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Australian Notes

Australian Notes

15 December 2012

9:00 AM

15 December 2012

9:00 AM

What has done more to help the Aboriginal cause: white self-hatred or Aboriginal self-help? Paul Keating’s Redfern bombast or the election of Aborigines to the Northern Territory Parliament? Who speaks for the future — Professor Larissa Behrendt or Bess Price MP? The questions answer themselves.

Everyone tut-tuts about Question Time in the House of Representatives. They are shocked by its frequent nastiness as much as they are fascinated by the roughhouse theatre. At a book launch at the Centre for Independent Studies, Malcolm Turnbull said the House of Commons may be the way to go if we are ever to reform Question Time. In theory it is supposed to be the occasion for Members to seek, and Ministers to give, information about government administration and policy. In practice it is a forum in which Oppositions seek to expose government lies and failures, and Ministers attack the Opposition’s lies and ignorance. A riveting recent example was the bitter four-day exchange over Slushgate between the relentless Julie Bishop and the contemptuous Julia Gillard. Everyone had an opinion about whether Bishop had cooked Gillard’s goose. (Most think she had.) Turnbull’s complaint is that in the Australian version of Question Time you rarely get questions about the government’s administration of important but unnewsworthy departments. In his House of Commons model there is a rotation of Ministers so that significant issues are canvassed even if not newsy. Australians will not easily give up our noisy and abusive Question Time. They know, as do MPs, that Parliament is about more than information. It is an arena in which reputations are made and lost and governments triumph or collapse. For all their tut-tutting, people who ignore Parliamentary ‘debates’ still turn to Question Time to see who’s up and who’s down.

Turnbull was launching The Modest Member, Hal G.P. Colebatch’s biography of Bert Kelly MP, who did so much to defeat protectionism — one of the curses imposed throughout Australia by Federation. Turnbull stressed his point that while everyone now agrees that Kelly was right, many of his most aggressive opponents were on his own side of the House, and not only ‘Black Jack’ McEwen. The same theme was struck at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) Christmas do in Sydney during the week. Whatever fine speeches Liberal politicians may give about free enterprise, free markets, free trade or free speech, too many become backsliders when in government. The IPA speakers, John Roskam and Tim Wilson, also warned against putting too much faith in big business — in crony capitalism. But their special emphasis was on free speech and the new restrictions on it; not only the notorious Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act but the draft Commonwealth Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill which proposes new restrictions on whatever ‘offensive’ observations any of us dares to make. The IPA has established a Legal Rights Project to monitor these developments, which Liberals in Parliament seem to have ignored. According to Simon Breheny, under the draft bill, you may be brought before the Human Rights Commission if your comments on Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, wherever made, ‘offend’ anyone at all.

It was not what Premier O’Farrell said but what he did not say that caused concern. In his speech on the St John’s College Amendment Bill 2012 he noted that, in view of the resignations from St John’s governing council following the recent scandals, it was necessary to empower the Catholic Archbishop (‘in consultation with the Vice-Chancellor’) to appoint a new council. But the Premier did not say that this is an interim measure and that as soon as possible the traditional election of the council by alumni of the College would be restored. Instead he referred vaguely to the Vice-Chancellor’s ‘general review’ of the governance of St John’s and all the Colleges. Does this foreshadow a more permanent diminution of their self-government and greater control by the university? Under Commonwealth financial pressure the universities as a whole have lost much of their independence. The Colleges remain the last bastions of self-government. Whatever criticisms the Oxbridge Colleges attract and deserve from time to time, it is hard to imagine what might happen if the Vice-Chancellor at Oxford or Cambridge called for legislation to restrict their autonomy.

Newspaper cartoonists (and their editors) long ago submitted to the dictates of political correctness. They now limit themselves to ridiculing politicians. It’s safer and they do it well. But they ignore the wider world. That is where Leunig comes in. His cartoons are playful, sentimental, non-political. (Not always, but the occasional political cartoons are his least successful.) In a ‘personal and peculiar’ foreword to The Essential Leunig — a selection of 400 cartoons from the past 40 years — he asks if a cartoon need be pointed, witty or clever. Why not receive it like a melody? It touches you or it doesn’t, but ‘nobody needs ask what a melody means’. The new selection covers Leunig’s huge range. There is a moving poem about Christmas (‘The manger where the real things are’) and a sketch about the Crucifixion which will not please atheists: an exultant Roman centurion standing before Jesus on the Cross is telling an uncertain Leunig foot soldier: ‘Look at that! Brilliant! Kill the leader and you nip the whole movement in the bud!’

Give your spirits a lift and watch the ceremony commemorating the charge of the Australian Light Horse in the Battle of Semakh in Palestine in 1918. It was one of the last cavalry charges in history.

You’ll find it at

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