Australian Notes

Australian notes

12 February 2015

2:00 PM

12 February 2015

2:00 PM

Quos deus vult perdere, prius dementat – with apologies to Boswell. (‘Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.’)

I was one of those who wrongly predicted a far more decisive defeat of the spill motion on Monday. So did most of Tony Abbott’s parliamentary supporters, judging from their funereal faces as they trooped from the party room after the vote. The government’s success in its first 16 months – in taxation, immigration, trade, foreign policy – seemed to justify that optimism. The ‘revolt’ of the Liberal party’s backbench may well have been orchestrated as Andrew Robb and Cory Bernardi believe, but the government should have taken steps to satisfy it. Abbott is good under pressure, as he showed throughout this crisis (and in his condolence speech on the Lindt chocolate cafe killings delivered soon after the spill motion.) The current crisis is his biggest yet. The mainstream public, I believe, wants him to survive it. His first test will be satisfying his Mushroom Club.

There is always an element of doubt and sometimes farce about the outcome of special party meetings. Among the various spill motions and leadership contests that I witnessed in the state and federal parliaments, one that I vividly recall is the special meeting that Andrew Peacock, as Leader of the Opposition, called some 30 years ago. The spill motion was in effect to sack John Howard as Deputy Leader. It passed very narrowly. Then when nominations were called to fill the vacant position of Deputy Leader, Howard stood again and won. Peacock declared ‘I must consider my position’ and left the party room to confer with some colleagues including Howard. He returned to announce his resignation. Howard then won the ballot for leader…

There is a small but heart-rending exhibition at the Sydney Jewish Museum, called ‘Signs of Life. Letters of the Holocaust’. It is a selection from the Museum’s collection of 1000 or so letters and postcards of the Nazi era and the post-War years written by and to members of families torn apart. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, some 40,000 Jews fled Germany to find refuge in a range of foreign countries such as Australia. By 1939 over 80 per cent of Jews under the age of 24 had escaped from Germany, Austria and the Czech lands. As the Germans occupied most of Europe, the remaining Jews were incarcerated in ghettos and concentration camps. Mothers and fathers tried to keep in touch with their children and families by letter – at least until 1942 when ordinary mail services ceased. All the letters are desperate, many heart-breaking. One mother in Germany pathetically urges her boy in England to brush his teeth ‘diligently.’ A father in occupied Brussels urges his daughter in Italian-held Ljubljana to choose a husband carefully and to be sure ‘that he is suitable for you, that he is from a decent family, and that he is serious about the relationship.’ Parents in Vienna ask their daughter in London for the name of a cat. Some write falsely cheerful letters. But few of these letter-writers in Europe survived the War. Most were murdered. The exhibition is on all year.

The English actor Benedict Cumberbatch thought he was striking a blow for racial equality when he complained to an American talk-show host that in the UK ‘coloured actors’ lacked opportunities. But such was the outrage by the language police at his use of the word ‘coloured’ that he issued an apology for not having used the ‘correct’ term – ‘people of colour.’ Only Americans comprehend the subtle difference. Could such a linguistic imbroglio happen in Australia in relation to ‘people of colour’? Probably not. Over the long years all sorts of crude and offensive colloquialisms have come – and fortunately gone. They ranged from Abo, half-caste, boong, coon to blackfella, lubra, picaninny. ‘Black’ is still in common usage and not usually considered offensively racist, although some prefer ‘blak.’ We also have the new and accepted term – indigenous. Not so long ago it simply meant Australian-born. So David Williamson was an indigenous playwright and Bruce Beresford an indigenous film-maker. Not any more. The simple redefinition of ‘indigenous’ has solved an Australian linguistic problem. If you find ‘indigenous’ a bit fancy, try ‘blak.’

I have been moved by the number of people who have asked me for news of Simon (the boyfriend of my grand-daughter Maisie) who, as I reported on this page, was gravely wounded in lungs and spine by Islamist assassins during their attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris on 7 January. They murdered ten journalists and two policemen and wounded seven others. All the wounded except Simon are now back home. Simon remains in hospital under police guard. Despite his terrible wounds he is able to receive visitors for very brief periods. (They have to produce passports.) He is cheerful, cracks jokes and is determined to recover. He has youth and good health on his side. Maisie receives emails and messages from all over the world asking about his condition but she will not breach his privacy or discuss details. There have been no press reports of his condition. He will shortly be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital.

Last word: ‘I’ve come to tell you that the magazine will continue. The terrorists have not won. There is no hatred against Muslims. Everyone, every day, must live out the values of the Republic.’—Patrick Pelloux, physician and columnist with Charlie Hebdo.


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