Peter Coleman

Diary Australia - 11 August 2012

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Bob Hughes who died this week in New York was a companion of my youth. We worked together some 50 years ago on the fortnightly Observer on which he made his name as an art critic. He cheerfully dismissed the established artists of the day from Dobell (‘superficial’) or Tucker (‘cynical’) to Boyd (‘mawkish’) or Dickerson (‘in a rut’). He liked to boast that Dickerson had decked him in a pub and that Tucker was looking for him with a gun. When launching Patricia Anderson’s Robert Hughes: The Australian Years a couple of years ago I described him as ‘one of those volcanic phenomena that erupt from time to time in Sydney and who, whatever they do in life, carry with them the stigmata of their Sydney formation.’ I stand by that. But he was more than a volcanic personality. He was also one of the most influential art critics in the world who brought to New York the irreverence of his Australian years. ‘Je ne suis pas philosophe,’ he said to one American interviewer. Why indeed should he have bothered to be a mere intellectual when he was driven by what Patricia Anderson called his Goya-esque vision of atrocity and his redeeming passion for art? Whatever his limitations he was an exemplary figure in Australian culture.


Amid cheers and whistles in a packed hall of some 400 in Sydney’s Amora Hotel during the week, Tony Abbott added a new theme to his critique of the ‘unworthy and dishonourable’ federal government. It is the defence of freedom of speech. More precisely it is the repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act which prohibits statements that hurt someone’s feelings on grounds of race or ethnicity. Abbott now has endorsed the free speech campaign of the Institute of Public Affairs which called the Sydney meeting. There have been many straws in the wind but it was the Andrew Bolt case a year ago which showed clearly which way the wind was blowing. Bolt had claimed in his newspaper that some fair-skinned people of diverse ancestry ‘chose’ to be Aboriginal for career reasons. The judge found, no doubt correctly, that he had breached 18C. Abbott had this to say: ‘The article for which Bolt was prosecuted was almost certainly not his finest. Still, if free speech is to mean anything, it’s the freedom to write badly and rudely. Free speech is not bland speech.’ My only reservation about Abbott’s well-argued case is that it lacked some of the humour and drama of his better speeches. His robotic critics dismissed it as more lecture than speech, more newspaper article than call to arms. One problem may be that Abbott, an old journalist, writes his own speeches. Perhaps a good speech-writer might add a further touch of platform excitement to these occasions.


If Premier Lara Giddings really believes Tasmanians want to legalise gay marriage, she can settle the matter by referendum. Australians have held federal referenda on everything from freedom of religion to republicanism. (There have also been plebiscites on military service overseas.) The states have held referenda on issues ranging from secession to daylight saving. Tasmanians have held referenda on federation, gambling, liquor and dams. No doubt the Premier knows that the dozen countries (out of 200) which have legalised gay marriage have acted without referenda. Where there has been a referendum, as in the U.S., over 30 states have rejected gay marriage. Some people disapprove of government by referendum. Governments must sometimes make unpopular decisions. But the record shows why Premier Giddings will not ask the public what it thinks.


The conservative Catholic Dame Enid Lyons declared that Norman Haire, the most famous (infamous?)

of Australian sex reformers, was simply ‘ahead of his time’. He was, she said, ‘almost the first bright harbinger in Australia of the permissive age.’ (When he died in 1952 he left his fortune to Sydney University for the study of sex and ‘to annoy the wowsers.’) Since Dame Enid disagreed with Haire

on everything, hers was a charitable judgment. Yet it is the same as that of Diana Wyndham whose biography of Haire, written from an entirely different perspective, will be published later this year by Sydney University Press. In a talk the other night at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians she outlined her approach. Haire was, as she tells it, a brave crusader for a humane and enlightened ethic. He was most persuasive in his advocacy of ‘birth control’ as a way of limiting abortion. (He would have passionately welcomed the pill.) Wyndham passes lightly over his espousal of eugenics, sterilisation, and the now discredited ‘Steinach’ technique of male rejuvenation. (In his London days he ‘rejuvenated’ some 200 aging intellectuals and artists, including W.B. Yeats.) His fame in Australia was largely due to his weekly column in the popular magazine Woman edited by the poet Elizabeth Riddell. The column ran for ten controversial and rumour-ridden years from 1941. I recall that schoolboys like me found it one of the few sources of information on matters that preoccupied teenagers. (It would barely be noticed today.) I soon enough lost interest in Haire and most of his causes, although it was always puzzling why some of his fans such as the leftwing chatterbox Ethel Mannin turned so crudely against him. Mannin wrote two memoirs of the 1920s, her golden years. In the first, Confessions and Impressions (1930), she wrote warmly of Haire as a friend. But by 1971 in Young in the Twenties he had become ‘a monster’, ‘a Caliban’, gluttonous and cowardly. Wyndham’s biography will surely correct the rumours and lies.