Although few may remember him today, Sir Samuel Griffith made an immense contribution to the early development of Australia’s parliamentary and legal systems as the primary author of the Constitution and the first Chief Justice of the High Court. He played an integral role in securing the system of government that has made Australia one of the most stable, prosperous, and long-lasting liberal democracies in the world.
We owe Sir Samuel a great debt of gratitude for our healthy democracy and system of responsible government, for our federalist structure, the constitutional separation of powers, and the rule of law. Many of the provisions of the Constitution were adopted at his suggestion, and it was he who was entrusted with the responsibility of distilling the debates of the 1891 constitutional convention into a workable first draft.
Without him, it’s quite possible that Australia may not have achieved Federation at all.
That is why it is so remarkable that there are now some who wish to see Samuel Griffith’s name erased from places of public recognition. Even more remarkably, these calls for Samuel Griffith to be ‘cancelled’ are not coming from fringe elements, but from a symposium that took place this month at Griffith University in Queensland.
Inspired by a recent book by author Henry Reynolds, Griffith University Senior Lecturer Dr Fiona Foley argues that Griffith’s name should be removed from the University – and perhaps the federal electorate, Canberra suburb, and New South Wales town as well. Instead, Dr Foley suggests that the University should be called ‘Dundalli University’ in honour of the Indigenous warrior who led the resistance to European settlement in South-East Queensland.
But what was Samuel Griffith’s great crime? Reynolds alleges that Griffith was an ‘enabler’ of massacres because he does not think that Griffith did enough to prevent skirmishes between Europeans and Indigenous groups during his time as Attorney-General and Premier of Queensland.
I do not intend to enter into a debate about what have been called Queensland’s ‘frontier wars’; I’m no historian and will defer to more experienced voices in this regard. Instead, I want to focus on why it would be wrong to allow Samuel Griffith to be ‘cancelled’ irrespective of one’s view of these events.
Professor Geoffrey Blainey AC and historian Keith Windschuttle have both described Reynolds’ approach as adopting a ‘black armband view’ of Australian history. While it is certainly appropriate to reflect critically upon our past as we continue to grow as a society, in having these conversations we should be very hesitant to ‘cancel’ anyone in the absence of highly compelling reasons.
It simply isn’t necessary to agree with everything Samuel Griffith did or believed in order to acknowledge and commemorate what he did to make Australia what it is today. I certainly don’t agree with everything Griffith did as a politician, but none of that detracts from the significance and value of his work as a jurist and drafter of the Constitution.
Although there is a tendency to mythologise early figures like Samuel Griffith for their pivotal roles in our nation’s history, we should remember that they too were only human. We cannot expect perfection from them and, like each of us, mistakes they may have made do not invalidate their many positive contributions to society. Failure to have lived up to the ever-evolving expectations of the present day is not sufficient grounds for ‘cancellation’.
There is also a broader cultural norm at stake. Just as we can acknowledge the talent of great sportspeople, artists, and musicians without necessarily endorsing all of their actions or beliefs, we should be able to separate the good done by those who came before us from debates about more contestable aspects of their legacies.
While I suspect that ‘cancelling’ Samuel Griffith will not excite people in the same way as similar moves against Captain Cook or Arthur Phillip, that isn’t the point. If, as a nation, we no longer value our Constitution enough to recognise its chief creator then how long will it be before there are moves to cancel it as well?
One has to wonder whether this move against Griffith might be pretext for fundamentally rewriting the Constitution itself. With the Albanese Government pressing on with its ambitious proposal to constitutionally enshrine an Indigenous ‘Voice’ to Parliament before the next election, and with a referendum on the future of the monarchy also on the horizon, nothing can be taken for granted. That’s why The Samuel Griffith Society will always publicly promote, celebrate and defend Samuel Griffith’s significant and lasting contribution to our great nation.
It is appropriate to continue to commemorate and preserve Griffith’s legacy because we continue to enjoy its benefits. It will be an Australia that no longer appreciates the value of responsible government, robust democracy, and the rule of law that ‘cancels’ Sir Samuel Griffith.
Xavier Boffa is the Executive Director of The Samuel Griffith Society.
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