch recently delivered the Sir Keith Murdoch Oration in Melbourne. The Adelaide Cabaret Festival, already the world’s biggest, may soon become the most famous – thanks to Humphries’ masterly announcement that he is banning the f-word. Coming from such a famous comedian (who has in his time used the odd four-letter word on stage) his decision generated enormous and continual publicity, which must surely ensure the success of his 2015 cabaret. It has already attracted its angry (and helpful) critics.The celebrated Maeve Marsden – writer-singer-comedian and self-described ‘diversity-loving, godless fatso’ – will boycott this ‘out-of-touch old clown’. More of this and the festival will break all records. But in his Sir Keith Murdoch Oration, Lachlan Murdoch developed a lively polemic against censorship of all kinds. His focus was on the military suppression of truthful press reports of the Gallipoli campaign. War correspondents were only permitted to file ‘sanitised’ stories. Even the Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, remained ignorant of what Australian troops were suffering. Lachlan Murdoch calls it ‘one of the great censorship scandals of the century.’ But when his grandfather Keith Murdoch left for London in 1915, Fisher asked him to call at Gallipoli, officially to check on postal services, but really to send back ‘unfiltered’ reports of the military situation. War correspondents Charles Bean and Britain’s Ellis Ashley-Bartlett briefed Murdoch and took him to Quinn’s Post, Lone Pine and Suvla Bay. He trudged for miles through the trenches and wrote: ‘The troops who were not dead or injured suffered from debilitating disease. Dysentery was rampant, spread by the flies and maggots that alone thrived in the trenches. The men lacked water and fresh food. A spent force…’ Murdoch knew he could not lawfully publish the truth in newspapers but he believed he could privately report it to British authorities in London. To this end he persuaded Ashley-Bartlett to write a personal letter to the British Prime Minister Asquith which Murdoch would deliver. But military authorities confiscated the letter when Murdoch’s ship arrived in Marseilles. So as he sailed on to London, he wrote his own report and cabled it to Prime Minister Fisher. He also sent a copy to Prime Minister Asquith who had it printed as a State Paper. Soon afterwards, Lord Kitchener ‘relieved General Hamilton of his command’ and the British government abandoned the Dardanelles campaign. Lachlan Murdoch looks back on it as the triumph of truth over censorship.


But he goes further. In developing a Murdochian polemic against elites who sneer at the masses as allegedly being unable to handle the truth (for example, about Gallipoli), he drags in the republic debates of 1998 and 1999. According to Murdoch, the monarchist elites gasped: ‘We can’t possibly have a directly elected head of state. The mob may elect Ray Martin!’ But as it happened, ‘the mob’ was even less impressed by the republican elites. It had the sense to see that a popularly elected head of state would almost inevitably clash with a popularly elected prime minister and destabilize government. Murdoch went on to reject those parts of recent national security legislation that provide for the punishment of journalists who reveal ‘special intelligence operations’ such as undercover operations among terrorists. Would the Gallipoli campaign have been a special operation, he asks absurdly? Murdoch tells a great story about his grandfather. Pity to spoil it.

John Howard had a tip for Tony Abbott the other night at the Sydney Institute when he was promoting his new book The Menzies Era. It was about how to win (or lose) a referendum – an important question for Abbott if he is to have any hope of winning his proposed referendum on acknowledging Aborigines in the Constitution. The tip is: Keep it simple. The issue came up when Michael Baume asked Howard why Menzies lost his 1951 referendum on banning the Communist party. (Baume himself voted No.) Howard’s answer was that the 1951 question was too complicated and legalistic. It nowhere used simple words about banning the Communist party. Maybe, but I have my doubts. I do not think more simplicity would have made much difference. Some of the few referenda that have passed (on State debts in 1928; social services in 1946; Aborigines in 1967) were along the same legalistic lines as the 1951 referendum. The truth is that the idea of banning a party, however treasonous, did not have majority support. Tony Abbott will have to do more than make his question simple. He will have to win over the public. In 1951 John Howard’s mother voted No. So did I.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.


Show comments
Close