Who would have thought that wearing a tin piss-pot on your head and murdering police officers was a passport to greatness? Only, it seems, in Australia. January might be a relatively quiet month in the media, with the main stories traditionally being bushfires, floods and the inevitable Fairfax Australia Day efforts to rename the event Invasion Day, replace our national flag with a Ken Done tea towel and suggest anyone hosting a backyard Oz Day BBQ and grasping a cold beer is fanning the flames of xenophobia.
Last month, however, we saw a twee little event that goaded the summertime slumbering media into action. An orgy of mawkish sentimentality, misplaced national pride and straight up, old-fashioned village idiocy unfolded as the executed mass murderer Ned Kelly was buried for the second time. The interment 2.0 of this evocatively named ‘bushranger’ — never a murderer or a criminal — was apparently as significant a moment in Australian history as VJ Day, the arrival of Arthur Phillip and the end of the 6 o’clock swill. With a gaggle of Kelly distant relatives, fans and apologists singing his praises and hogging the cameras like a drunken uncle at a wedding, any visitor to our shores would reasonably expect Ned to swiftly follow Mary MacKillop to beatification, our new $20 bill and his name emblazoned across the next new seat in the House of Representatives.
In some ways the undeserved attention paid to Kelly’s bones is to be expected. The education so many Australians received over the past century was marred by an inexplicable whitewashing of the crimes of the sociopath Kelly and his gang. When I was an innocent eight-year-old, my local Catholic primary school played its part with a celebration of his life on 11 November 1980, 100 years precisely since Kelly went to the gallows for putting seven bullets, including one into the eyeball, of the dying Constable Lonigan. We were told, with a note of glee, that the hanging judge Lord Justice Barry collapsed and died just a fortnight afterwards — surely divine retribution for such perfidious betrayal of his Irish ancestry. Cardboard Kelly helmet-wearing kids were told Kelly was a figure of brave nobility who proudly went to his death as a veritable martyr for us, the oppressed Catholic working class. We were also gloomily informed the day incidentally marked five years since the dismissal of the Whitlam government: an event undoubtedly caused by the very same evil Anglo-Australian rah-rah Establishment.
Despite such a fulfilling education, it is difficult to ponder how any thinking Australian could celebrate the life and times of Ned Kelly. His Soviet war memorial-sized criminal record includes multiple murders of both police and citizens, numerous assaults, assorted violent robberies, numerous bashings. He and his gang stole from the bodies of murdered police. He even cruelly sent the childless wife of one enemy a box containing calves’ testicles and a note with some disgusting advice on what to do with them. What a guy! He attempted to commit a veritable act of terrorism and potential mass murder by derailing the trains carrying police to Glenrowan.
By every measure, the bloke was a scumbag and a sociopath. He had an Anthony Mundine or perhaps even a Queensland State of Origin-level persecution complex. It’s all the fault of the British, the Establishment, the cops, and so on. They made me do it. Legitimate excuse enough for the average social commentator with a BA or tenured, bearded academic from a former College of Advanced Education.
Thankfully, the judiciary of the 1880s took a much more straightforward view of such paranoid gibbering. It is unfortunate our national myth-makers could not do the same. It was deplorable that in January the Catholic church in Wangaratta saw fit to open its doors for a service celebrating Kelly’s contribution to society.
It is doubtful that same church ever saw fit to honour Sergeant Michael Kennedy and Constables Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlan with a Requiem Mass: real heroes, brave men with young families, murdered by the Kelly gang while defending the honest and peaceable citizens of the Colony of Victoria.
The honouring of such a criminal highlights a broader faultline in Australia’s view of what represents heroism and what we hold up as the personal attributes and characteristics to which we should aspire.
Criminality is celebrated every time the telly is turned on. The glamorisation of some of the most objectionable, violent and deranged criminals and killers in our history by the Nine Network through the Underbelly series marks a particular low even for the shiny-arsed bottom-dwellers of commercial TV. Sure, some of the ludicrous scripts and storylines give every appearance of being hastily banged together by a chimpanzee. But under the soft lens of the Underbelly writers, these criminals and their toadies are held out to the viewer as beautiful, powerful, articulate, wealthy, charismatic and one step away from a regular back-slapping spot with Kochie on Sunrise.
Take the recent Underbelly: Razor series. Photos of Sydney’s major Depression-era criminals shows they had faces like dropped pies and heads more suited to racing in the fifth at Randwick than gracing the cover of a glossy magazine. Yet any TimTam-munching viewer at home on a Sunday night would have thought all the good-looking people in Sydney in 1930 chose to live (with their hair dryers and fake tan) among the filth, squalour and slums of Darlinghurst. The slums’ lack of electric lighting was not, as we would have assumed, the result of economic deprivation. Rather the locals were able to bathe in the glow of the perfectly white teeth of these telegenic Underbelly crooks and spivs. Viewers of this sort of show are led to believe the star wasn’t really a deranged, sadistic killer with a massive pair of ears, a cleft palate, a club foot and a steel bolt in his neck. He was a kindly charity worker whose good looks and chiselled chin would put him in a boy band today. Give us a break.
For too long the rotten, the corrupt and the plain evil like Ned Kelly have been held up as national icons through ignorant arguments that they represent healthy Australian anti-authoritarianism and egalitarianism. Australia, it needs to be remembered, only narrowly escaped ‘Waltzing Matilda’ — a song celebrating a vagrant and a sheep thief — as our national anthem. Australia has enough genuine heroes (such as the late Sergeant Kennedy) and achievers across all walks of life we can rightly honour. Ned Kelly and his criminal ilk do not need to be remembered. They don’t need to be romanticised. And they certainly don’t deserve to be celebrated.
Justin Owen is a Sydney lawyer.